This post is going to be off from the usual fair on this blog. I hope you'll indulge me.
Post-apocalyptic literature is perhaps my favourite subgenre. I like post-apocalyptic video games, movies, and novels. I even wrote my own novella in this genre. As a result I think about problems within the genre and its conventions. Post-apocalyptic fiction can be divided in many ways, but one of the ways is the time scale. Most fiction is either set in the near-future or the distant-future. In the first category you have entries like Station Eleven, Dies the Fires (Emberverse series), One Second After, The Book of Eli.
Most post-apocalyptic fiction is written as a social commentary. Stripping away the trappings of our modern society exposes root the human nature in the authors' eyes and often the cause of the apocalypse is a comment on the things wrong with our current world taking to their extreme conclusion. During the Cold War we saw plenty of examples of post-apocalyptic fiction that examined the consequences of nuclear war. The Stand and Station Eleven look at our fear of plague. Likewise a recent spate of media examines the impact of climate change and how it may lead to the collapse of modern society.
Post-apocalyptic literature is often not about the apocalypse itself, but rebuilding society and what that looks like. The survivors band together for security and get to work patching the world back together. Normally a handful of highly-skilled characters lead their groups to some sort of sustainable, or progressive future. The material written in the 20th century could generally rely upon a large existing population with resources and skills to rebuild. Farmers, craftsmen, mechanics and renaissance men and women use their squirreled away knowledge to put things back in order. However, as we enter the 21st century I am beginning to have real questions about how likely this sort of scenario is. This flaw has two sides, the first side is the Into the Wild problem. In the film Into the Wild (spoilers) the protagonist goes off on an adventure in the Alaska wilderness believing he has enough skills and knowledge to survive in the wilderness. This ultimately results in his death. The vast majority of people live in cities and possess few of the skills that would be required to pick through the wilderness. Canned food could last perhaps five years but after that they have to start preparing their own food. I've had gardens a few times in my life but I have no idea how to collect seeds from my plants and make sure they'll germinate next year, or when to plant them, or what conditions they need. The average level of survival skills without modern conveniences is quite low, I estimate.
The second flaw is that our material environment is less well suited to a sudden collapse in technology/maintenance. A growing number of machines require functional computers, for example, our cars. We live in a digital and electric world. These delicate pieces of technology will hardly be useful in their absence. Even if you accept that there would be simple machines left behind there is the question of materials. Many of the things our machines are made with are advanced composites that are not easily replicable in some kitchen laboratory or work shed. Even our intellectual resources are digital. In several novels I've read the characters raid libraries for 'how-to' books to acquire critical skills. The last time I was in the library the book shelves were given less attention to computer resources. How many times have you talk yourself something with a YouTube video? What if YouTube is gone/inaccessible?
Here these two flaws marry together to create a real problem. Our highly specialized, advanced economy means that our existing materials are difficult to retrofit to primitive purposes and that we lack the skills to resurrect the old skills. How many traditional carpenters, blacksmiths, masons, hunters, and farmers do you know? How many horses are out there to move the ploughs when the gas runs out? How many of those horse-driven ploughs are still out there? If not, who knows how to actually make them? More and more it looks like a hard crash at the end of any collapse.
One of my favourite series, though it's fairer to call it post-collapse rather than apocalypse, is The World Made by Hand series. It is set a few years after our normal way of life has come to an end. A huge number of people have dismally struggled to figure out how to survive in the new world and barely scratch out a useful existence. Many simply fall in line with resourceful leaders who need extra hands on their farm/commune. Lawyers, insurance adjusters and real-estate agents have very little use in a world where most people have to grow food for their survival.
In nature when species become too specialized they are in danger of sudden extinction when things change. Humanity and our economy in that sense is in danger with a sudden economic/social/environmental/technological change. In that case it may not be probable that humanity will bounce right back from the apocalypse but enter a new Dark Age. This brings me to the second form of post-apocalyptic literature; ones set in the distant-future.
A Canticle for Leibowitz is a beautiful set of stories that show humanity's attempt to recover from a decimating nuclear war over centuries, and perhaps be ultimately trapped in a cycle of violence. After the war humans revert to savagery and barbarism to survive. Humanity gradually advances back through centuries of technology as knowledge is lost and reclaimed. As I think about the trends in our culture and economy I increasingly wonder if post-apocalypses will have to stick to this formula to be plausible. Any fracture in our current system would likely result in serious regression and we do not have easy access to the tools and techniques to recover. I read an estimate once that it takes about a minimum population of one billion people to maintain the level of technology and sophistication we have today. It would have to be the right billion though and have them connected with transportation and communications.
The apocalypse is not terribly likely and isn't something one should dedicate much serious concern on. However, it is a useful mental exercise. For me it forced me to think about our values in our society and how strong they are in the face of desperation. How long would democracy, tolerance, or gender equity last in a world where life was nasty, brutal and short? How resilient are we right now if everything went wrong?
Images in the blog come from the following article