Life, but not as we know it

IT was the dogs I felt sorriest for. Thousands of years of domestication and breeding by humans and then abandoned to fend for themselves.Most of our pet pooches will have little or no chance, especially those shut up in houses.

Aidan Semmens

IT was the dogs I felt sorriest for. Thousands of years of domestication and breeding by humans and then abandoned to fend for themselves.

Most of our pet pooches will have little or no chance, especially those shut up in houses.

Those that do survive and mate, though, will quite quickly create a new, tough breed something like dingoes or the pye-dogs of India. In the long run, they'll probably adapt pretty well to the post-human world.

Which is the world they were talking about - and “showing” - on Channel 4's Life After People.

This entertaining and thought-provoking programme was billed as a documentary, which was not quite an accurate description. In truth, it was science fiction.

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Like all the best sci-fi, it was a “what if” scenario based on educated guesses. In this case, it was what-if all human life suddenly disappeared from the earth?

And the educated answer would seem to be that most other life would carry on pretty well without us.

Some of our closest companions, like rats and mice, would have a very brief field-day, then come to miss us like crazy.

The programme didn't say it, but I'm sure grass - including all its variants, wheat, oats, barley, rice etc - would suffer badly.

But overall life on Earth would, it seems, recover pretty fast and pretty well from the disastrous effects of humanity.

Especially in the oceans, where the double-whammy of pollution and over-fishing have caused arguably the greatest harm perpetrated by humans - perhaps precisely because it's the least easy for us to see.

Life After People didn't really tell me much I didn't know already. But the CGI artists certainly had fun making it. It was fun too watching the visions they created of bridges and skyscrapers gradually decaying and falling; trees and streams reclaiming Manhattan; London flooding and its streets collapsing into the disused Underground below.

I'm not sure if all this was meant to be frightening, but if so it missed its mark. I found it quite heartening, in a slightly perverse way.

Life was around for many millions of years before we came on the scene, and it will probably be around for millions more after all trace of our passing is gone.

I know this, but it was strangely comforting to see that passing, that gradual return to unmanned “nature” played out on screen.

It put us, our whole species and our petty, parochial worries in a grander perspective - like gazing out over the ocean, across mountain or desert landscapes, or deep into the sky at night.

BUNKERING DOWN FOR A CATASTROPHE

I DON'T think it's spilling any trade secrets to reveal that at my other paper we have an occasional exercise in which we practise putting together an “emergency issue” away from our London HQ. It's called the Disaster Recovery Plan.

The precise scenario - whether terrorism, accident or natural disaster - hasn't been spelled out. But if something - anything - should prevent us from using our normal offices, we know we can still get a paper out on to whatever streets are still standing.

The DRP is an innovation which seems perfectly in keeping with the apocalyptic tenor of the times. I read lately of rich folk in the US (and probably here too), buying second homes well away from the cities. They may double as holiday homes, but they are also stocked up with supplies of food, water and fuel enough to see them through any possible coming breakdown of the social and economic network that sustains us.

The last time we saw this kind of bunkering-down was at the height of the Cold War, around the time of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

The fear then was of a massive nuclear war. Now the fear is - what? Take your choice of one or more of the following:

Global warming (real enough, but unpredictable in extent and effects)

Population explosion (ditto)

Terrorism (wildly exaggerated, for mostly political reasons)

Economic collapse or depression (highly likely, but again unpredictable)

Pandemic (think bird flu - or Black Death; once again, almost inevitable, but unpredictable)

Environmental catastrophe, natural or man-made (tsunami, hurricane, earthquake)

War (pretty predictable, either for its own sake or as a result of any or all of the above)

It all adds up to a pretty bleak outlook, doesn't it? But notice which word keeps appearing. Unpredictable.

Of one thing we can be pretty sure: a disaster of some kind will come.

I'm pretty sure of another thing too. It won't be heralded by four horsemen or accompanied by a “last trump” blown by an angel with a mighty horn.

But that Judgement Day imagery is interesting. Humanity, it seems, has always had its myths of The End as well as its origin myths.

And in one way or another we usually seem to blame the coming End on our own sins. Which is probably realistic.

For each of us as individuals, the end is certain. For us as a species? Who really knows?

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