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 – whether all out nuclear war, robot-uprising, climate catastrophe and sudden ice age – whatever. 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?

A: POLITICAL AND SETTLEMENT STRATEGIES
1. Law and order
2. Consolidate and concentrate your population into a few core towns
3. Higher concentration means higher specialisation.
4. You can’t get sentimental and try and save everything.
B: TECHNOLOGICAL STRATEGIES
5. Energy rationing, agriculture, and cycling culture.
6. Technical guilds.
7. Primitive fridges and batteries.

A: POLITICAL AND SETTLEMENT STRATEGIES

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 the Mad Max movies or for that matter almost any post-apocalyptic movie shows bands of selfish warlords fighting over the scraps.

Instead, surviving cops or authority figures need to get in charge and encourage belief in the system – belief in concepts like States and Nations for the benefit of all. 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.

But assuming the National government fell, after the unbelievably horrible first 6 months, eventually local survivors would form some sort of equilibrium. In the western world we know 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.

Without the distractions of Netflix and busy social lives, there is a lot more time for thinking. Collapses are long, boring affairs. Sure they have short bursts of extreme terror as you go on another supply run! But this is mingled with months of boredom and general nagging anxiety. Kind of like the isolation life we’re living in now. (I’m writing this in 2020.) 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. Once their village has 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 human resources like plumbers, builders, carpenters and electricians. Knowledge. 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.

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!

2. Consolidate and concentrate your population into a few core towns

Once law and order is established, the new government would take stock. The population of my state of New South Wales would have collapsed from 7.5 million people down to only 75,000. The loss of trades and professions is profound. How many doctors and nurses have survived – or were most wiped out in the pandemic? How many electricians and plumbers and carpenters and builders and engineers made it? How many power station engineers? What does all of this mean? The government would need to assess all this.

Now we get down to it. Many post-apocalyptic stories focus on the village. Indeed in David Brin’s “The Postman” (great 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.

3. Higher concentration means higher specialisation.

The key to getting technical guilds up and running is a decent population. Just as with computers, towns have a kind of “Moore’s law” in which the more people you have living close together, the more you can get done. The basic rule of thumb? Every time you double a city’s population you get an extra 30% for free. EG: 5,000 people in one town and 5,000 people in another separate town produce the GDP of 10,000 people. But if they were all together in the one town of 10,000 people, they get the productivity of 13,000 people. That’s 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

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

Now imagine how important this would be in a post-disaster world where your population 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 to salvage and carefully store all the goodies in those shopping centres and abandoned suburban homes. 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.

You might appoint a few curators and guards for art galleries and museums – or even move the art and contents to be guarded in your new towns. But sentiment can’t get in the way. A small townships within Sydney would win, and the rest would be salvaged and abandoned. Or the land even quickly reclaimed for local farming! Solar panels and tech and tools and clothes would all be scavenged and stored and hopefully if stored right, no one would need to make new clothes for generations to come.

B: TECHNOLOGICAL STRATEGIES

5. Energy rationing, agriculture, and cycling culture.

Wood-gas tractor

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 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 use sailing to move larger quantities of stuff around Australia’s mostly coastal cities, wood gas as an emergency oil replacement to truck stuff in from the ports and run harvesters, and the rest of us would learn to love cycling everywhere. For more details see What about a really sudden oil crisis?”

6. Technical guilds.

Image from Otherpower.com

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. Otherpower.com even has plans for village scaled wind turbines. 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. Salvagers would look for 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 the 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. Energy would be more valuable and prioritised for the most important survival and salvaging efforts. 

7. Primitive fridges and batteries

Believe it or not, there are primitive and fairly easy local workshop solutions for batteries and even refrigeration. 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. Finally, some regions will eventually rebuild hydro dams or sadly, get the local coal mine running again.

One of the greatest technological bottlenecks is one of the highest tech industries we have – the computer chip. But fortunately there is a spin off over simplified operating system that techs can install on really old electronics to try running stuff again. It’s 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 the technical guilds eventually head towards communications equipment and building up to the point where they can establish a ‘clean room’ to start 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!

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? For more detail, see Isaac Arthur: