To rebuild the world

I was having a long discussion today about what the survivor/s of an apocalypse needs to rebuild civilization. Energy, metals, fuels all got discussed. My theory was what he/she/they needed was a stiff drink, never mind the rebuilding part. Actually, I thought it wasn’t a bad foundation for rebuilding civilization, because alcohol could help make the water safer to drink, sterilize wounds, get used as fuel, fire accelerant, and it would make a useful trading item and social lubricant. And if all that failed, you could just drink it, enough and you would stop worrying about the end of the world as you knew it. Too much and you would wish it would end. And a little more and it would.

It is an interesting question, though, for most post-apocalypse tales: our civilization is massively interlocked, and seriously, making anything from scratch – just the raw materials, is a huge challenge. If you have the debris of civilization to cannibalize – it’s a head start, rather than a final answer – because everything wears out – some things much faster than others.

With knowledge and the supply chain I can feed/supply a lot of people. With a net I can catch to feed quite a lot of people. But if I could not find or buy a net… I could – given some form of twine/line make a fishing-net from scratch. It would take me a long time, and probably be less good than a nylon one from a factory. What I can’t do is produce lots of fine, strong twine (cheap as chips in our modern world). I could make a little out of natural materials. A little. A net takes a lot. So, with a little I would be down to a fishing-line – and once I had made hooks, I could catch fish – enough to feed a few people. But we rely heavily on the existence of an entire manufacturing structure to maintain our current society. Even if we could make do with only some of the components — we’ll drop our society back in time. And that takes not only those components but the knowledge of how to do so. Without those, you need to fall back far further.

And, of course, with our reliance on the internet for knowledge – without it we are in a world of pain. In the end, I think knowledge trumps fuel, metals…. even weapons (good to have in the short term, indeed. But in the long-term they too will wear out.

But what do you think rebuilding needs – besides survival to do it, that is?

66 comments

  1. It depends on the nature of the disaster. Is it “we don’t know what happened to world outside Flinders, what we have here is all we have”? Is it “plague killed the people but left the infrastructure mostly intact and we can scavenge whatever we need from the mainland”? Is it “we were thrown back in time, and we need to integrate with whatever is available in this primitive time period”?

    Rebuilding to early 21st century level technology is likely to be impossible, but early industrial revolution might be doable.

  2. Also need to figure out good preservation methods, and what’s edible and what isn’t, and what grows in your area.

    At the same time I suspect things would come back in weird ways too. There’s one blog I ran into about a guy who’s working out how to make semiconductors in his garage.

    And while, without the Internet, we’d lose a lot of information, that does not mean it would actually be gone. There’s tons of old encyclopedias floating around and ereaders and e-readers with out of copyright encyclopedias. And while they do wear out over time, they don’t take that much power to run.

    So there may be a lot more information available than we’d otherwise expect. And given the usefulness of the Internet, I would not be surprised to find some sort of decentralized thing replacing it, or even chunks of it coming back, as soon as we’re able to build semi conductors in reasonable quantity and complexity again. You can get there with even early 80’s grade computing.

    1. Bio Optically Oriented Knowledges devices would be the best. They don’t require power and they can be reproduced more easily. I don’t think we get semi-conductoreps. They really require some manufacturing that will be gone.

      1. You would be surprised just how crude you can do basic semiconductors. The major challenge is purity, but a lot of the deposition processes can be done by comparative gas volumes, which you can get by pressure molding plastic bottles. The bottles don’t have to be high pressure, just corrosion resistant and of uniform size, which if you’re forming them in a common high rigidity mold doesn’t seem incredibly hard.

        Now, will they be ubiquitous and cheap as chips like they are now? Probably not. But can you build industrial controllers? I’d say yes.

        1. Hmmm. My son’s skillset may come in handy. He was a digital repairman in the service, specialized in getting those connections between the sailors and fire control working seamlessly.
          He’s spent most of the last 16 years or so fabricating industrial controllers from designs by the engineer that owns the company. So, could be a useful skill he’s developed.
          I have to get back to practicing my ham radio skills – I have a seasonal occupation (selling Medicare and Marketplace – Obamacare – insurance policies). I am right in the middle of the season, and won’t be finished until after December 15. At that point, I’m kicking back for a month or so, and will likely be tinkering with my hobby.

  3. I suspect early 20th century tech could be regained fairly easily. That stuff was produced by shade-tree mechanics, and garage workshops. Crystal radios are easy to produce. Some of the older readers built them as kids. Beyond that? Requires the high degree of specialization Dave Freer is talking about. Read or re-read Alas, Babylon to see what I mean about early 20th-century tech.

    1. Putting pieces together is easy.
      Making the pieces in the first place, is not.

      I can take some old transistor radios and make a new one, but I cannot make a transistor.

      I can build arms in my garage, but cartridges, primers, and percussion caps are beyond me. (To say nothing of the steel required.)

    2. I worked in semiconductors for a fair number of years. Starting semis from scratch (beyond point contact diodes and the like) would be tough to get the purity.

      If one had to start from bare materials, I’d suggest going back to vacuum tubes*. Voltages and currents tend to be higher, and you aren’t going to be building a CPU, but I suspect you could get a ham radio transmitter and receiver that way going long before someone managed to make a few transistors.

      (*) Partly because the tube materials aren’t that hard to assemble, and a lousy vacuum tube will still do something useful, while there’s a lot of preliminary work to be done to get ready to begin to start building semiconductors. Just getting pure silicon crystals is a challenge, and the gasses/liquids are also tough.

      To resurrect the old web comic catch phrase (After Y2K) “Tubes Rock!”

      1. And if that’s not enough, how about knowing:

        1. That your group has enemies (insufficient resources means a fight for resources)
        2. Those enemies know that it is possible
        3. If they do it first, you’re dead or enslaved

        I’m a pacifist at heart, but my brain understands that pacifism is a luxury good.

  4. The first big questions are where are you rebuilding from and with what?

    The less access, the less availability, the harder the reconstruction.

    The biggest things to start with are going to be how many people per person per acre your agriculture can support. If you can support your entire population on your farmlands, but it takes most of your population to do that, that leaves precious little available labor for other things.

    A lot of things spin off from there, and that is where all the interesting questions start from.

    1. Precious little labor – and even less time. Which severely impacts the transmission of knowledge.

      The most essential knowledge is passed down from person to person. Someone here (or maybe over at ATH) mentioned the “Build Your Own Metal Working Shop From Scrap” series (David Gingery) a couple of years ago, and I promptly grabbed all of them for my Kindle.

      Now, assuming that they are all complete, simple to understand, that I have the basic tools required to start, and that the scrap in question is available – I would end up with my very own metal working shop.

      Then I would have only the most rudimentary idea of how to make anything with it. I can bend sheet and rod, drill, rivet – but lathing? It’s been a very long time since I even lathed wood – and metal is a different animal.

      From who would I learn? Actual generalist metal workers are very thin on the ground – and they will have more work in the post-apocalyptic world than they can possibly handle. Growing their numbers to meet demand will take quite a long time.

      1. The late, lamented Lindsay Publications had a lot of the early books. IIRC, there’s a book by Paul Hasluck (spelling iffy–my copy isn’t nearby) that covered a lot of the state of the art, circa 1900.

        As memory serves, the Gingery books tend to build on the tools. I think you’d get some clues as to use of the lathe in the next few books. FWIW, running a metal cutting lathe can be less fraught than a wood cutting lathe. I’ve actually done some nice wood turning on my old Atlas, using metal working techniques.

    2. Yes. See the reference to the net. When a few can produce food for many, it frees a lot of time. Also… when everyone is working at something – and some of that is beyond mere survival to the immediate, things change.

      1. If we can still supply coal, we can stumble along at roughly 1600’s levels of agriculture productivity, with horse-drawn carts riding on now-existing rail lines. Because existing steam locomotives that are still known-safe to operate at design-steam-pressure are very rare nowadays. Yes, hobby railroaders manage the upkeep of repaired/refurbished steam locomotives, plus a few antique-designed rail cars. The number of those burning liquid hydrocarbon far exceeds those still burning coal.
        The bitter comments about the eye-stinging air in old London town due to burning Sea-coal from Newcastle are a very solid reminder about the need for domestic fuel for heating and cooking. Fuel for _light_ indoors at night, lacking electricity, will be a challenge.
        If Coal-oil, sweated from coal sweltering in a sealed retort, is available, the old coal-oil lamps and lanterns will be wickedly working, sootily educating the children of LED lighting and how vital wick-control is.
        Bigfoot.

  5. “I, Pencil,” explains how even the simplest things are fantastically complex. A crystal radio sounds like fun, to listen to broadcasts but where do I get the crystal diode if Amazon is off-line? And whose broadcast am I listening to – where’d that person get broadcast capability? A lot of what we take for granted would be simply impossible.

    “Walking to Wisconsin” and sequel “Stories of the Keep” were interesting reads. How do you adapt to the fall of civilization to survive long enough to think about rebuilding?

    1. “where do I get the crystal diode”

      You make this using a galena (lead sulfide) crystal and a whisker wire. That’s why it’s called a “crystal radio”. Of course, now you have to find some galena, but as minerals go it is pretty common. (Not that I know where to find any.) Probably would be harder to construct the high-impedance earphones.

      1. You’d really want to synthesize the mineral for that purpose.

        In case anyone is thinking about this for story purposes…
        1) Naturally occurring minerals have inclusions (some more than others based on structure alone, but also from the environment in which the mineral was created, and had existed in since). This will make the function less than uniform and predictable.
        2) Galena is a marker for gold ore. While it might only be an uncommon mineral, people have had a lot of incentive to make it downright rare.
        3) Galena is a fairly soft mineral that tends to form as inclusions in very hard rock matrices. So extracting an intact crystal is a problem, and it’s not very brittle, so smacking it with a hammer to get it to fracture among cleavage planes doesn’t work very well.

  6. One thing that’s bugged me (and others) are the After-The-Bomb stories where nobody has guns.

    There are enough people around who know how to make black-powder so we might lose a lot but making “primitive” fire-arms isn’t something we’d lose.

    I won’t get into my opinion of one After-The-Bomb novel where “most people” have given up fire-arms except for this one country. 😈

    1. I grabbed a Nora Roberts book as brain candy for a trip to visit family. It’s post-apocalypse (magic-caused illness kills off Ringo-esque quantities of humanity in less than a month), and the main character we’re following is from New York, so a bit of Guns-Are-Icky is expected. But almost every character is anti-gun (including the rednecks) so only former military/police are armed. With hordes of the kind of violent criminal gangs that you would realistically expect to roam around roaming around.

      My post-apocalypse plans include weapons and ammo.

      1. I know of that “series” but never got into it. Now, I have a better reason to avoid it.

        Of course, I could see a magic-caused disaster that might make “guns not work”.

        1. See also S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire series, where the same event that sent Nantucket to the past left a world where guns no longer worked

  7. I think it would depend on who survives, and the range of skills of the whole group. Also, the crops on the ground and livestock available locally.

    Is there a cotton field? Sheep? Angora goats? A Granny who will spin those fibers into the thin thread your net needs? Some knitters or weavers who will figure out how to make that net, so you can feed them all?

    Yes, you could do it all yourself, but if there’s one thing the recovery _can’t_ use it’s people who can’t do anything practical, or won’t learn how to do it. And expect to be fed.

      1. Bureaucrats are useful as soon as your society is bigger than the Dunbar number, and it becomes difficult to coordinate work, know what resources are available, etc. They only appear useless because we have so many of them that most are forced to find work somehow, and that work is typically counter-productive.

    1. The good thing is that modern fabrics – polymers – are very durable. They may stain, or look unfashionable, but they can outlast natural fabrics by a factor of 10, at least.
      In the old days, cotton sheets lasted about 2 years. I have sheets from more than 20 years ago, that are still usable.

  8. Knowledge. Mindset.

    Security, including not having socialists in the way trying to misallocate the last inherited/salvaged resources. Which puts a spin on the first two items that I really hope people are not overlooking.

  9. “The Mysterious Island,” by Jules Verne, addresses this question. A small party of people including a scientist are traveling in a hot air balloon and shipwrecked on an island. They proceed to recreate gunpowder, ceramics and various other items. Jules Verne does cheat a bit though as the group benefits from the occasional box of useful goods that mysteriously appears on the beach…

    1. Turns out the island was Captain Nemo’s secret base for the Nautilus and he was equipping them to fight of pirates and eventually leave.

        1. Chuckle Chuckle

          There are problems with his appearance in “Mysterious Island”.

          “Mysterious Island” is set during the American Civil War.

          The American Warship destroyed by his submarine (in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea) is named the Abraham Lincoln.

          Since no US warship would have been named for President Lincoln until sometime after Lincoln’s death, Twenty Thousand had to have taken place long after the American Civil War.

          So how do the Americans know about him long before the events in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea? [Puzzled Smile]

          1. AH where the south rose again.

            Might be a fun way to throw in some more ‘sequels’.

  10. If you want survivors, understanding public sanitation would help!

    Here’s one way to preserve the knowledge.

    Why do people wash their hands before and after every meal, bathroom function, doctoring, and anything else? Because there’s a sticky film of invisible demons clinging to your hands and they’ll poison you if they get inside your body.

  11. Need.

    You have to NEED to rebuild, otherwise you won’t. There are plenty of parts of Rome still around from 2000 years ago, particularly the roads. But after Rome fell, nobody built another one for well over a thousand years.

    Because they didn’t need one.

    Currently we rely on a -mountain- of previously installed infrastructure, knowledge and particularly, financing.

    Example, crews are chasing fat-bergs around Sir Christopher Wren’s sewers in London.

    Would London work like it does without those sewers? No way. Would they -replace- all that just to get London back to its former glory if Something Bad happened? Not a chance. They’d build something else, somewhere else that was cheaper and easier.

    So in the post-apocalypse future, people will do what they need to do, and not a tap more. Just like now.

      1. Desire functions on a more individual level. I would hazard that desire is the fount of invention as much as necessity is. But we are talking about rebuilding “civilization” in a whole continent, including repairing/replacing the broken infrastructure

        Sure, you and maybe your whole village want a new road or new canal that goes from X to Y. But can you build it? No, because it costs too much and it won’t be any use until it is completely finished. Plus one can assume political interference from the lairds, the next village, what have you. To build a road you need the King to do it.

        When the King -needs- a road, that’s when the road gets built. Or a navy, or a space-launch facility.

        Example, why don’t we have humans on the moon? We don’t even have a spacecraft that can do it. We did have that, but now we don’t.

        The answer is, because the USA does not need to be on the moon right now. They -can- be, and a lot of people want to, but they don’t need it so they won’t spend the money.

        When the USA (or China) decides they really do require a moon base no matter the expense, there will be one. Not before.

        Would they let Elon build a space station and a moonbase himself? If his tech is all he’s saying it is, he might be able to do it. I strongly think reasons would be found to keep Elon on the ground, in the event. Because the government doesn’t need to be on the moon, so why would they let the peasants go?

    1. While you can, invest in an auxiliary form of heat, insulation, and methods of preserving food that don’t require energy (canning, salting, smoking, pickling). Dig a root cellar. Get good at gardening, and add in the equipment to keep that garden going into the winter for fresh greens.
      Rather than watch your retirement savings disappear, take some of it out, and prepare for leaner times.

  12. Where I am, you have to know water. Where to find it, how to purify it (boiling needs fuel, and doesn’t get rid of mud). If you can’t irrigate (hard when the springs come out of near-vertical slopes) you have to use ak-chen type farming or other rainwater traps, or live on native plants (rare) and herding (doable). Carbohydrate shortage would be a Huge problem for nutrition. Very huge. Past that? More water, which means windmills, which means wood and metal, which are both scarce or nonexistent. So trade. This region is for nomadic herders, or a civilization that’s already at the Steampunk-Stage of development.

  13. Funny that nobody other than Dave seemed to mention food. Without food and water, you’re dead. Those would have to be the first items on the rebuilding list, which would probably mean moving ‘somewhere’ to get to those two items. As TXRed stated, that is critical, along with firewood for cooking, boiling water, etc.

    1. I think, depending on the environment, the order is water, shelter, food. But in most places if water and shelter are not fairly rapidly established, food won’t matter. if they are, food continuation and storage become primary issues.

    2. Until you have food covered you’re not so much in “rebuild” mode as “survive” mode. You can’t afford to think of long term implications.

  14. I’m reminded of a book I read over 30 years ago called “the earth abides” about the survivors of a plague that killed 90% of people, long before “life after people” came out.

    And a short lived TV show about the world 10 years after a plague killed all the adults.

  15. One thing I think a lot of authors writing these sorts of scenarios miss is that a lot of the basic knowledge a modern person has would, inherently, change the solutions used for problems that existed historically.

    A less “basic knowledge” example, because it’s what came to mind, assume a “Steam Enthusiast” from this Century was tasked with building for Steam-power with resources approximately equivalent to when Steam was becoming a major thing in Western Europe historically, would they just replicate the devices they knew were used historically, or might they improve them with relevant knowledge we have now, that they didn’t have then?

    I mean, sure, a “historical” nut might choose to just replicate what was done in the past, but someone concerned more with survival, or even just obsessed with making better “Steam Engines”, would apply their more advanced knowledge & assumptions to improving things, & in some aspects might not even realise they were doing so…

    1. Well, let’s assume two groups of characters: the first are from any urban society. You know, like that young man who was recorded saying we need to eliminate farming because it is the major source of greenhouse gas. And the second are nomadic herders from the Sahel. The modern world just ended along with 90% of the population. Which group will be alive after a month? :-). Modern knowledge may provide a goal, but it’s a poor prep for a cataclysm in my opinion.

      1. Oh how I wish you were wrong (I mean, seriously, if the balloon goes up, my life expectancy will be, at best, days, & not necessarily into two digits).

        But my point is more that someone from a modern background, who nonetheless has the skills to survive TEOTWAWKI, is going to know things that weren’t known 500 years ago, or know that things that were “known” then are just straight up wrong.

    2. Have you ever actually tried to find plans to build a steam engine? Or technical diagrams of one?

      That knowledge that drove our Society forward is now practically unobtainium. You’d effectively have to start nearly from scratch.

      1. Little ones are sold as kits with rough castings and all. I have a lathe, I could make one. Eventually. The second one would be easy. By the fifth I’d have a proper production system running.

        In Hamilton Ontario the steam-powered water pump from 1859 is a museum now.

        https://www.hamilton.ca/things-do/hamilton-civic-museums/hamilton-museum-steam-technology-national-historic-site

        I’ve seen that, it is a monumental creation. Immense and powerful. Me myself is not going to build that thing. But, a determined group could figure it out and make one. By the fifth iteration they’d be cranking them out just like 1850.

  16. My thought process for the abominabook went something like this:

    Presume a spacefaring society but not FTL. Communities on Mars, Space stations around Jupiter and Saturn, scientific stations in the predictable spots, trans-planetary trade economy, local scarcity (necessitating the former), factions and warfare because duh, of course.

    Now take away Earth. Bit big chunks out of the log/supply chain.

    Now what?

    Humanity, at least a small portion of it, survives in the uninfected colonies. Nobody goes to Earth. People avoid the possibly (probably) contaminated ships, stations, and colonies. A body’s got to eat though, right?

    Thus there had to be space farms. Space cows. To have space cows (and chickens, pigs, fish, and so on), they need infrastructure. They need space station stuff. They need consumables. They need factories and trained people to work in them. They need miners and the like to get the raw materials. Foundries and smelters and such to turn raw asteroids and stuff into actual metals.

    Plastics would be a sticky point. Need something to make plastics with, but Earth isn’t pumping out any oil. That’d be a quick death if you can’t seal a ship without the plastics. So there had to be plastics and the stuff to make plastics.

    Water would be less a worry. Ices and reclamation, problems solved and done.

    Food and water? Provisionally okay. Stocks and maybe a little illicit salvaging. Production would get back in gear. Rationing would be a thing for a while, though.

    What about ships and such? There’s factories and mines and such. Are there shipyards? Maybe, a few. Call it a small handful. Most of the stuff happened to be around Earth when it collapsed. Spares and parts would get to be rare.

    That local scarcity thing? Expect riots, bandits, and worse. Humans gonna human. Laws be… somewhat of a luxury in places. Very not in others. For a while. Call it warlordism, until warships come into play. If militaries survive, expect them to be effectively warlords for a bit. Efficiency of such places would run the gamut.

    Times would suck though, for quite a while. For everybody.

  17. The type of apocalypse will matter, too. How much infrastructure damage has there been? A lot of working machinery may be lying around. Does anyone know how to get it back to work?

    Food? If you survived, there’s a good chance there will be plenty of non-perishables around, for the near term.

    I found John Ringo’s Black Tide series interesting. (While shuddering in horror at the thought of eating raw fish for breakfast lunch and dinner for years.) But it was an interesting take on the subject. Even in a bio-apocalypse, lots of infrastructure damage, but plenty in working order. If you can also find the right kind of fuel and someone who knows how it works.

    Anything physical-asteroid strike, nuclear war, etc, that you survive, there will be some surviving tech to help continued survival and rebuilding.

  18. Morality and ethics. You aren’t going to advance much as a society if your neighbors are all plotting bloody revenge for imaginary slights, won’t speak to you because they have grudges, will steal anything that isn’t locked down or tear down anything you build. Or take and enslave you, your spouse and children, and then spend all their time watching to see that you don’t run away. We in the Western world who are accustomed to civilized behavior are mostly not prepared for the labor required to survive, let alone prosper, in a tribal-oriented barbarian world.

    1. I have to point out that the Judeo-Christian ‘western’ world conquered the savage tribal one for exactly the reasons above.

      Any surviving society that devolves to savagery and low trust is going to be steamrolled by one that is built on high-trust & community. I think you may rather see very bloody and final put-downs of anything that threatens that trust.

      1. High Trust cultures also produce Heavy Infantry combining solid training with deadly persistence in battle. The combinations of artillery, fast scouting units, and the use of multi-spectral aerial recon, including moving-target detection, has created a sea/land/air/space integrated force with surprising power and flexibility. Personal experiences with a 4’ by 5’ satellite photo-mosaic map of an area west of Rocky Mountain House, Alberta, enabled me to recognize old trails through the trees, and even spot a slow flowing warm spring on the 1/50000 scale photo map, then plan for our D6 to build a dirt pad over that sneaky problem. I was Cat Push, responsible for getting old seismic lines cleared of deadfall & second growth, plus setting-off New Cut Lines from the correct place & in the desired direction. Providing the lead Catskinners with both a topo map and a Forest Cover Map showing the planned route and length of each seismic line was a key to using their great experience levels in the woods. An additional study of the satellite map was done at every opportunity. Given such mapping access, the Catskinners could create a seismic line length within 50 meters of the planned length.

  19. The worst thing that ever happened to Preppers was Kirk beating the Gorn. Now everyone thinks they can build a black powder cannon from ingredients close at hand.

    1. In Arena all those materials were placed there purposely by the Metrons for the fight to the death. If preppers were getting that message from that episode they missed a huge plot point and are probably not observant enough to survive the apocalypse.

  20. I read somewhere several years ago that there is speculation that alcohol is what drove early humans to form agrarian societies. Cavemen wanted easy, reliable ways to get drunk, and how much has humanity changed since then, really?

    1. The Americas didn’t develop distillation, or brewing. There’s some speculation that since you don’t have large east-west swaths of ecosystem, or agriculture, and hallucinogens were comparatively common, you didn’t have brewing for intoxicants or the social bonding that goes with getting buzzed as a group.

  21. The point about the fishing net is essentially the same point Leonard Read made in his brilliant essay “I, Pencil” — i.e., that even the simplest product of modern civilization is entirely too complex for an individual to make by himself, or even for a small group, since it derives from a world-wide network of free trade built on the knowledge of thousands (or millions) of individuals. (Or, as Carl Sagan once put it in an entirely different context, “In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”)

    In order to rebuild anything like civilization, you would want the most complete “how to” library possible, a wide understanding of free trade, and a quick hanging for every would-be tyrant that came along.

  22. What do we need to survive? A lot less people…and only those who are willing to PRODUCE, not those who just CONSUME.

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