Industry After the Apocalypse

If civilization failed catastrophically, how much industrial capacity would humanity have? The 7PM Saturday panel in the Apocalypse Rising track (Westin, Chastain 1 & 2), “Not Just Spikes on a Car: Bootstrapping Industrial Capacity After an Apocalypse,” examined that question. The panel consisted of Tedd Roberts, a neuroscientist who writes articles, short stories, and a column for Baen Books, author, bladesmith, and Survivalblog editor-at-large; Charles E. Gannon, an author, academician, and strategist; David Harmer, an author and disaster-preparedness consultant; and Jeremy Levitt, a machinist.

Roberts started the panel by asking how much industrial capacity an EMP pulse would knock out and how people would bootstrap it upward. Williamson said the technology level would be early-20th century, about the time of World War I, which would mean crystal radios and hand-operated machines. Levitt noted that the shop where he works uses technology that dates back to the 1930s and 1940s. The only difference between their equipment and similar pieces from the nineteenth century is that the current machines have electric motors.

Harmer noted that the 1911 pistol was a World War I method but is still being made in South America.  Williamson commented that the Sten gun the British used after the Dunkirk evacuation was made from, essentially, plumbing pipe. Harmer added that at one point, the Israelis made ammunition using the brass from lipstick cases.  They also made primer, though that was very dangerous, and that casting lead was a fairly simple process that had been in use for about 3,000 years.

Gannon pointed out that the effects of an apocalypse depend in part on what sort of event it is. With an EMP, the results might not be apocalyptic, he suggested, adding that it would be a scramble to maintain the technology level of the 1960s and 1970s, but it could be done—if the EMP was not generated by something else destructive, like a thermonuclear blast. He posed the question of what personnel requirements for raising the level of technology or producing food would be.  People and time, he said, were the most important resources and have to be taken care of.

Roberts noted that novels frequently have characters complain that they don’t have the tools needed to make other important tools, and that they don’t have the knowledge base anyway. Gannon asked whether it was wise to risk the life of person with the knowledge by having that person hunt.  Harmer said that power tools were “force multipliers” in manufacturing, but Levitt noted that much manufacturing labor is no longer skilled but semiskilled. Roberts added that many tools can be made by hand and then used to make other tools.

Williamson commented that making fire by friction actually involves technology in the form of both fibrous wood and hard wood as well as dried fungi for tinder.  Fungi soaked in urine and allowed to dry becomes a substitute for flash paper.

Gannon warned against presuming that making steel was easy.  The necessary materials may not be available.  Williamson pointed out that every chair in the room contained steel, while old desks were wooden, with metal difficult to get in quantity. Levitt noted that carbon steel is not that difficult to make, but high-pressure steel requires both molybdenum to put in it and a furnace that heats metal to 3,000 degrees.

Roberts observed that sharpening something of hardness X with a tool that has hardness of X-1 or X-2 is possible but uses a lot of the softer materials.

Harmer noted that food, water, and shelter would be the first priorities. Until there’s surplus food, people can’t be allocated to other tasks.

Security, Gannon indicated, is part of shelter.

Roberts commented that industrial capacity requires certain chemicals, which can be difficult to make without stainless steel. Williamson said a book he was reading had people developing glass and ceramics to make drugs, a process he described as feasible if not efficient.

Levitt pointed out that stainless steel was first made in the 1920s and 1930s, using steam power.

Roberts noted that things made in the 1960s and 1970s required maintenance but were built to endure, whereas now much is fragile plastic. Williamson described the process for making firearms by hand a hundred years ago.  Those guns, he said, shoot better than modern ones, but can’t be made today because of the man-hours required.

The panel then discussed group ethics and the likelihood that “lifeboat survival ethics” would come into play at some point.  In a subsistence culture, babies may be at risk if the community can’t support them, and old people may wander out to die.  Harmer cited the Donner party as an example of social breakdown.

Gannon observed that most stories of social-code breakdown have people isolated but aware there’s a world out there.  He then asked what happens if everything blows up.

Roberts said that a widespread die-off, according to the Centers for Disease Control, occurs when six percent of affected cases—not of the population, but only those who’re ill—reported in a week die. He asked how many people have to die to start a social breakdown.

Harmer noted that the Aftermath game posits loss of eighty-to-ninety percent of the population to get to the point where everything is gone. Even with ninety percent of its population gone, though, a city the size of Miami can’t support itself.

Roberts added that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are gregarious, that one rarely shows up without at least one of the others.  Williamson said most cities can’t last more than one or two days without resupply.

Roberts suggested that social breakdown would begin before casualties reached eighty percent, and in fact might begin at the five-percent level.  If one truck driver dies and no one can take his cargo, all the people dependent on the store where it was going will clean out other places, buying extra as insurance.  If one doctor or one nurse can’t make it to work, everyone else’s workload increases.  Mistakes happen, and a cascade starts.

Discussing alternate technologies, Levitt pointed out that in areas like the southeastern United States, where lakes and rivers are common, water wheels are workable.  Williamson suggested “kids on a treadmill,” and Roberts agreed that human labor can handle some of these issues. Harmer observed that China has generators powered by bicycles and hand cranks.  Levitt added that steam generators were also possible.

An audience member asked what it would take, at World War One-level technology, to return to current levels. Roberts noted that people might invent things that are better than we have now.  The panel agreed that knowing something is possible increases one’s focus on achieving it.

Another audience member asked why the panel was not recommending solar power.  The panelists cited maintenance, especially the need to keep solar cells clean and polished so the light flow isn’t blocked. Levitt noted that coal is easy to mine.

Overall, the panel agreed that some industrial capacity would remain after most disasters, and that there were various ways to compensate for loss of technology.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.