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I want to create a Mad-Max-esque post apocalyptic setting. Unfortunately after a bit of looking into this, there is one massive issue with the idea of lots of maniacs tearing across the barren landscape of a post WW3 world in their armoured cars and trucks: Fuel.

The fuel of all of these cars and trucks is Petrol or Gasoline. This fuel is a highly refined product that degrades over time. The more volatile elements gradually evaporate, and the fuel begins to oxidize, which means that any car, boat, or plane left with gas sitting in it through the apocalypse will rust from the inside out in relatively short order.

Society has collapsed to the point where scenarios like you see in any of the Max Mad movies is realistic. Our modern day infrastructure is gone. Even in the extremely unlikely event that some of the oil wells and oil refinery plants are still operational, the infrastructure and logistics required to spread this out to every inhabited corner of the post apocalyptic wasteland would be long gone.

Given this unfortunate fact, what is the smallest change you could make to this setting/world to make vehicles and vehicular combat a realistic possibility once again?

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    $\begingroup$ Propane lasts a long while. Maybe using that as the base fuel instead of gasoline or petrol would work. $\endgroup$ – Joe P Oct 24 '19 at 12:22
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    $\begingroup$ Have it so that some boffin had developed a way to stabilise gasoline so it would last centuries. Maybe this was even a catalyst for the apocalypse. $\endgroup$ – John Go-Soco Oct 24 '19 at 12:55
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnGo-Soco this has the Science-Based tag, so if you know of an actual way to stabilize gasoline for centuries, please add it as an answer $\endgroup$ – Jimmery Oct 24 '19 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ Maybe they all drive Battle-Prius's. $\endgroup$ – GrandmasterB Oct 24 '19 at 16:25
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    $\begingroup$ @GrandmasterB. Those still generally use gasoline. But Teslas on the other hand... $\endgroup$ – Mad Physicist Oct 24 '19 at 21:04

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Diesel is your freind here.

The diesel engine was originally designed to run on peanut oil. In fact there are conversion kits out there that can modify various diesel engines to run on used vegetable oil. All you have to do is filter the crud out. Granted, it made your car smell like a McDonalds as you drove around, and your friends could smell your car coming before they could hear it. There is a wealth of information out there showing how you can get a diesel engine to run on just about anything, including used motor oil, various vegetable oils, even butter was mentioned once. It just has to be filtered for solids and warm enough to flow as a liquid. Just search online for diesel vegetable oil and you will finds articles and forum posts all over the place. I even read one forum where some Europeans were talking about how the government will tax vegetable oil to keep prices in line with diesel to maintain tax revenue (not sure if that is true but I'd like to think it is)

The reason that petroleum based diesel became so common is that is was cheaper to produce and tended to burn more cleanly. But in the mad max scenario, your petroleum infrastructure is going to be screwed. Where will you get crude oil? If you have a decent store of crude, you could possibly refine it enough for diesel as that is easier than trying to get Gasoline. When the crude runs out though, you can keep those diesel trucks moving if you can get some peanut, corn, or certain other crops going, and that is a renewable source for you. You also get food, so, bonus.

Keep this in mind as you seek to supplant Immortan Joe. Witness Meeeee......

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    $\begingroup$ Animal fats can also be used to make biodiesel. Likewise, pretty much any gasoline engine will run perfectly well (often better) on ethanol, which (in the absence of revenoors) can be made at home. Though you;ll likely have to adjust the turning of older engines, and may have long-term problems with the ethanol softening seals &c. In the US, look for something with a FlexFuel logo on it: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flexible-fuel_vehicle $\endgroup$ – jamesqf Oct 25 '19 at 4:45
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    $\begingroup$ @TotumusMaximus well, animal fats are mentioned, and last I checked, humans were animals :) $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Oct 25 '19 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this would be the vast area of farmland required to produce the fuel. You could burn a 50 litre tank of gas in a day, but 50kg of grain could feed you for months (and I suspect that you can't get anything like 1kg of alcohol from 1kg of grain). $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Oct 25 '19 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @PaulTIKI - that raises an important question, in a post-apocalyptic world, how do so many people manage to maintain a neon pink mohawk? $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Oct 25 '19 at 14:18
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    $\begingroup$ @RobinBennett They managed to save the Krylon paint factory after the war. They saved several tons worth of a variety of colors. They are now awarded the paints by competing in the ThunderDome. A chainmail clad Tina Turner passes the cans out at special ceremonies. All of the Silver got snatched by Immortan Joe for his own purposes. $\endgroup$ – Paul TIKI Oct 25 '19 at 14:26
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Electric cars and solar power battery charging. The tech already exist and there's a lot of panels and batteries around.

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  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – Monty Wild Oct 28 '19 at 5:51
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What about good old steam power? You can fuel it with everything that burn. Collapse of society probably lead to abundance of forests around, so you could ride almost indefinitely. Bonus points for finding some old quarry, there should be lot of good quality fuel, aka coal, that wouldn't be that hard to mine.

EDIT:
If this post apocalyptic world is accompanied by some kind of global cooling (nuclear winter), from steam engines you have a lot of heat also.

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    $\begingroup$ Remember you need a LOT of water. I remember traveling on trains pulled by steam engines. For long distance trains they had troughs and water scoops so they could pick up water without stopping. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Oct 24 '19 at 21:30
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    $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan A train uses around 100 times more power than a car, so it's not that bad. Steam trucks were in regular use in the late 19th and early 20th century. And whilst they do need regular topping up with water, water at least is easy to find. For bonus Mad Max points, steam cars accelerate way better than gasoline, to the extent that it was actually possible to wheelie a steam car, all however many tonnes of it! $\endgroup$ – Graham Oct 24 '19 at 22:01
  • $\begingroup$ @PatriciaShanahan you could mitigate water problem easily traveling alongside rivers or lakes. Another option is to use moisture vaporator. I wonder if with some technology it's possible to make closed cycle steam engines. $\endgroup$ – Guy with jewels' names Oct 25 '19 at 8:05
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    $\begingroup$ I did not know one could use salt water in a steam engine. I would have expected salt deposits in the boiler to make it ineffective very quickly. In desert and semi-desert conditions, without a lot of infrastructure, settlements tend to be around water sources but that does not help much with getting from one place to another. $\endgroup$ – Patricia Shanahan Oct 25 '19 at 13:11
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    $\begingroup$ I think most of the easy-to-mine coal was used a long time ago. Wood needs to be cut and dried for months to burn well, and steam engines use vast amounts of fuel - they're far less efficient than IC engines. Sure, a post-apocalyptic civilisation would use steam but I think it would take too much organisation for a mad max anarchy. $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Oct 25 '19 at 14:14
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Contrary to a widely held belief, gasoline does NOT go irreversibly bad with time.

In a properly closed container, gasoline will not evaporate, or oxidize, or degrade the container itself for decades and probably centuries.

The only issue with modern gasoline is that it contains a little water and thereby has a "shelf life" of several months. This, however, does not affect the gasoline itself chemically. After several month gasoline and water may separate into fractions, which is bad when it happens in a car tank, but can be easily fixed manually be separating those fractions. No sophisticated devices needed here.

In short, your cars will run for as long as you can find any gasoline around.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or you can just stir the contents of the tank up with a stick if it's been sitting for too long... $\endgroup$ – Darrel Hoffman Oct 25 '19 at 15:09
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    $\begingroup$ The problem with this answer is it makes the unrealistic assumption that there will be stockpiles of carefully stored gasoline in high quality storage containers which are immune to corrosion and leakage, and that these containers will survive in a post-apocalyptic world. $\endgroup$ – barbecue Oct 25 '19 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ @barbecue the world has exactly that - "stockpiles of carefully stored gasoline in high quality storage containers which are immune to corrosion and leakage". Among other things, every gas station has a large tank, which is secure. Whether those containers would survive is a good question, but for the purpose of this question I'm willing to allow it. $\endgroup$ – Alexander Oct 25 '19 at 19:46
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander The world has no such thing. Gas stations do not store gas for long periods of time. They store gas temporarily, and constantly replenish the supply from freshly produced new stock. That's completely different from long-term storage. $\endgroup$ – barbecue Oct 25 '19 at 19:50
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    $\begingroup$ @alexander the accumulated water, dirt, mold, and other contaminants in the bottom of the tank would begin to affect the quality of the fuel, and eventually ruin it. Just like happens in real life, which is why there are entire businesses devoted to tank cleaning and maintenance. My objection is not to your claim that gas could be preserved. It's to your assumption that the current infrastructure is adequate to preserve it. $\endgroup$ – barbecue Oct 25 '19 at 19:58
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You can run a car on alcohol.

High-proof alcohol makes a pretty good car fuel.

Distilling alcohol is pretty easy in a post-apocalyptic world, because both the equipment and the ingredients will be easy to come by (at least compared to most other resources in a post-apocalyptic world). People can build stills from metal pipes and boilers which can be looted from destroyed homes, factories or wrecked cars. The ingredients you need are heat (which can be provided by burning wood), water (doesn't need to be clean enough to drink) and any low-proof alcohol. Low-proof alcohol can be created by fermenting any source of carbohydrates, like vegetables or fruit.

So in a post-apocalyptic world, alcohol production will likely be a flourishing industry anyway. And if you already produce moonshine in order to make life in a post-apocalyptic wasteland a bit more pleasureable, then you can just as well make a couple more bottles and drive your car with them. And if you have any produce around which got spoiled or contaminated to a point where even post-apocalyptic scum doesn't want to eat it anymore, then turning it into fuel can be a good way to make use of it.

Just don't drink and drive at the same time. Or do. Who cares, it's post-apocalypse. Drunk driving accidents are among the better ways to die now.

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    $\begingroup$ The easy availability of vast quantities of alcohol would explain a lot about the behaviour of most of the characters in Mad Max... $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Oct 25 '19 at 13:39
  • $\begingroup$ Or the hungry survivors eat the "source of carbohydrates, like vegetables or fruit." $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 25 '19 at 17:45
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Frame Shift: It's not a post apocalyptic world, but a post-war country, that happens to still have some reserves left. The people fighting in bizarro vehicles are those who don't want to or cannot find refuge elsewhere. The rest of the world could step in to pacify the country, all it would take would be the political will to station a million or a half of troops over two decades. Yeah. What the rest of the world is doing: Surveillance drones now and then, to snap pictures of fighters - those that would pose most trouble when allowed to emigrate.

For the runtime of your action film or game or whatever, you don't need decades of bizarro vehicles fighting. However, a proper apocalypse makes the setting less bleak than, say, transporting the situation of modern days syria to the US Midwest or central Europe.

p.s. I totally would watch a Mad Magda Movie about a polish road warrior driving through a ruined Brandenburg and why are these things always set in the desert? Imagine a pitched street fight on a serpentine road up to the Brenner pass!

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    $\begingroup$ First Mad Max is not really set in the desert, if you would want to see that ! $\endgroup$ – Cailloumax Oct 25 '19 at 10:28
  • $\begingroup$ That's true! Ages since I've seen it. $\endgroup$ – mart Oct 25 '19 at 10:53
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    $\begingroup$ So it's Somalia, or Afghanistan? Small-time warlords who get gas, weapons and technology from outside. Maybe they buy them with locally grown drugs or maybe they're gifts from interfering foreign powers. $\endgroup$ – Robin Bennett Oct 25 '19 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ "why are these things always set in the desert?" Because #1 using bombed out cities as movie sets are much more expensive and difficult to find, and #2 Hollywood and Australian movie studios are in/near deserts. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 25 '19 at 17:49
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    $\begingroup$ Frame challenge, +1. OP needs to go watch the second one again; its plot is unassailable other than where they're getting enough food and tires from. $\endgroup$ – Mazura Oct 27 '19 at 21:45
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Assuming it was a slow breakdown of society rather than a fast one, there's lots of options.

The most thematically appropriate feeling one is wood gas, its cheap, can be retrofitted into existing engines, and gives you that lovely arrangements of pipes and other grubbins a proper post apocalyptic vehicle needs. And if it burns badly, it will run your car.

Diesel engines in many cases run on vegetable oil with minimal modifications, and many engines can run on biodiesel - which can be produced with fairly low tech methods.

You can also run many petrol engines on ethanol - and well, you basically can make booze and fuel from different levels of distillation and treatment.

So pretty much the only reason we use fossel fuel is its cheap, simple and has great energy density. There are other options.

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  • $\begingroup$ Apocalypses (especially WW3) are -- by definition -- relatively sudden. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 25 '19 at 17:51
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Methane

ok ok I know the methane idea is not new for a post apocalyptic setup as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome was already tapping the methane idea... Except:

In Mad Max, the methane crudely refined from pig faeces, is only used to power the electric generator of the city (Bartertown). I propose to get a lot more out of this easy to collect/produce gas.

You want to use this gas to power your vehicle? no problem, as long as you manage to save a little bit of the current knowledge with you. This could be any of the proposed solution, or possibly something in between.


Example of usage of methane as a power source for vehicle:

1) Bio-Bug: Car run on human waste is launched

enter image description here

The Bio-Bug has been converted by a team of British engineers to be powered by biogas, which is produced from human waste at sewage works across the country. They believe the car is a viable alternative to electric vehicles. Excrement flushed down the lavatories of just 70 homes is enough to power the car for 10,000 miles - the equivalent of one average motoring year. This conversion technology has been used in the past but the Bio-Bug is Britain's first car to run on methane gas without its performance being reduced. It can power a conventional two litre VW Beetle convertible to 114mph.


2) Hybrid (vehicle or refinery)

Four-stroke engine cycle produces hydrogen from methane and captures CO2

enter image description here

This is an internal combustion engine repurposed to run on methane and produce hydrogen. You can decide to integrate it into an hydrogen powered motor or make a large factory/refinery which will use methane to produce hydrogen fuel for your fleet.

added bonus, you'll save the planet by capturing CO2 ... ho wait "save the planet. after the apocalypse?" ... nevermind!


And if you're after a really fast methane guzzling vehicle, check out the

3) Raptor Rocket Engine

SpaceX/Elon Musk [CC0]

Raptor is a staged combustion, methane-fueled rocket engine manufactured by SpaceX. The engine is powered by cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen (LOX), rather than the RP-1 kerosene and LOX used in SpaceX's prior Merlin and Kestrel rocket engine families. The earliest concepts for Raptor considered liquid hydrogen (LH 2) as fuel rather than methane. The Raptor engine has about two times the thrust of the Merlin 1D engine that powers the current Falcon 9 launch vehicle.


OK the last example probably require a significant amount of knowledge and infrastructure to be able to use it efficiently, but I am sure some cruder versions could be attainable by some passionate post apocalyptic engineer minded persons. The DYI version of this would probably be extremely unstable and dangerous but the Mad Max worlds inhabitants have a different attitude to risk and don't have a strong focus on health and safety so you should be ok for a while ...

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  • $\begingroup$ For #3, how are they going to get methane (and oxygen for that matter) into the "cryogenic liquid" state in a post-apocalyptic wasteland? $\endgroup$ – Doktor J Oct 25 '19 at 16:01
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Several posters have mentioned wood gas, but in the United States, FEMA actually produced a guide for building a very simplified post apocalyptic wood gas generator: https://www.build-a-gasifier.com/fema-gasifier-plans/

The purpose of the report was to develop detailed, illustrated instructions for the fabrication, installation, and operation of a biomass gasifier unit (i.e. a “producer gas” generator, also called a “wood gas” generator) which is capable of providing fuel for vehicles, such as tractors, cars and trucks, should normal petroleum sources be severely disrupted for an extended period of time.

The instructions to build a gas wood generator have been prepared as a manual for use by any mechanically minded person who is reasonably proficient in metal fabrication or engine repair.

Because of the essential simplicity of the design, it is not as efficient as more modern designs, and there is a general understanding that the wood gas produced by this unit will be full of tarry residues which can gum up the engine. This is actually an issue with almost any sort of wood gas generator, so additional steps are usually built into these devices to strip out the tar before it gets into the engine.

enter image description here

FEMA gas generator

For would be Mad Max preppers, the plans are available here, but anyone using these devices must be very cautious that they stay well clear of the output, since the gas generally has high levels of Carbon Monoxide, which is dangerous for anyone to breath.

Vehicular combat would be interesting, since puncturing the gassifier on a vehicle can render it inoperative, potentially kill the vehicle crew if they are enveloped in a cloud of gas from the unit or cause an intense fire as oxygen rushes into the unit.

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  • $\begingroup$ We had about 22000 wood gas conversion cars in Sweden in 1940. The most dangerous thing was actually getting the car out of a garage due to the amount of carbon monoxide buildup the occured before you could even get the car rolling. Speeds where not that impressive either - both due to the inefficientcy and added wieght. $\endgroup$ – papirtiger Oct 27 '19 at 13:45
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The other answers here are excellent. I just wish to add one point. "Even in the extremely unlikely event that some of the oil wells and oil refinery plants are still operational"

That entirely depends on the setting. Say zombies. Well. Everything is still there. Now a nuclear apocalypse. Sure but how big? Did every single road and refinery got hit? Did every body got whipped out?...etc.

Honestly the current tendency to simply revert humanity to 1800's is silly. Not saying it's impossible. But I'm saying that you can have a PA setting with an oil refinery and gas.

The fact that certain countries have more or less oil does not mean that every it's impossible to find a working refinery here and there. Many countries still produce the thing but not in the quantities needed to support it. And while you are true in saying that without the current infrastructure we can't have the same supply. You should also remember that we do NOT have the same demand. Say a typical modern city has something like 1-2 million cars, right? Well. A PA setting would have maybe 50 vehicles in a city-state. So whatever point there is about the supply needs to be put into context.

Off-road vehicles exist. For some reason people assume vans are the only cars available and once the apocalypse happens we are all doomed. Also people have used rivers to transports stuff since the dawn of time. We can also use the sea, around coastal cities, for cheap transportation. And we can use pack animals or even trains, steam power ftw, to transport the fuel for the important car fights. People traded as far back as they existed. No reason to stop in a PA setting.

Scenario A. The world is doomed, one way or the other, but then there is an oil refinery/rig left standing. You can have more but let's say one. The people working it understand the situation and quickly establish a city-state trading the valuable oil for other valuable materials like food and medicine. You can easily see how such a state would prosper same with an agriculture state.

Honestly a better question is: are the car fights realistic or not. However both depend on the context of your world and how you set it up. So if you want to go for a Mad Max story style, go for it. Just explain how we got to that.

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In order to survive the nuclear winter, inhabitants of this world have sealed themselves into networked radiation-proof virtual reality pods. They have their choice of virtual gas stations to get their virtual fuel for their virtual vehicles to conduct their virtual battles.

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  • $\begingroup$ What powers the networked VR pods? Besides, nuclear winter is (pun intended) an overblown phenomenon. $\endgroup$ – RonJohn Oct 25 '19 at 17:52
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It would be sort of like the last of the dinosaurs scrapping over decaying meat after the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event. In a post apocalyptic world scenario, Mad Max style wars between roving bandits would only be a relatively short transitionary period as regional tribes compete for resources (ie fuel depots and stocked warehouses). Eventually, all the soldiers and fuel will be expended, and the Earth will be inherited by more practical minded folks who are more concerned with farming, city planning, and making babies.

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Wood gas

It's possible to retrofit a car to run on wood gas, so you can run vehicles by burning firewood. This has been done in scale in real life - during ww2, Germany had some 500000 vehicles fitted with gasifiers.

This has been included in 'postapocalyptic' fiction such as the Twilight 2000 role playing game setting, which includes modern army remnants doing maneuvers with pauses to "refuel" with wood.

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Gasoline is relatively simple to make by direct refining from crude oil. It was done in the 1850s. (And dumped in streams as a waste product.) You actually don't even need some super modern integrated refinery. Just basic distillation. The silly Road Warrior compound is actually well capable of producing gasoline.

Yes, your yield will be lower. But so what. You're not supplying hundreds of millions of lazy Americans, Aussies and Canadians (who drive 100 yards to put the recycle in the recycle bin!)

This gets to the last point. You are really supplying a very small amount of vehicles (looking at it on comparitive basis). Furthermore, they are being used for what has always been the MOST important use of resources: war.

Back in the Mog in the 1990s (my buddy served there), there were hundreds of thousands of starving people. But my buddy NEVER saw a military age man going hungry. Or look at WW2. My pops said they "got sick of steak" while back home there was rationing and the like. It's actually only in very extreme situations that troops are deprived of food, fuel, or the like, during war. So...it's actually not even as crazy as it seems.

Of course I am not excusing the other Mad Max silliness like rock and roll speakers or the strange vehicle designs or wearing shoulder pads. But the basics of fuel for combat...I have little doubt of it being possible to sustain that, even post apocalypse. Even vehicles would not be that hard given the massive amounts of old cars, tires, etc. available to be cannibalized for spare parts.

I would think even motor gasoline might be available for a long time from sealed tanks (a minority, but some of them) depending on the sort of apocalypse. For instance, consider a plague scenario like Earth Abides.

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