Credit: Peter Arkle

Capitalizing on public fears and fantasies about global warming, Hollywood has resurrected an old genre, the disaster film, with a new variation: the environmental disaster film. In The Day After Tomorrow, Roland Emmerich’s climate-change action-epic, the Statue of Liberty drowns while Manhattan gets pummeled by tsunamis, tornadoes, and titanic snowdrifts—all at once. The second most profitable film of 2004, Emmerich’s Sturm-und-Drang escapade illustrates a not-so-hidden secret about the environmental crisis: We debate about harming nature, but in truth we have a deeper dread—nature retaliating.

In the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien, played by Keanu Reeves, sums up humanity’s fate: “If the Earth dies, you die. If you die, the Earth survives.” Following this cold, extraterrestrial logic, the alien unleashes a swarm of mechanical nanobugs to devour everything manmade, a neat little trick that manages to erase the built world while leaving the rest of the environment intact.

What would happen if we did vanish? In his book The World Without Us, a fascinating portrait of a post-human future, Alan Weisman chronicles how nature would reclaim the built environment, eroding its foundations, toppling its walls, disintegrating every brick until, eventually, few traces of humanity would remain. “On the day after humans disappear,” he writes, “nature takes over and immediately begins cleaning house—or houses, that is. Cleans them right off the face of the Earth.”

Absent us, cities are fated to be consumed by nature, which needs no help from otherworldly mechanisms. The 2007 post-apocalyptic action flick I Am Legend features Will Smith as the (apparently) last man alive after a pandemic triggered by genetic engineering. In an eerily empty Manhattan, young forests take over parks and plazas, and lions from the zoo claim the streets as hunting grounds. After only a handful of years, the asphalt jungle has become an actual jungle.

The very nature of cities has been to resist nature; we battle the elements by robbing the earth of its elements, expending vast amounts of energy to keep the wilderness out. Exploiting this fact, environmental disaster films present cities as sources of ecological shame whose destruction is merely karmic payback. Yet while Hollywood sells tickets by portraying the future as a dark nightmare, designers can envision a brighter dream in which cities become an integral part of nature, gracefully interacting with every other living system. But we won’t realize this dream if architects stand still.