There are a lot of disaster movies out there, usually featuring some kind of massive population collapse. I've been wondering about "What happens afterwards?" For a short enough disaster, I'd imagine a reasonable (albeit slow) recovery would be possible as there'd still be plenty of people left from before the fall with useful knowledge and much of the infrastructure would still be usable/salvageable.

But, if civilization experiences a long drawn out catastrophe (one with large population loss), is there some point where things are unlikely to either reach the same level again or even get started in the first place? Seeing as most of the "easy" resources have already been used up and much modern knowledge lost over the centuries. I mean, a lot of development came on the back of cheap coal and oil (and iron, and copper and etc.) but much of the easily mined reserves have since been extracted and I'm not sure how much you could realistically scrounge from a crumbled centuries abandoned megacity.

So basically, does a modern advanced civilization (i.e. Earth 2017) really only get one chance to get started? If we fail, could we ever get going again?

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    $\begingroup$ Most of the worlds population knows how to farm. Civilisation naturally follows. $\endgroup$
    – AngelPray
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 23:09
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    $\begingroup$ I would suggest that the poorest farming community in the poorest part of Africa has a significant knowledge and technology advantage over the ancient Sumerians. I don't think there is any way for mankind to end up back in the stone age at all, either everyone dies or there is enough left behind for a reasonably advanced civilization to restart. Also, just think about your own house. How much scrap metal could you scavenge from it? Now multiply that by how many hundreds of millions of similar houses around the world. There is plenty to salvage. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Jan 21, 2017 at 23:22
  • $\begingroup$ Preservation of knowledge would be key, how many people actually know how to make anything anymore. One decent engineering or medical library could change the world. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 2:48
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    $\begingroup$ I recommend the book Lucifer's Hammer which is about a community's effort to preserve and rebuild after a asteroid impact. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 2:50
  • $\begingroup$ People start, as they always have, by metaphorically, and sometimes quite literally, by putting one on top of another. It starts with small steps and gradually gets bigger. $\endgroup$
    – a4android
    Commented Jan 22, 2017 at 6:13

7 Answers 7


The Earth is good at healing.

Let's paint a picture of the worst possible scenario.

Anarchy resulting from the Global Catastrophe, combined with a failure to maintain nuclear power plants, has greatly polluted the Earth. Much of the landscape is uninhabitable, and civilization has been decimated, the population reduced tenfold; little livestock or crops remain. Global temperatures fluctuate, with increasing carbon dioxide trying to warm the Earth, and the nuclear smog resulting from the meltdown of many power plants trying to cool us.

And then something peculiar happens: the Earth begins to heal.

The Earth has chugged along for 4.543 billion years, harboring life for 3 billion or more of them. Our ancestors have survived five mass extinctions, arguably worse than the Global Catastrophe - including an impact from space and permanent atmospheric poisoning. Climate change will be just fine.

Life will continue to thrive for the next five billion years, until the Earth is engulfed by the expanding sun, and the surface becomes so hot that even bacteria begin to break apart.

Humans, who have already survived an ice age, will survive along the equator if temperatures drastically decrease, or toward the poles if temperatures drastically increase. Eventually, pollution will subside, as have the effects of every mass extinction, and agriculture will be sustainable again.

Since agriculture has developed independently many times throughout history, our descendants will have no difficulty learning to farm again. Agriculture provides sustainable food in one location, as opposed to being on the move, hunting and gathering. The first permanent settlements will form, followed by the reinvention of war as people claim turf and resources.

Religion will swing back into full effect as deaths increase, and tech will continue to develop from scratch. We'll reach modern tech levels even faster this time, when archaeologists find the remains of civilization: everything they need up until 2017 has already been invented.

Good as new.


To some extent this depends on whether the technology and knowledge is lost as well as the people.

Replacing the people is easy unless the disaster actually utterly devastates the environment to make it impossible to produce sufficient food.

However the coal and oil and so on that presumably get used up prior to the big failure don't necessarily have to be found. We could simply end up developing natural resources more aggressively - needs must.

So a it's likely that once the baby steps are made, hydro, solar, wind, wave and possibly geothermal power generation systems could follow. For example, you can essentially grow fuel for diesel-type engines, or ethanol as a fuel..

The lack of petroleum and some specialist materials might be tricky and slow development, but would probably not prevent it. Some of these have alternative ways to be synthesized.

So overall I think it might take a little longer, but it could be done.

Some of this depends on how well the "survivors" pull together. Do they squander resources competing for resources or do they pool resources and knowledge ? I suspect that would make a more significant difference.

I see no actual barrier to redeveloping a technology rich society.


If you had a chance to recreate the world in 2017, exactly as it is, would you?

The fascinating thing about societies is that they are unique, yet completely replaceable. You could never reach exactly the state we achieve this year, but who's to say that our current metrics for "goodness" are the best ones. If you reach a world which lacks our modern healthcare, but where there is less war, how can we really decide which world is "better" than the other?

If you've had a pet die, you've probably experienced the same paradoxical set of emotions. You can never possibly replace the pet who died, for they were unique. And yet, when you do decide to get another pet, that pet can be special in its very own way.

There may never be another civilization that goes through an age of oil like we have, enjoying cheap energy like has not been experienced in all of history. Oil is finite. But whose to say the next civilization won't find a way around this lack of oil, and make up for the lack of cheap energy with some other brilliance.


Yes. Because there's a huge opportunity for skipping technological steps.

For instance, if you have enough people who know how to formulate epoxy resin out of available oils, you get to sidestep the metal ages and go straight to making high-strength things out of FRP.

Any schoolchild can make a DC generator, and countless adults can replicate Tesla's work on three-phase power gridding. You would have wind and hydro going within a year. Obviously the key is we already know how to do those things.

It's a lot easier to do something if you absolutely know it can be done, and a rough idea of how.


Resource exhaustion might hinder recovery to the steam and/or electrical utility level.

We've used up almost all of the easy-to-extract coal and oil, so it'll be harder for the new iteration to mine/pump as much fuel, nor as cheaply. I'm not saying there's none left, but I am saying the easy/cheap fossil fuel pickings are largely gone, and that probably matters for a tech reboot. (I don't know how much of the natural gas or Uranium supply we've used.)

Prices for 'forge coal' (hard Anthracite in nice chunks for a blacksmith's forge) have increased unpleasantly. Blacksmithing will be harder (and more expensive) because the coal needed is now not easily mined anywhere near the surface. So restarting mining it, even if you knew where, is likely infeasible, without electrical or steam power to ventillate and pump water out of the deep mines. :-((


To be honest, the recovery of civilised society suffers in terms of a catastrophic event. Perhaps Nyrath could give you an idea as to how probable humanity's recovery would be in a cataclysmic event. Either way, assuming it was a nuclear war or a global pandemic, recovery would be slow, but doable. As for a robotic uprising, it depends on whether we survive the ensuing conflict and the extent of the damage. If we are talking ET, then humans are going to certainly be extinct. Still, the intriguing thing is how different from pre-Collapse civilization we become and on top of that, how we would learn from the past for a better and hopefully not so destructive future.


The question is definitely yes, humans can restart, and they can eventually get back to modern day and or beyond. I think the real question you are looking for is... how fast. this depends on many factors... are the top scientists and inventors and engineers killed off? Do any live? do any doctors and lawyers and other people from specialized fields survive at all? If Yes, the process to recover can definitely be sped up but this recovery won't be over night. It may not even happen with 1 generation of humans but rather several generations later. If you are talking about a bunch of well for the sake of argument "average" humans that lack any specialized knowledge, the process will be a lot slower.

As others pointed out, repopulating would be easy for several obvious or maybe less obvious reasons.... with the fact that the remaining humans know they need to repopulate or at least procreate more so, people who may have been more... conserved may find that they are now more open to help this process. Maybe some couples who remained always wanted a large family but due to money, they kept their children small or planned to only have a couple kids, but with a total loss of society as they know it, money may not be an issue anymore and they can have the 6 kids they dreamed about.

The real issue as I stated a little earlier and someone else posted is: what technology is lost, and what kind of knowledge is lost in terms of both archived data such as libraries and computers and human ability/knowledge.

So YES it is possible to have a total population and technological rebound and to have a second start, just depends on how you want to handle the starting point of who and what is a survivor. Even if all the right pieces survive, do they even bother working together or does total chaos happen and no one works together and any chance of technological growth is hindered? The choice is yours on how you want to shape the story, but


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