What I will discuss in this essay is how to make a postapocalyptic world believable. Especially games, but also movies and to a lesser degree novels, tend to romanticize the postapocalyptic concept, thus making it less convincing and ultimately less important. In a real postapocalyptic world, people will suffer on a daily basis.
With a postapocalyptic world, I mean a seriously dysfunctional world. For a catastrophe to have a fatal impact on civilization it must be on a global (or at least continental) scale; if it’s regional, humanitarian aid from and migration to unaffected regions and neighbouring countries will reduce or even neutralize the effects. A global catastrophe can take many forms, and I’d say the following ones are most likely (or least unlikely) to occur:
- Nuclear holocaust
- Natural or man-made pandemic
- Antibiotics resistant bacteria
- Asteroid impact
- Supervolcano eruption
There are of course other kinds of possible catastrophes, such as sentient machine rebellion and out-of-control nanotechnology, but they are arguably less plausible and deal with unique problems.
I’m not going discuss the plausibility of different potential catastrophes in this essay, though. I will only discuss the situation after the catastrophe and simply refer to this unspecified catastrophe as The Cataclysm. I should also point out that this essay mostly discusses the potential situation in Western countries, mainly because I know the Western World the best and as postapocalyptic stories usually take place in Western countries. Paradoxically, people in Third World countries will probably experience less severe problems, as they don’t rely on technology and comforts to the same extent as Westerners tend to do.
Finally, this essay assumes that The Cataclysm will happen in a near future and only discusses the following 5-15 years or so. Predictions farther into the future will become purely speculative, and that counters the purpose of this essay.
So, let’s get down to business. To make a postapocalyptic dystopia convincing, one has to take several factors into account. Here’s a list of factors I consider important; many of them tend to be neglected or ignored in postapocalyptic fiction.
The Cataclysm will most certainly be followed by famine. Vast areas of agrarian land might become contaminated or soiled and thus infertile; in case of nuclear or biological warfare, existing supplies of meat and crops may be contaminated as well.
Even if the damage to agrarian lands and supplies is limited, the distribution systems would quickly stop functioning properly or even collapse; when you think about it, they are more complex and sensitive today than ever before in human history. Supermarkets and supply depots will soon be emptied, and the supplies of canned goods are limited; unless the population has been dramatically reduced by for instance a pandemic, I doubt they will last a years. The overwhelming majority doesn’t know how to hunt animals, gather food, or grow crops; people who do know don’t necessarily know how to process and preserve the food properly. In short, people will starve to death en masse.
Even if famine can be avoided in such a dire situation, it will probably be impossible to avoid malnutrition. Malnutrition will of course make the population more receptive to disease. Flues may suddenly become deadly diseases.
In case The Cataclysm takes massive proportions, shortage of water, and with that I mean shortage of drinkable water, may pose a problem. For instance, if The Cataclysm was a nuclear war, an asteroid impact, or a supervolcano eruption, the water will be contaminated by radioactivity or soiled by dust and ashes. The latter can be solved with filtration – common sand will do – but as water won’t be readily available, it will be more difficult to prepare food and people will have to plan their consumption. They will probably have to neglect their personal hygiene, which of course will make the population more receptive to disease.
Even if power plants and grids don’t get seriously damaged or destroyed in The Cataclysm, there’s only a question of time before there will be shortage of energy. Personnel in power plants will probably abandon their posts as they no longer will receive payment and want to protect their homes and families. Even if they decide to stay on their posts, maintenance personnel will most probably not get out into the wilderness to keep the transmission systems running, which eventually will decay and malfunction.
Diesel-driven generators and appliances running on batteries are only temporary solutions; batteries will quickly become hard currency. Shortage of energy will entail serious problems; you only have to look at your own home. Without running stoves and refrigerators, it suddenly becomes more difficult to cook and store food. Running water will become a memory of the past, which will entail serious problem especially in dry regions. The results will be bad hygiene and increased receptiveness to disease, and dying fields and gardens which no longer can be used for agricultural production. Communications will break down when there’s no electricity for television sets, radio receivers, and computers. If The Cataclysm occurs in winter, people may freeze to death en masse.
There’s a joker in the deck that’s easily forgotten, though: small-scale energy production. Today, energy production is regulated by governments and dominated by corporations, but if the development towards more eco-friendly societies continues, this may change. If The Cataclysm occurs a couple of decades into the future, private energy production in communities and even households may dampen the effects of failing power grids. This may sound slightly utopian, but already today, there are buildings with solar panels that basically are self-sufficient.
Initially, there will be a shortage of gasoline, but this will become an irrelevant issue after 10-20 years. By then most vehicles, generators and other machines will no longer work; metal will rust, rubber will dry, and so on. It won’t matter if technically skilled people take care of them, as spare parts sooner or later will become scarce.
There will be no shortage of housing – in large cities, one may probably occupy a whole skyscraper without anyone objecting. There will, however, be shortage of suitable housing. Buildings which have multiple storeys, poor insulation, inflammable materials, need of maintenance, high ceilings, large windows and glass façades, and are located far from water, in urban areas, and in hostile climates will pose different kinds of problems and not be suitable homes. Some buildings will prove more suitable than others: different kinds of condominiums and collectives, solar panel and wind generator powered houses, old houses equipped with wood-burning stoves and barns, houses close to running water and hunting grounds, and so on. Wooden houses will initially prove suitable as they are easy to insulate and keep warm, but they will eventually decay when plank, paint, and wood finish become scarce. It should also be noted that there may be shortage of window glass, especially in areas directly affected by The Cataclysm. As proper housing may mean the difference between life and death, this shortage may give rise to conflicts.
After a few years, most people will begin to look as ragged as homeless people look today. Most of the clothes and shoes we make today are meant for comfortable urban life and will not last long. Few people know how to make cloth and leather or have tailoring and shoemaking skills. In a postapocalyptic world, people will smell and look shabby as well. Deodorants, perfume, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, make up, hair products – they will all be vanities of the past.
Actually, there may be serious radioactive contamination even without nuclear war; all it takes is failing power distribution. Nuclear plants and nuclear fuel storages rely on water cooling systems which of course require electricity to work; emergency generators will work for about a week before they run out of diesel. Eventually, there will be overheating and fires, and radioactive vapor will escape and travel with the winds. The plants and storages will be surrounded by dead lands, where nothing will live and unsuspecting wanderers will catch radiation sickness. As a comparison, the failing Chernobyl reactors contaminated an area the size of England; after The Cataclysm, there won’t be any containment or other kinds of damage control, so these dead zones will be larger. There’s also a joker in the deck: nuclear weapons. We can only speculate how long it will take before they start decaying and leaking radiation.
The prevalence of some diseases will skyrocket, most notably thyroid cancer and leukaemia, but also skin cancer and lung cancer. Exposure to radiation also weakens the immune system of all organisms. In other words, people will become more receptive to disease, and normal flues will spread quickly and claim many lives. Sensitive animals and plants may suddenly go extinct and possibly make whole ecosystems collapse.
The prevalence of stillborn and disabled children will multiply. Genetic changes and mutations will pose a new and widespread problem; they may be hereditary and they may lead to discrimination, segregation, and in the worst-case scenario even pogroms and holocausts. Positive mutations (i.e. mutations that increase the mutant’s physical and mental capacities) may appear, but will be extremely rare, probably less than 1 ppm of all mutations.
When the supplies of antibiotics and penicillin dwindle and even the simplest forms of surgery become difficult or even impossible, several diseases will suddenly become very dangerous: appendicitis, pneumonia, kidney stones, syphilis, cardiac arrhythmia, high blood pressure, allergic shocks, etc. Giving birth will suddenly also become more hazardous and potentially deadly, with more stillborn children and mothers dying in childbed as a result. Dying of old age will become something rare and people will become accustomed to seeing people die around them on a monthly or possibly even weekly basis, just like in the Middle Ages. Death will no longer be as dramatic and traumatic as it is today.
People living in a post-apocalyptic world will also have to live with different kinds of pains which no longer can be easily treated: tooth ache, allergies, asthma, diabetes, ulcers, cataracts, rheumatism, badly healed fractures etc. It will be difficult or impossible to repair or replace glasses, dentures, pacemakers, and prostheses as well; there won’t even be simple pain killers or band aids. Without functioning healthcare systems, people will resort to trusting alternative medicine and pure charlatanry; they won’t have any choice, really.
Another problem that will affect people in everyday life is mental illnesses that no longer can be treated. Individuals behaving oddly and suffering from delusions will become more common; they will lead tragic lives as village idiots. The mass death and sense of doom will lead to “pandemics” of clinical depression, and there will be widespread apathetic behavior and waves of suicides. The most frightening aspect is that individuals suffering from paranoid schizophrenia and other potentially violent illnesses no longer will be institutionalized.
Only one thing will get better: people’s teeth. When they no longer consume as much sugar as in the past, it won’t really matter if they don’t have toothbrushes and toothpaste anymore. In the Middle Ages, nobles had bad teeth, but not necessarily peasants.
Children, elders, and disabled will have to face hard times and sometimes also death. To a higher degree than other people, their survival depends on the level of civilization that can be maintained after The Cataclysm, and if the magnitude of The Cataclysm will allow for welfare and charity. The more severe The Cataclysm, the lesser people’s compassion will be.
There will most likely be more men than women. Most women are not as physically strong as men and thus more likely to die in larger numbers than men during the hardships after The Cataclysm. Other factors that will reduce the number of women are that childbirth will become more dangerous and that women will be less protected from sexual violence than in our civilized societies.
It’s very likely that members from many ethnic minorities will die in larger numbers. Even today, in our supposedly civilized time, a member of such a minority is much more likely to live in poverty and misery, with a weaker health and a weaker immune system as inevitable results. Serious pandemics, radioactive fall-out, and post-cataclysm diseases will thus most probably strike harder at ethnic minorities.
A more than hypothetical risk is that a new Holocaust will occur; the horrors in former Yugoslavia show us that this isn’t impossible. A scary scenario is that right-wing militias will take the opportunity to exterminate “undesirable groups”: ethnic minorities, immigrants, Jews, homosexuals, political opponents, intellectuals, and what have you. A “comfort” is that it won’t be possible to do it in a systematic and industrialized fashion.
No matter the proportions of The Cataclysm, there will be massive migration, as people of course will try to escape affected areas for different reasons. It may be difficult to find water and food, there may be fires, collapsing ruins, radioactive fallout, chemical pollution, active plagues, looting, violence, dysentery, and so on. Urban areas will inevitably be depopulated even if they haven’t been directly affected by The Cataclysm, as the shortage of water and food will be more acute, basically as soon as all stores and supermarkets have been emptied. People will probably leave in haste, especially in case of radiation or plague, and thus be poorly equipped for survival.
Wherever the migrants move, crime rates will increase and disease will spread. Thus, migrants will most probably not be welcomed with open arms, no matter if the region they move to has been seriously affected by The Cataclysm or not, as the locals already have their own problems to deal with. If some level of civilization is maintained, there will be border guards and refugee camps – between nations, but also within nations! If The Cataclysm is a pandemic, migrants may possibly even be shot at sight.
Even a minor catastrophe may have a large impact on society; we have seen many examples of how a hurricane or earthquake can lead to anarchy. Considering how complex our societies have become, I think it’s totally unlikely that they will be able to function properly after a major catastrophe. Even if The Cataclysm takes nightmarish proportions, civilization will not necessarily collapse, though; at least not as long as mankind isn’t reduced to a mere remnant and people lose all hope.
Perhaps most importantly, the overwhelming majority wants civilization, not anarchy. People have spouses, children, relatives, and friends, and they will stay together. (Unless, of course, The Cataclysm is a pandemic that strikes more or less randomly.) They have modest desires, such as food, housing, some comfort, and a little entertainment – not the freedom to pillage, burn, rape, and kill. They will form communities and they will defend them. That marauders suddenly will get free reign is quite unlikely, in my opinion.
Furthermore, ancient civilizations had poor communications and primitive technology, but nevertheless, they lasted for centuries; they were often surprisingly well organized, actually. Hence, I think it’s possible to maintain a rather high level of civilization in most cases, as long as there is hope and will.
Finally, one shouldn’t underestimate people’s sense of duty. Catastrophes in our own time show that police squads, trauma teams, and military units don’t not necessarily leave their posts, but tend to do their duty until they have been given orders to leave. Many countries also have home guard/territorial defense forces which may be ordered by their governments to help the police in emergency situations. Thus, there may be order long enough for people to organize provisional governments and self-sufficient communities.
Even if civilization doesn’t collapse, it will be difficult to keep a currency. Most of the money today only exists in digital form and will simply cease to exist; in case of nuclear war, it may happen instantly due to EMP.
If some kind of government can guarantee the value of coins and bills and if people still trust them as means of payment, it will entail another problem: stagflation, the opposite of inflation, i.e. there will be shortage of money and its value will rise dramatically.
No matter if a currency survives or not, bartering will become very common. Items of survival will become hard currency: canned food, hunting rifles, ammunition, lighters, matches, candles, paraffin lamps, wood-burning stoves, tools, gasoline. Some items we regard as trivial will become sought-after luxuries: alcohol, tobacco, candy, spices, perfume.
People in deep despair, especially migrants, will be forced to find alternative means of payment to survive, e.g. manual labour, contract murder, prostitution, serfdom, and possibly even outright slavery.
After The Cataclysm, the world will shrink in people’s minds. As telecommunications break down and travelling becomes more difficult and dangerous, news will begin to travel more slowly. Remember that when Abraham Lincoln was shot, it took two weeks before the news reached Europe! People may become more or less oblivious of what’s happening only 100-200 kilometres from their homes, just like in the Middle Ages. Needless to say, people will become more inclined to believe in rumours, conspiracy theories, and myths.
What we consider to be basic knowledge will become considerably scarcer. Enormous amounts of information will be lost when energy transmission fails and computers shut down – forever. Books will start to rot in libraries and homes when heating and ventilation fail. It will become difficult or impossible to print new books. Schools will have to close and illiteracy will begin to spread. Children will no longer have basic knowledge of e.g. geography and history. The postapocalyptic future will be an age of ignorance.
I think it’s unavoidable that there will be more crime after The Cataclysm; telecommunications may collapse, police forces may be dissolved etc. We only have to look at Third World slums and warzones of our own time to get a picture of what may come. In desperate times, there will be desperate people. There will most probably be a dramatic rise in prevalence of theft, robbery, assault, rape, and murder.
I think it’s unavoidable that the nature of crime will be more gruesome as well. Dangerous people will be wandering the wastelands: professional criminals that suddenly can act more openly, prisoners and mental patients on the loose, individuals suffering from posttraumatic stress after The Cataclysm, serial killers on the prowl etc.
However, crime doesn’t have to increase dramatically, for the reasons I’ve presented above. As long as there’s some level of civilization, there will be some kind of law as well. Law enforcement may change dramatically, though. It may be difficult or even impossible to maintain police forces and judicial institutions, especially in rural areas. The void will probably be filled by vigilantes, “people’s courts”, bounty hunters, and death squads; some of these new law enforcers may try to follow the old laws, others will write their own.
It should also be noted that The Cataclysm will lead to “unemployment” among criminals. For instance, narcotics will become difficult to obtain, and no one may care any longer that they are being sold and used; the same thing applies to gambling, prostitution, and other traditional cash cows for criminals. The only really lucrative kind of organized crime will probably be “protection”. If money loses its worth and barter trade becomes the norm, it will also become more difficult to benefit from crimes such as theft and robbery; cash is vital for criminals.
The importance of having firearms is most probably exaggerated in post-apocalyptic fiction. In developed countries, most people don’t have access to firearms, don’t know how to use them, and don’t want to use them. Furthermore, most firearms are hunting rifles owned by law-abiding, middle-aged men, who aren’t likely to use them except in self-defence. Hunting rifles aren’t well suited for fire fights, and hunters are not likely to waste their bullets on human targets; with shortage of food, they will be needed for hunting.
In countries with liberal gun laws, the situation might become dangerous, though. The more liberal the gun laws, the more weapons in circulation, and the more weapons in circulation, the more well armed the criminals.
Military supplies will be a factor of uncertainty. Due to secrecy, we don’t know how large and accessible they are. Who will take possession of them? Will it be G.I. Joe, Average Joe, or Criminal Joe? Heavy equipment like tanks and howitzer will quickly become obsolete when fuel becomes scarce, but machine pistols and rocket-propelled grenades may remain operational for decades if properly kept.
After The Cataclysm, man will no longer master Nature; Nature will master Man again.
People will have to start planning ahead. Most importantly, they must prepare for winter or risk starving or freezing to death. Notice that a nuclear war, asteroid impact, or supervolcano eruption will be followed by harsh winters – in the worst-case scenario all-year-round winter – due to the increased concentration of particles in the atmosphere.
The effects of extreme weather will be severe. Houses will decay and become more vulnerable; rescue operations will not be possible; destroyed property will not be repaired. Regions suffering from extreme weather – e.g. hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, floods – may be depopulated, possibly completely deserted.
A potential threat against survivors of The Cataclysm will be predatory animals. As large areas become depopulated, human populations shrink, and supplies of ammunition and fuel run out, there will be fewer and fewer reasons for animals to fear human beings. Bears and wolf packs will suddenly become threats, just like in old times; dogs which have lost their masters will also form packs. To make things even worse, they will grow in numbers when urban areas get depopulated and hunters run out of ammunition. Communities will of course be able to fend them off, but for the first time in two centuries, man will have to adapt their lives to dangerous animals.
After The Cataclysm, mankind will have to get used to vermin again. Rats will grow big and may even become threats to infants and pets. There will be cockroaches and other kinds of insects in all homes, as it will become more difficult to isolate houses and there will be no production of insecticides.
Finally, the world after The Cataclysm will be a dark world – literally. Few people master the skills of making candles or lamp oil, so there will be few light sources. Just like in the Middle Ages, people will have to adjust their lives to the availability of daylight. In summer, days will be long; in winter, they will be short. Going outside will suddenly be a potentially dangerous activity; there will be no lights as far as one can see, and both human and animal predators may lurk in the dark. Once twilight falls, the only thing to do is to go to bed and contemplate the nightmarish state of the world.