We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]


While I was pondering the ideas of historicism last week, my thoughts also chained through a number of associations and arrived at an interesting question: “Could humanity actually be sent back to the Stone Age?” I arrived at this question by way of cyclical history and thoughts on whether a single species could actually provide more than one data point on the sequence and timing of social, philosophical and technological innovations.

My own answer was “No”. I will explain with a thought experiment.

First imagine a maximal disaster, whether natural or human caused, that does not wipe out the species. This means we must guarantee there is a large enough breeding population left over somewhere in the world such that after the event or period in question, the population is able to rebound rather than decline to extinction. My guess is we need somewhere in the range of 1000 individuals, with a typical age and sex distribution. They do not all have to be in one place, but they do have to be within a distance that allows intermarriage between groups. If there were 10 groups of 100 dispersed over some distance which is no more than a few days to a week travel by foot or horseback, I would consider that a viable population.

It seems unlikely any event would leave only one such pocket. Possible… but not very probable. I will be assuming for my baseline a surviving population on earth of perhaps one million, scattered about in small groups in out of the way places across vast distances. The Himalayas, the Andes, islands in the Pacific, places like some of the Outer Hebrides or the Falklands, small towns in the Rocky Mountains and such.

Even if a place starts out smaller than 100, we may presume that small groups of one or more survivors will tend to congregate together for safety and to reach a critical mass of manpower and skills for survival. In this, some of those isolated ancient villages may indeed have the edge.

Now comes the question: does this actually reset humanity to the stone age? I think the immediate answer is no. Most places in the world simply lack people with hunter-gatherer skills and even for people who do manage to figure them out in time to not die of cold and starvation it will not be enough. They will want more out of life. Most will join with others they run across and will rapidly transition to a more familiar lifestyle with farming at its center. Even amongst town and city folk there are those sufficiently skilled in growing things in garden plots. This will be much superior to life in temporary lean-to shelters where survival hinges on running down a deer in the dead of winter.

In the most likely scenario, the majority of survivors a year on from our hypothetical will live in such places, whether they are communities with a long history of self sufficiency or new ones which have learned the hard way, ie Plymouth without the friendly natives, is immaterial in the long run.

One might then presume we will fall back to an agrarian stone-age rather than a full on hunter-gatherer stone-age. If so, one would be very wrong. The survivors will at the very least have knowledge of the way things were and of what was once possible, even if they do not know how. The intelligence spread of the survivors will be no different than the intelligence spread of the general population today so effort will go into recovering capabilities that make survival easier. I suspect that some locations would be forging metals within a few years and some would be back to the iron age and even steel within a few decades at most. Trade would pop up very quickly because the survivors would be used to trade and specialization. One location might supply some quantities of one ore and another location a different one and yet a third location will specialize in mud brick oven smelters with bellows of wood and animal hide and molds of sand or clay. Tallow from animal fat might be used for wax to make lost-wax molds.

Now with the ability to make iron, steel is not very much harder. Labour intensive perhaps, but it has properties for tools and farm implements that will make that effort worthwhile. If you can make ploughs and tools, you can build a foot treadle lathe. If you can do that, you can copy a Lee Enfield rifle, just like Afghan villagers did at the turn of the previous century. Perhaps muskets are easier for a start: black powder is not hard to make and the materials are not that uncommon. Urine was a key ingredient and the source of a lively trade in London five hundred years ago for just that reason. Flint is not exactly rare and acquiring it will be the cause of yet more trade.

So we have rather primitive firearms almost as soon as we can make decent iron.

Now here is one you might not have seen coming… electricity. Humans knew how to make batteries thousands of years ago. All you need is a clay pot, an acid and simple materials for the anode and cathode. Good wire is a problem, but people will just deal with what they have until they can figure out how to do better. Iron is not great, but if you have nothing else? In any case, there should be loads of copper to be mined out of the detritus of the dead civilization. There will be loads more than are needed at first and stripping raw materials from the old cities will be the source of a lively trade and wealth for the traders.

If you have electricity from batteries, you can do electroplating. Of course, if you get your hands on copper wire, low quality motors and generators can be made by hand. I did so from a few nails and a bit of wire when I was perhaps ten or twelve. I am sure an adult with a lifetime experience of fixing broken farm implements could do much better. You can drive them with wind power. Windmills are not terribly taxing to build.

But wait… there is more. Radio! Somewhere someone is going to remember that if you can find crystals of Galena, you can make a cats-whisker receiver. As for the transmitter, a spark gap telegraph key might be enough to start with, and antennas are just wire.

What about transportation? Inefficient steam engines will not be difficult to make and boat building will not be forgotten; we will still have horses and the making of wagons using steel rimmed wheels and of shoes for horses will be well within the abilities of a local blacksmith shop.

What we would not have is a very large part of modern medicine as it relies on techniques that cannot be implemented in a blacksmith shop. What we would have is a true knowledge of anatomy, the causes of disease, the symptoms of all the now untreatable disorders, and some idea of what we could only do… if we could re-invent genetic engineering and manipulate DNA again.

So my guess is, the absolute worst non-extinction event that can happen to the human species will see us back to the 17th Century (plus radio, steam and a few other amenities) within a generation or two.

Lord, what a time of adventure it would be! Swords, muskets, sailing ships, radio and a nearly empty world with magical items scattered across it and there for the taking.

64 comments to Reset

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Very nice, but if your breeding population is confined to the interior of New Guinea (worldwide pandemic!), it’s instant Stone Age.

  • Dale Amon

    Pandemics are not 100% fatal. There are always survivors. And if it were engineered by some maniac green fringe to be 100% fatal, then those folk in New Guinea are eventually going to come in contact as well, so we have an extinction scenario, not a stone age one.

  • Tim

    Even leaving out left-over weapons (which would be plentiful in various places), survivors would have more than enough metal tube/pipe-like things to last a very long time, far longer than the time needed to re-master iron and steel.

    Most easy-to-get ore is gone; no one is going to screw around digging for it when there are uncountable tons of it already sitting on the surface in the form of buildings, bridges, and railways.

    As the post points out, black powder is easy to make.

    However, copying an Enfield will simply not fly unless you already have skilled machinists, and even then it would be cost-prohibitive. The problem is the ammunition; drawn brass cartridge casings are far, far outside the grasp of some little survivor village, and lathed cases are possible but just not worth it.

    Absent funtional industrial infrastructure and a lot of skilled people who know how to use it, muzzle-loading firearms are all you’re going to be able to produce.

  • I have tried to explain this scenario to people in the past, but they were so fixated on the idea of nuclear war ‘blowing the world back to the stone age’ that it went straight past them.

    The major issue I see is that we just plain don’t know how to live in a stone age. Do you know how to make a stone axe? Cure hide?

    What we do know is how to build an 18th/19th century standard of technology fairly easily. Knowledge of how to build a steam engine is more widespread than knowledge of how to create a clovis arrowhead. Besides, next winter, when you are sitting hungry and cold in your first makeshift shelter, are you going to sit around the fire while the tribal shaman tells stories about the spirits? Or are you going to be working on getting that mechanical plow and reaper working ready for next summer?

  • To Hayek With You

    I am not sure how you get to a point where things would be as primitive as is posited in your scenario (short of Obama serving a second term). All of the things left over from the former civilization will still function. There is no need to smelt ore since anything you need will already be available in manufactured form in one locale or another now that its previous owner has no use for it. The rebuilding would be very quick indeed as these tools are brought into service.

    Where I live we have dams. Even if destroyed it is easy to produce water wheels or use solar cells or combust the leftovers in fuel tanks for energy. There would be no need to create one’s own motors in any likely scenario as they exist in abundance… if not where the survivors live then within a distance that would make it easier to procure them than produce them. The same goes for anything else you need. The smaller the surviving population the longer these supplies would last… but also the longer it would take to bring them to bear.

    Indeed, any energy put into producing things would likely be wasted compared to forming expeditions to find caches of pre-made goods. Wherever there are people there would be tasty, protein rich domesticated animals so there would never be a reason to hunt, other than perhaps initially in isolated instances. Farming might be required depending on the availability of canned goods and depending on what grows naturally in your locale.

    But I think the one thing that would need to be done hastily and with gusto would be to produce as many humans as quickly as you can — before too much of mankind’s knowledge is destroyed beyond our abilities to reclaim it.

    Survival is easy living on the entrails of a huge, advanced civilization. It’s like taking a quiz where all of the answers are provided in advance. You just have to make sure you reproduce in enough numbers that you have adequate manpower and are not subject being wiped out by an accident.

    BTW Dale, have you written any fiction? I rather enjoy some of the things you have written here.

  • Roy Lofquist

    “Most places in the world simply lack people with hunter-gatherer skills”.

    Ahoy, mate. Come and visit us here in The Colonies. I’ll introduce you to several million of them.

  • Dale Amon

    ‘Hayek’: I’ve done a couple of really short stories here on Samizdata:




    About 20 years ago Beverly Freed and I (mostly her writing and my tech) wrote a book but she gave up after the pile of pink slips got to her. I can write much better now than 1984-90 in any case.

    I’ve got a concept and background for a world of short stories, very roughly based on the ideas in the 2057 item but much fleshed out… I just have not found the time to actually write the short stories thus indicated… I also think there are some very interesting possibilities to the world of a few centuries after the ‘Where are they’ story.

    I just cannot find enough hours in the day.

  • veryretired

    “The Road”, by McCarthy.

  • Kevin B

    The biggest problem might be lack of books. We’ve probably got enough caches of ‘How to build everything’ type books for now, (especially in flyover country), but as we put more and more of our knowledge on magnetic or optical media we risk losing much of it.

    When I read Niven’s Lucifer’s Hammer, one of the keys to survival was a cache of books.

    Sci Fi has had a lot to say about this sort of issue, and Ringo & Weber in their March…. series tackled how to build ammunition for breech loaders in a hurry.

    So keep your library well stocked and make friends with your local survivalists.

  • Rob Farrington

    And of course, many of the survivors would not only know how to read (well, depends on the location, I suppose), but WHAT they would need to read. I might not know how to build a shelter or a generator, but I know that a tattered copy of ‘The SAS Survival Manual’ or something on physics or engineering would be worth saving, whereas anything by Mills and Boon could be safely thrown on the campfire.

    Surviving books would become a valuable resource (and maybe not that uncommon, depending on the disaster), and the teaching of reading to subsequent generations probably as important as any other skill.

    That’s the plot of my next screenplay, ‘Doom 2020 – How The Cute Polar Bear Cubs Took Revenge!’, anyway. Megan Fox will be in it. Wearing furs and a couple of cymbals, and covered in mud.

  • Dale Amon

    My point is that even without the books, the knowledge to get up to a 17th century (plus anachronisms from the 19th and 20th) is simple and so widely spread you would have to just about wipe out our species to get rid of it.

    This is not to say books would not help and that they would speed some things up, but given the knowledge that it certain things are possible and will make life ever so much easier, means the effort to figure out how to do them from scratch is worth it many times over.

    I also did not touch upon the fact that literacy is universal ‘enough’ that writing skills would survive. Printing presses that did not work very well would be among inventions that would be re-invented with the materials at hand once food and shelter were dealt with.

    Those who take the ‘mostly from scratch’ route will have a leg up on the ones who try to live off the remnants of the old culture. There simply would not be enough people around to even make a pencil the ‘old fashioned way’ (search for “I, Pencil”); you might live off the old stocks that you could preserve before they rotted, but you had better know how to make simpler substitute with local materials before that happens.

    Also, note that I am not assuming we have a bunch of MIT grads left; I am assuming Nepalese villagers and perhaps some fairly technological farmers or herders in the Rockies.

    Some of the scenarios (pandemic) would tend to make people very fearful of going into the old highly populated regions for many years. Long enough for the corpses to rot away and the bones to be scattered at least and maybe longer. In other scenarios they might go there and grab all they could right away. It all depends. I am assuming a worst survivable case, so I am not imagining much use of things that are outside of the isolated areas where the survivors live.

    I agree that there are many ‘less bad’ scenarios. I am simply trying to get at an answer of how far down we could fall without being on an extinction path.

  • Rob Farrington

    Kevin B posted while I was posting. I suppose that there might one day be a shortage of books if the electronic format ever makes them totally obsolete, but I can’t see that happening any time soon.

    I downloaded ‘Atlas Shrugged’, but it was such a pain to read the whole thing on a screen that I got the dead tree version instead.

  • Laird

    Kevin B beat me to the punch in mentioning “Lucifer’s Hammer.” Seemed a pretty realistic scenario to me.

    And I am amassing a collection of “dead tree” how-to books, just in case. There is a surprisingly large selection of them in such places as Paladin Press (which took over the Loompanics catalog) and various other websites.

  • newrouter

    don’t forget landfills in the us are depositories of knowledge.

  • Your biggest stumbling block is manpower. I had quite a few arguments about this towards the end of Battlestar Galactica on the newsgroup; the arguments divided into the “technologists” and the “primitivists”; I was in the latter group. The technologist view was that, as Dale suggests, if you know how to make something you can and will manufacture it. The primitivist view was that, even if you know how to manufacture advanced technology, you will not have the manpower and time resources to manufacture it. Small economies are crippled most not by lack of knowledge (in the BSG planetfall scenario) but by lack of manpower.

    Take an extreme to illustrate the point; suppose all humanity were wiped out except the staff of the NASA JPL. They certainly know how to build a space rocket. But could they build one?

    No. There is no mass industrial infrastructure to manufacture all the parts. No mass steel industry. No semiconductor industry for the computers. And so on. It is way beyond them.

    In a small society, there is far less specialisation and no mass production. This makes items which are to us cheap enormously expensive to them. Many materials which we take for granted are completely unavailable- rubber, for instance- unless they’re lucky enough to be in the right part of the world, or prepared for a sea voyage which would be hugely expensive. Most effort will go into food production- without fertilisers and tractors and threshing machines and so on.

    Wot, no tractors? Well, imagine the cost of a handbuilt tractor, compared to the cost of a mass produced one. That’s a NASA cost project for a small village. In fact, all machinery is immensely expensive now. Even if you can get all the materials for it. Are there iron deposits and copper deposits nearby? Zinc? Coal or oil? Forget rubber for the gaskets, let alone plastics and other synthetics. Forget aluminium. Forget mass produced steel. You’re going to be making small, expensive quantities of it. Much of what you’d like to make will simply be too expensive.

    So, a 17th century standard is probably very optimistic. Until you can breed yourself into a big society that can specialise and mass-produce, you’re looking at the middle ages probably. I hope you enjoy looking at the arseholes of oxen, because you’re going to be doing a lot of it.

    It really isn’t about knowledge. Knowing how to do advanced stuff is going to stop you going all the way back to the stone age. But most of the advanced stuff you know how to do will be in practical terms beyond you. People tend not to grasp just how reliant we all are on the existence of the rest of the mass economy, thus tending people towards the error of autarky. Productivity is proportional to population, I’m afraid. You may know how to build a steam engine; you just won’t have the spare time to build one.

  • I think a major problem will be dealing with depressive illnesses: many of the survivors will view the inevitable rest of their lives, and those of their immediate descendents-to-be, with gloom.

  • I think a major problem will be dealing with depressive illnesses: many of the survivors will view the inevitable rest of their lives, and those of their immediate descendents-to-be, with gloom.

    New Labour seem to be doing a nationwide test of that hypothesis as we speak.

  • Andy H

    See ‘Earth Abides’ by George R. Stewart for speculation on something close to Ian’s take.

  • manuel II paleologos

    Interesting the reference to “The Road” by McCarthy. I found that fascinating, although the lack of any life at all, not even cockroaches, rats, funghi, mould etc., seemed ridiculous – just charred dead remains, and for some reason a few humans. Hmmm…

    Still, it certainly got me eyeing up the tinned foods in Asda and wondering where I should store my candles and knives.

  • I would value Samizdata’s permission to reproduce Dale’s piece unedited on our blog (with his byline of course.)

    It raises interesting questions which I often worry about.

  • Nick


    I wouldn’t worry about it – there really is nothing you can do. If it does happen, and you survive, then that is the time to worry about it.

    It is interesting, though, and something that I’ve thought about a number of times. The possibly outcomes from any catastrophe so huge as to threaten humanity with extinction are so varied as to make preparation damn near impossible.

    No doubt humanity would survive and eventually rebuild a technologically advanced civilisation, but what really bothers me is that we’d probably make the same mistakes all over again.

  • Kevin B

    As Ian B says, the key is numbers, and the number of survivors dictates the speed with which we get from there to here. Don’t forget it took us only 10,000 years to get from scattered stone age tribes to space age billions, and a mere 1000 years to get from less than 5% of our current population to where we are now.

    So with left overs and sufficient skills to exploit them, the first generation could maintain a decent civilization, even from as low as 1% population, but the next generations would slip back as scavanging tech became harder and the manpower to rebuild was insufficient. I would still reckon that the crossover would take place around the 17th century level of development in the second generation after the die back, and after that the recovery to a twenty first century civ would be relatively swift.

    Of course, being humans, we could easily screw it up and end up living in caves and fearing the god of thunder again, but I prefer to remain optimistic.

  • Andrew Duffin

    Surely the people most likely to survive, given that they’d have access to the best shelters and the best security, would be the tax-eaters and bureaucrats.

    It’s almost worth risking the scenario, just to see the look on those peoples’ faces when they finally realise that they are going to have to do something valuable themselves, and that there is nobody else left to pay for it for them.

    Just fantasising.

  • Alasdair Reid

    More please. I adore “historicism” as practised by Gareth from The Office.

  • Hmm, another problem, Dale…

    Are you sure your surviving population will not focus exclusively on sifting through debris to recover “valuables”, and thus lose the skills we have now within a couple of populations?

    Why make steel when you can be digging into what once was NYC?

  • Dale Amon

    I simply don’t believe the trash-shifters are viable as survivors. They might manage for a few years, but then they will be fighting over the few remaining canned goods. Yes, canned goods can last a long time if kept properly, but how long would they last in a supermarket with no repairs, or with windows blown in, or in a pile of rain washed rubble? Not long I am afraid.

    This is one of the reasons that I believe cities in the sort of scenario will not have viable populations. Remember, I am talking about the near maximal event short of extinction. So what if a couple hundred people survive around NYC. They won’t be a part of the future.

    You have to drop back to a sustainable technology level as quickly as possible and perhaps using what resources are available to ‘downstrap’ you to what your own population can support. Any other route leads to decline and death. A Nepalese village is in a much better position to survive than most places in North America except the most isolated farm communities.

    Mapping out a path to growth and survival would not be easy and I agree that those survivors near the old populated areas would be tempted into a path which would ultimately lead to their death or that of their children.

  • To Plamus:
    Eventually, you’d have to do something with the metals you have scavenged. Poor stuff will rust quickly and break, and the good stuff is so hard as to be functionally unworkable without lots of heat energy in controllable furnaces and all that gear etc etc.

    Guys would just have to work. It would be interesting to soo what the sheleterd bureaucrats try to do though. (ibid Andrew Duffin…) Some at least of them will have guns, and big ones too. I don’t think enough of them will blow themselves up trying to use them either.

  • Dale has kindly agreed for this one-time, that I can publish this piece under his byline at


    where I expect that another non-identical comment thread will be generated, for those interested.

  • Alice

    “note that I am not assuming we have a bunch of MIT grads left”

    Just as well. As graduates of the modern academy, they would simply sit around discussing whether the event that eliminated most of humanity had had a disparate impact on women & minorities.

    It takes only one undereducated generation (and we have a pretty good start on that already, unfortunately), and the entire store of human knowledge & history will have been lost. It has happened before — see Mayans. What would or could form the equivalent of the monasteries that kept learning alive during the Dark Ages?

    As an aside, it is a reasonable guess that the survivors would quickly learn what mankind knew up through the 19th Century — farming wihout energy from fossil fuels is very hard work. This would inevitably lead to the rediscovery of the original form of renewable energy — slavery. Maybe there will be a place for those MIT grads after all!

  • Hmmm

    I think Ians point is valid if, and only if, there is no recoverable scrap and resources after The Disaster. If it were a plague of some sort there would be two sorts of survivor, the isolated and the immune. A small community of the immune could easily maintain a sophisticated technology for decades by scavenging and make do and mend, and any literate group will be capable of maintaining the knowledge until the numbers mount. As for the isolated? Any small town, or even a large well fitted out farm would provide sufficient resources to keep them going for generations. Don’t forget, any reasonable setup machine shop would be able to build anything, even another machine shop. All that is needed is the feedstock for the equipment. Yes it costs, but maintaining a single tractor will ensure that agriculture is orders of magnitude more productive than a hand or ox plow. The effort required to spend winter repairing that generator or hand crafting a steam engine would be a worthwhile investment. Unless the survivors, each and every one of them, chose a hermit existence, a 19th C level of tech would almost be guaranteed.

    After all, if there is a working tractor plowing the fields then the rest of the community can amuse themselves by building a small blast furnace. It isn’t difficult, and is worthwhile even for a small community.

    Anyone want to write ‘Rebuilding Civilisation for Dummies’?

  • Pa Annoyed

    The primary limitation on agriculture is not the labour required for ploughing, it’s nitrogen-based fertilisers. If someone remembers how to do the Haber process by passing hydrogen/air over hot magnetite, you’re in with a chance. That boosts crop yields so you can make a living on a smaller, more easily cultivated area.

    There are two primary obstacles to developing a civilisation – that technology involves major positive feedback loops where you need a high level of technology to develop and maintain higher technology, so it is tricky to get started; and you need spare time from survival.

    Even if you lost most of the knowledge, if people have spare time from the business of survival – instead of having to devote 70%+ of their available energy just to getting enough to eat – then the knowledge (or its equivalent) will be reinvented. So the basic requirement is not to have to spend a lot of time getting the essentials: food, water and shelter. And frankly, water and shelter aren’t hard.

    The other thing that would be vital to remember would be free trade. The primary difficulty the third world has today is in bureaucracy placing obstacles in the way of trade, forcing economic activity into the black market, which is highly inefficient. Reorganising ownership, property rights, contract enforcement, for long-distance trade would be priorities.

    There are plenty of other key technologies I could pick out; but I don’t want to bore. From a technological point of view, I also think that we could manage by a combination of scavenging and scaling back to 17th century sorts of technology (plus fertilisers), but I think the task of rebuilding the economic and social structures is both more difficult and more important than suggested.

    And for that nightmare scenario, what if Socialism were to survive…?

  • Socialists would immediately identify themselves like flashing lights: they are the ones who will be arranging committee meetings and “working parties” (which will not be doing any useful work.) They will be muttering about “fair sharing”, and “social justice”.

    They could perhaps be killed and eaten quite early on.

  • Of course, they could be other advantages besides killing, salting and eating all the socialists, burning their libraries and books, and there not being any “government schools”.

    We could all ferment and distil our own alcohol, all the time, for ever, without the State hooching our money out of love for our welfare, and buggering up our tractor-parties and bureaucrat-spit-roasts, which will be more fun when we are all slightly pissed.

    There’s a good thread over at The Devil regarding puritanical anti-alcohol doctors. Any surviving doctors will I think have their work fairly cut out in Dale’s scenario.

  • They could perhaps be killed and eaten quite early on.

    How about now?

  • Dale Amon: “I simply don’t believe the trash-shifters are viable as survivors. They might manage for a few years, but then they will be fighting over the few remaining canned goods.”

    Dale, agreed, but not completely. I, of course, have my own deformation professionelle and tend to look for economic incentives. How about “trash-shifters” who trade with food-growers? Food-growing communities need fertilizers, insecticides, replacements for the blown gasket on the tractor, etc. They can pull resources and manufacture them – at great expense. Or they can trade with the guy with the truck who has found what remains of the local Home Depot. A community of 100 could, to toss in a scenario, have the options of either semi-starving by assigning most available men to build a basic electricity generator, or growing more food than they can eat and trade a chunk of it for the functional generator some fellow dug up in the vault of a bank… It would take (without modern medicine) probably a mere 30 years for everyone who was 30-40 and educated at “time zero” to die. That does not sound to me like an unlikely time frame for scavenging to be profitable enough to keep a re-surge in science/engineering from taking place by just pricing it out – again, temporarily, but long enough for the human capital to die.

    We need more assumptions to make educated guesses, such as what exactly survives. Information carriers (paper, mechanical, electronic, etc.)? The hardened military research and warehousing complexes with all the goodies inside?

    All in all, the 17th century level is not implausible… You may find this free book from the Baen library interesting. The story, in a nutshell, is of a modern day small town in West Virginia falling through a time warp in Germany in the middle of the Thirty Year war. Many of Dale’s ideas materialize there – ships, telegraph, etc.

  • veryretired

    Manuel—you are disapointed because “The Road” is not science fiction, it is an allegory.

    The setting is such that the danger is palpable, the landscape utterly inhospitable, the threat omnipresent and oppressive. This is a plot device.

    The man and his child are every parent and every child, regardless of the specifics of time or place, civilization or wilderness, culture or barbarism.

    Life is “The Road”, the father is any man or woman who is attemptiong to show their child the true path, and the child is any young person surrounded by the dangers, the snares, the traps of growing up.

    Who to believe? Who to follow? What is the truth and what a lie? Where does danger come from—other men who care nothing for the child, who would consume him if they could.

    As a parent, I realized somewhere in the story that I was reading about myself, my life, my dreams and fears, my concerns and worries, my children and the only true, inescapable duty—to protect and guide the lives that will make the future real.

    Who will survive any form of armageddon? The children of those Adams and Eves who teach that life is precious, reality is real, knowledge is of paramount importance, and careful, thoughtful action is the only path to survival.

    At least twice, and probably more times than we can know, the beings that would one day swarm the earth in their billions have been reduced to a few thousand, struggling desperately to overcome challenges and changes that would eventually kill most of their kind.

    They, who became we, adapted and survived because some frightened, courageous men and women took their children by the hand and, one careful step after another, found the road to the future.

    And so must we all.

  • Alsadius

    It depends on how long the disaster was, I think. Some sort of crazy nuclear war that’s over in an hour, yeah, knowledge won’t be an issue. If the problem lasts a couple hundred years, then the modern era won’t be within memory, it will be semi-mythical, and things like a literate population with casual experience with technology won’t be able to be taken for granted.

    Of course, it’s hard to think of any disaster that drawn-out, but it’s also hard to think of any disaster at all that’s at the severity you describe – nuclear wars and horrible pandemics are too small, meteor impacts are too big. If we’re assuming an out-of-context disaster, then we can certainly assume a long one. At that point you go out of the realm of people rebuilding the society they grew up in, and you’re into Clarke’s Third Law fantasy, with our modern gadgetry(or what of it hasn’t rotted out, at least) as the magic.

    Ultimately, technology requires infrastructure, and often a lot of it. Technology can and does backslide – see the fall of Rome for the most obvious example – when the conditions necessary for perpetuating that technology disappear. There’s a level below which it won’t easily slip – at a pinch, I’d say roughly Dark Ages – but 17th century is fairly optimistic.

    Also, you seem to have completely ignored what is likely to be the worst part of any such disaster – the ensuing anarchy. It’s easy enough to talk about building radios, but in practice a lot of people will spend a lot of time hiding to avoid brigands, or just fighting them off. Capital-intensive(by premodern standards) industry is unlikely to survive in an anarchic state, which lops off the entire top end of your scenario.

    For that matter, we have empirical evidence of this process – every previous dark age was a backslide from a tech level that, by your theory, should have been trivial to maintain with survivor knowledge, especially given that the die-off rates were pretty low. And yet, they backslid – the loss of order was the disaster, and it was a powerful and devastating one. Yes, they didn’t have firearms to rebuild, but they lost some of what they did have, when none of it was especially difficult(after all, it was a decidedly pre-industrial tech base even in the good bits of antiquity).

    So yeah, a disaster on some large scale followed by extended anarchy, barbarism, warlordism, and other such godawful systems of government could well take us back a whole lot further than you suggest, I’d wager.

  • One obvious example is post-Roman Britain, which lost wheel-turned pottery. That’s not due to lack of knowledge. In Roman Britain, pottery had been a factory made product, cheap and plentiful. Once the social and economic structure that enabled that was gone, fine tableware was a low priority and nobody could run a factory without distribution networks and a market, so people just switched to home-made wooden bowls and so on, which were the best solution for the practical situation.

  • Nuke Gray

    It’s amazing the things you find in your own backyard, the Outback! Many towns and communities are already living a libertarian lifestyle, free from communal ‘services’! Not only do we have Nimbin, for the discreet friend of exotic grasses, but the Opal center of Lightning Ridge has no council services! You must find your own water and electricity, and all schooling is at home! If you can find something to do, LR may be the place for you! I find this out in an article about a new batch of ‘stolen generation’ kids, children removed from mothers who are judged to be abusive. It happens in LR a lot, it seems.
    These isolated spots might well be the nucleus of a new civilisation, if you north-polarians stuff things up!

  • To Alisa 11.22

    No, we sould not kill the bureaucrats now. They are our meat-supply for when the disaster does strike. Don’t worry, they will still be available to hunt, and by then there will be more, as is always and everywhere the case.

  • Watch out David, next thing you know some enterprising mind will suggest actually breeding them. Oh, wait…

  • manuel II paleologos

    Thanks veryretired – wonderful post.

    Once I’d got over suspecting it was some kind of global warming morality tale I loved it too for the same reasons. It made me especially sensitive to the preciousness of time with my children.

    My point about the lack of other life was really because I was hoping that at some point they’d find at least some little spark of life or hope, but obviously the whole point really is that they carry on “carrying the fire” in the complete, shocking absence of this.

  • charles

    May you live in interesting times.
    Planning for a future extinction event would include assuring that whatever pockets of survivors have the widest variance of human genes.

  • Midwesterner

    I have, sitting within reach of a comfortable chair, a book by Roger Penrose titled The Road to Reality. Alas, it is a comfy chair that I rarely sit in but my intentions are there. It is a book that belongs in all post apocalypse oriented libraries. It has the capacity of preventing a lot of time wasted in pursuit of plausible but wrong theories. I bought the book on the encouragement of commenter Pa Annoyed and if he is still reading the thread, perhaps he can suggest its potential usefulness.

    … the worst part of any such disaster – the ensuing anarchy.


    … followed by extended anarchy, barbarism, warlordism,

    Anarchy means without rulers, chaos means without order. Please do not equate these two very different words. Your (justified) fears are of chaos barbarism and warlordism, etc. Anarchy and Malarchy are not the same thing. To those who think that anarchy must inevitably lead to barbarity and warlords etc so the usage is acceptable, they are making a huge semantic error even if we accept their premise (which I do not). Freezing temperatures make water turn to ice. But no thoughtful person would ever say “freezing termperature” and “ice” are synonyms to be used interchangeably.

    Also, the corruption of anarchy into a synonym for violence and destruction is a major tool of people who want to push for the opposite of anarchy.

    Other than that semantic point, Alsadius, I agree with your point. The more prolonged the crash part, the more information will be destroyed.

    Socialists would immediately identify themselves like flashing lights: they are the ones who will be arranging committee meetings and “working parties” (which will not be doing any useful work.) They will be muttering about “fair sharing”, and “social justice”.

    Sorry to destroy a hope, but the socialists will be the absolute last people on the planet to starve. They will morph seamlessly into the plundering marauders destroying entire farms to eat some seed corn, killing entire communities to empty their larders. Socialists will have to be dealt with early and decisively if anybody else is to survive.

  • Mid, you haven’t read the entire thread: we are breeding them now for later consumption. Mmm, protein.

  • Pa Annoyed


    Yes, I’m still reading.

    Road to Reality would certainly be very useful for rebuilding science, once the immediate business of survival had been dealt with. Especially important parts would be the early ones that explain complex numbers, vectors, and calculus. They underlay all of physics. And the particular point of the book is the sheer density of key insights explained in a self-contained and (relatively) intuitive way.

    It’s a challenging book to read seriously, because the universe itself is complicated and unlike most pop-science books this one makes no attempt to hide that fact from you. But it’s also a fine book to browse, and dip into – just to pick up the flavour of the ideas it discusses, and see them in their natural environment. There are other books that would be more useful for the more mechanical/practical aspects of rebuilding science, but I can’t think of a better one for providing the inspiration that would be needed – to set the standard for what is possible, and as a monument to what humanity has achieved.


    That’s why it’s particularly important we oppose this modern “healthy eating” fad – where they bring back rationing and put everyone on a diet. They need fattening up.

  • Midwesterner


    I have tons of books, articles and plans on how to build all kinds of ‘stuff’, my point (as you picked up) was how to preserve as much as possible our scientific foundation and the bricks it is built from.

    But to your’s, DDLA’s and Alisa’s plan for socialists, I have only one thing to say. Michael Moore.

    Vegetarianism never looked so good. 🙂

  • Pa Annoyed


    That’s what sausages are for.

  • Mid, I tried to get him out of my mind, but you just couldn’t keep your fingers off the ‘M’s, could you. And anyway, I did say ‘protein’, not fat mixed with hot air. Great, now because of you I’ll have to go make a salad at 1am. Remember the hungry caterpillar?

  • Nuke Gray

    OK, so you’ve got your socialists as food. That takes care of the red meat- but don’t forget to catch and eat your greens! And for desserts- tarts from the bordello!

  • This is a fascinating topic that I have thought a lot about. I presume we are talking about a global cataclysm, because, otherwise, the untouched regions of the world could reboot the level of tech within a single generation. Let us also presume that most of the engines in the world have been plowed under from this event, because, again, if we are merely talking wiping out 99% of humanity, but leaving the cities, farms, roads, electrical systems, etc. intact, it is only a race to breed and occupy the best resource locations.

    Starting from industrial scratch, but having memory of skyscrapers and all they entail, I speculate we’d be able to rebuild to a sort of ‘steampunk’ tech within a generation, or two at most. The question is, would we be motivated to do so? I am an IT guy, but also have done all those geeky things like make my own beer, paper, armor, and a forge. I could probably cobble together a riverside generating station, but that would be a lot of effort, especially compared to if I make my living raising livestock, and have plenty of animal fat to burn for illumination.

    I’ve plowed a field, but, it would be some serious trial and error for me to figure out how to harness a draft horse properly. Perhaps the Rulers of the Earth might be the Quakers, after all.

  • Sunfish

    Is cannibalism kosher? And what kind of wine would you serve?

    I once had someone tell me that, when the world ended, he’d come and hang out at my place. I gave him a bottle of hot sauce and told him to smear it on himself. When he gave me a look, I told him that he was useless except as food and his stringy vegetarian ass needed marinated.

    He did not like me so much after that.

  • Nuke Gray

    Socialists do not have cloven hoofs, nor do they chew the cud, so I think they’d be kosher. I’m just not sure that this type of red meat is really good for us.
    As for wine, just use the grapes of wrath that socialists are always swallowing! Put it to good use! Any wine they have was probably paid for by taxes taken from us, anyway!

  • Nuke, you are a poet of doom, you are!

  • Midwesterner

    Cannibalism may be kosher but I am pretty sure eating swine is not. That pretty well rules out the socialists I can think of.

    And Sunfish, my stringy vegetarian self has a lot of useful skills. Darryl, I can harness those horses for you and even help you design and build a harness if you can’t find one to scavenge. If you are looking at used harness, get permission from the seller to twist as hard of a knot in the leather part of the traces as you can. If you can open up cracks in the leather, you positively don’t want to hook it to a horse and wagon. Hang it on a wall to look pretty. If the seller won’t give you permission to do that, don’t buy it except for hardware value. Driving horses was one of my many past activities. I can clean and trim horses hooves for light (‘barefoot’) use but proper shoeing for steady use on pavement is a high skill. We learned this by rotating through several farriers and some could, some couldn’t. Plow horses are perfectly capable of working barefoot, though.

    Sunfish, show up here and I promise not to marinate and barbecue you. Among other skills, I understand you are a brewmeister. A most very valuable skill. MMmmm . . . I’ve got lots of apples and pears. Do you know anything about home brew scrumpy?

  • Sunfish

    Pigs are friendly and intelligent and I’ll not hear them compared to politicians thankyouverymuch.

    Cider and scrumpy are easy. Put a bunch of (unpreserved) apple juice and apple juice concentrate and whatever other ingredients you want into a sanitary container and add Campden tablets to kill off whatever wild yeast are in there.[1] Wait a day or two. Then add the Yeast of Your Choice. I suggest champagne yeasts- they’re more tolerant of the higher alcohol content that ciders can have.

    Then buy or borrow Charlie Papazian’s homebrew book, because in 2-3 months you’ll want to siphon to another container and a few months after that it’s time to bottle and he explains bottling and priming better than I could.

    You can use white sugar for priming if you have nothing better. I would absolutely not use it for anything else. IMHO it’s roughly as welcome in a fermented drink as rice syrup (the guy who invented which has multiple pimp slaps coming from me if/when I ever meet him.)

    BTW, “vegetarian” is either Arapahoe for “Can’t hunt” or Navajo for “His sheep ran away.” ;-B

    [1] Sometimes wild yeasts are okay, but I would not trust them if I didn’t know them. If I had a choice. If nothing else, you could take the really traditional route: press the un-rinsed apples. Drain the juice into a more-or-less clean cask or barrel. Store in a dark place for several months.

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    One second after /
    by Forstchen, William R.
    ISBN: 9780765317582 0765317583

    A science fictional view of life in the US following a nuclear EMP detonation over the middle of the US. Explores MANY of the themes mentioned above.

    Also: Farnham’s Freehold by Robert Heinlein which explres a different future dystopia and sets out one personal vision of what might be necessary to help assuage the fall into the darkness. Books become currency….

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    “OK, so you’ve got your socialists as food. That takes care of the red meat- but don’t forget to catch and eat your greens! And for desserts- tarts from the bordello!” Nuke Gray

    Ok! This has to be the Samizdata Quote of the Month!

  • Dyspeptic Curmudgeon

    To Nuke Gray

    You have a warped, perverted and twisted sense of humour.

    I like that! Please, sir, can I have some more?.

  • Nuke Gray

    If I’ve made even just one reader laugh- I shouldn’t quit my day job!
    Still, you can only take these analogies so far. What next, jokes about Coughers and Coffee? And how many pieces of Kofi Anan you need for a stimulating drink?

  • Eos

    Dale’s post said “As for the transmitter, a spark gap telegraph key might be enough to start with, and antennas are just wire.”

    This brought to mind the current Discovery channel “reality” show here in the US called “The Colony.” A group of people have been isolated in an abandoned warehouse in a post-apocalypse scenario. Interestingly, within a few weeks, one of the things they built from the scraps they found in the warehouse is a spark-gap transmitter so they could try to reach out to any other “survivors.”

    Also interesting in this show is that they stocked their food with canned goods, etc., that they scavenged, but by the time they started making more advanced tools, their food and water stocks were dwindling to the point that they would surely have died had it not been a television show.

    Also, for a real-world example of an isolated group that has made do with the leftovers of modern technology, without the benefits of an advanced technological infrastructure or the division of labor, see Cuba:

    “What in the world keeps them running when there have been no new parts coming into Cuba since 1960 and no junkyards to scavenge? “Cuban genius.” Necessity has demanded much from the people and the cars, and both have been up to the task.”

  • Laura

    The fact that a show like “Colony” is on TV makes me wonder about what percentage of the population thinks that something truly awful is likely to happen within the next decade.

    My son-in-law is now teaching my daughter to use an assault rifle. She was never interested when her father tried to teach her to shoot a few years ago. My SIL says that he wants to “be prepared.”

  • Dale,

    FYI, The Bussard team have been given eight million bucks. Looks as if they are fully funded for the next stage of the work.