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What would happen if every human being on Earth disappeared? This isn't the story of how we might vanish — it is the story of what happens to the world we leave behind...

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?

The answer: not as long as you think, and it often has real-life examples of places abandoned by people going "to hell in a handbasket" as the environment proceeds to revert things back into the wilderness, sometimes in only a few years.

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 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 that 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: The series' main premise, of what might become of planet Earth if humanity suddenly disappeared.
  • 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 is itself partially a focus of the "Outbreak" episode, which devotes a subplot to the uncontrolled spread of kudzu through an abandoned Atlanta. It slowly dries to the state of a tinderbox that proves to be quite flammable when a lightning bolt strikes it and causes most of the city to burn down.
  • Ambiguous Time Period: The year the human race vanishes is never specified. The original special was made in 2008 and most series episodes follow the setting that was typical for that year, yet there are buildings whose construction was finished in 2009 and which opened even later in 2010, such as Burj Khalifa and Titanium La Portada. The closest thing we get is the Crypt of Civilization being shown having succumbed to corrosion by the year it was supposed to be unsealed, May 28th 8113, though even then it is not much of a clue.
  • 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 they can. The only thing we know in the show is that the disappearance was sudden and unexpected, as pets are left to starve in their homes, cars and airplanes crash, and power plants are left unattended.
  • Artistic License – Engineering: Skyscraper elevators are depicted as fated to crash down disastrously once their emergency brakes give out. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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, 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).
  • Can't Stop The Signal: Subverted. Even after people disappear, thanks to its solar panels and automated broadcasting system, the New Mexico radio station KTAO continues playing music and broadcasting some of the last human voices on Earth. This continues for fifteen years before the computer's fans grind to a halt and the system overheats.
  • Catastrophic Countdown: Inverted. The great disaster has happened already. The time reminder is instead on how much ago it happened: forty seconds, a minute, an hour, six hours, a day, three days, weeks, months, years...
  • 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. They do pay tribute to the series' popularity in Latin America (despite Latin America being entirely absent from it) by doing a two-hour special entirely about Latin American countries, though.
  • 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 ensured 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, caused by the power outage and the water the bodies are submerged into warming up.
  • Dwindling Party: An unusual example where buildings are used in place of actual characters. The formula remains mostly the same: early on, a bunch of monuments is introduced, and by the end of the episode most if not all of them collapse, on-screen or not.
  • 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 monuments 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 seems to imply that Hoover Dam will be one of the last of the works of man to disappear; even the pyramids will be covered in sand without humans around to keep them visible.note 
    • Subverted for anything that manages to get itself buried and/or "fossilized".
  • Elaborate Underground Base: The Cheyenne Mountain Complex in Colorado, NORAD's quintessential underground facility is designed to withstand a nuclear war. This also means that it would also be one of the longest-lasting human artifacts in America, a technological tomb sealed forever.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Fling a Light into the Future: Subverted. Our TV and 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.
    • In an accidental example, escaped pet parrots continue to mimic human sounds in the absence of their owners, and their offspring copying their parents' calls keep up this habit for (perhaps) a few generations. Eventually, natural selection weeds out such vocalizations as useless.
  • Fire/Water Juxtaposition: Comparing the fates of Co-op City (which would flood and collapse in a century) and the San Remo Apartments (which will eventually burn):
    One will be marred by fire in a Life After People. Will the other face death by water?
  • Gaia's Lament: Subverted hard, for the most part. While many ecosystems are damaged by fire, chemicals, explosions, radiation and the like after people disappear, nature quickly reestablishes itself within a few decades or centuries at most.
    • A rare exception is brought up with graded ski runs. Because of the heavy machinery used in their construction, the soil is overturned and compacted to the point where it's very difficult for plants to grow there. Even after fifty years, they look completely untouched, and will remain so for a very long time.
  • 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: Many episodes describe the eventual fate of urban buildings and monuments. Some episodes include clips of real-life ghost towns.
  • Ghost Planet: The show's premise is that this somehow happened to Earth.
  • Ghost Ship: The fates of military and luxury cruise ships are depicted in several episodes.
  • Indestructible Edible: Fruitcake, due to being coated with alcohol, could last for over a century and not rot.
    • Honey is the last surviving foodstuff, with unbroken jars of it still resting undisturbed and still edible even after thousands of years.
  • Inspired by…: Inspired by Alan Wiseman's book The World Without Us which, due to its success and also perhaps because it was named one of Time Magazine's Books of the Year for 2007, suddenly made this subject very popular. The National Geographic Channel also had a very similar show at the same time called Aftermath: Population Zero.
  • Irony: After ten million years, fossilized corpses of humans will be pushed a mile and a half underground, eventually transforming into the very oil they used to run their civilization. Ancient mummies that'd already lasted for millennia in their untouched tombs all crumble into dust, along with the museum exhibits intended to conserve them.
  • Kill It with Fire:
    • Several cities such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, and San Francisco are destroyed by wildfires.
    • Rags soaked in linseed oil would spontaneously combust, burning down the San Remo Apartments.
  • Kill It with Water:
    • Water damage plays a crucial role in the collapse of several buildings such as the Sears Tower, the Empire State Building, and the Oriental Pearl Tower.
  • 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.
    • Inverted with the LAX Theme Building. Thanks to its unique roof-mounted mass damper system, it becomes the only build at the airport that's left standing. We don't even get to see it crumbling on-screen, for that matter.
  • Nature Is Not Nice: Considering how it is shown here taking over cities after humans are gone, this would be an accurate assessment.
  • Never Found the Body: One episode discusses how many people attempting to climb Mt. Everest have died and were eventually buried under the mountain's glaciers. They end up decomposing five thousand years later after thawing out.
  • Never Trust a Title: Read the title carefully. Listen to the final line of the first special: "There was life before people. There will be life after people." Sounds more like the title of a series about how the world changed after people first arrived, doesn't it? "Life after people," as opposed to "life before people," is actually a very different situation than "life after people are gone."
  • 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.
  • Once an Episode: Several. The power going out, the eventual destruction of a famous landmark somewhere in the world, a Real Life example of a place without people...
  • Painting the Medium: In a scene where an oil refinery explodes, some oil appears on the camera lens.
  • Panspermia: The Cassini spacecraft, carrying extremophile bacteria in its innards, does this to Saturn's moon Enceladus, one of the few places in the Solar System thought to have liquid water. After two million years, the bacteria have formed their own ecosystem in the moon's sub-surface ocean
  • 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. The animals that manage to escape and have traits that allow them to thrive in the wild and live on for millions of years, though after a few centuries of free breeding most defined pedigree breeds are gone, replaced with a wide variety of naturally selected landraces of animals bearing similarities to every one of their ancestral types that came before them.
    • 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.
    • The episode featuring greyhounds bred for racing isn'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 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, as well as the fact that beneficial physical characteristics that the male military dogs have would be carried on to the next generation, and so on and so forth.
    • 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, 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... or be food for predatory megafauna breaking out of zoos across the planet.
    • A parrot's skeleton is seen lying in a dusty birdcage.
    • Large animals in zoos quickly begin to test the fences once the power goes out, and eventually break free to explore their new habitats.
  • Precursors: It's hinted that if there are future sentient species, they may see us this way.
  • Ragnarök Proofing: Averting this trope is the whole point of the series, showing that this trope doesn't hold much in real life. Nothing manmade will stand forever, given enough time, no matter how protected it is, and this is the focus of the entire series.
  • Reclaimed by Nature: The whole purpose of the series is all about theorizing about the effects of nature on all of mankind's greatest creations if everyone in the world were suddenly no longer there to protect them.
  • Regional Redecoration: Without people diverting the water from the Niagara River, the erosion rate of Niagara Falls increases from 1 foot per year to 6 feet. After 1,500 years, this increased erosion pushes the Canadian side of the falls so far back that the American side has completely dried out.
  • Riddle for the Ages: Never is it explained how humanity disappeared, but everything else on Earth is left intact.
  • Ruins of the Modern Age: The series explains the process of Reclaimed by Nature that will overtake what evidence of human civilization is left after mankind disappears until there's virtually no trace of us left, and the show illustrates the stages of decay.
  • Series Continuity Error:
    • The original special makes a huge deal about Hoover Dam's influence on Las Vegas, with the city still capable of being seen from the orbit thanks to its city lights still being on (for the two years it would last, that is), while many other cities will be plunged in the darkness. However, the series' episode "Sin City Meltdown" does not follow on this, and thus the power in the city goes out in a couple of weeks, with the sole exception of Springs Preserve which is kept active by solar panels for ten years.
    • A weird example occurs in the "Waves of Devastation" episode, where the Sydney Harbour Bridge collapses after a century after people. However, while this happens, the Sydney Opera House, which has caved in twenty-five years prior in the same episode, can be seen intact not so far from the bridge.
  • Scenery Gorn: The cities are constantly seen in a state of decay that gets worse as time goes on.
  • Spiritual Successor: A series called Forgotten Planet, by the same creators, focuses on the abandoned places shown in the series. (and even has the same narrator). In the case of Forgotten Planet, humans aren't gone, but we've simply left these places alone or let them become run down.
  • 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 very little (if anything) left. Each episode also features a brief look into a real-life location (or two) that 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 an hour 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?
  • 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.
  • Time Abyss: The only things that could really last into the far future are possibly the Hoover Dam, Mount Rushmore, space probes, plastics, and our fossilized remains.
  • Undying Loyalty: Anatolian sheep dogs show this in a life after people, avoiding interbreeding with other dogs and keeping watch over their flocks for centuries to come.
  • 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.
  • We Are as Mayflies: Humans truly haven't been around for that long, and most of the changes that occur on planetary and intergalactic levels take years to millennia longer than the human life span. The series really sends home the message of how Homo sapiens sapiens' space on the great timeline of history is actually very small and insignificant compared to the big picture.
  • Well, This Is Not That Trope: The part of the Opening Narration that clarifies "This isn't the story of how we might vanish..."
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Some buildings are not shown collapsing on-screen, such as the LAX Theme Building, the Washington Monument, and the Jubilee Church among others, though it's implied they too eventually caved in during the span of several more centuries.

There was life before people. There will be life after people.