Series: Life After People
Welcome to Earth... population: zero.
A television special Speculative Documentary
film that premiered on January 21, 2008 on The History Channel
. A spin-off television series, Life After People: The Series
, premiered on the same channel on April 21, 2009; the series touched on many aspects of life on post-human planet Earth that were excluded from the film.
The human race has dominated the planet Earth for the better part of 10,000 years. During that time, we have shaped the landscape to suit our needs, paved over forests and woodlands to create our cities, and created vast monuments that seemingly immortalize the achievements of our species. But what if, one day, the human race suddenly vanished from the face of the Earth? How would the world react to the sudden disappearance of 7 billion humans? How much time would it take before all traces of the human race were erased from the landscapes we once dominated?
Unlike many other, similar programs, Life After People
does not concern itself with how
humans disappear, only assuming that all of humanity instantly vanishes; the focus is on what happens to the things humans leave behind.
The series not only looks at the theoretical decay of famous and notable structures as well as the everyday, but also takes a look at places that have already been abandoned for decades, and shows how these scenarios are happening even now.Despite being entirely about a purely hypothetical and arguably unlikely future rather than being about history
(making it more of a nature/ecology program than a history program), the original Life After People
special became History Channel's highest rated program ever
. Although, of course, one could argue that most of the predicted results are accompanied by historical records of what happened - for example at 20-25 years after people, they showed the ruins of Pripyat, which was abandoned in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster 20-25 years before the show aired. Other accounts of shorter periods also quoted records of pets eating their owners' corpses for survival if they were locked inside and could not get out to find food. However, this is only a small portion of the show, and most of it is still speculative.
This series provides examples of:
- Abandoned Hospital: A number of abandoned properties, including a former mental hospital on an island off New York City, are shown to demonstrate how fast the environment will begin to retake buildings which are left unmaintained.
- Abandoned Playground: Occasionally shown, usually through Real Life examples, such as an abandoned amusement park near Detroit and an abandoned playground at Chernobyl.
- After the End
- Alien Kudzu: Invasive species such as zebra mussels play a role in the gradual demolition of many human works. The presence of human-introduced organisms (e.g. pythons in Florida) on continents they'd never otherwise have reached is one of the few human legacies that actually last.
- The earth Kudzu was itself partially a focus of the "Outbreak" episode, which devoted a subplot to the uncontrolled spread of Kudzu through an abandoned Atlanta.
- Apocalypse How: Class 3b, though the show intentionally goes out of its way to never explain how humans might disappear. To quote one of the opening lines of every episode, "This isn't about how we might vanish. This is about what happens to the world we leave behind." In general, though, it's assumed that our buildings and infrastructure are intact, and in the case of hydroelectric plants, left running for as long as it can.
- Big Applesauce: The king of cities in America will turn into swampland within a few years, with no one around to maintain the pumping systems in the subway lines, which prevent New York from reverting into the swampy marsh it was built upon. Eventually, the resulting marsh will destroy even the hardiest skyscrapers.
- The Big Easy: Discussed.
- Bond One-Liner: Often said when something is gone; very much related to Just for Pun below
- Brand X: The episode on food refrains from referring to "this cream-filled snack cake" as a Twinkie, even though it's obvious what it is.
- But What About the Astronauts?: Well, what about them?, they vanished, too. On the other hand, the things we've sent into space are worth noting. Quite a bit of focus is given to how long mankind's space-borne achievements will last, including the International Space Station (not very long), to artifacts left on the Moon (about 10,000 years) to the Voyager probes (a very long time).
- Conspicuous CG
- Creator Provincialism: They might throw in something about Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower or the Pyramids at Giza once or twice, but other than that it's all about post-human America.
- Crippling Overspecialization: This is played straight in some episodes, where they show that this hurts the chances of several dog breeds, but it is averted with others, such as the Anatolian Sheepdogs in the Season 2 episode "Wrath of God", who, thanks to millennia of breeding, have ensuring the survival of their flock in their genes, making sure they will keep protecting their flocks for centuries to come.
- Cryonics Failure: The obvious fate of cryogenically frozen bodies.
- Derelict Graveyard
- Desolation Shot
- Dying Town: The show visits many Real Life dying towns in order to study the effects of abandonment on buildings.
- The Eiffel Tower Effect - The final fate of every major landmark is more or less complete erasure by the elements, except possibly the simpler and sturdier momuments that have already survived the ravages of time, such as the Pyramids, or similar structures made of granite, limestone, and such. It's discussed that Mt. Rushmore's faces might be just partially recognizable after 10 thousand years.
- The original special seemed to imply that Hoover Dam would be one of the last of the works of man to disappear; even the pyramids would be covered in sand without humans around to keep them visible.
- Subverted for anything that manages to get itself buried and/or "fossilized".
- Elevator Failure: The Sears Tower (renamed the Willis Tower in late 2009 after the show was made) in Chicago has 104 elevators in various shafts. Eventually the steel cables will rot and the elevators will fall, activating the emergency brakes. Eventually those will fail, and the elevators will crash into the bottom of their shafts. Two of the elevators run all the way to the observation center at the top of the building, when one of them fails, it will fall at a speed of more than 200 miles per hour, crashing into the bottom of the shaft with a force of 1.2 million pounds.
- Artistic License – Engineering: the most likely failure mode for elevator emergency brakes is plastic creep, meaning the brakes will partially release and the elevator will slowly slide down to the bottom of the shaft.
- The End of the World as We Know It: Actually subverted, as the how is left completely up to the viewer... except that it's quite clear that humanity literally just disappears from existence overnight without any warning, cause, or methodology beyond A Wizard Did It.
- Exty Years from Now
- Fling a Light into the Future: Subverted. Our TV & radio waves - once thought to last forever in space, deteriorate after a few light years. The Voyager spacecraft and their Golden Records will be dinged up beyond recognition in a few thousand years.
- The Voyager Golden Record has already experienced nearly all of the erosion it will ever see from dust and particle impacts. Assuming no catastrophic events, the record and the probe attached to it could survive indefinitely.
- The Crypt of Civilization on the campus of Oglethorpe University in Atlanta is shown on its presumptive opening date of May 28, 8113.note . Sadly, the time capsule is shown to have been compromised by tree roots and the elements long before.
- The special coating used on the Jubilee Church in Rome is shown to be particularly resistant to plant growth and due to its chemical composition, self-cleaning. It's even mentioned that it could help the church's structure last indefinitely.
- Fire/Water Juxtaposition: Comparing the fates of Co-Op City (which would flood and collapse in a century) and the San Rimo Apartments (which will eventually burn):
- Follow the Leader: Both Life After People and Aftermath: Population Zero tread exactly in the same footsteps as the book The World Without Us, which had become so explosively popular the previous year (Time Magazine named it one of their Books of the Year for 2007) that it was practically begging for exactly this type of series.
- Ghibli Hills: Eventually, the remains of human civilization will ultimately revert to this. Every city or industrial area, no matter how polluted, will ultimately succumb to and be completely erased by nature (which returns with a vengeance within a few hundred years).
- Ghost City: The fate of the Earth, though they do show real-life ghost cities.
- Ghost Planet: Well, duh.
- Ghost Ship: The fates of military and luxury cruise ships are depicted in several episodes.
- Just for Pun - A number of comments about future results have some rather wry connotations, often also invoking the Bond One-Liner. Two of them include one about a major work by Leonardo da Vinci which has needed restoration over many years including dehumidifiers. Now that people are no longer around to save it from degradation, "How long before nature finishes off The Last Supper?" The second one mentions that the Taipei 101 building, the second tallest building in the world, which "is often said to look like a stack of [Chinese food] take out boxes. How long before nature takes out Taipei 101?"
- Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!: Though the series doesn't really involve any condemnation of man's hubris, what happens to the remnants of human civilization falls under many of the trappings of this trope. Though never done explicitly, the show evokes this trope through implication, despite the real tragedy being perceived as a lack of people to maintain and appreciate the monuments, not the loss of the monuments themselves.
- Misplaced Wildlife: The possibility of zoo animals such as lions, elephants and chimpanzees escaping and forming populations in the United States is explored.
- Monumental Damage: Every. Single. Episode. Slightly subverted in that it's nature doing the damage (and that the Lincoln Memorial is shown, for once), but definitely a way to show off the sheer power of nature, given enough time.
- Nature Is Not Nice: And how!
- Noodle Incident: Whatever caused the theoretical human extinction event that has led to Life After People. As the narrative explains, this series is more concerned with the stuff we leave behind.
- Painting the Medium: In a scene where an oil refinery explodes, some oil appears on the camera lens.
- Pet the Dog: During the segments about the first weeks, the show explains that most pets locked in homes would die due to starvation and thirst. These segments show a dog who finds that its owners have disappeared and struggles to survive with food lying around and water seeping from the fridge. Ultimately, however, the show is kind enough to show the dog managing to find a way out, saving the audience from experiencing the dog's horrible fate if it hadn't escaped. Then again, they also say that millions of other pets do suffer that fate, at least partly due to traits that we've bred into them like stubby noses.
- A Kick the Dog moment in the second season explores the fate of a guide dog that can't overcome its training to fend for itself in the wild. Potential Nightmare Fuel for any animal lover.
- The episode featuring greyhounds bred for racing wasn't much better (racing greyhounds are bred to be competitive and while they'd be effective hunters, they wouldn't have the pack instinct other dogs would have).
- Military dogs on the other hand are shown to apply their training to be extraordinarily effective hunters during the generation in which they survive. Unfortunately since female military dogs are fixed, there aren't any successive purebred generations of these dogs. The series does not explore the possibility that crossbreeds might learn these skills from their parents.
- Furthermore, several dog breeds are shown in the series to survive and thrive. Anatolian sheepdogs retain the instincts bred into them for millennia to protect their flocks, and regard any other canine as a threat, potentially allowing them to protect their sheep for millennia to come. Lacy hounds also are fit to survive and form packs due to their hog-herding instincts, letting them easily dominate over wild hogs.
- On one hand, you have this moment with the Longhorn cattle, who can easily breach their confines to roam free once more, and defend themselves with their namesake horns. On the other, the dairy cows are not going to survive as easily, with their calves separated from them, a lack of any feeding or milking mechanisms to keep them healthy, and no way of reproducing without any males around. A few might break free, but most will die out.
- A parrot's skeleton was seen lying in a dusty birdcage.
- Precursors: It is hinted that if there are future sentient species, they may see us this way.
- Ragnarok-Proofing: Averting this trope is the whole point of the series, showing that this trope doesn't hold much in real life, given enough time.
- Scenery Gorn
- Shoot the Money: The producers must have spent a small fortune on creating the CGI collapse of the Space Needle in Seattle, because they used it over and over again in the original special.
- Spiritual Successor: A series called Forgotten Planet, by the same creators, focuses on the abandoned places shown in show (and even has the same narrator!)
- Strictly Formula: Every episode follows the same basic structure. About two or three prominent cities / buildings and a selection of animals (usually household pets, farm animals and / or pests) around a certain theme are selected. Every episode then jumps forward one day, several days, a week, a month, a year, a century and so forth to show how they cope without human care (spoiler: the buildings eventually collapse or crumble away, the animals usually thrive) until a point several centuries or millennia in the future where there's nothing left. Each episode also features a brief look into a real-life location which has been abandoned by people to see what effects nature has had on it.
- Almost every episode contained scenes of water seeping into large buildings and rusting out the rebar in the concrete until the concrete (and the building) crumbled. So much damage is shown being due to water - rotting wood, rusting out metal, undercutting buildings and washing away debris - that the show could almost be called "Water Damage: The Series".
- Stuff Blowing Up: Nobody is keeping an eye on nuclear power plants. Also oil refineries are more likely to explode within less than a day of no human monitoring.
- Strangely enough, sugar refineries are a similar risk. Sugar, like most powdery things, has an extremely high surface area; that means any chemical reaction is quick and powerful, hence the boom. (c.f. 1919 Great Molasses Flood in Boston)
- New York City's MetLife Building, due to methane gas leaking in from the tunnels of adjacent Grand Central Station.
- Breweries. Grain dust is highly explosive, and rotting grain generates heat.
- Fireworks factories. Surprised?
- Subverted with military hardware, which is surprisingly explosion-free considering that gunpowder destabilizes after about a century. Also, ballistic missiles need constant monitoring to ensure that their own fuel doesn't do them in, and pressure-activated devices like landmines can trigger even during a hard freeze. The series missed lots of opportunities here.
- Taxonomic Term Confusion: In one episode, the narrator calls raccoons rodents. However, a later soundbite refers to raccoons as carnivores, which is more accurate as they are in the order Carnivora, but "carnivore" just means meat-eater. "Carnivoran" is the correct term (for example, pandas are in the order Carnivora but eat mostly bamboo). This is especially confusing for the less experienced viewers, since raccoons were noted 30 seconds earlier as ultimate omnivores.
- Unspecified Apocalypse: Enforced, as it's explicitly stated to be the story of what's left behind after humanity vanishes, not why/how we disappear.
- Title Drop: Once per Episode. Practically every other sentence in some episodes; about once before and after each commercial break in others.
- Also the final words spoken in the original 2008 documentary (and in some episodes of the weekly series).
- Viva Las Vegas: Discussed. The desert will eventually swallow everything, but in the meantime, the high-rise casinos, thanks to a lack of plants to cause any real soil erosion, will endure, their interiors completely taken over by mold and... cats.