(Note: Empathic Music for an Empathic Environment!)
On a futuristic Earth, or similar location, plants, animals, and naturally clean water are things of the past. Something terrible has happened - civilization's negligence of the environment, a strange natural disaster, or even a combination of both - to turn the world into a wasteland. This isn't (usually) the Earth That Was, as the planet is still populated (usually overpopulated), but it's on its way there.
Real food is a luxury for only the rich while the general populace lives off of synthetic food, Food Pills, or a new kind of meat. Forests are gone, replaced by concrete and steel jungles, more commonly known as cities, which are dark and dirty. If there is any undeveloped land still left, it's a desert wasteland, spoiled beyond recovery. What was once coastline is now underwater. If the story takes place/has a scene in a coastal city, expect to see the tops of skyscrapers sticking out of the water. Sometimes this is reversed: seas become salt deserts, with the remains of beached ships scattered about. The problem of overpopulation may be solved with the legalization of suicide, or special clinics.
The general populace is detached from the natural world, having had no experience with it. However, if a character has the chance to see what is left of the green, or what the world once was, expect it to be a powerful moment. If the world is really far gone, they may simply see it as strange or alien.
A Sub-Trope of Dystopia and Crapsack World. Sister Trope to Just Before the End, Earth That Used to Be Better, and Green Aesop. "Cousin" Trope to After the End, as society is usually still hanging on, if barely, although it can go with it, (usually, this trope is either the reason why the world ended or whatever ended the world causes this trope). Frequently seen in Cyberpunk settings.
Compare to Gaia's Vengeance, when the world fights back.
A comic in Odyssey Magazine had a wandering robot discover a civilization that had drained its own homeworld of geothermal energy, and despite their very advanced technology, they died when the last pocket of air froze.
An alternate-future interlude from Hellblazer has scenes set in a coastal city's flooded-out ruins, and characters mention a "Storm Decade" in which climate upheaval caused hurricanes that contributed to the damage.
Alien: Earth has been reduced to a over-polluted slum, and one character in Alien: Resurrection refers it to as a 'shithole.'
WALL•E: Earth is left almost completely lifeless after rampant consumerism, forcing humanity to leave on giant ships to the stars.
Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home: While Star Trek's Earth is generally positive, some sort of environmental faux pax resulted in whales going extinct. Which becomes a problem for Earth in the movie.
Lost in Space: The 1998 film has the family searching for a new home for humanity after Earth has sufferred irreversible ecological damage.
The Running Man: The intro mentions how Earth's resources, such as food, are in short supply.
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence: The human population has been reduced by ecological collaspe, and most of New York City is under water. It gets worse, At the end, all of Earth is frozen over, and humanity is extinct.
The alternate opening from the extended cut shows that most people wear masks while walking outside. There is also a mention on how a species of tiger, which has been extinct outside of captivity, is making a comeback thanks to cloning.
Soylent Green: There's a year-long heat wave, New York City is home to fifty million people, real food is precious, and cheap food is either processed soy, plankton, or...well. One very emotional scene involves Sol and a tearful Thorn watching videos of what the world used to be, as Sol commits suicide.
Random tidbit of information, Thorn's actor, Charlton Heston, really was crying, as Sol's actor Edward G. Robinson was dying of cancer. Only Heston knew.
The Terminator: A deleted scene would have shown Kyle and Sarah, getting into a fight, and rolling into a wooded area. Kyle suffers a bit of a Heroic BSOD, and starts to cry when he sees how beautiful the world used to be.
Intro to Red Planet (2000): "By the year 2000 we had begun to over populate, pollute, and poison our planet faster than we could clean it up. We ignored the problem for as long as we could. But we were kidding ourselves. By 2025, we knew we were in trouble. And began to desperately search for a new home - Mars." There's a bit in it where the younger astronauts question Terence Stamp's character about what the Earth used to look like.
Silent Running: All natural life on Earth is dead, save for human beings, who at the beginning of the movie are on ships that are trying to save the last of the trees. Food has been reduced to some sort of artificial goop, and all of the characters except for the protagonist find real food disgusting.
All Summer In A Day: The storyline is just like the short story of the same name, but Margot mentions how the Earth is "too crowded now."
The Matrix: The Earth is completely covered in perpetual darkness caused by nanomachines which cover the sky, this causes all plant life and animals to die out. All that's left are machine cities which cover the Earth.
The titles at the beginning of Pandorum indicate that the battle over Earth's resources reached a fever pitch before the Elysium was launched. In one of Corporal Bower's flashbacks, we see him wearing a Plexiglas visor and a head-wrap to shield from a sand storm just a stone's throw away from the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin.
Night's Dawn: Earth is so overpopulated, that minor crimes will get you sent off world, and pollution has forced cities to build domes.
The Road Much like the movie, the unnamed disaster has reduced the Earth to a lifeless rock, populated only by what is left of humanity. This trope leads to Inferred Holocaust as well. Even though the boy is in presumably good hands at the end of the book, unless there is some part of the world that still contains life, the human survivors will be dead pretty soon.
In The Supernaturalist by Eoin Colfer, the world drinks sim-coffee, the smog is always heavy, and the sky is never blue unless you fly out of the atmosphere (it is instead colored according to the chemicals in the smog). Also, there are no whales.
House of the Scorpion: Somewhat implied. The Rio Grande is so polluted, that Tam Lin berates Matt when he simply just goes near it. The Gulf of California has been drained to a small river, and Matt finds skeletons of whales within it.
The sequel The Lord of Opium outright states that the rest of the planet is garbage, except the titular nation.
In Star Wars continuity, this is what happened to Nal Hutta, the current homeworld of the Hutts, once they got ahold of it. Formerly called Evocar and home to a race called the Evocii, it was once a lush jungle paradise. Sadly, the Hutts bought up property on it until they owned the whole planet, kicked the Evocii out, and eventually turned into a polluted and barren wasteland, due to strip mining and other foul industries. (Ironically, "Nal Hutta" means "Glorious Jewel" in Huttese.) The Yuuzhan Vong later conquered Nal Hutta during their invasion and terraformed it to suit their own needs; into what, exactly, is not yet known.)
L.E. Modesitt's The Forever Hero features this heavily. Earth is practically uninhabitable due to massive ecological disaster, and the few survivors are quickly dying off. The main character is one of the (very) surviving outside a city, and he ends up spending his life and career trying to restore the planet.
In Asimov's short story 2430 A.D. the entire earth's land area is covered by buildings which house the planets 15 trillion inhabitants. The oceans are empty, except for plankton which provide both food and oxygen. The plot revolves around plans to kill off the last non-human animals on earth.
Invoked in Ursula K. Le Guin's Hainish Cycle - Earth is described in The Dispossessed as having been reduced to a less-than-stellar state of existence.
Supported by another Hainish novel, The Telling. Although the book doesn't take place on Earth, the main character is a Terran, and through her we learn that in her time, Earth was both an ecological and social mess. Yet another early Hanish novella, The Word for World is Forest, has humans stripping the peaceful forested planet Athshe of its valuable wood, having mined the Earth into barrenness.
The first incarnation of Earth in The Lathe of Heaven is wildly overpopulated, global warming appears to have disrupted the ecosystem (Mount Hood is said to be permanently snowless), and near-starvation appears to be the norm.
This also happens at some points in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars Trilogy - the rampant population growth on Earth necessitates mass movement to Mars. However, this may not be as severe an example as several others on this page for various reasons, such as the fact that it gets somewhat better by the end of the trilogy.
Beauty by Sheri S. Tepper: In the section of the book set in the future, the wilderness and all its animal species are wiped out (even the oceans) to make way for crop growing facilities and housing for the rapidly growing population. People live packed on top of each other in tiny appartment 'boxes' and eat artificially processed food.
Bill McKibben's Eaarth, which describes how we have irreversibly changed our planet with global warming, etc.
Oryx and Crake and its companion novel The Year of the Flood have the ecosystem devastated by climate change and overpopulation. The near-total lack of any food not either based on soybeans or heavily genetically engineered is frequently mentioned.
In The Lotus War, the Shima islands are rapidly going this way. Growing Blood Lotus rapidly ruins the land it is grown on, absent fertilizers the growers cannot afford. The remaining pockets of wilderness are rapidly being destroyed by the Lotus Guild to replace depleted fields. It's processed into an oil-like substance called chi, and burning vast quantities of it has turned the rain black and the sky red. Virtually no one goes outdoors without a breathing mask and protective goggles, or at least a kerchief over their face.
Jack McDevitt's The Academy Novels, feature a mild version of this. Coastal areas are shrinking, deserts are growing, famines and foot riots are common. But it's not uniformly bleak: Canada and Siberia are becoming temperate, and are stepping up their food production. Nevertheless, much of the world is in a horrible state, and things look to get worse, and so far, only one potential new colony world has been found.
In Hugh Howey's Wool series, the world has been rendered literally unable to support life, and humanity must live in underground silos.
Terra Nova: Earth in 2149 is about to die, forcing the protagonists to head into the past for survival.
This seems to be the state of the Alphaverse in Charlie Jade.
In the Speculative DocumentaryEarth2100, not only have countless creatures been wiped out, but the worst part is because knowledge has been lost, it will take thousands of years before humans can begin to repair what they've done.
Subverted in the Speculative DocumentaryLife After People, humans disappear suddenly, resulting in ecological disaster when no one repairs hazardous waste storage facilities and the like, but centuries later, there is surprisingly little evidence humans once ravaged the environment.
There's a Space1999 episode where the Alphans make contact with Earth, where several centuries have passed due to relativity or something. Everyone on Earth lives in domed cities because the atmosphere is now poisonous and nothing can live outside. Still, as they say, "who needs nature?"
Stargate SG-1 visited at least one planet where unchecked industrial growth had destroyed the environment - to the point where the atmosphere was not just toxic, but downright caustic. The last survivors were living inside a force-field dome, waiting for the planet to recover...
This happened at least twice, though in the other instance the people on the planet had been kept in stasis to await the planet's recovery and when SG1 arrived the planet was habitable but the leader of the planet was keeping this information hidden from everyone else.
Another example would be the Tollan. Their homeworld was ravaged by a disaster caused by sharing technology with the inhabitants of a neighbouring planet (if I recall correctly). And the characters that turned up on earth had never seen any animals before. They move to somewhere nicer.
The filk song No Such Thing (as sung by Kathy Mar, among others). A mother tells her daughter that dolphins and whales are just fairy tale creatures, but knows that eventually said daughter will grow up and "In spite of all our lying, she'll know what we have done."
Snog's "The Human Germ":
All the birds and trees and things they are a-losing
A new serum eradicates the illness, an old man rises from his wheelchair
When suffering unknown attacks the painless and common animals are becoming rare
As water spins in circles twice, spiders, snakes and little mice
Get twisted round and tumble down - when Nature calls, we all shall drown
Marvin Gaye, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" from the album What's Going On. In part:
Woo ah, mercy mercy me
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east
Woo mercy, mercy me, mercy father
Ah things ain't what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas, fish full of mercury
Rammstein's Donaukinder ("Children of Danube") is a song about the ecological disaster in Baia Mare, Romania. In January 2000, a dam at a gold processing plant broke and released 70 tons of cyanide and other toxic waste into Tisza, a river tributary to Danube. As a result, countless animals died of poisoning, five species of fish went completely extinct and water supplies of many cities in several countries were polluted. While the chorus of the song is ostensibly the lament of the poisoned people, it can be interpreted as the river's grievance as well, mourning its countless "children" killed by humanity's greed and stupidity.
Wo sind die Kinder? [Where are the children?]
Niemand weiß, was hier geschehen. [Nobody knows what happened here.]
Keiner hat etwas gesehen. [Nobody has seen anything.]
Utterly subverted in this routine by George Carlin, wherein he notes the utter arrogance of the idea that we, as a species, could "destroy the planet". What we are doing, in actuality, is simply making it uninhabitable by us. And after we're gone, the planet will rebuild and cleanse itself.
''The planet has been through a lot worse than us. Been through earthquakes, volcanoes, plate tectonics, continental drift, solar flares, sun spots, magnetic storms, the magnetic reversal of the poles … hundreds of thousands of years of bombardment by comets and asteroids and meteors, worldwide floods, tidal waves, worldwide fires, erosion, cosmic rays, recurring ice ages … And we think some plastic bags and some aluminum cans are going to make a difference? The planet isn’t going anywhere. We are!
Shadowrun: Nuclear plant accidents, industrial pollution and side effects of the return of magic have caused massive environmental damage.
GDW's Dark Conspiracy. In addition to the usual cyberpunk environmental damage, there are areas called "Demonground" with evil extraplanar monsters.
Risk 2210: Players place down "devastation zones" on the map, which are nuclear fallout markers and are impassable. Other features included the Amazon Desert. Going by that, 23rd century Earth isn't doing so hot.
Dark Sun: Corrupt magic and war have turned Athas, a once beautiful world, into a desert wasteland.
Like everything else, Warhammer 40,000 turns this Up to Eleven. Earth, or rather Holy Terra, has become a Hive World. All of its resources have been depleted (even the oceans are completely gone), and its atmosphere is choked with pollution. All that's left are layers and layers of cities, filled with countless holy relics and sites.
Can be invoked by the player in Spore with a hostile use of terraforming tools. Can be an effective way to easily conquer or destroy an enemy colony, as reducing the T score to 0 will destroy all but one city.
SimEarth: Sentient species can cause this if their energy uses favor fossil fuels, or they start a nuclear war. The player can do this by bombing the planet with nukes, asteroids, setting off volcanoes left and right, or messing around with the planet trait sliders.
Earth in Terranigma starts out like this, but you restore it in the beginning of the game. Towards the end though, as humans become more powerful, dialogue reveals that the environment is starting to head downhill.
Touched upon in Illusion of Gaia. When Will sees the vision of modern society, he seems to be a bit disturbed at the concept of natural environments being replaced by sprawling cities.
Metro 2033: The only place in game where you can breathe without a gas mask is in the titular Metro system (and there are even some places there where you need one!). The surface of the world is a frozen toxic wasteland, and you cannot survive up there for long without a mask. A side conversation heard between two NPCs reveals that the surface won't habitable for at least 50 more years.
Another side conversation reveals that outside of Moscow, the area is habitable, but still very dangerous and nothing like pre-war Earth.
In Command & Conquer 's Tiberian continuity, thanks to the titular alien substance, Earth was basically on it's last legs until Kane's Evil Plan, an alliance with GDI, allowed the spread of tiberium to be reversed. Of course before that the world outside the blue zones was the epitome of a Crapsack World Fallout style.
Fallout: The war that created the setting has devastated the entire planet.
Halo: Pre-Covenant war, Earth was suffering due to overpopulation and human activities. As colonization increased however, its noted, at least at the Halo Wiki and in the books that global warming reversed itself, with seawalls built to keep out the waters becoming worthless. During the Second Battle of Earth though, its pretty much a given that the Covenant's actions were not in the planet's best interests.
Though most sources would put the actual population at the much more amicable 14-15 billion. Still quite the genocide, but better than the alternative. Either way, the human casualties are known to somewhat above 24 Billion.
Battlefield 2142: The manual mentions that global warming hastened the Ice Age which has left most of Earth inhabitable. What is left is now being fought over in a global war. Meanwhile, sea level has gone down, in certain levels, you can find beached ships laying where water once was.
Star Fox 64: The planet Zoness was once beautiful and lush, and served as a vacation spot, but later became a waste dump thanks to Andross's experiments. Also, in the intro, Corneria is mentioned to have been turned into a wasteland by Andross, but has recovered by the start of the game.
According to the original game's manual, Venom once had "beauty second only to Corneria's" before Andross turned it into "a dark, polluted world".
Deus Ex: While not as prominent as other fiction, its implied through in-game media that the Earth could have a better ecological record. Coastal flooding has become common and the majority of food the player can pick up seems to be artificial, or made with Human Resources. A conversation heard between two NPCs reveals that grizzly bears have been extinct for decades (The game is set in the 2050s.) If you read an email on Paul's computer, an advertisement, citing "dwindling resources", talks about a suicide clinic that offers its user's family 10,000 credits. News articles also read that the East River had a massive chlorine spill, killing almost all life in it, and that water supplies may be contaminated.
Deus Ex: Invisible War: The sequel to the above isn't any better. Transgenic species have escaped from labs, causing trouble for people in cities and functioning as invasive species. Nanite Swells cause Grey Death-like (the plague in the original game) symptoms in their victims, and in the Omar ending, the environment is outright destroyed in the many wars that happen after the game ends. The Omar don't mind, because their plan is to get the strongest humans possible and make for the stars.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution: The prequel to the above shows the "Golden Age" of the augmentation revolution. Cities are bright and beautiful, and people are prosperous...as long as you're rich. There's strong rumblings in the background of bad things happening around the world environmentally, as well. The rumblings are strong enough that a gigantic undertaking in the Arctic Ocean involving a massive complex that essentially creates a hole in the ocean to aid with global warming not only seems like a fantastic idea, but is actually serving as a template for other facilities that are planned to be built throughout the world later.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri: Just one of the many things mentioned of Earth before its final destruction. The ending reveals that it is recolonized sometime later though.
Likewise in Sid Meiers Civilization IV, the over-use of nuclear weapons can start to cause desertification across the world, not to mention all the radioactive fallout.
Half-Life 2: The Combine occupation of Earth has reduced much of it to a wasteland, populated by hostile alien life forms. Food has been reduced to what must be very revolting, as one NPC says to the player, "You gotta be damn hungry to wait in line for this crap."
Actually, that's pre-packaged food made by the Combine. The Resistance living outside the cities use alternate food sources: while the Xenian lifeforms wrecked the planet's ecosystem, at least headcrabs and leeches are edible to humans and vortigaunts. It's unknown exactly what Combine soldiers and Elites are fed but it's likely they get the same saline solution used by Stalkers.
Ironically, both Portal games seem to subvert this. The first game takes place completely inside except the brief ending where the Aperture grounds look relatively verdant and Combine-free. The previews for Portal 2 show GLaDOS's chamber entangled by plants and in the end Chell emerges from the facility into a lush wheat field.
In the game Rogue Trip, the Earth is an irradiated wasteland, and the only green spots left are vacation areas controlled by a thug named Big Daddy.
Subverted in Cuban Missile Crisis: The Aftermath: much of the northern hemisphere is left as a nuclear wasteland forcing The Anglo-Americans, Franco-German, USSR, and China to relocate in the Southern Hemisphere. And they bring their monuments with them.
Final Fantasy VII deals with a group of eco-terrorists named AVALANCHE fighting to liberate the world from the ruthless exploitation by a greedy mega corporation who never stops draining the life energy of the planet (and thus the very cycle of life itself) for their own money and power. The trope is driven home when the player first leaves Midgar, and is able to see the surrounding lands are indeed grey and dead, there isn't a even blade of grass for miles around. Most of the rest of the world is still doing ok for now, but the underwater reactor at Junon has apparently wiped out the marine life that used to support the fishing town nearby.
Just for emphasis, the land around other Mako reactors tend to look brown and craggy. The area immediately around Midgar is jet black.
Mega Man Zero: the entire world was laid to ruin as a result of the Elf Wars before the start of the series. It isn't until the final game in the series that you see non-artificial nature.
Between Contra 3 and Contra: Shattered Soldier, the Triumvirate set off a superweapon that caused "environmental collapse on a global scale", for which Bill Rizer was falsely convicted and sentenced to cryo-prison.
The Nazi Zombies mode of the Treyarch Call of Duty games has the characters inadvertedly destroy the Earth and most of humanity, but as the missiles were full of Element 115, which reanimates dead cells, the Zombie Apocalypse has begun. Black Ops II 's story is about the characters working to survive and save humanity. The Earth is now a fractured, lava-filled wasteland. It's pretty sad to see the blue marble reduced to a black sphere of charcoal with only the lava to make a difference in color. The main cast must choose to aid either Dr. Maxis or Richtofen in healing the Earth. It turns out it was Evil Versus Evil all along: Richtofen doesn't do a thing to help humanity and ends up trapped in a human body anyway; and Maxis has had his followers help him so he may completely destroy the Earth to reach Agartha.
Some see the vessel as half full; others see it as half empty; We pour it out on the floor and laugh.
According to various comments heard throughout Futurama, by the year 3000, pine trees, poodles, cows and anchovies will be extinct; there will be jungles on Mars but not on Earth; and with petroleum reserves depleted, cars will run on whale oil.
The Ice Age short "No Time For Nuts", Scrat encounters a Time Machine that takes him and his acorn through several time periods. It ends in the shade of what appears to be a huge oak tree full of acorns, but Scrat discovers to his dismay that it's actually a bronze monument to the last oak tree.
Played for laughs on The Simpsons episode "Lisa's Wedding". Set in the future, trees are apparently extinct, as shown by a holographic image of a tree, with the description: "In memory of a real tree."
Played for laughs in the MAD parody of The Lorax, "I am Lorax" Will Smith made so many action movies that include explosions it left Thneedville(Hollywood) as a barren wasteland. But it's all fixed in the end when all the trees are redrawn.