Last night I watched the pilot of a reality show called Naked and Afraid on the Discovery Channel. Essentially, the show's producers took two survivalists – one man and one woman – and dropped them in a remote area without supplies, food … or even clothes. They had to survive twenty-one days in the wild with basically their wits.
(Muse: Face it, you just wanted to see T&A.)
They blurred everything out except for the asses. The two initial people – a 25-ish girl and 40-ish guy – did the right thing up front. They laughed and said, "Well, we may as well check each other out and get it over with." They gave each other a thorough eye-job and then pressed on, nudity forgotten. After about five minutes, I forgot about it too. I guess when you're cold, hungry, tired, and mentally exhausted, you stop worrying about being naked in front of someone. There was no sexual tension, just serious tension as the two of them wore down. I'd say the guy bitched a little more and the girl sluffed off a little more. They struggled but managed to stay warm enough and eat just enough to stay alive, to be rescued after three weeks.
I thought about this a little further today, in the context of spec fiction. Fiction set in the "after the apocalypse" has become really common in the last decade or so. Wikipedia has entire list of post-apocalyptic fiction (nice, because it's a sortable list). Whatever the reason, after the end of civilization, there is always the struggle to survive and carry on. But watching these two trained survivalists struggle to even build a shelter and feed themselves (I think they ate a snake and a turtle between them in the course of three weeks), it makes me wonder if writers miss a prime opportunity to mine that ground.
Most people in the Western world have absolutely no idea how to light a fire without a lighter, tell whether a plant is safe to eat or not, or even collect water safely. Faced with a loss of immediate essentials, I daresay most people couldn't cope. Supplies of ready-made food (assuming they were safe and not affected by radiation or something) would vanish frighteningly fast. Fuel would be gone almost overnight. Animals around any population center would be hunted out in a matter of weeks. Then what? Barring a mass-depopulation (say, on the order of 95% or more), any post-apocalypse in the modern world that did not include mass starvation, spread of pestilence, or even desperate cannibalism feels like missed opportunity on the writer's behalf. Think about a city like Phoenix. Five-plus million population, in a desert with no water and no native food production. It's held together by trucking and water piped in from the Colorado River – none of which would exist for long once transportation and power failed. How long would those people last? Not long. I get that the survivors in such a world would have some advantages over the naked explorers above, such as access to tools and weapons, but that only gets one so far. You still gotta know what you're doing.
In terms of resilience, comparing an advanced civilization to an older one is like comparing a modern computer to an abacus. Sure, the highly-specialized nature of the individual parts allow the computer to function at a much more productive level … but it is also fragile. An older, agrarian society would be more resilient in the event of mass destruction; most food and tools are produced locally and while communities might not be wholly self-sufficient, people in non-industrialized nations are a lot closer to that life than we are. Any survivors in the modern world would learn fast … but the cost of that learning curve would be Pyrrhic.
Drop an abacus and other than losing your place, you pick it up and go on. Drop a computer and it you are maybe better off building a new one than trying to fix it.
Anyway, just an interesting thought on disaster fiction. Just don't forget the T&A.