In my story there is a large scale nuclear war that wiped out 80% of humans and the survivors struggle to survive against wild mutated animals and humans, and raiders often attack small settlements, killing and looting.

Also, lingering radiation mutates many surviving humans. And most pre-war knowledge in the form of books and the Internet are destroyed along with the people who had the skills necessary to rebuild.

It is a literal hell.

My question is: in all the chaos and violence, could humans recover and regrow civilization from the ground up?

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    $\begingroup$ Useful question: do you consider the lives of hunter gatheres civilization? Or do you need agriculture? $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 0:31
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    $\begingroup$ If you're trying to be even halfway realistic, "mutated animals and humans" just won't happen. Biology just doesn't work the way Hollywood (or Japanese) monster movie makers think it does. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 3:56
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    $\begingroup$ Most mutations due to radiation are cancerous and kill the host. James is right, the kind of mutations you have in mind don't happen in real life. However, that didn't stop Godzilla... $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 4:35
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    $\begingroup$ Jayden, please don't get us wrong. We're delighted to support an imaginative story. I loved playing Gamma World as a teen. But if you consider the real-life examples of two nukes over Japan and dozens of tests with radiated subjects, no one came out of them with anything other than shorter lives. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 4:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH: While I'm no expert, I think "mutations" (would be better considered tissue damage) in an adult will likely cause cancer, if they do anything. Most mutations in the germ plasm won't even result in a viable embryo. Those that do survive will almost certainly have minor mutations: it would take a host of random mutations to produce a viable adult that's significantly different from the parents. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 5:09

3 Answers 3


Highly unlikely.

First, effects of large-scale nuclear ware are not only massive loss of life and destruction. The major problem is nuclear winter that will follow. It will make food production, and survival in general, extremely difficult. So 80% loss of life is too little. That's still 1.52 billion people alive. Way too much to feed in such conditions. According to some estimates, only 1-10 million people were living on whole Earth during last ice age. That's 99.87% death rate. It doesn't matter that some areas won't be hit by nukes directly. Collapse of global trade network and massive climate change will devastate all areas as humans panic and chaos ensues.

But the main problem comes next. Those people won't be trying to rebuild civilization. They will be trying to survive. All of their effort will be put into securing food and basic resources like firewood and shelter. So even if there will be resources that could be foraged from remains of civilization, people will mostly ignore those, as they really aren't helpful.

This new ice age will probably last for multiple generations. In that time, people will forget about everything their ancestors knew. And pretty much all important remains of civilization will be either destroyed and broken to not be usable at all.

And this is where Imipak's answer ties in. Without the resources of previous civilization, there won't be any easily accessible raw resources for humanity to rebuild with.

Only way for civilization to have a chance at rebuilding is that if some areas are preserved in some way. They would need to be protected against natural elements and humans. But I find that hard to imagine.

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    $\begingroup$ I doubt the entire nuclear arsenal could produce anything more than a couple of cooler-than-average summers. The nuclear winter, just as many other nuclear-related panicks like the China syndrome, is a theoretical situation, mostly over-hyped by armaggedon-lovers and a certain scientifical press ready to impress and awe the public conscience - probably, as a mean to provoke their reaction. Many scientist argue that we'd had, at best, a "nuclear autumn" with little consequences - even it could ameliorate the global warning. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 9:04
  • $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft There are scientific models that show nuclear winter as I describe it. And there is also some criticism of those models. I would argue against "Many scientist argue that we'd had, at best, a "nuclear autumn" with little consequences". $\endgroup$
    – Euphoric
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 9:57
  • $\begingroup$ The criticism of these models is quite extreme, however. Some critics have found the studies about nuclear winter had multiplied by 5 the absolutely worst-case scenario to achieve its number. There are other studies limiting the effects of nuclear winter to just a few days long. Even the authors of a pro-nuclear winter study of 2007 said that "anything that you can do to discourage people from thinking that there is any way to win anything with a nuclear exchange is a good idea", which is the closest thing to an admission of tampering with the data a scientist will ever make. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Dec 11, 2017 at 10:08

It would take a very long time and it would not be pretty or pleasant but I believe it could be done.

Even in the event of an all-out nuclear exchange I would imagine a number of areas would probably survive relatively unscathed from the attack. Places like Tonga, New Zealand, Madagascar and Tasmania are all relatively remote and unlikely targets for nuclear attack. They are also in the southern hemisphere.

Most if not all belligerents in any nuclear war would be based in the northern hemisphere and missiles would be targeted at major cities, missile launch sites and other strategic locations mostly in the northern hemisphere. Although there would be plenty of contamination all around the globe the vast majority of fall out would be in the north.

If some of these smaller more remote countries were not targeted directly they would become centres for rebuilding civilization. Key features would be the survival of a working Government, some infrastructure and a knowledge base.

Even in the southern hemisphere nuclear contamination would become a major issue, but it would probably take some time to reach its maximal level by which point some of these countries might be able to put emergency measures in place to help protect people to some extent, impose rationing and put the countries onto a war footing.

After a hundred years there could easily be a flourishing technological civilization in the southern hemisphere even if it was still contaminated to some extent by fall out.


There probably isn't the fuel. Most areas are deforested, surface coal and near-surface oil are depleted, so there would be insufficient reserves to make the tools needed to obtain deep reserves to make the tools needed to make clean energy. The same goes for metals, but there scavenging from waste might work.

It's worse if all knowledge is lost because they won't know what to aim for or what shortcuts to take to minimize resources needed.

However, if the knowledge were available and the metals and fuels could be obtained, a single person on an island could produce a working light bulb in a few weeks starting from flint tools.

(This was set as a question in an environmental chemistry class. Students were expected to determine the steps and the chemical reactions taking place. It's quite a nice exercise. If you assume half of a resource equals double the time, you can calculate the minimum for the timeframe you want.)

  • $\begingroup$ But why would you want to spend time trying to build a light bulb, when you could salvage many LED bulbs from the ruins? You could likewise salvage e.g. alternators and wire from abandoned cars to produce small-scale electricity. And this sort of knowledge is not likely to be lost: the survivors will most likely be rural folk, and it's second nature to many of us. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Dec 10, 2017 at 3:59
  • $\begingroup$ That's assuming the remains are in reachable areas. I'm assuming the aftermath will initially resemble the ending of the BBC drama Threads, degenerating as per the Khmer Empire and Mayan Empire into isolated tribes in less contaminated regions, ending up in civilizations reminiscent of those in John Wyndham's The Crysalids or Day of the Triffids. By the time they're interested in renewal, there may not be technology to scavenge and subject-matter experts will likely be dead. I'm not sure you can be confident the knowledge won't be lost, almost no Bronze Age knowledge survived the Collapse. $\endgroup$
    – Imipak
    Commented Mar 3, 2018 at 4:14

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