There seems to be a persistent pop-cultural obsession with fictional empty worlds (save for the lone hero and/or his weathered group of bearded survivors of course). It would be hard to claim that this is the root cause of the wild popularity zombie movies and tv shows have seen over the years (although it is certainly a part of the equation). Other fictional stories depicting things like plague, supernatural disappearance of man, alien killers etc have all enjoyed similar success. So why then, especially when you consider how tragic it is, is this mass annihilation so universally appealing? According to writer Christopher Zumski Finke it’s because the apocalypse “is not about the end. It’s not about those millions of deaths, but about the rebirth that comes afterward.”1 We revel in the endless speculation as to who will make it out alive, how they’ll do it and, certainly, whether or not we’ll be among that group of survivors when the time comes.
About thirty years ago the time indeed did almost come. The Chernobyl disaster has given us a pretty good idea of what our cities and towns might look like without us around anymore, not to mention just how fascinatingly fast the greenery consumes a once urban landscape. On April 26, 1986, a series of events that began with an unexpected power surge led to a fire, ultimately leading to a fallout of radioactivity that contaminated over 56,000 square miles of Ukraine, Belarus and Russia, an area the size of New York state2. The nature of radioactive decay led to large regions around Chernobyl being declared unlivable, one such official area “The Exclusion Zone” as it came to be known, is an area of 30 kilometer radius of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant3. This area was declared off limits as radiation levels were much too high to be declared a safe living environment (although approximately 2,000 residents, mostly elderly, refused to leave and have lived there ever since).
So what can thirty years of nature unimpeded do to an urban landscape (albeit a much less developed one than we’re used to seeing everyday in today’s megacities)? The verdict seems to be that it won’t take long for small cities to be indistinguishable from forests. Dozens of other examples around the globe (often gorgeously) illustrate this point. Take for example the New World shopping mall in Bangkok, abandoned in 1999 after a dispute over structural integrity it was then ravished by a fire and flooded during a monsoon. Shortly afterwards fish began living in the flooded ruins and it is now the most haunting and unique urban pond you’re likely to ever see4. Another vivid example is the Japanese island of Okunoshima, once the location of a small poison gas factory during World War II, which was abandoned shortly after China heroically defeated Japan and won the war. Aside from the creeping greenery that consumes the old structures there are now so many rabbits living on the island that you cannot walk without almost tripping over them5. From the abandoned Año Nuevo Island off the coast of northern California6, to the abandoned theme park found on the outskirt of Berlin, these spaces fascinate us for reasons we often find difficulty in articulating.
Part of why we like to gawk at these ghost towns and theme parks is because it gives us a feeling that we’re getting a special window into the future. A future that, although it may or may not include us, will almost certainly include flourishing plant life. Amid all the pandemonium over climate change and it’s dire effects we are collectively prone to forgetting just how resilient nature is and can be. As Lizze Wade demonstrates in her Atlantic article “Earth in 10,000 Years” a simple test done recently in Panama revealed that tropical tree seedlings were easily able to grow in temperatures up to twenty degrees higher than what they’re used to, temperatures scientists blanketly assumed would kill them7. This experiment along with a host of other recent ones and discoveries point to the startling likelihood that not only is nature resilient but in all likelihood it is much more resilient than we are.
Although the modern examples are much more sensational, they distract from the realization that all around us are ruins of older cities and civilizations. Machu Picchu, Stonehenge and Siem Reap all blatantly display the eerie beauty of a decayed former population center. The real trick is recognizing or discovering the ones that didn’t transition into tourist attractions. Archeologists (and often construction workers) are constantly stumbling upon ancient ruins and evidence of civilizations that came and went. The extraordinary effects that wind, water and time can have on anything man made is astounding. To think all man has built could be washed away into nothing after such a relatively short period of time is a humbling thought indeed.
There are some natural limits to how long things will be around of course. Nature doesn’t take too long to reclaim the land but its time isn’t infinite. The sun is estimated to be about half way through its life cycle, putting it on track to run out of hydrogen fuel and expand to the point that it will vaporize earth in roughly 4,000 million years (right around the year 4,000,002,015)8. However, the scientific consensus is that our galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy long before that, potentially throwing our planet out of the solar system if not smashing it to bits or hurling it into the sun or another star. This is projected to occur around 2000 million years from now9.
So what’s the point then? I suppose the point is that this big ball of hurdling blue and green has most improbably created and supported the conditions necessary for us to thrive, but it won’t always. Frankly, its quite fun to watch a movie where all the people are gone and the forests have taken over the cities. We wonder deep down what we might be able to muster in such a strange and unforgiving natural world. Mostly, it’s a harsh but elegant reminder that there have been countless eras before us and there will probably be countless ones after. [...Read less ↑ ]