Sunday, January 10, 2010

Review: Life After People - Depicts the fragility of our modern society

"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." The premise for this series is rather cockeyed, just how would it come about for humans to disappear without any other effect? For some reason that's the question the series tries to answer, if people suddenly disappeared what would happen to the stuff left behind? I think that while the literal premise is cockamamie it does serve to demonstrate the real fragility of our society despite the illusion of permanence. It's worth watching these shows and to ponder the fate of mankind.

Each episode is a stunningly graphic examination of how the very landscape of planet Earth would change in our absence. It uses movie-quality graphics simulations to depict the likely fate of dozens of iconic buildings and cityscapes around the world. What would happen to the millions of animals in agricultural captivity? What about the household pets? What about chemicals and whatnot stored in warehouses? When does Mt. Rushmore or Stone Mt wither away?

A key element of the story is the resources currently required to maintain the cities around us. The planets weather and plants and animals all attempt to impose the natural order upon the planet. It is the action of humans that instead imposes human order. Humans have diverted rivers, buried landscapes under concrete, built massive steel or concrete buildings, etc. The thing is all those buildings require constant maintenance, some requiring more than others. For example the Golden Gate Bridge (in San Francisco) is constantly exposed to ocean air, fog, and other weather coming in off the Pacific Ocean. Crews are constantly repainting the bridge in order to keep it from rotting away. Without humans to maintain these structures they crumble away due to weather and other natural effects.

450px-Blocos.JPGConcrete is a particularly interesting material. It is immensely energy intensive to make concrete. Once it's poured into place it looks rather permanent, but in truth it crumbles away over time. Concrete is unlike the stone used by ancient cultures in the buildings which have lasted millenia, concrete structures are unable to last very long. Hence all the concrete structures from sidewalks to highway bridges to prisons to sports stadia, they all will crumble soon enough, requiring demolition and rebuilding. It's a cost our society is saddled with and I wonder whether our society will find itself unable to pay the bills to rebuild that concrete infrastructure?

Rabies is another example. In the U.S. this disease exists in the wild and to attempt to keep the disease in check biologists work in the field every year distributing vaccinations to the wild animal populations. Without those biologists vaccinating the wild animals the disease would be unchecked.

800px-Kudzu_on_trees_in_Atlanta,_Georgia_0.jpgThe Kudzu vines in Georgia are another example of humans being employed to keep nature in check. If humans were not constantly cutting and pruning the Kudzu infestations it would blanked the whole of the southeast U.S.

This is an interesting meme in Life After People - that nature left unchecked by humans is chaos and disaster and destruction. Um. It seems to me that the natural biological life on this planet existed for a billion years or more before humans came along. The natural biological life on this planet does not require humans to tend and care for it, instead the natural biological life on this planet showed it can take care of itself. The chaos and disaster and destruction shown in Life After People is instead destruction of the buildings and artifacts of human life. Those buildings and other artifacts are an unnatural attempt to impose an unnatural order upon the planet. What the show depicts is the process by which the planet will reimpose natural order.

Each episode includes an example of a city which had been inhabited by humans, but was abandoned. Each of these places have undergone decay and destruction because humans were not there to maintain human order. Without humans to maintain human order these cities are crumbling and falling apart.

800px-Hashima076.jpgOne example is Hashima Island in Japan. It was a city built on a rocky island in the ocean where the inhabitants operated a coal mine (mining undersea coal). But 30 years ago the city was abandoned and is slowly crumbling away. Another example is Gary Indiana, a city built because of a U.S. Steel plant and which was abandoned when the U.S. Steel corporation died. The city of Gary Indiana is largely abandoned with crumbling buildings galore. Another example is Angkor Wat in Cambodia, abandoned over 600 years ago when the Khmer Empire was defeated by invaders from another land. There the jungle has taken over, with tree roots growing into the temple walls and the primary occupants are the wildlife.

The scenario they depict is more than extremely unlikely. Just how would all humans disappear all at once without a war or massive disease? Short of divine intervention humanity is unlikely to disappear without a fight. It's not worth pondering too closely the precise story they depict but it's very worth while pondering an aspect of this story.

Human history is full of examples of empires who were unable to continue funding the empire. The cost of maintaining these empires became too much, and the empire collapsed. Sometimes the collapse was hastened by wars or famine or some such. There's no reason to think the current capitalistic empire that's slowly engulfing the world will be permanent. There are plenty of indications it's long term health is very precarious. What's fueling this world spanning capitalistic globalized empire is cheap oil, and as cheap oil runs low becoming expensive oil the globalization empire will collapse.

In some cases the buildings and cities attain iconic importance to human culture. Certainly buildings like the Washington Monument or the Capital Building or the "Big Ben" tower in London have huge symbolic importance. But without maintenance they will crumble and collapse as did the once-grand capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor Wat.

A few years ago I visited St. Petersburg Russia. It had been the capital of the Russian Empire. The Tsars of Russia had built their main palaces all through this city. It was apparent that the lustre of that city was mostly left over from years of the Tsars. The years of Communist rule had not been kind to the city, but it appeared that in recent years they had been refurbishing the city through extensive rebuilding investment. Russia would only be able to afford this because of its own recent economic boom.