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Society: Feature

Postscript Earth

Let's Imagine a World Lacking People to Write About It

by Regis Nicoll

Life After People was inspired by The World Without Us, Alan Weisman's 336-page book promoting the author's speculations about the effects of a depopulated planet on human artifacts and non-human life forms. The book, now available in 30 languages, became a best-seller in 2007 and is planned to be produced as a major motion picture.

Two months after the pilot of Life After People aired—and garnered the highest viewership in the network's history—the National Geographic Channel spun out its version of a post-human Earth, Aftermath: Population Zero.

Popular interest in the "how" and "when" of the world's end is not peculiar. Such questions have pressed upon the human imagination during all of recorded history. What is peculiar is the recent interest, even fascination, in what will happen on earth long after mankind has gone from it. But then again, maybe this phenomenon is not so peculiar after all.

Losing Trust in Truth

In the early years of the twentieth century, the mounting successes of the scientific age engendered a spirit of optimism about the future. As man's technological achievements expanded, people dared to imagine that human mastery over nature would lead to an era of continuing social and economic -progress.

But popular optimism was checked by the periodic disappointments of the Great War, the Depression, and the Dust Bowl, as well as by the persistent problems of crime, poverty, and social injustice. Then, when man's mastery climaxed with the nuclear weaponry of Fat Man and Little Boy, and two Japanese cities, with hundreds of thousands of people, were annihilated, optimism turned to pessimism, and we had reached the end of the modern moment.

Lost was trust in the modern enterprise and its guiding tenets: the infallibility of reason, the omnipotence of science, and the perfectibility of man. But also lost was trust in the one thing that had made all of the breathtaking advancements of the twentieth century possible: Truth.

When modernism defaulted on its promissory note, a skeptical mood swept across the cultural landscape. Within the span of a few decades, that mood catalyzed a sea change in worldview: from modernism to relativism to nihilism to doomsday-ism.

The mood-swing began in coffee houses, among artists, poets, and musicians, and spread quickly to academia, inspiring a generation of philosophers and their groupies to question everything—not in order to find answers, but to leave answers open-ended, situational, and in tune only with each person's internal sense of things. In time, the wave hit seminaries and the Church through the enthusiasms of theologians and clerics intent upon "keeping up with the times."

Little did they realize that, to keep up with the times, they would be traveling back in time—way back.

The Nihilist's Laughter

When an ancient Greek named Gorgias announced, "Nothing exists; even if something exists, nothing can be known about it; and if something could be known about it, knowledge about it couldn't be communicated to others," he sowed the seeds of relativistic thought that men millennia in the future would self-admiringly believe they had cleverly thought up themselves. That their "novel" ideas were not really so novel passed largely unnoticed, as the acid of relativism consumed Truth, leaving, as Jean Paul Sartre once put it, "a shattered and deserted stage, without a script, director, prompter, or audience, [where] the actor is free to improvise his own part."

Sartre was right. Without universal, binding truths, there is no fixed purpose, meaning, or direction for life, leaving each person free to follow his own creaturely instincts. But in the end, his only real freedom is in choosing how to cope with his absurd existence. Will he ignore it, end it, or embrace the irony of it, like Woody Allen, who once quipped, "More than at any time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness, the other to total extinction. Let us pray that we have the wisdom to choose correctly."

Thus cloaked in comedic insouciance is the nihilistic torment of a man who wants to know the answers to ultimate questions but has lost hope in certain knowledge, thereby making his quest unattainable. Such a man grasps at anything that will make not knowing tolerable, even laughter at his hopelessness.

Others are drawn to reflect upon the cold, impersonal universe in which they find themselves, and to see it as a hostile and unguided place, where every earthquake, tornado, tsunami, and comet near-miss is a reminder of nature's capricious and destructive power and man's impotency in the face of it.

Fatalistic Fascination

Untempered by confidence in a purposive creation and Creator, such thoughts can trigger both fascination and fear about the end of things. Over the last sixty years, Hollywood has capitalized on that fascination, peddling doomsday scenarios according to the fear du jour.

During the flying-saucer mania of the 1950s, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and War of the Worlds captured public fears of hostile aliens and an Armageddon showdown. During the 1960s, Cold War anxieties over a nuclear holocaust gave birth to Fail-Safe and On the Beach.

More recently, films like Dante's Peak, Deep Impact, and The Day After Tomorrow show people succumbing to the devastating power of nature, inflicted through a super volcano, a cataclysmic asteroid, and climate change, respectively. The Matrix, I Robot, and Terminator suggested the takeover of earth by artificial intelligence. Outbreak and Epidemic insinuated an eschaton brought on by malevolent microbes. And these are but a small sample of such fatalistic films.

Although Hollywood has not kept pace with them all, some of the more exotic speculations of late include a gamma-ray burst from a supernova, a massive cosmic wind from a solar flare, and an annihilating encounter with a black hole or "strange" matter.

The popularity of these scenarios is attributable to the urge to know not only how the world as we know it will end, but what will remain afterward. And something always remains: maybe it's a resourceful couple or tribe on whose shoulders rests the responsibility of building a new civilization, one better in all ways than the one that came before; or perhaps it's a lower life form which has come through the crisis better than the previously superior forms did, and which then becomes the evolutionary progenitor of a more robust ecosphere and planet; or possibly it's only a few lifeless monuments that nevertheless stand long enough for man's achievements to be discovered, appreciated, and recorded by visiting extraterrestrials.

A Meager Sense of Meaning

Of course, none of these speculations, especially those in The World Without Us spin-offs, involve a moment of moral reckoning, a Judge, a conscious afterlife, or anything that might assign meaning to our existence. The only hope of significance lies in the idea of becoming a link in the evolutionary chain of progress by passing on a gene, a memory, an artifact.

In an online exchange a while back, a man told me that he found significance upon contemplating the face of a canyon wall. As he caught sight of a 60-million-year-old fossil embedded in the stratified rock, he was overcome by a sense of life's evolutionary flow. In that epiphanic moment, he said, he found "his place" in the cosmos—as a faint footprint along the ever-advancing march of evolutionary progress.

Over a hundred years ago, Friedrich Nietzsche envisaged man as "a rope stretched between beast and Superman—a rope over an abyss. . . . Man is great in that he is a bridge and not a goal."

Following the yarns of modern-day oracles to their logical ends, one could easily conclude that man's greatness will come to lie in his absence. If so, his noblest undertaking is not to work for the improvement of his species, but for its extinction. For those who need something more than that to inspire them to start a new day, the oracles offer: "But think of yourself as a rope, a footprint."

Yeah, that should do it. 

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