Civilization 2.0: Now With More Briquettes
April 14, 2015 12:10 PM   Subscribe

So, the apocalypse happens, in whatever flavor you prefer, and eventually our descendants (or the cockroaches') are poised to inherit the earth. Lucky for them, we've left a nice cache of information for them (previously on the Blue) so that they don't have to reinvent the wheel or Pokemon or whatever. Question is, will they be able to do that--or, rather, how difficult would it be to do that--if we use up all the fossil fuels first?

Author is Lewis Dartnell, an astrobiologist and author of The Knowledge (no, not that Knowledge).
posted by Halloween Jack (25 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Of course it could do it again.

a) We'll never run out of coal. We'd fuck the planet well and good but we could still get electricity and metal smelting.

b) Everything that's hydrocarbon derived would probably have critical equivalents developed and derived from carbohydrates instead. You'd probably have to pay a lot more attention to efficiency and recycling because growing energy is hideously inefficient.
posted by Talez at 12:22 PM on April 14, 2015

>We'll never run out of coal.

Never's an awfully long time for a finite resource. Estimates vary, but it sounds like at current usage rates we've got somewhere between 23 and 200 years of coal left that's 'economically exploitable'. Per one estimate we may have as many as 3000 years of coal left that's not economically exploitable but there's a reason why most folks aren't including that coal in their estimates, the commercial and environmental costs of going after it pile up fast. And in the context of this article -- resources available to a society struggling to rebuild itself -- that hard-to-reach-and-process coal might as well not exist.
posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 12:52 PM on April 14, 2015 [6 favorites]

I've been re-reading The Knowledge, despite the whole "prepper" framing it's an awesome step-by-step for anybody who's ever looked at, like, a modern plastic thermos and wondered if they could make one starting from sticks, stones, and dirt. Dartnell is actually pretty good about listing petroleum alternatives for a variety of the processes and chemicals throughout, so my immediate answer to the article title before I even saw the author field was "We'll be fine, just adds a couple centuries".

That's the species "we", though. The reading-this-on-the-Internet "we" are of course totally fucked in any event.
posted by Ryvar at 12:56 PM on April 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's an interesting hypothetical, but it is a bit hard to get around the problem that there are apparently other hard limits—such as atmospheric CO2 concentration—that you'd hit well before you were actually able to use up all the fossil fuels on the planet. It seems basically impossible to use up all the fossil fuels; the problem is using so many of them that the planet is rendered uninhabitable.

And even if there's some very sudden civilization-level collapse, there'd still be easily-accessible carbon on the far side as a result of the mines we have around today.

Oil might be hard—there's admittedly no more of the "stick a pipe 50 feet in the ground and wait" sort of black gold around—but coal is plentiful. And although the easily-accessible stuff in Europe might be gone, as a result of the huge open-pit mines in the Powder River Basin, you can go and dig the stuff up by hand with picks and shovels right now, if you want to. Those mines are big enough that it would take a long time for them to fill in (the DOE says that the Powder River Basin's rate of evaporation exceeds its annual rainfall, so the mines should not fill up with water, although I suppose they might if rivers or streams started to drain into them). The big Australian coal mines are probably similar in terms of hands-off longevity, although they are further from farmland where you could sustain agricultural civilization.

Depending on the amount of time between collapse and recovery, just the mines we have sitting around idle in the Appalachians (there are many idle mines, because they're not currently economical to operate due to the price of Australian metallurgical coal) could supply quite a bit of iron and steelmaking. I would be very surprised if this wasn't the case in England/Wales/Germany as well; I doubt those coalfields are actually tapped out, as much as they just aren't competitive with Australia's ability to dig it out of giant holes in the desert.

Going into old mines would be unpleasant and dangerous work, but you could probably bootstrap it using scrap metal (assuming we're talking that some un-oxidized metal is still around on the surface, from the ruins of cities, etc.) to build pumps and wood-fired steam engines, and use them to drain a few mines, and then start hauling coal up, and you'd basically be back in the early 19th century.

Also, a lot of coal mining was only done because by the time the West made it to the Industrial Revolution, we had already cut down and burned most of the trees in Europe and Great Britain. If you are positing a species collapse, it wouldn't take too long (geological scales) for a whole lot of reforestation to happen. So the survivors might not need fossil energy, at least not for domestic use; they'd have wood to burn aplenty. Fossil carbon in that situation is really needed for metallurgy and as a raw material for plastics, which per capita is a lot less than we use today. So they might be fine just on our scraps and leavings for a while, if they kept their population under control.

However, if you really want to play with the question, you can take the question off of Earth completely. It is interesting to try and speculate whether it would be possible to start a civilization on a distant planet, perhaps one that's been terraformed to an Earthlike surface, but lacks the geologic history that produced fossil carbon below the surface. I think it'd be some tough sledding, although if you are starting off at a high-technology level it is probably possible to do quite a bit with vegetable-based plastics and ceramics, if that's allowed. (And, of course, if you have spaceships, and all your planet lacks is metal, maybe crashing some nickel-iron asteroids into the side of the planet you're least fond of is worthwhile.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 1:03 PM on April 14, 2015 [10 favorites]

There's a species of rainforest plants nicknamed the diesel tree with sap that supposedly can be directly put into the tank of a diesel engine and used as fuel.
posted by XMLicious at 1:10 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

When it comes from a sustainable source, charcoal burning is essentially carbon-neutral, because it doesn’t release any new carbon into the atmosphere – not that this would have been a consideration for the early industrialists.

Or the current ones, really.

But yeah, I suspect, especially if you've got the books preserved, or even most of them, that you could probably rebuild a significant tech level a lot faster than it took the first time. Assuming the earth recovers pretty quickly from whatever happened, you're looking at a vastly reduced human population with a much lighter footprint. There will be forests aplenty. Wood burning steam engines or waterwheels powering electrical generators would take you a long way pretty quickly.

This is assuming you just don't have fossil fuels, but as Kadin 2048 points out, that's hardly the case. Peak oil isn't about there not being any more oil, it's about the oil not being economical to retrieve under current circumstances, which is an entirely different thing. With maybe 5% of the current population, there would be plenty of coal and oil and so on to get things moving.
posted by Naberius at 1:17 PM on April 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

If we burn all the fossil fuels, hoping we evolve gills will likely be a better adaptive strategy.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 1:22 PM on April 14, 2015

A limiting factor is that whatever vehicle fuel supplies there are at the outset are all there will be for quite a long time. A gallon of gasoline will do the work of a man working all day, every day for almost three weeks. Vehicle fuels will only last a year or two before they go bad. So you had best get all the earth moving and other such operations you want to accomplish out of the way as soon as possible after the dust settles. You'll be on the clock.
posted by ob1quixote at 1:33 PM on April 14, 2015

Everyone knows you can put wood in the furnace if you run out of coal.
posted by ethansr at 2:06 PM on April 14, 2015

We'll never run out of coal.

Coal's not even a renewable resource anymore: with the evolution of the ability to decompose lignin in the white rot fungus 300 million years ago, the wood which before that would have gone undecayed and eventually converted to coal now simply rots away. So even on geological time-scales, those 23 to 200 remaining years of coal are all we're getting.
posted by finka at 2:19 PM on April 14, 2015 [16 favorites]

This is a pretty fun link for anyone interested in this whole thing. Misspelled "Archaeometallurgy", though, which is the Google search term you're looking for if you want to go all the way down the rabbit hole on this one.

Chapter 5, "Substances" of The Knowledge in particular is just amazing reading - that's where you'll find the real breakdown of producing lime, lye, coke, soda ash, potash, wood pyrolysis (outputs wood gas, charcoal, methanol, acetone, acetic acid, turpentine, creosote, and pitch), plus isolation of alkalis and acids.

But basically: as long as there's wood, there's hope.
...that's what she said
posted by Ryvar at 2:28 PM on April 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Lewis Dartnell on How to Open a Tin Can and How to Start a Fire.

Weirdly, I had dinner with Lewis literally 30 minutes ago, talking about his work on Mars exploration and science communication, and how Civilization is the best game ever.
posted by adrianhon at 2:36 PM on April 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

finka, that article actually seems to contradict you:
And subsequent evolution has given so-called brown rot fungi the means to work around lignin without attacking it directly. "They have evolved a way to get at cellulose and leave the lignin behind," Hibbett says, which results in the crumbly, brown logs littering temperate forests today—potentially coal in the distant future.
posted by XMLicious at 2:38 PM on April 14, 2015

A gallon of gasoline will do the work of a man working all day, every day for almost three weeks. 

This is why I want a carbon tax. So much non-renewable potential being wasted for pennies. Use the money to set up a Universal Dividend/Alaska Permanent Fund
posted by GregorWill at 2:44 PM on April 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

adrianhon: it warms my heart to hear he's a Civ fan. His book was by far the single most helpful resource for the crafting tree in a town-building game I'm currently working on.
posted by Ryvar at 2:53 PM on April 14, 2015

Coal's not even a renewable resource anymore: with the evolution of the ability to decompose lignin in the white rot fungus 300 million years ago, the wood which before that would have gone undecayed and eventually converted to coal now simply rots away.

That article is misleading. The problem or question is more about the formation of large coal deposits and what affects the presence or absence, and the fungi is put forth as a potential answer; it's actually quite a complex problem with a lot of factors, particularly around basin formation; conditions for mass deposits of carbon material which include climate and/or sea level; oxidation; and burial history (coal formation requires not just carbon but adequate heat & pressure). And there are large coal deposits from after the Carboniferous - for example, ~40% of the U.S.'s coal comes from the Power River Basin coal deposits, which were formed roughly between 40-60 million years ago at the end of the Paleocene & beginning of the Eocene.

Coal has continuously formed since plants evolved - and some coal even forms from algal deposits, meaning we have Precambrian coals - except for the "coal gap" around the Permian- Triassic boundary. I would also venture to say that the extinction event at the P/T boundary affected fungi in a big way as well since the plants they lived on suffered in large numbers - IIRC around 90-95% of all peat producing vegetation went extinct, with significant extinction in some localities prior to the boundary, probably from large scale glaciation.

Now the effect from humans on large scale deposits as we cut/burn down vegetation, drain swamps, and affect sea level is an entirely different train of discussion.
posted by barchan at 3:02 PM on April 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

So, the apocalypse happens, in whatever flavor you prefer...
But the flavor matters!

Four horsemen magically appearing present a much different scenario than a metor strike that NASA saw coming for months. Does the existence of coal even matter when it turns out there is a God, they're angry, and it's time to go home?

OTOH, if the apocalypse were caused by a fundamental shift in physics that causes all electronics to fail, it's doubtful any previous knowledge would even be applicable but the road to rebuilding is much different than if there were a worldwide pandemic (no one say the 'Z'-word!) causing the death of a large majority of the human race.

A virus poses an on-going existential threat but if neutron bombs started flying cities could safely be repopulated in as little as a few years.

There are also apocalyposes we may not be able to come back from. If a fast-moving but tiny black hole took out the sun, there may be no coming back. If that black hole hit the earth and split it in two, that's another scenario that might be the end of us.
posted by fragmede at 4:07 PM on April 14, 2015

fragmede: "There are also apocalyposes we may not be able to come back from."

You have no idea how difficult it is for me to not start a derail on all the hypothetical apocalypses and how remaining humans could or couldn't overcome them. The handful of types you mention are enough to get me going in high gear, let alone what everyone else could come up with.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 5:22 PM on April 14, 2015

An ex of mine from the Balkans told me generator rafts were popular if you lived close enough to a bridge. It wasn't reliable power but it worked most of the time.
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 6:25 PM on April 14, 2015

I really enjoy fragmede's optimism about our chances after the sun is destroyed or the earth split in two!
posted by flaterik at 6:33 PM on April 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

That Knowledge book sounds great! I'm going to buy it right now and download it to my Kind - oh. nevermind.
posted by um at 8:40 PM on April 14, 2015

The problem extends to other resources too, I think. For example, those damned Phoenicians dug out all of the easy access tin deposits.
posted by Chrysostom at 6:34 AM on April 15, 2015

If a fast-moving but tiny black hole took out the sun, there may be no coming back.

If a small -- say, 1 solar mass -- black hole passes through the solar system, we're almost certainly screwed, even if it comes nowhere near us. The planetary orbits will change. They're not like to change in such a way that they wouldn't continue to affect each other.

The Earth will have one of three fates.

1) Jupiter goes NOM NOM NOM, we all die. Subset of this is one of the other planets hits us, same thing.

2) We end up in a very near-solar orbit and fry. We all die.

3) We end up in a very far-solar elliptical orbit, or even escape orbit, and freeze. We all die.

To be honest, the black hole eating us would be a quicker ending.
posted by eriko at 7:54 AM on April 15, 2015

...yup, back to bed!
posted by mephron at 8:41 AM on April 15, 2015

The problem extends to other resources too, I think. For example, those damned Phoenicians dug out all of the easy access tin deposits.

Our ruined cities and garbage dumps would provide a tremendous resource for hard to mine and rare materials. If the apocalypse left the cities alone (ie: no radiation) they might burn down for a few years from uncontrolled fires, but after that the ruins would be full of refined ores, simple recyclables like nails and screws, and manufactured building materials like asphalt, bricks and cinder blocks . (Or even PVC pipe.) A new civilization emerging from survivors of the previous one could scavenge the cities for centuries.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:21 PM on April 15, 2015 [1 favorite]

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