So. The apocalypse (TM) happened. 95% of the human race perished, but a few survived. All of the survivors remember the old days, when people could be trusted to help each other and betrayal wasn't a given.

Many works of fiction assume the opposite is true, but how might a civilisation evolve from a co-operative, randomly selected world consisting of 5% of the human population?

Please note: this question is not asking for an exact solution. General themes or mathematical points about the distribution of the human race are acceptable answers, and optimism is not discouraged..

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    $\begingroup$ I answered your question, then read your question again. I need some clarification. Has 5% of the population survived, or 95%? Your first paragraph says 5%, but your second paragraph says 95%. Also, what was the nature of the apocalypse? Biological? Nuclear? Natural disaster? That will affect how a society can re-integrate. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Aug 13, 2017 at 0:01
  • $\begingroup$ @JBH, apologies: this may have been a drunken thought that made its way into the internet... The Apocalypse (TM) is mostly undefined as the focus should be on the co-operative aspect of the survivors. If you want something specific assume that scenario 1 is 95% of the human race just dropped dead and scenario 2 is full scale thermonuclear war. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 13, 2017 at 10:49
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    $\begingroup$ You need to define how destroyed the infrastructure of the world. they type of apocalypse will effect this, things like seed banks, libraries, and powerplants will make a huge difference. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Aug 13, 2017 at 14:35
  • $\begingroup$ Re "All of the survivors remember the old days, when people could be trusted to help each other and betrayal wasn't a given.": Which fantasy world did your survivors live in? 'Cause that sure isn't the one we have. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Aug 13, 2017 at 18:19
  • $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: There are questions on this site asking about the practicality of bushes that grow diamonds.... Just saying.... $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 14, 2017 at 12:16

5 Answers 5


As others pointed out lots depends on spatial distribution of survivors and nature of "Apocalypse".

If most of them are together in a highly industrialized zone (think something on the lines "everybody died but Taiwan" (or New Zealand, or Australia, you get the idea) things could almost go on "as normal" in spite to fact globalization put all our eggs in a single basket; otherwise the following considerations apply:

  • Small groups would be hard pressed to survive, "civilization" would be forgotten till primary needs are filled.
  • If "rest of the world" is uninhibited but habitable then there's a good chance to recover a lot of useful technology and materials before they becomes useless due to physical decadence.
  • If global means of communications (e.g.: long distance radio, almost everything else needs daily maintenance) are still working then efforts can be coordinated (in the assumption people wants to cooperate, of course!)
  • Primary objectives would be to keep running some "strategic" plants (primarily renewable energy fonts like dams and Eolic, but also some communication and transportation.)
  • All our "modern" machinery either depends on infrastructure (telephones) or is perishable (cars) or both. Having access to spare parts and knowledge needed to use them would be essential to keep civilization from collapsing completely.
  • If civilization collapses there are good reasons why it won't recover fast (if at all) due to fact we completely depleted a lot of resources our ancestors used to pull themselves out of stone-age. A few examples:
    • we currently mine copper 600m underground
    • there's no oil readily accessible anymore
    • there's still coal available, but in specific places
    • many metals we extracted mainly from a concentrated source (mines) has been fractionated to the point to be almost irrecoverable (think about recovering quicksilver from old thermometers or from the back of mirrors or zinc from batteries and galvanized sheet iron)
  • $\begingroup$ Good point about accessibility of resources. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 14, 2017 at 12:15
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    $\begingroup$ I actually think the point about accessibility of resources is a bit off... With 95% of the population gone, there is now much lower demand for these resources, and a much, much lower demand for high rise buildings. These would essentially become very tall mines. There is enough oil and coal left unburned to last only 5% of the population a while, if they ration it. $\endgroup$
    – bendl
    Aug 14, 2017 at 12:46
  • $\begingroup$ @bendl: there's more than enough available for what's left of humanity, but where is it? For certain things (i.e.: iron) you're completely right: cities are "tall mines" (it has already happened: Rome Colosseum was turned a marble cave in dark ages... and statues were used to make lime), but for others (gallium, tantalum, tungsten, etc., all essential to modern industry) they've been scattered so much recovery is near-impossible. What's left underground is out of reach without modern technology (e.g.: copper is caved 600m underground and keeping shafts open is not trivial, oil is the same). $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Aug 14, 2017 at 14:02
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    $\begingroup$ @ZioByte, I agree, but I completely failed to explain my problem with this argument. So that's on me. My problem was that by the time that society needed these materials again we would be so close to modern technology that we would likely be able to mine them again. Until then, the extremely small demand for them could be met by recycling, however inefficient that may be. $\endgroup$
    – bendl
    Aug 14, 2017 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ @bendl: I understand now, and I concur... to a point. You would be completely right if fractionation (making almost impossible recycle with "ancient" technologies) would have happened only for "exotic" materials, but that is not the case. I already mentioned quicksilver and zinc, but there are others, like tin (while things like copper and lead could be scavenged, probably). Notice that oil is not only a fuel, but it's also raw material for plastic and other things. IMHO if civilization falls it won't be able to reboot along the same lines we followed... which does not mean it won't reboot. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Aug 14, 2017 at 16:59

There are several factors that improve both your odds of humanity recovering at all and the time it takes to do so...

Time to prepare

If the world "sees" the catastrophe coming and can prepare for it, your odds go up. Maybe the preparations include things like secure bunkers designed with the tools, materials, and skills necessary to rebuild the world. Maybe the preparations are less centralized and more local, at the "stock up on canned goods" level. But this helps you.

Nature of the end event

Is the event man-made? Supernatural (zombies are so passe, but...)? Alien invasion? Meteor? Plague? Cthulhu rising? Chupacabra + Yetti + Bigfoot + Loch Ness revenge? Robot ninja zombie attacks? Not all apocalypses are created equal. If humanity must band together to overcome some external threat, the odds increase. If humanity tears itself apart in war, then the odds decrease. If the threat looks like us then you're generally going to find it harder to trust "outsiders." But if the threat is clearly not us, then we may overcome our natural fear of each other in favor of survival.

Speed of collapse

If the apocalypse happens slowly, then people have time to gather, to prepare, to work towards a future that isn't just death. This increases your odds. If you wake up tomorrow and almost everyone is gone because of some religion's (or religions') end of days event, then you will panic and seek out survivors. Odds go up. So you have this bell curve of survival. In the middle, with fast but not immediate collapse, where unrest and fear and panic can rule over common sense, this is where you find people setting up violent gangs and being generally unkind to each other. Wars, plagues, climate change, etc. fall in the worst zone for future friend-making.

Hope vs. fear

Generally, you need an environment where the survivors can find some hope for the future. If there's a flash-point and then the thing is done and over, then there's hope. People have a reason to live and work towards tomorrow. If the thing is persistent and will always be out there, striving to destroy the survivors, then fear will win and people won't be able to overcome that to work together.

mobility and communications

Survivors, after the end is done and everyone realizes they're alive and in the epilogue of the world, they have to be able to find each other. If all 5% are on the same continent, then, well, they have an easier time coming together and working for a better future. If they're so spread out that most survivors believe they are the only survivors, then your "epiloguers" must work much harder to come together. This is improved if the infrastructure required for internet access remains viable. See this story from Cory Doctorow that provides a good example of survivors coming together and using the internet for good.


If this is a purely random distribution, then you have big problems. Roughly 26% of the population will be below the age of 141. 8.5% of your survivors are over the age of 652. This means somewhere between 25-40% of your survivors are not really 100% self-sufficient based on age.

Meanwhile 46% of your survivors live in rural areas3. The other 54% live in cities. Cities full of rotting corpses (or zombies or...). Cities lacking in safe drinking water and renewable food supplies. These people are at high risk of death by starvation, malnutrition, and disease over the next year or three. Cities that won't have heat sources in higher latitudes or air conditioning in lower latitudes. Those summers and winters will be rough for them.

Also at a purely random distribution, you will likely lose all knowledge from at least some critical professions. For example, doctors represent roughly 0.1% of the world population4. By purely random chance, statistically, you've lost them all. Same for civil engineers and many other critical skill-sets needed to rebuild.

So you want to stack the deck. Make sure your survivors end up in rural environments where possible, as close as possible to ages 16 to 35, with skills, materials, resources, and such at their disposal, and with at least a few elders in the 30-45 year age range with specialty skills (medicine, engineering, etc.). You also want to pre-screen to whatever extent possible for diseases, genetic traits, or issues that would preclude them from having viable children or for diseases like Type 1 Diabetes that require highly specialized or difficult medical treatment.

  • $\begingroup$ Excellent points, especially about the impact of external threat. +1 $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 15, 2017 at 7:34

One possibility is the natural tendency for people to bind together for mutual protection leading to positive solutions. Communication between emerging communities — if possible — would quikly lead to societies. This idea was explored in the movie The Postman, where it depicts society returning to normal after one or two generations. (Note that this ending isn't at all what I remember from the book the movie was based on, which was much less optimistic.)

Socially, an apocalyptic world might return to order very quickly, at least very quickly after the imbalance of who-has-all-the-bullets (etc.) is exhausted and so long as adequate food and water supplies exist. Socially, so long as it is possible for a sociopath to maintain power, that imbalance will remain. Once the imbalance is gone, people (being naturally OK to begin with) will quickly form communities for trade and security. After all, IMHO, it won't be the "average person" who brings about violence. That person would lock the door and hope everything would go away so they could get on with their lives.

The nature of the apocalypse, however, will have an important effect. A nuclear war will leave large tracts of land uninhabitable and would likely make passages between communities difficult to find and traverse. This would slow the restoration of society. Compare this with a biological agent that, I would expect, would die out fairly quickly and we're back on track to a quick recovery.

Zombies, however... there's no predicting the dang zombies. Not really being "alive" in the classical sense means there's no telling when those bounders will go away. They'd certainly give us all a common purpose, but unless they were far-and-few-between, they'd slow reintegration something awful.


I think it depends a lot on your apocalypse. If you had a mega-volcano, a huge meteorite impact, the post-apocalypse resources are scarce. If that's true, you can expect the world to degenerate further. There would be small bands of survivors, each with its own rules. Your world would look a lot like the one in The Road, or Mad Max.

On the other hand, if there are enough resources, even if one had to constantly walk around with Geiger counters people would organize and it would happen fast. Your world would work more the way America worked: lots of land grab, lots of business, lots of shooting.

The question is more how would people organize in the post-apocalyptic world. Some conditions need to be met:

  • large enough starting group of people,
  • access to enough resources to support the group at least for a while,
  • presence of a strong leader with vision,
  • feasibility of creating new settlements. I know of a nice game I found online dealing with world rebuilding after zombie apocalypse. You could use it as a toy model for your own civilization rebuilding.

In any case, I believe the world rebuilding would work more like in the Alpha Centauri game. People would know technologies existed, but would have to scavenge for resources, and left-overs from the previous civilization. There will be battles and wars between factions and things might end with another apocalypse.

Edits regarding what to do to make the world recover faster:

I think preserving the cooperation is the first issue, the second is the pursuit of knowledge, and the third is the grooming of leaders.

To solve all these, I propose creating a new religion. The religion has to put value on tolerance, open mindedness, selflessness, pursuit of knowledge and general good. One could write a new version of the New Testament, leaving out all the pointless supernatural stuff, damnation, apocalypses and proselytism. Jesus would be a luminous figure who shepherds the weak through the value of the shadow of death. Unlike the current Jesus, the new one defeats Stalin, marries Arwen and dies of old age. Before dying, he leaves his guidelines on how people should cooperate in order to fulfill the true destiny of mankind: space exploration.

The guidelines should deal with how to choose better leaders, how to educate the public, should design the main rules for a participative democracy, etc. Should civilization collapse, this new Bible would be the last brake.

The second thing would be putting in place a Constitution that guarantees equal rights to everyone. Every citizen would also have equal obligations regarding public service and personal education.

Once those are out of the way, it would be time to get people organized for massive scavenging. In other words, finding old labs, factories, mines and trying to figure out how the old technologies work. Other scouting parties will aim to find other survivors, especially those with technical skills.

The food and fresh water have to be assured for human colonies. Assuming those can be found, the survivors should find among themselves or among other scattered groups agricultural engineers to build the most efficient farms possible. For many years, the top priority should be farming and scouting for seeds and animals to raise for food and work.

  • $\begingroup$ The entire point of the question was what would happen assuming people chose to co-operate rather than start fighting, so shooting and battles can be assumed to not happen. $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 13, 2017 at 10:51
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs 99.999% they will happen. We are still primitives. $\endgroup$
    – user9981
    Aug 14, 2017 at 6:02
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not debating what might happen in the real world (I agree with you on that score). I'm giving you the assumption that they will not happen and asking you to go from there. :D $\endgroup$
    – Joe Bloggs
    Aug 14, 2017 at 12:15
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs I'll add a few thoughts to my answer, hoping they would help. $\endgroup$
    – user9981
    Aug 14, 2017 at 15:30

There's a direct link between the population density that you have and the technological base you can support; a 95% loss of population leaves you on 375 million people worldwide, which is the estimated world population in 1400AD.

The biggest problem in most places is going to be population distribution, it depends on the cause of your apocalypse:

A plague is going to favour survival of rural and isolated populations, which are going to struggle to come together at a density where they can sustain some form of civilisation. Think the problems discussed in John Wyndham's The Day of the Triffids where Coker looks at the problem of community size.

A Nuclear Holocaust will also favour those outside the cities and will add the issue of making the raw materials in cities inaccessible for those who do survive due to the destruction and irradiation of urban centres. Fallout will be an ongoing issue for any community. Here many small towns will remain relatively intact so the problems of population density are slightly less severe in many areas.

A random removal of 95% of the population is going to have a distribution so heavily biased towards urban centres that in a lot of places many survivors will starve due to a lack of farmers and farm produce coming into urban areas. If anything population density becomes an immediate threat to survival in many cities.

If you put together some optimal spread where farms were tended and urban populations provides a nucleus for higher civilisation then you could rapidly get back to and maintain a medieval/renaissance type set up with a number of modern refinements, I'd have a look at S.M. Stirling's Emberverse for some suggestions along these lines.


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