What would happen to planet Earth if the human race were to suddenly disappear forever? Would ecosystems thrive? What remnants of our industrialised world would survive? What would crumble fastest?
From the ruins of ancient civilisations to present-day cities devastated by natural disasters, history gives us some clues to these questions.
My reason for writing this post is to put in a word for Richard Jefferies, the nineteenth-century writer I wrote my Masters dissertation about. In his After London from 1885 - which has some claim to be the first English science fiction novel - he imagined the collapse of civilisation after some unnamed cataclysmic event:
The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.
The meadows were green, and so was the rising wheat which had been sown, but which neither had nor would receive any further care. Such arable fields as had not been sown, but where the last stubble had been ploughed up, were overrun with couch-grass, and where the short stubble had not been ploughed, the weeds hid it. So that there was no place which was not more or less green; the footpaths were the greenest of all, for such is the nature of grass where it has once been trodden on, and by-and-by, as the summer came on, the former roads were thinly covered with the grass that had spread out from the margin.
In the autumn, as the meadows were not mown, the grass withered as it stood, falling this way and that, as the wind had blown it; the seeds dropped, and the bennets became a greyish-white, or, where the docks and sorrel were thick, a brownish-red. The wheat, after it had ripened, there being no one to reap it, also remained standing, and was eaten by clouds of sparrows, rooks, and pigeons, which flocked to it and were undisturbed, feasting at their pleasure.
But I have to plug my man Jefferies now and then.