How to Cope With the End of the World

November 25, 2016

An aggressive viral plague has struck humanity. Spreading astonishingly quickly through our modern world of dense cities and international airliners, we’d already lost the fight in a matter of weeks.

Civilisation has collapsed and the vast majority of humanity has died. But you’ve survived. You fell deliriously ill, but through some innate immunity you lived through the raging fever, and have woken up in your cold house, with no electricity, no water in the taps or gas feeding the boiler or stove. The streets are eerily quiet, and no airplane contrails criss-cross the sky. You’re a survivor in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

These are all tropes we’re familiar with from books like Canticle for Leibowitz or The Road, recent computer games like The Last of Us, and films like I Am Legend or Mad Max. On the whole, these narratives feature protagonists wearing a little too much tight leather, and a lone hero striving through the wilderness. But how realistic are these scenarios?

If you did ever find yourself a survivor of a global catastrophe that wiped out most of humanity, what could you do about it? What would be the most vital knowledge you’d need to survive, and eventually thrive? It’s here that the lone hero trope falls down. There’s safety in numbers, and of course, we were only able to progress through history and build the modern world in the first place by working together; humanity is an inherently social, collaborative species. So while there will undoubtedly be a period of turmoil following a collapse, people will once again settle down into communities soon enough.

The question is, what next…? What will be your immediate priorities, and what capabilities should your community aim to recover over the following years? This is one possible chronology.

First few Days

Once people stop monitoring and maintaining the power stations, the grid will go down pretty quickly. But by scavenging solar panels, or portable generators from a building site, you’ll be able to keep your life electrified for the time being.

The internet will evaporate as soon as the servers behind it start dropping-off as the fuel in their automatic back-up generators runs out, so don’t think that you’ll be able to rely on Wikipedia for knowledge. But this doesn’t mean your smartphone will become a useless brick. The compass uses an internal magnetometer so you’ll still be able to find your way around, and in fact the last map you loaded will continue to help you navigate with GPS.

The GPS satellite network will continue working well for a few weeks after the collapse, but after about six months the position accuracy will have degraded until it’s all-but-useless. Your priorities in the immediate aftermath will be to ensure you find a stockpile of bottled water and canned food, and also a set of decent outdoors clothing.

First Weeks

In the first few weeks you’ll probably have encountered pockets of other survivors. Treat strangers with a wary caution until you’ve found a small band you can trust and rely upon for mutual protection, and this will also greatly improve the effectiveness with which you can forage for supplies and scavenge what you need.

By now, the urban area you started in is beginning to get pretty unpleasant. The stench of innumerable rotting bodies fills the air, and unfed pet dogs have formed into increasingly aggressive packs. In any case, a modern city is a grossly artificial bubble, supported only by the civilisation that constructed it.

Without mains electricity to run lifts or lighting, natural water sources likely contaminated, and the ground itself smothered in tarmac and concrete, you’ll find life easier in a more rural setting. A traditional farmhouse with fireplaces for heating and cooking will be far more comfortable after the collapse than a modern high-tech apartment. You can always make scavenging forays back into the crumbling urban areas to restock supplies while you try to relearn how to make and do things for yourself.

First Months

Your main concern is going to be how to secure safe drinking water and avoid the water-borne diseases that have been the scourge of humanity for millennia. Boiling is a sure-fire way to kill pathogens but uses a great deal of fuel. Purification tablets can be scavenged from camping stores but sooner or later you will need to apply some basic chemistry to ensure the water you put to your lips isn’t going to kill you.

Water can be chemically disinfected by scavenging kitchen bleach or even swimming pool chlorine (sodium hypochlorite and calcium hypochlorite) and diluting it enough so that it kills microbes but doesn’t poison you. Here you are exploiting the chemistry of chlorine, which also underlies the tap water we drink today – historically, it was such developments in hygiene and public health that enabled us to live in fabulously dense cities.

Until you’ve worked out how to make chlorine yourself, a very low-tech method for water disinfection can be used: solar disinfection. This is a technique being taught around the developing world by the WHO, and simply involves filling a plastic bottle with suspect water and leaving it in bright sunshine for a day or two. The ultraviolet rays from the Sun will pass right through the bottle and kill any pathogens.

Simply washing your hands is also exceedingly effective at blocking disease transmission. Soap can be made by hydrolysing animal fat or plant oils; by boiling with alkalis. Alkalis are one of the most crucial classes of chemicals throughout history, and can be extracted from your natural environment. Potash (potassium carbonate) can be extracted by trickling water through ashes from a hardwood fire, and soda ash from burned seaweed or other salt-tolerant coastal plants like samphire or saltwort. Collecting seaweed for soda production was a huge industry along the Atlantic coasts of Scotland and Ireland for centuries.

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