Our prehistoric future

Two years ago a state lawmaker in Utah put forward a strange proposal: We need to pump more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Why? Dinosaurs, of course.

According to Utah state Rep. Jerry Anderson, humans weren’t doing enough to warm the planet. So he introduced a bill that would have exempted the state from federal greenhouse gas regulations. The legislation was quickly shot down, but not before Anderson explained his reasoning, as reported by the Salt Lake Tribune:

“We are short of carbon dioxide for the needs of the plants. Concentrations reached 600 parts per million at the time of the dinosaurs and they did quite well. I think we could double the carbon dioxide and not have any adverse effects.”

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this “global warming is good because dinosaurs” meme. I won’t delve into the politics of the issue other than to say climate scientists generally agree that warming the planet to such a degree would be a bad idea. But the reasoning behind this line of thinking – that the future should look like the planet’s prehistoric past – is one that has been explored in literature a handful of times. The difference is that in science fiction, the outcome rarely has been beneficial for humanity.

J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is probably the best-known work set in a future that has reverted to a primitive state. Global warming is the culprit, although in this case it caused by a mysterious flare up of the sun, which bathes Earth in radiation. The ice caps melt, the oceans expand, and life begins to “devolve” into ancient Triassic period forms to cope with the environmental changes. The novel is a haunting work, filled with vivid descriptions of an empty London overrun by prehistoric swamp:

In the early morning light a strange mournful beauty hung over the lagoon; the sombre green-black fronds of the gymnosperms, intruders form the Triassic past, and the half-submerged white-face buildings of the 20th century still reflected together in the dark mirror of the water, the two interlocking worlds apparently suspended at some junction in time, the illusions momentarily broken when a giant water spider cleft the oily surface a hundred yards away.

The Drowned World, published in 1962, wasn’t the earliest work to depict a future where ancient lifeforms have returned to reclaim the Earth. That distinction appears to go to the 1955 story “Report on the Status Quo” by Terence Roberts, in which World War III has changed the climate and facilitated the return of the dinosaurs. Set in the then-future year of 1961, the narrative is presented as a government report about how this brave old world came to be, along with humanity’s first disastrous encounters with the resurrected saurians. (EDIT: It turns out I’m wrong about this story being the earliest example of the plot device. See below.)

Robotic dinosaurs rule the post-apocalyptic Earth in the video game Horizon: Zero Dawn. Image source.

Dinosaurs also would return to rule the future in the comic Xenozoic Tales, better known as Cadillacs & Dinosaurs. This series, first published in 1986, is set 600 years into the future during the “Xenozoic Era,” which is the geologic age following the downfall of civilization after a planetwide catastrophe. Extinct species from every era of Earth’s history have been reborn, with mankind no longer the dominant player in the ecosystem. Just how this strange world came to be is one of the central mysteries of the series

The most recent example of this theme in literature can be found in the young adult series Edge of Extinction by Laura Martin, starting with The Ark Plan. The book is set 150 years after cloned dinosaurs have taken over Earth’s surface and forced the remaining humans into underground shelters. The cover blurb describes Edge of Extinction as “Jurassic World meets Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” In other media, the 2017 Playstation 4 video game Horizon: Zero Dawn is set hundreds of years in the future when robots have replaced most large wildlife. Many of the robot designs are based on dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals.

A future with resurrected dinosaurs is a stretch, to say the least, but there has been serious talk among scientists about bringing back extinct animals closer to us in time, from Tasmanian tigers to mammoths. The concept is known as “rewilding.” At its least controversial, rewilding simply means returning living species to their historic habitats, such as wolves to much of the American West. But some people have called for resurrecting extinct species through cloning and then releasing the animals into the wild. Imagine Yellowstone National Park, but with mastodons and American lions — that’s rewilding at its most extreme.

A few science fiction authors have flirted with the idea, but rarely have they explored rewilding in any great detail. One exception is Mary Rosenblum, whose 2009 novelette “Lion Walk” is set in a North America slowly being returned to its Pleistocene state. Rosenblum uses the setting to explore issues surrounding current-day conservation efforts.

Sadly, despite claims by a small minority of scientists, I doubt we’ll see any resurrected mammoths, let alone T. rexes. The technical and social hurdles are just too great. But it is still fun to imagine futures where that just might happen.

* Note: After I posted this essay on my original blog, reader Justin Mullis corrected me about the first example of this trope used in literature. His comments:

First off, ‘Report on the Status Quo’ by Terence Robert (pseudonym for real-life cryptozoologist Ivan T. Sanderson) isn’t the oldest example of this sub-genre. That distinction, I believe, goes to American satirist Ambrose Bierce for his 1909 short-story ‘For the Ahkoond’ which is set in the year 4591 and is presented as a series of reports being issued by an explorer to the futuristic ruler – the Ahkoond – of a post-apocalyptic America which has fallen due to a meteorological cataclysm that sounds surprisingly similar to the one seen in the film ‘The Day After Tomorrow.’ Anyway, this new post-cataclysm America is now overrun by various dinosaurs who have returned as a result of the changing environment.

There is also Frank Belknap Long’s short story “Exiles from the Stratosphere,” which I admittedly haven’t gotten around to reading yet, though Allen A. Debus (for who I tracked a copy of the story down) assures me it fits into this sub-genre.

Lastly there are a couple of films which have dealt with this idea, most notably Roger Corman’s schlocky ‘Teenage Caveman’ (1958), the Italian B-movie ‘Yor, the Hunter From The Future’ (1983) and Brett Piper’s ‘A Nymphoid Barbarian in Dinosaur Hell’ (1990); which is nowhere near as risque as it sounds. There is also the 1976 Japanese TV series ‘Dinosaur Catcher Born Free’ (26 episodes) which is set in the not too distant future after a comet passes the Earth causing huge natural disasters which level major cities and ultimately reawakens the dinosaurs (done via stop-motion). To react to this, the United Nations form Born Free, an organization who rides around in an all-terrain research vehicle of the same name, captures the dinosaurs and relocates them to an island.

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