Lonely Planet

AT FIVE THIRTY on a perfect spring evening, there is no one at the Trevi Fountain. The last strips of sunlight slide between apartment buildings and the water gurgles a bright, calming blue. There is only splashing, and pigeons. Not a soul is at the Pantheon, or milling around the Piazza di Spagna, at the base of the Spanish Steps. The Acropolis is absolutely still. A giant neon arrow on the Las Vegas Strip points down to an empty street. Someone has written “Hola” in large letters in the sand in the Canary Islands, but they’ve since gone. Miles of beach stretch long and white and untouched, in Kenya, Aruba, and Daytona.

They are all visible via EarthCam.com, a free network of the world’s Web cameras, set up by hotels, historical sites, schools, stores, tourism boards, and departments of transportation. Before, the webcams were tools for international voyeurs. Now they are a series of living postcards, so motionless that only the rustle of trees or sway of power lines tells you you’re watching a feed. And I can’t stop watching: I wake up in New York and catch lunch at the Duomo in Milan—I was in the city for forty-eight hours a year ago, and the piazza so teemed with people that I hid in a bar, taking it in from a window. Within only a few weeks of Italy’s being declared the European epicenter of the novel coronavirus, the scene has been dramatically altered, a dream of the same place. Later, I pop into Disneyland, from a camera atop a Howard Johnson in Anaheim, which really would look like a child’s fantasy, with no lines for rides or anyone to share the park with—if it weren’t for the eeriness of the cars perched on top of the roller coaster, the carriages swinging from where they are halted on the Ferris wheel.

Four screen grabs from EarthCam.com live feeds, April 2020. Clockwise, from top left: Trevi Fountain, Rome; Times Square, New York; Aruba; Disneyland, Anaheim, California. EarthCam.com
Four screen grabs from EarthCam.com live feeds, April 2020. Clockwise, from top left: Trevi Fountain, Rome; Times Square, New York; Aruba; Disneyland, Anaheim, California. EarthCam.com

There is nothing as engrossing on EarthCam as Times Square, especially at night. It looks like a giant outdoor mall whose shoppers fled in a hurry, the giant advertisements blaring like the lights of a television left turned on. The crosswalk goes from STOP to WALK, WALK to STOP, a metronome, with no one to listen. It is a distinctly postapocalyptic scene, not because there are no people but because New York is usually so iconically, canonically filled with them. It’s why filmmakers moved the 2007 version of Richard Matheson’s 1954 pandemic horror novel, I Am Legend, from Los Angeles to Manhattan, where it is more unnerving to see free, open space. In the film, Will Smith is seen hunting for animals in a field of tall grass as the camera pans up to reveal Times Square, as it appears several years after a virus has ravaged the city and turned any remaining inhabitants into zombies. The movie would be forgettable if not for these expensive visuals. Smith speeds down a Broadway choked by wild vegetation. He hunts a deer in front of a large billboard advertising the musical Wicked. I think of these scenes as I watch a tumbleweed of plastic bags rolling across Seventh Avenue in front of the Disney store.

In fiction and in the movies, the postapocalyptic landscape is comforting even if you know it is the result of mass extinction. The feeling it inspires is something like the opposite of nostalgia; instead of grieving the past (which is our present) you are relieved of it by human absence. We don’t have to think about what has happened to all those bodies, our bodies. Robert Kerans, J. G. Ballard’s protagonist in The Drowned World, another seminal work of science fiction, is a kind of personification of postapocalyptic pathology: As he boats around 2145 London, now a system of lagoons, he sees the city as serene. He describes humongous piles of silt as glittering treasure, tangled weeds and yellow fungus as the flowers in an “insane Eden,” a new paradise. Eventually, the lagoon is drained, and Kerans is enraged when animal carcasses and industrial waste from the old human race are revealed below. His Eden is a garbage dump and a graveyard, and it smells like death.

For those of us consumed with the fate of our own imminently drowned world, about the havoc wreaked on it by climate change, the coronavirus has perversely delivered not a stunning visualization of our worst fears but an acceleration past them. The empty streets and sites of our cities are seductively peaceful, a window into a fight we have lost without actually fighting. What if there just weren’t any people anymore? Venice, the cautionary tale for rising sea levels, is pristine now, its plazas peaceful and waters clear. A tweet went viral on March 17 in which a poster claimed that dolphins were returning to the Grand Canal. “Nature just hit the reset button on us,” it said. The tweet was swiftly debunked; the dolphins were actually filmed in Sardinia. But the lie played on a dangerous impulse as to how we approach our uncertain future. It is much easier to imagine the Anthropocene afterlife than all the people who will die over the next century. On EarthCam, the pandemic has given us the landscapes of real-world dystopian climate fiction, in which the horror of human suffering is simplified and we get to skip clean to the end.

Bridget Read is a writer at New York magazine. She is from California.