Rebuilding after the apocalypse

With the Coronavirus Pandemic, people have been buying various pandemic novels like Emily St John-Mandel’s “Station 11”. In this novel, a super-virus wipes out 99% of the human race. But pick your apocalypse – a super-virus or all out nuclear war.

Imagine we are culled back to 1% of the population. Imagine your state or nation culled back that much. New South Wales goes from about 7.5 million back to 75,000! How likely is it that civilisation would survive? Would our children and grandchildren crash back to the Stone Age for centuries?

On this page:-

1. Law and order
2. Boredom motivates
3. Trade
4. Even warlords like their comforts
5. Concentrate your population into a few core towns
6. You can’t get sentimental and try and save everything.


7. Energy, agriculture, cycling
8. Primitive fridges and batteries
9. The future – technical guilds
10. Open source hardware?



1. Law and order

If a disaster wipes out the majority of your population the survivors need to get on top of law and order, fast. Anyone who has seen any apocalyptic movie – wants to avoid petty warlords taking over and doing untold damage fighting over the scraps. Indeed, surviving Police and various authority figures would probably step up to encourage voting for some sort of local council soon after the event. In the western world we would remember the benefits of democracy and the rule of law, and having checks and balances on government. As cynical as the modern world is about our politicians, in a real crisis we know we need law and order. We want an authority to call when crimes are committed and things go bad. We also would want to stop the descent into anarchy and mob violence and warlords. So assuming the National government fell, after the unbelievably horrible first few months eventually local survivors would form some sort of equilibrium.

(To be honest, I’m not even sure the fall of a National government is as inevitable as it appears in most apocalyptic stories. Most national governments have brainstorming groups (like America’s DARPA) and security agencies planning for all manner of horrible crises you could imagine – and some you can’t! They have their bunkers complete with years of food and communications equipment and the tools to start over. For that matter, many private firms offer the same for the rich and wealthy. I think we would all be surprised how many government authorities and chains of command survived – and how quickly law and order could actually be reinstated over vast areas, maybe even the Nation quite quickly after the collapse!)

2. Boredom motivates

Without the distractions of Netflix and busy social lives, there is a lot more time for thinking. Collapses are long, boring affairs. Sure in the beginning they might have short bursts of extreme terror as you go on another supply run through ‘enemy’ territory! But soon after, they’re not the enemy but the neighbouring village. Without the frantic entertainment and distraction of the modern world and Streaming services and internet, there will be time for months of boredom and general nagging anxiety. Kind of like what we went through in isolation life during the pandemic.

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. Without Netflix, maybe people will start to care about local governance matters again and take an interest. They’d get involved – more engaged because they saw how they were making a difference!

3. Trade

Once they have a mayor and things are rebuilding around a core village, an expanding hunt for resources will begin. The hunt for resources is not just about food and equipment, but people and knowledge. Plumbers, builders, carpenters and electricians. And people willing to dig up books and read about such things.

Traders will set up an old fashioned mail-coach to get things going – and eventually regional pacts will form that could soon start to look like State governments. Once you have a few of those it wouldn’t take long for the quest for a Federal government to be put in place.

4. Even warlords like their comforts

And if the catastrophe carried off all decency and common sense – remember this. Even warlords like hot showers and cold beer. Even tyrants hate total anarchy! They might want their kind of order, but at least it is some sort of order. If you’ve seen Narco’s you’ll know what I mean. The Mexican drug cartels formed huge corporation-level drug empires. They organised enormous lines of supply, chains of command, technical support, and administrative support all the way down to logistics and accounting divisions. Most post-apocalyptic warlords want technical recovery to run their toys, even if that’s something strange like a V8 muscle car rigged up on some locally cooked home brew. Technology and knowledge would most probably be valued – even if the political progress came through painful revolutions later on. It’s the decent into generations of competition and barbarism instead of co-operation and progress that chills the mind. I’m optimistic our own self-interest would prevent this from happening and get us organised!

5. Concentrate your population into a few core towns

This isn’t essential – but just more efficient. If I were the local state governor I would point out that a higher concentration of population in a few core towns would be vastly more efficient than many scattered independent villages. I would leave people free to choose, but have some sort of economic incentive or tax bonus to move them into selected strategic towns. Just as England during World War 2 turned sports and cricket fields into “Victory gardens”, everything is up for grabs. Governors should choose strategic towns for fast development. The biggest could be on the coast or a river to capitalise on water transport – which could even be jerry-rigged sail boats in this emergency.

Why? The magic I call the “City Size Bonus”. Towns have a kind of “Moore’s law” in which the more people you have living close together, the more you can get done and it’s greater than the sum of it’s parts. The basic rule of thumb? Very roughly, every time you double a town’s population you get an extra 30% done for free. Very roughly – for illustration purposes only – say you have 5,000 people in one town and 5,000 people in another separate town. Apart they produce the GDP of 10,000 people.

But if they were all together in the one town of 10,000 people, the efficiencies of being together give them the GDP of 13,000 people! They get the work of an extra 3000 people ‘for free’. You don’t have to feed and clothe and house them. They’re not real people. It’s just the efficiency gains of living together in shared infrastructure. Why innovation thrives in cities. In the rebuilding of society from 1% of the population, they would have to do everything they can to maximise their efforts. Picking a few winning industrial towns is one way to do this.

Many post-apocalyptic stories focus on the village. Indeed in David Brin’s “The Postman” (fun book – terrible movie!) the hero moves from village to village looking for somewhere that has power tools and isn’t stuck in Medieval farming. Why are they stuck so far down the technological ladder? Because the post-disaster village flattens out our ability to specialise. When the population is scattered throughout smaller villages, people become general labourers. When everyone is a generalist, no one is a specialist. Everyone is too busy just learning how to grow enough food. They’re all trying to grow the food, stay well, maintain the house and farm, and learn how to preserve fruits and salt meats. It’s a busy but boring life stuck in the basics. But higher concentration of people in towns means higher specialisation. Get the tractors running and get the people off the land and into towns.

6. You can’t get sentimental and try and save everything

Now imagine how important this would be in a post-disaster world where my state has crashed from 7.5 million down to 75 thousand! The future government would have to pick winning towns and ask people to move there. There might be a few towns out in the agricultural areas and a winning township picked in Sydney Harbour somewhere, to trade with boats but also salvage and carefully store all the goodies in those shopping centres and abandoned suburban homes.

If this was a super-virus, you might appoint a few art curators and guards and handymen to look after art galleries and museums. If a nuclear war, you might move surviving art or cultural treasures to be guarded and restored in your new towns.

Indeed, just as we saw in the recent reboot of the Planet of the Apes trilogy, we might see people moving into semi fortified shopping centres to maintain walkability and mutual security. (That’s a bit negative, as it implies governments are struggling with security issues and outlaws.) But generally, a lot of the more boring suburbs are going to be salvaged and then left to lie fallow and return to nature or rehabilitated to local farmland.


7. Energy, agriculture, and cycling

Wood-gas tractor

The first step would be prioritising fuel for agriculture. Petroleum has a one or two year shelf life at most. Fuel would be the new gold, enabling some initial agricultural output – and it would be gone within the first year. But what can they do after the fuel runs out? In summary they would sail cargo around coastal cities, wood gas for tractors and farming, and to truck goods inland from coastal towns, and the rest of us would learn to love cycling everywhere. For more details see What about a really sudden oil crisis?”

Wood gas is amazing and apparently ran tens of thousands of vehicles and boats in many nations in World War 2. Wood gas would take over farming and fuel the many salvaging trucks heading out to gather industrial supplies into their selected sanctuary towns. They need water towers, plumbing supplies, electrical gear, solar panels, power tools, shovels for digging outhouses – all manner of kit. Any decent carpenter or plumber or electrician would be treated like celebrities. They would be sent to retrieve solar panels and batteries. even has plans for village scaled wind turbines. Even rural towns 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. 

8. Primitive fridges and batteries

There are primitive and fairly easy local workshop solutions for batteries and even refrigeration. (See Isaac Arthur video below). Life in a post-apocalyptic town would have enough resources to salvage and repair for decades. But eventually they would have to build stuff for themselves (out of as much salvaged metal and materials as possible of course). While there might be a generation or so of solar panels and batteries, as these start to wear down other more primitive locally made technologies can take over.

Bit by bit society would build up again, in a more walkable, human based town plan. As all this is happening, the population is growing. Farmer economies tend to view their children as their superannuation. The more children, the safer you’ll be in old age. The population could double every generation or so. Some regions will eventually rebuild hydro dams or sadly, get the local coal mine running again. The carbon impact would be temporary and minimal compared to the previous impact of 8 billion.

One of the greatest technological bottlenecks is one of the highest tech industries we have – the computer chip. But fortunately there is an over simplified operating system called Collapse os, and the technical people I’ve spoken to say it is brilliant. It can run a primitive operating system on really old electrical components – even stuff from the 1970’s. This might help technical guilds recycle old electronics and establish some sort of basic computer operations again. It will be a while before they have a ‘clean room’ for building new computer chips. Australia as a nation would have crashed back from 25 million to 250,000. But a generation or so later it’s at half a million, and might start building their own chips – if they haven’t already started buying them off America again or China by then!

9. Technical guilds

Image from

This is where the book World War Z has some insights. The book is quite different to the movie and follows the decade after the initial Zombie outbreak. A travelling war correspondent interviews survivors and a disturbing global picture develops from these different global snapshots. The survivors fortified the Rocky Mountains (were forced by the Zombies to pick a winning area to consolidate), got organised, and simplified the economy so that former CEO’s and Hollywood celebrities had less status than a good plumber. In a similar way I imagine we would see various guilds quickly formed. Plans for the future would emerge. Salvagers would look for the manuals that teach future generations how to make stuff work.

I imagine a post-collapse society that got organised would probably do basic primary education for kids so they could at least read and write, and then jump the high school stage and send teenagers straight into some sort of technical guilds led by their experts. I love the modern world and the opportunities we all have to be educated so richly and broadly across so many subjects, and for so long. But let’s face it – in a civilizational crisis there’s an awful lot of ‘fat’ in modern education that could be cut. How many of us use trigonometry or other advanced maths on a daily basis in our work? Do we really have to know that for most jobs?

At some stage during early high school most teenagers would be sent into various technical guilds. They would learn on the job. It reminds me of Germany’s Mittlestand economy. Young people leave high-school and work a few days a week, and do technical school the other days. Only about 40% of Germans go to university – the rest join these family owned Mittlestand businesses and enjoy higher than OECD average lifetime employee loyalty to their companies and high employee engagement under this system. Germany is practical and knows university is just not that necessary for most careers.

So teens would be sent into guilds, at least for a few decades until things were up and running again. Any truly brilliant minds would probably be selected for advanced tuition in mathematics and the sciences and be selected by guild leaders to become the next guild leaders.

Then, it’s the old equation of reducing the number of people working the land to increase the city populations. With smaller tractors and farm systems, there’s probably more people working the land. But gradually efficiencies would be rediscovered and more of us would be back in the cities. When only 5% of society are growing food, we’re probably back to today’s levels of education and society has almost returned to normal.

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. What do you think?

10. Open Source hardware

Just as there’s free open source software, there is now a free open source hardware movement.They design machines that are so simple and easy to build and maintain, a local village workshops could build most of them.

They are developing free plans for a tractor, bread oven, drill press, torch table, laser cutter, earth brick maker, harvester, string trimmer, soil pulveriser; indeed, up to 50 of the most important industrial tools that operate as a ‘civilisation starter kit’. 

But here’s a key concept for the post-apocalypse world: Open Source hardware is designed to be modular. That means the most important top 50 machines that enable the modern world are constructed from about 13 basic modular parts.

For example, the ‘Power Cube’ can run everything from the tractor to powering the workshop. It’s almost plug and play. This mix and match approach to design means the whole system is more adaptable and parts can be scavenged for another purpose quickly and easily. Everything is also built for longevity. There’s no corporation running everything – so NO built-in obsolescence! Finished products are more durable than industry standards. It’s about generic parts not specific branded parts. It’s an ideal system for smaller off-grid villages in a post-disaster world that cannot buy from big corporations and their expensive servicing agreements. All the parts are salvaged and scavenged. It’s simplified so users can build it and maintain it themselves.

4 minute TED talk:

Video site and blog:

Other resources: