Life After People: Post-Apocalypse Meets Preservation


Merigold School auditorium, Mississippi Delta

I don’t know about ya’ll, but I have found the History Channel’s new series Life After People strangely fascinating. It combines two of my great loves–the post-apocalyptic genre and abandoned places–which means I probably should avoid getting sucked into it. But I’ve done it, so I might as well go along for the ride. The premise of the show is that people have gone from the earth–why, we don’t get into: maybe the Cylons came, or the Klingons, or we all packed up for a vacation into space, who knows? So what would happen to the earth we left behind? After one day, one month, one year, 10 years, etc. on up to 1000 years or so, at which point, pretty much all evidence of our existence is hidden underneath huge mounds that cover our collapsed cities. Mississippi has lots of places that used to have people in them, especially in the Delta, so it’s not an entirely new concept to us–we even have mounds to show for it, although they don’t have collapsed cities under them.

Among the predictions of the show:

  • The ivy takes over Wrigley Field within 5-10 years and a yucky foreign bush whose seeds get dropped by birds takes over the field itself. My grandmother would not be pleased.
  • Steel and glass skyscrapers begin dropping their cladding because of the freeze/thaw cycle after about 5 years. Bummer–that didn’t take long.
  • Atlanta gets taken over by, wait for it . . . kudzu. Ok, we all knew that was coming, didn’t we? We Southerners have accepted that fate long ago, History Channel. It’s practically already happening. Stone Mountain, being pure granite, remains for as long as we can tell, though, so that’s something, right?
  • Dogs and pigs turn feral and get rabies–except for my dog, of course, who calmly learns how to cook on the stove and use utensils and starts a line of extremely sophisticated and intelligent dogs that will come to rule the earth.
  • Big Ben falls after about 100 years, a victim of frequent flooding from the Thames and an existing 8-inch lean.
  • After about 200 years, the Sears Tower is a “hollowed-out, honeycombed husk” (!)–as cables break, the elevators drop through the building, weakening the structure and finally bringing it down because of the rusted pilings that will be underwater from the flooding of the Chicago River (oh, did I not mention that it floods because the engineers aren’t watching the system?). John Hancock outlasts the Sears though because of its strong cross-hatched structure–score one for over-engineering!
  • LA turns all brown from lack of electrically pumped water and then burns up from a lightning strike.  Plus, mosquitoes everywhere from the abandoned swimming pools. Grasses and eventually trees take over the freeways–there’s a Green future for you! Bye-bye Canary Island palm trees after about 10 years–they aren’t native and need water. U.S. Bank tower burns from the inside out–its charred skeleton still stands for centuries until eventually brought down by an earthquake. Walt Disney Concert Hall’s stainless steel panels are fireproof, so it’ll be a deformed hulk for all time, I guess.
  • Beavers take back over Washington, DC, re-creating the dam system that the Founders destroyed to drain the swampland. Hmm, beavers in charge of DC–it’s a thought. . . . The U.S. Capitol dome starts rusting after just a few years because it’s not getting its regular paint job. Roof of Lincoln Memorial starts to leak, rusts the steel supports hidden behind the classical facade–you know the rest, don’t you? They say it will take about 250 years, but . . . . Statue of Freedom eventually brings down the Capitol dome–that crazy lady!
  • U.S. Constitution is finally destroyed by the sunlight that comes in after the roof at the National Archives fails.
  • Washington Monument fails after about 500 years when it gets struck by lightning after being weakened by flooding and that doggone freeze/thaw cycle.
  • Plastic bottles outlast any of the buildings we’ve built and build up in a huge dump in the middle of the Pacific–yuck!
  • But the best part so far is seeing the landmarks of DC underwater like Atlantis–those busy beavers or was it rising sea levels? But why would the sea levels be rising if humans weren’t still around creating carbon emissions? Hmm, well, it makes for a very striking image.

The episodes show how when routine maintenance in everyday human life suddenly stops, little things pile up and create disasters. They used Gary, Indiana as a case study to show how cities look after 30 years without people–ouch! Two amazing buildings they showcase particularly are the train station and the Methodist Church, both incredible ruins of 1920s American high culture. Angkor-Wat is used as an example of what is left after 600 years of human abandonment–bricks and stone. That makes sense for pure masonry structures, but many of our landmarks are steel and masonry, and once the steel goes, it usually takes the masonry with it.

So, at its heart, Life After People is a preservation story–we see what happens when the infinite variety of maintenance done by people behind the scenes stops. And we see that, no matter how annoying we (ok, I) might find people, without them around, all our beautiful landmarks fall into rack and ruin. It’s like that Twilight Zone episode where the man who is always wishing people would just leave him alone to read comes through a nuclear holocaust to discover that everyone is gone. He jumps around so happy to be free and to himself, and then he breaks his glasses, without which he can’t see a thing.

There’s a post-apocalyptic story to take you into the weekend!

Categories: Demolition/Abandonment, Historic Preservation

3 replies

  1. Neat! I haven’t watched this show, but thanks for the recaps. It’s fascinatingly scary! But, in a way, it’s nice to know that we coexist with buildings that we love, and one without the other would be lost!


    • This week’s episode looked at New York City–predicted that the post-WWII skyscrapers will be the first to go because they almost universally leak–whoops! The Era of the Great Skyscraper Collapse will begin around 150 years after people, leaving the Empire State and the Chrysler to duke it out for last one standing. Very cool!



  1. Before and After: Mississippi River Basin Model « Preservation in Mississippi

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