Thursday, July 03, 2008

Immaculate extinction

Another gorgeous post-people sunset at London's Tower Bridge
Image: Chris Stocker for BBC Focus #191, July 02008

"What if we all vanished overnight?" That's the question posed in the current edition of BBC Focus magazine ("The world's best science and technology monthly") in its cover story about "Earth Without Man" (which inside, is labelled with the rather more PC, less portentous "Earth Without Us"). Written by sci-fi author Stephen Baxter, the article offers, garnished with a few words about London for the British audience, a generic account of the post-human trajectory with which readers may already be familiar, if not from Alan Weisman's World Without Us, then perhaps from either of the two identically-themed TV programs that have appeared on screens so far this year.

We have visited this topic before at t.s.f. Back in January, I posted Mondolithic's imaginative renderings of New York City succumbing to the march of time in the absence of human intervention. The only distinctively British visual accompaniment to this BBC magazine story was the one on the cover (see above), but it started me wondering whether others had perhaps been produced to adapt the post-humanity idea for a local audience.

An article in the tabloid Daily Mail included the following shots...

"Washed away: Harrods, London's premier department store, rots among derelict double-decker buses in flood waters caused by the bursting of the Thames barrier"
Image: Life After People (via Daily Mail)

"Crown and out: Buckingham Palace sinks into decay"
Image: Life After People (via Daily Mail)

...which turn out to be culled from a filmmaking effort to turn this oddly popular thought experiment into a feature-length thriller.

Life After People screened on Channel 4 in the UK, but was produced for the History Channel in the US. I watched it online this week, via a low-resolution, though adequate, version archived at Google video.

I'll start with what I liked about it. It's great that the History Channel can take a sufficiently broad view of history and documentary (both of which are, often enough, pretty ponderous enterprises) to carry out quite a fanciful, extended thought experiment in prime time. It seemed that by far the majority of shots were dreamed up from nothing, and a lot of the CG visuals were pretty cool, up to a point.

But on the whole I found it an overblown and self-important excuse for a bunch of thunderous effects, more or less on a par with The Day After Tomorrow. So much sound and fury, even after the last poor player has quit the stage. Percussive action-thriller music and smarmy narration were incessant. A sample from the script, to be intoned in a gravelly American movie-preview voice: FIVE YEARS AFTER PEOPLE, THE ROADS OF THE WORLD ARE DISAPPEARING BENEATH A GREEN MAT THAT SPREADS LIKE SOME RELENTLESS MONSTER. THE ADVANCE OF NATURE KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES. The topic appeared to serve mainly as a pretext for animated sequences looking at how cities, particularly U.S. cities, and even more particularly U.S. cities with towering iconic structures that look good collapsing in slow motion from various angles, would fare. By the end of an hour and a half, frankly, it was wearing thin.

The National Geographic Channel's tilt at the same premise, Aftermath: Population Zero (which can also be found online, posted in five parts by a thoughtful netizen) is less tabloid, attempts to spend approximately equal time destroying U.S. and European capitals, and divides attention more evenly between the ecological and engineering aspects of the post-people scenario. It also doesn't feature talking heads, which in Life After People are handled with utmost cheese by zapping interviewees in and out of the frame -- see how they disappear! Playing to a traditional NatGeo strength, Aftermath also illustrates the reassertion of non-human ecology with some cleverly orchestrated predator-prey scenes.

Image: Post-something London
as imagined in Aftermath: Population Zero (National Geographic Channel)

So, what are we to make of all this?

I'm tempted to take back my earlier, perhaps too-optimistic notion that the spate of interest in post-human Earth could be seen as "positive evidence of a sort of coming of age". While this could still be the case, the way the subject is handled in these TV movies lends rather more weight to the unflattering alternative, that "we're narcissistically obsessed with our own demise".

But it's an interestingly empty demise: we all suddenly, a propos of nothing, ascend into heaven? This conceit of the impromptu disappearance of the entire human race, with everything else remaining untouched, is a telling piece of fantasy, I think. In Australia some years ago, there was a non-alcoholic beverage called Claytons, marketed as "the drink you have when you're not having a drink". Here we have Claytons eschatology: the idle contemplation of the end times that you engage in when you're not up for considering genuinely frightening possible futures. It's an apocalypse the whole family can enjoy. Velvet Revelations. An immaculate extinction.

Last week on BBC World News, I caught a report [video] highlighting the massive reliance of the U.K. economy on imported Chinese goods. The point was illustrated graphically by several shots panning across a typical home, wherein they magically zapped out all the household items originating in China. Without them, things looked pretty bare. Now, you wouldn't take that experiment as evidence that, without China, we would literally have next to nothing in our homes. Historically, things would develop elsewise; we might be doing without certain items, while making other things ourselves, or importing them from elsewhere. But the point was simply to dramatise, visually, how reliant we presently are on one exporting giant by taking its products out of the picture.

The two films in question could, similarly, be explained on the basis that they're not intended to be read literally, but simply to show, by simulating our absence, how much impact humanity has upon the world. Fair enough. But the thought experiment about what "could (however qualified) happen" is prone to being misinterpreted as "coming soon". Many futurists I know make a distinction between a forecast (tentative if-then statement) and prediction (confident assertion about what will occur), but as sensible as this may be, such distinctions tend to get lost in public fora. The Daily Mail headline introducing images produced for Life After People: "Revealed: what the world will look like when we've gone".

A counterfactual "how the world could look if humans had never existed" would presumably be equally effective for the purpose of illustrating, by subtraction, our collective impact: but by starting from the present day, the films invite being (mis)understood as a possible, or even probable, future.

The emphasis on spectacle also helps put to rest suspicions that they can be expected to substantially improve scenaric thinking. Going back to our China products example; suppose the roof had been held up by Chinese-made dry wall; the news segment might have been a lot more dramatic had the walls vanished so the house caved in. That approach isn't far off the one adopted in Life After People and Aftermath: taking an absurd premise -- instantaneous, cause-free disappearance of humans -- to its (il)logical, if spectacular, conclusion. It would be disingenuous to claim that we're merely being given an creative, accessible depiction of human impact on the world: we're also getting Armageddon Lite.

And, it's worth noting that Life After People was apparently the most successful broadcast ever for the History Channel: 5.4 million viewers watched the show in January (Washington Post).

It is not trivial, I think, to wonder about the refusal to posit a mechanism, in both films, by which the disappearance could happen. It is certainly not because we lack the means to destroy ourselves -- for evidence to the contrary, Baxter's article refers the curious to Nick Bostrum's veritable catalogue of existential threats. Of course, I understand the spirit of the experiment, that the story is not supposed to be about those threats; we are asked simply to grant the assumption and see what follows. But why should we? That elides too neatly the single most important thing about the prospect of human extinction -- that it's almost certain to be our own damn fault. And, arguably the second-most important thing about it, too -- that it would in all likelihood be neither instantaneous nor painless.

One of the possible criticisms of Children of Men, a near-future feature film praised at this blog not long ago, was that the backdrop of the story (worldwide infertility) was never explained in the film. Still, the movie worked wonderfully as a document of, and metaphor addressing, an epochal confidence crisis -- today's -- and its emotional plausibility is preserved partly because that plot mechanism, which isn't the point of the story, is deliberately denied rational scrutiny. That film unflinchingly showed how people's lives might play out under such circumstances, and it's a profoundly human piece of storytelling.

For another comparison, I'm currently reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road, and if you can get into the mannered prose, you find an intensely atmospheric description of what it could be like in a hellish -- drastically diminished, close to post-human(e) -- world. Children of Men and The Road both come from a kind of "last man standing" genre of apocalyptica; in contrast, I appreciate the (rapidly diminishing) novelty of the no-more-people-whatsoever approach, but I'm wondering to what kinds of useful conclusions it leads, vis-a-vis present action. Because Life After People and Aftermath entirely avoid the biggest questions they raise: Life after people why? Aftermath of what? The fact that they do so deliberately and up-front hardly makes it any less of an omission. Who, literally, could give a damn what happens to the world's landmarks 300 years, or 10,000, after the last of the landmarkers has departed? It's a matter of profound -- no, towering -- unimportance. We all disappear, without cause or human consequences, then our toys slowly fade away too. So what?

Meanwhile, the starting point of these explorations, namely, humanity suddenly ending its tenure on this planet, is -- when considered as genuine future-historic potential -- surely the ultimate tragedy in the fullest sense of both those words. By tragedy I don't mean simply "very sad occurrence" (there's plenty of room to doubt that), but the Aristotelian arc; a protagonist's dramatic reversal of fortune from triumph to downfall, brought about by a persistent characteristic that turns from strength to fatal flaw.

In other words, it's a hell of a story. These films have found a roundabout way of raising the topic in polite society, without confronting the central issue. And it's terrifically difficult, I suppose, to address such grandiose possibilities without being, or at least seeming, either pathetically self-congratulatory (the cockroaches will miss us) or misanthropic (good riddance). Yet there's an inescapable air of the masturbatory about this no-more-people genre -- as a thoughtful Washington Post article on the phenomenal popularity of the post-people line of products put it: "there's the unstated human ego at work here, navel-gazing and overstating our importance."

However much they have in common, though, these two films are not interchangeable, and they're both worth a look. One of the differences between the pair is that Aftermath, where Life After People goes for the Jerry Bruckheimer jugular, has a somewhat more meditative element to it. The concluding, salutary sentiment is as follows: "Earth is resilient. In time, it cleaned up every mess we left behind. All we had to do was get out of the way."

Hmm. What "getting out of the way" might entail -- not as a magical fait accompli, but as a voluntary process engaged over time -- could make an interesting premise for a film.

Or a civilisation.


Stuart Candy said...

"The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be."
~Cormac McCarthy, The Road (p. 274)

Just finished: well worth it.

neil craig said...

The programme held up hydroelectric dams, particularly Boulder, as being able to work automaticaly without humans for years & thus Colorado as being lighted for that long. They then said that nuclear plants would automatically shut down after a few days when the grid stopped demanding. I suspect the same control systems work in both cases but that it would not be acceptable to portray nuclear as keeping the last lights on nor France (80% nuclear) as the last country.

Stuart Candy said...

Neil, good point. I wondered where those estimates came from, too.

This is where video footnotes would come in handy.

I've thought for some time that it would be great if documentaries -- let's say on DVD -- used at least one of the subtitle tracks, or hyperlinks from each shot, for reference purposes. It could substantiate factual claims made in the voiceover, detail the wheres and whens of interviews, provide footage sources, and so on. I'm no fan of academic writing as a genre, but this is one convention in that quarter which would help elevate film as an intellectually defensible means of making an argument, where appropriate. (In academia, film is certainly not regarded as highly as written work, although there's no intrinsic reason why this should remain the case.) It may not be much use to viewers watching a live broadcast, of course; but over time, I think it would raise the bar for certain films with documentary ("factual") aspirations, enabling interested viewers to dig deeper, and make a more informed judgement about the soundness of any given argument.

Video footnotes. Think about it.