The Future Is Unwritten

A long time ago I wrote a creative writing piece for an English class about the post-apocalyptic environment. This was years and years ago, before I’d decided I wanted to be a writer – in short, before I’d decided to sacrifice my health, my wealth, my friendships, my time and the almost-limitless patience of my family engaging in a task that would, very likely, bring me neither happiness or financial success. My pitch (as we scribblers call it) was that the human race disappeared, leaving the relics of our societies and cultures behind in perfect condition. An alien archaeological expedition lands and discovers an object and has to work backwards from that specific object : reverse engineer not only the thing but the state and function of the mind that created it in the first place, as well as the attendant civilization that would produce such a thing. This (if I can give myself any credit) was a pretty neat starting point for a story, but I ran into a snag, because no matter what I thought of I couldn’t make it stick – a toaster, a packet of cornflakes, a spoon (these ideas were all weirdly breakfast-orientated, for some reason).
Life is transitory. Objects are decay waiting to happen. Someday this big old world we inhabit will disappear in a puff of smoke – until then, the relics we leave behind disintegrate into the atoms they are made of. Not much will weather the centuries and millennia left to the world – but let’s return to the original premise. Let’s say all of this (waves out the window) were to just go away. What happens next?
The World Without Us
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Most of the world’s infrastructure requires constant upkeep. Assuming that people disappeared overnight – the subject of Alan Weisman’s excellent book The World Without Us and the History Channel’s program Life After People – most of what we have would fall apart very quickly. The largest processes – things like the Internet and the electricity network – simply stop after a few hours. With nobody operating power stations, the coal, gas and oil supply would run out very quickly. Given that 50% of the world’s energy infrastructure runs on fossil fuels, this means that most things stop dead : the cities lose their power and servers shut down. Hydroelectric dams, which require constant fine-tuning, would only operate for a day. After a week, the only systems still generating power would be those that take power from nuclear energy. These too eventually shut down due to lack of power in their coolant systems, either exploding or venting radioactive gas into the atmosphere.
How quickly animal and plant life takes over is dependent on other factors. The most accurate example we have is the city of Pripyat in the Ukraine – abandoned during the Chernobyl crisis in 1986, it didn’t take long to be absorbed by wildlife. Concrete, tarmac and cement are quite susceptible to plant life, and only 25 years later most of it is overgrown already. The objects that survive are those that resist corrosion or absorption – plastics, aluminium and stainless steel.
Long-Term Relics
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Give it a century and not much survives – houses and cities crumble back into the dust much like the ruins of Shelley’s poem, Ozymandias:
And on the pedestal these words appear —
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
London, kept perpetually dry by the Thames barrier, would disappear into a swamp in a few decades. New York might last two centuries at a stretch. Eventually everything returns to the earth.
Or not quite. Because we know that Mount Rushmore, at least, erodes only one inch every ten thousand years. Frost and sand may do significant damage to it over millennia, but the basic, recognizable features of the first American presidents will last for millions of years.
Which gives me a cool idea – if some future species happens across them, will they recognize these faces for what they are. Will they think they are gods? Monsters? A tomb? Who knows. Most people I know can’t name them all, so the memory of their meaning wouldn’t be long in fading. 
The other relics that will survive for millions of years are those on the moon – without anything to weather them or volcanic activity to disturb them, the moon landing evidence and Neil Armstrong’s fateful first step won’t be disturbed for a very, very long time. But here’s the kicker – (possibly) the last human name that will survive the millions of years after our existence will be….Richard Milhouse Nixon.
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The Long Term : Amasia
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We live in a geologically unusual time : most of the landmasses of the last 4 billion years have been large and cohesive. That we live in a time with no less than seven continents is very strange, and it won’t last – within the next fifty to one hundred million years, Africa and India will drive up into Europe and Asia, pushing the whole landmass towards the North Pole. A similar force will act on the Americas, causing the two to collide once more.
The effect this has on the world climate will be astonishing – rising sea levels will, paradoxically, reduce the already-reduced coastline of the supercontinent still further. This will have a novel effect on the biodiversity of the ocean – most food chains begin with plankton, which feed off nutrients leached from the soil and swept to the ocean. A lack of food will cause a massive shift in what animals eat and, with competition increasing, more species will evolve landward (more on that later).
The other effect the supercontinent well have will be to stabilise the climate. As happened in the age of the dinosaurs, a single continent has a warmer climate overall (with greater extremes in some places, including the highest mountains that will arise from the continental collision), leading to a relative abundance of species on land.  Animals will likely become larger and evolve into Megafauna. The interior (everywhere from Cape Horn to Sydney) will be drier, due to a lack of rainclouds penetrating the interior, while outside, in places like Britain and New Jersey, things will be very wet. So no change there.
New Species
Most of the animals we keep around us are domesticated – pets like dogs and cats, or husbandry animals like cows, sheep and chickens. Without human upkeep, the differences between these animals and their natural state begins to disappear. The first animals to go, interestingly, are dogs. No longer being fed, dogs either have to get back in touch with their wolf selves or die out. It is estimated that without constant human supervision all toy dogs (like Terriers or Chihuahuas) would be gone within ten days. Cats, which are less domesticated, would breed seamlessly back into wild populations (as they already do: feral cats are thought to be among the largest threats to native bird populations). Animals like chickens would either evolve quickly or be hunted out of existence by cats and feral dogs. The point is this: animals would either return to their undomesticated qualities or die out. The selective breeding of centuries could be undone within, at most, two or three generations). Evolution’s a bitch like that.
The residue that people would leave behind raises an interesting question: how long would it be before a bacteria evolved that could eat plastic? In theory, not that long. There is already a bacteria that eats nylon – Flavobacterium SP K172 – and evidence that ocean-dwelling bacteria are already evolving to digest plastics. Those that do will discover a world of almost limitless food – there is a lot of plastic out there.
Long term, it’s estimated that without human interference it would take sixty to a hundred years for ocean life to recover, especially fish stocks. Whales have the hardest time of it at the moment – not only are they hunted, but they get confused by sonar and ocean alarms – and their populations would take at least a century to recover to pre-whaling levels.
Most interestingly of all (I think) is that Elephant populations would recover relatively fast  – in particular elephants moved to zoos around the world. The Elephant has no natural predators (we’ve either killed or eaten them) and the abundance of plant life would suit them ideally.
New Intelligence
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The idea that intrigues me the most is that of emerging consciousness. We now know that most of the aspects of human intelligence that seem unique (empathy, emotional intelligence, recognition of others, problem solving and introspection) exist to a degree in other species. To return to Elephants for a moment: most Elephant populations and groups are kept together by strong emotional bonds similar to those displayed by primates. Elephants display all sorts of behaviours we associate with humans, like complex feelings and empathy, and Elephants , we’ve recently discovered, mourn their dead and ritually bury them, which is something we only thought people did.
Does that mean that Elephants would become sentient to fill an evolutionary gap? I don’t think so. A lack of selection pressure is what caused hominids to think in the first place, and as I’ve just mentioned, elephants would have no natural predators. I have my own opinion – I think octopuses (octopi? hang on, i’m googling it…Octopodes) would make the next evolutionary leap. Octopodes already display incredible cognition and problem-solving abilities and have the prehensile strengths of humans, able to open jars and manipulate keys like no other animal. Faced with a reduced food supply in the ocean, I believe that Octopodes would make their way onto land (they already sort of do) and develop a sort of primate talent for hanging about in trees. Over a long enough period (tens of millions of years) they might become tool-carrying, fire-making, communal creatures, capable of introspection and imagination. In the far, far distant future (I like to imagine) intelligent Octopodes will come across the cracked, weathered faces at Mount Rushmore and recognize them as the work of a former tool-bearing species. They will gaze on the indestructible granite and ruminate in their clever little Octopode brains. And one day still further removed from that they will clamber into their spaceships and travel to the big white orb in the sky and discover still more traces of the creatures that came before.
In summary, I would probably have got a better English grade if I’d written about Octopuses on the moon.
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