Thursday, 12 March 2015

Post-Apocalypse Issues: Part I – General Issues

Post-apocalypse scenarios are cool.  Really cool. They appear repeatedly in speculative fiction. But why? Shouldn’t we be horrified by them, as they are often reasonably plausible? I think that’s the hook, actually. Their closeness to a potential reality places them (for me) in the speculative rather than fantasy category, and my interest in such fiction is that I can learn from it. I will even go out on a limb here to suggest that post-apocalypse fiction belongs somewhat near historic fiction (even though it occurs in the future) because it focuses on asking “what if” questions about a world nearly identical to our own, but with some differences in the events that have occurred. I hate being able to out-think an author when it comes to “what if” questions (I’ve put in the time reading the book, dammit, and the author should have put in the time researching and critiquing his or her conclusions) so, for me, it is critically important that the speculation be at least as good as the fiction if it is going to get my vote (I recommend S.M. Stirling’s Dies the Fire series). In this post I present some issues that you may want to consider if your story takes place in the aftermath.

How does the landscape decay?

I recommend the pilot episode of a television series called “Life After People,” (subsequent episodes might be good, but I have not seen them).  For more detail, you may want to read The World Without Us. Both pieces attempt to answer the question, ‘What if all humans suddenly disappeared?’ Many of the consequences are not obvious, and that makes them interesting. So much so, in fact, that even without the fiction element to give it a boost, the book reached #6 on the NYT Best Sellers list [1]. If you are looking for a more concise version of World, consider the original two-page Discovery Magazine article from which it sprang. I have included the last bit of the article here, which describes the fate of New York City:

10 years: Sidewalks crack and weeds invade. Hawks and falcons flourish, as do feral cats and dogs. The rat population, deprived of human garbage, crashes. Cockroaches, which thrive in warm buildings, disappear. Cultivated carrots, cabbages, broccoli, and brussels sprouts revert to their wild ancestors.

20 years: Water-soaked steel columns supporting subway tunnels corrode and buckle. Bears and wolves invade Central Park.

50 years: Concrete chunks tumble from buildings, whose steel foundations begin to crumble. Indian Point nuclear reactors leak radioactivity into the Hudson River.

100 years: Oaks and maples re-cover the land.

300 years: Most bridges collapse.

1,000 years: Hell Gate Bridge, built to bring the railroad across the East River, finally falls.

10,000 years: Indian Point nuclear reactors continue to leak radioactivity into the Hudson River.

20,000 years: Glaciers move relentlessly across the island of Manhattan and its environs, scraping the landscape clean.” [2]

Waterworks present an interesting situation for years to come.  NYC’s subways would flood completely within days and streams would quickly form in the streets as sewers backed up with debris.  Across the globe, sewers, reservoirs, dams, locks, and dykes would eventually fail (surprisingly, the Hoover Dam would continue to generate power for a few years).  Living near water would present flooding issues and the water may be contaminated with heavy metals and radioactive material.

Fires would, of course, eventually occur in nearly every city and would leave most structures dramatically altered.

All of those rotting bodies

While it makes intuitive sense that rotting bodies will infect the survivors, they won’t. Recent analyses of catastrophic events such as earthquakes suggest that dead bodies may traumatize the living, but they do not spread disease [3] [4]. The simple reason is that infectious diseases need a live host to propagate. Yes, a rotting body will pollute a water supply, but that issue can be easily solved by boiling and/or distilling. So long as the survivors keep their food and drink cadaver-free, they will be fine until scavengers (including insects and bacteria) consume the remains, which should take weeks to months (or even more) depending on the conditions [5]. Interestingly, some diseases will run rampant through animal populations, including rabies [6], and bubonic plague may resurge [7].

Scarcity of resources

How many people are left in your scenario? Perhaps the percentage of survivors should best be determined by what kind of social dynamics you want to tackle, as a writer. Kansas City has nearly half a million people [8]. Do you want the survivors to be a small band of ten characters who can become known to the reader (i.e. 1/50,000) or do you want to tackle the administrative dynamics of a tribe of 500 survivors (1/1000)? What you decide will have a dramatic impact on what is available to scavenge though, as always, you can make any scenario work if you rationalize enough, so don’t let the numbers rule your vision, just account for those figures to let the reader know that you are paying attention.

If your world is left intact after most of the people perish, then I contend that basic resources such as food would not (indeed, could not) be scarce. Let’s start with the extreme case of very few survivors (say, only 1 out of 100,000 people are left). If every residential household (2.5 people [9]) had only enough canned and dried goods to provide one day’s worth of nutrients for one survivor (check your shelves to prove me wrong), then each survivor could raid 999,999/2.5 pantries, providing more than 1000 years worth of stored food per person (I also accounted for 10 feasting days to make their holidays a bit happier, and none of this accounts for all of the game that would become prevalent, as well as all of the fruits and veg that could be gathered or grown). The same principles would apply to gasoline, clothing, tools, weapons, etc. Very few people means a lot of left-over goodies.

On the other extreme, if the survivors were plentiful (say, 5% of the original population), there would only be 20 days of free stored food, but there would be loads of survivors (in a city of a million people, there would be 50,000). They would have 20 days to organize and start farming, herding, etc. With all of the newly available space, that wouldn’t be a problem. Perhaps many of them would be former pencil-pushers, but some would know how to farm, even if it were at a crude level. In fact, I would posit that, if 1/20 people were left, they would still be able to keep some trains running and radio stations broadcasting messages to other survivors.

If we set an example in the middle (let’s say 1/1000 people remaining), we still get more than a year of free food per capita and 1000 survivors in a small city of 1 million. Those survivors would figure out pretty quickly how to contact each other (remember that vehicles are freely available and partially fuelled) and how to provide for their future. In short, there is an inverse relationship between free stuff lying around and the survivors’ ability to regroup and provide from themselves but, in any event, there are always enough resources or survivors to provide for the future.

The picture gets trickier when we consider resources that need high levels of skill and/or industrial infrastructure to produce, especially those goods that need special storage conditions. I am proposing a list of items below (1/10,000 survivor milieu) but I am, quite frankly, winging it. It would be interesting if industries closed down, but keep in mind that many survivors would seek the safety of others and global gathering points would form with enough people to get things running again (in my 1/10,000 scenario, there would be around 27,000 people in the US, and they all have maps, cars, and time to get to major gathering points full of civil engineers, doctors, IT workers, pilots, etc., etc.
Please comment on those that are here, or should be; I can alter them as per discussions.

­ not scarce for many years: food, alcohol, cigarettes, gasoline, vehicles of all sorts, tools (including hefty ones like welding rigs), weapons, ammunition, non-perishable medical supplies and medicine such as mild painkillers, safe buildings, construction materials, batteries (car and other), electric generators (gasoline powered), solar cells and solar-powered devices such as lights, formerly precious metals

­ scarce: sophisticated medicines (insulin [self life 2.5 yrs] [10], morphine [3 yrs] [10]), antibiotics [2-5 yrs -- though drugs can often be used long after expiration date with reduced efficacy] [11]), certain recreational drugs, vaccines

­ hard to replenish without industrial infrastructure: gasoline, plastics, medicines, motors, electronics, guns, ammunition, electric generators (gasoline powered), solar cells and solar-powered devices such as lights, formerly precious metals, birth control (?), everything in the ‘scarce’ category

Questions that I still have, but am too stupid to answer – readers, please help me out here!
­ Do communications satellites still function without our input?
­ How many servers need to be powered-up to have a reasonable internet?
­ How easy is it to fire up a radio transmitter?

Works Cited

New York Times, “Best Sellers: Hardcover Nonfiction,” 9 September 2007. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 1 March 2014].
A. Weisman, “Earth Without People,” Discover, 6 February 2005.
S. Gottlieb, “Dead bodies do not pose health risk in natural disasters,” BMJ, vol. 328, no. 7452, p. 1336, 2004.
Relief Web, “Mass burials do more harm than good-experts,” 30 December 2003. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 28 February 2014].
W. H. a. M. S. (eds), Forensic Taphonomy: The Postmortem Fate of Human Remains, Bocan Raton, FL: CRC Press, 1997.
D. d. Vries, Director, Life After People. [Film]. United States: Flight 33 Productions, 2008.
W. Johnston, “The effects of a global thermonuclear war.,” in Dean's Scholars seminar, University of Texas at Austin, 2003.
Statistical Abstract of the United States, “Incorporated Places With 175,000 or More Inhabitants in 2010—Population: 1970 to 2010,” United States Census Bureau.
Marketing Charts staff, “American Households Are Getting Smaller – And Headed by Older Adults,” 27 November 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 28 February 2014].
eMC, “emc,” Datapharm Communications Ltd., 23 8 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 4 3 2014].
US Army, “slep info paper,” US Army, 1 2006. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 4 3 2014].
Wiktionary, “apocalypses,” Wikimedia, 10 January 2014. [Online]. Available: [Accessed 1 March 2014].
B. Martin, “The global health effects of nuclear war,” Current Affairs Bulletin, vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 14-26, 1982.


  1. The time line of decay and explanation of rotting people was great was pleasantly surprised by this blog

    1. Thanks, Peter. I look forward to your novel!