How long to rebuild after the fall of civilisation?

How long for technological civilisation to recover after an all out nuclear war or high mortality pandemic?


After some unspeakably horrible months after the initial crisis, survivors will settle into some sort of new normal and tire of anarchy. But to be honest, I’m not even sure the fall of National governments is as inevitable as it appears in most post-apocalyptic stories. Most national governments have brainstorming groups (like America’s DARPA) and security agencies planning survival of their own government and quick recovery plans for the nation for all manner of horrible crises. 

But assuming the National government fell, eventually local survivors would form villages with local Mayors, and these would look to trade and form regional security pacts, gradually building up to a State – and I imagine this more or less occurring across the country ASAP as a continent wide competition kicked in for supremacy.

We know the rule of law is a fragile thing. We know the benefits of democracy and checks and balances in government. As cynical as the modern world is about our politicians, in a real crisis we know we need law and order and an authority to call on to stop the descent into anarchy and warlords and mob violence.

Without the distractions of Netflix and busy social lives, there is a lot more time for thinking. Collapses are long, boring affairs, with short bursts of extreme terror interspersed with months of boredom and general nagging anxiety. People will want to feel safe. They’ll want a local leader, an authority figure to report infractions to and decide matters. I imagine them quickly appointing a mayor. It’s one of the first steps on the road to recovery.

(Note – even warlords hate total anarchy! Even if some crazy warlord takes over somewhere, not all hope is lost. Even warlords want some sort of order. Think of warlords in Afghanistan, or Mexican drug cartels forming alliances. Even warlords want hot food and cold beer, and a means to achieve their ends. They can organise enormous lines of supply, and have the various functions of either government or corporations, with their own hierarchies, chains of command, even down to administration and accounting divisions. Technical progress would be prioritised – even if the political progress came through painful revolutions later on.)


Given that I am optimistic that *some* form of governance would develop within a year of the disaster – how long to industrialise again? The first step would be locals prioritising fuel for agriculture. Hopefully they would see that most local transport should go back to cycling and rickshaws. Indeed, while someone might get a truck going for the first hoarding of tinned goods and ammo – before long the new local governments would install strict rules on fuel use.

Most local transport would go back to bikes with trailers – which can move modest loads by good old fashioned pedal power. The first scavenging could be by trailer bikes with any initial fuel being saved for agricultural output. For more on transport fuels see “What about a really sudden oil crisis?” for more.

Petroleum has a one or two year shelf life at most. This would need to be saved for both security and agricultural sectors. Then work would begin on wood gas engines to cook up fuel for harvesters and tractors and trucks and even buses (if needed). Any decent garage workshop can be quickly rejigged to convert all kinds of vehicles to running on wood gas. I see most biofuels schemes as impractical when trying to replace the gigantic energy demands of the modern world. But a post-disaster world would have much smaller numbers – and wood gas could serve as a substantial replacement for oil. Consider these numbers from World War II.

Wood gas vehicles were used during World War II as a consequence of the rationing of fossil fuels. In Germany alone, around 500,000 “producer gas” vehicles were in use at the end of the war. Trucks, buses, tractors, motorcycles, ships and trains were equipped with a wood gasification unit. In 1942, when wood gas had not yet reached the height of its popularity, there were about 73,000 wood gas vehicles in Sweden, 65,000 in France, 10,000 in Denmark, and almost 8,000 in Switzerland. In 1944, Finland had 43,000 “woodmobiles”, of which 30,000 were buses and trucks, 7,000 private vehicles, 4,000 tractors and 600 boats.

Wood gas wiki – Dec 2020


This is where the book World War Z has some interesting insights. (I hate zombies as a concept, but it’s a rich apocalypse genre). The book is quite different to the movie and follows the decade after the initial Zombie outbreak. The survivors fortify the Rocky Mountains, get organised, and simplify the economy so that former CEO’s and Hollywood celebrities have less status than a good plumber. In a similar way I imagine we would see various guilds quickly formed. There would be farming, scavenging, and technical guilds. At first, any decent carpenter or plumber or electrician would be treated like celebrities. They would be sent to retrieve solar panels and batteries, and make local small scale wind turbines and tools and gear for their workshops. Even rural areas would have heaps of useless cars scattered around that could be scrapped for various metals for years to come, let alone the bounty waiting for them in the abandoned cities.

Eventually plans for the future would emerge. Scavenging would look to not just tools and resources, but the manuals that teach future generations how to make stuff work. With limited time for education and a requirement for as much labour as possible, young people would be educated maybe up to middle high school and then apprenticed to guilds to learn on the job. In some ways their next ‘industrial revolution’ would be much faster than the first industrial revolution, as we already know the laws of physics and chemistry and biology that make the modern world possible. The techs from the village would soon form scavenging parties that would collect and centralise the most important power systems to keep the power tools running.


There are primitive solutions for batteries and even refrigeration, so that life in a post-apocalyptic village with some food and technicians could soon start to have some of the comforts of the modern world. Bit by bit society would build up again, but with less oil, in a more walkable, human based city plan. Energy would be more valuable and prioritised for the most important survival and salvaging efforts. Finally, some regions might rebuild the local hydro dams or get the nuclear power plants running again. Once they get breeder reactors up and running, any nuclear waste in that country becomes an incredible asset that could power the reformed nation for centuries to come. The bottom line? I think we’d be more or less back to close to today’s technological capability, if not population and industrial output, within a generation or two. 

For more detail, see Isaac Arthur:

What do you think?

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2 Responses to How long to rebuild after the fall of civilisation?

  1. Jim Baerg says:

    When I read ‘Plentiful Energy’ about the Integral Fast Reactor, I noted that the processing of used thermal reactor fuel to extract enough Plutonium to start an IFR also extracts decades worth of fertile U238
    I think that fertile U238 should be stored at each IFR so in the event of Catastrophe there are lots of places that have the asset of plentiful reliable electricity to help rebuild.

  2. Eclipse Now says:

    Possibly – but it would have to make economic sense in the short term. We’re heading into a period of rapid energy use expansion, especially electricity as we try to wean off oil. A massive nuclear war would fry many electrical components – but enough from the hinterlands should be salvageable for some sort of economy to kick off again. Once there is some sort of society going, specialisation can begin. Then you end up with logistics experts that would study how to move nuclear fuel around and get these things started again!
    PS: Are you a Sci-Fi reader? Ever read Niven and Pournelle’s book “Lucifer’s Hammer” about a comet strike on the earth? It has a fascinating plot about the importance of a surviving nuclear reactor. Also, their book “Footfall” has an awesome grand finale involving a kind of nuclear tech – but I don’t want to give away the punchline. But it has one of my favourite one-liners in all novels!

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