Post-apocalyptic fiction. I’m a huge fan of what would happen if civilisation ended. There’s two directions here – first one, and the one I’m not going to talk about in any length, is the Life After People scenario. Humans vanish from the Earth, just like that. What happens next? Covered in splendid detail right here.
The second scenario is the post-apocalyptic one. What happens if you’re one of a few scant survivors after the aliens have invaded and left, or the terminator virus has wiped 99% of us all out, or there’s a worldwide nuclear/conventional war, or an asteroid (or three) slam into the Earth? It’s been dealt with exhaustively in print, video games and film. Better known examples include Earth Abides, A Canticle for Leibowitz, On The Beach, the Fallout video game series, the Mad Max series, The Book of Eli, The Road and so on.
Here’s what would happen, in my opinion. This assumes there’s no functioning government, military or law enforcement.
No electricity apart from what could be generated from fuel-powered generators. This assumes there’s viable fuel somewhere – or generators. (I won’t talk about portable solar panels here). Let’s say you emerge from the underground to find your city destroyed. Every tall building has been levelled, all industry annihilated. It doesn’t take much to knock out a power grid. It happens often – a well directed lightning bolt on a telephone pole transformer or a sub-station is enough to disrupt the power supply to many, many homes in the area. Now imagine if some cataclysm destroys more than just sub-stations. Power stations, transmission lines, pylons – they’ve all gone up. Hydroelectric dams have been breached, nuclear fission reactors levelled, coal-fired stations gone. Even the green alternatives like wind turbines and solar farms wouldn’t escape the devastation. They’re big and they’re targets.
A standard gas cylinder
Regardless, power still needs to travel, and if the wiring infrastructure is gone, there’s nowhere for it to go and it fails. This would be applicable to renewables like tidal power, which might escape a worldly cataclysm based on the fact most of their structure is under water. Just might.
So, electricity would now be the realm of the portable generator. Maybe. They’re small enough to escape notice, but what powers them isn’t. Unless some form of fuel storage has survived (possible as most service station tanks are underground), they wouldn’t be much good. But if we assumed that there are tanks of petrol or diesel about, there’s a viable energy source. And if neither generator nor fuel is available, then welcome to 1750 AD…but there is one thing I haven’t mentioned – batteries. There’s a very good chance that car/truck batteries, and your smaller domestic kinds would survive, but how good would they be at powering what you are used to living with? And how long would they last? Again, welcome to 1750 AD.
Without power, nothing as we know it works. No fridges, no TV, no radio, no internet, no town water supply (yes, the pumping stations are electrically powered), no electric stoves, no microwave ovens, no electric lighting, no air-conditioning, no elevators or escalators, no washing machines, no hot water (not talking about gas here yet). In short, without electricity, the 2011 era Western human is very much a helpless breed, especially long-term.
Within days of the end of any cataclysm, most urbanised humans are going to have a food problem. The stuff in the fridge/freezer becomes spoiled and consequently can be poisonous. Milk is usually the first to go, followed by meat. Vegetables and fruit go off at varying rates, as do other perishables, like your cheeses, sauces, condiments and other refrigerated foods. Tinned and dried food last a lot longer, but after six or so months, most of the tinned stuff has gone off. Your snack foods, like potato chips, chocolates, candies, packaged cakes, etc, have variable lifetimes, but few last more than a few months.
Most urban people will run out of food within weeks, unless a few things happen. Let’s say generators and fuel did survive. It’s possible to run fridges and ovens off generators. Assuming you had a stockpile of perishable stuff you could keep frozen, life may be enjoyable for about a year or so, possibly longer if you had large stores of things like pasta, ramen noodles, cups of soup packets. If you cooked meat immediately, it’d extend its life a little bit – assuming a cold place to store it. Drying it out and making jerky or biltong from meat would also stretch it out a bit – who knows how to make that though? Time to raid the ruins of the library for a cookbook (and a survival manual) to find out how.
The average natural gas cylinder you see in or around houses will power a stove for about fifteen months, for four people. Assuming you only cook on them once or twice a day.
The average suburbanite survivor is going to enter some very dire straits soon unless several things happen. He learns to hunt – if there’s anything left other than humans to hunt – or he learns to cultivate his own food. A good deal of the world does this now, but not many Westerners are in that category. How many city people have the first clue how much land it takes to grow crops to feed x amount of people? I can tell you, from farmboy experience, it takes more land than you think. This is assuming there’s arable land at hand – and it’s yours to work. There’s not much arable land in suburban Sydney or New York City or London, is there? This is also assuming there’s seed to plant. Time to plunder the ruins of the hardware shops for the seeds, fertilizers, hoes and mattocks. And what do you know? There’s only eggplant and tomato seeds available, and you’re in a Minnesota winter right now…
Foraging is a possibility, but few people can identify edible wild plants. It’s not something the average citizen is trained to do. Once again, there may be nothing viable left to forage.
Water sources will be an issue. Almost immediately after the dust settles it’ll be an issue. Your taps don’t work any more – electricity to the pumping station went kaput remember? Drinking sea water is injurious to your health and desalinating it is beyond the reach of the average person’s knowledge. Rain is rarely predictable anywhere on Earth, but collecting it in barrels and buckets and other containers is of course viable. If you have water tanks (that have survived) you may be all right, until it runs out and that unreliable rainfall is being…unreliable.
Watercourses may or may not be viable depending on what pollutes them. Drinking river water, even clean river water, will give most people the runs after a few days, what with the minerals and minuscule life that swims around. Boiling it? Sure, boil it with what? There’s that power issue again. Rubbing two sticks together is not a quick way to get a fire going. The hunt for clean safe water will be an ordeal to match the hunt for clean, safe food.
I’ll deal with health and safety in another post.