How Long to Restart Civilization? Part II

Okay, the situation’s changed for Pinky and the Brain. Big difference? Small difference? I’ll let y’all decide.

As before, we have a finite number of humans leaving Earth and traveling to a tropical oceanside river delta near mineral-rich, snowcapped mountains, either:

a) 10,000,000 years BP, or

b) an alternate-universe present-day Earth where no hominids or other creatures of human-like intelligence ever evolved.

As before, the diversity of personnel is unlimited. Chemical engineers, survivalists, cardiac surgeons, civil engineers, city planners, jugglers…any profession you feel would be necessary, assume they’ve been included.

As before, the trip is one-way.

Here’s the difference: This time our colonists can take as much material as they want with them. Food, hydroelectric generators, machetes, drywall, medical supplies, humvees, weapons, fishing gear, hummers, telescopes, bulldozers, cinder blocks, chlorine tablets, Weber grills, Webber musicals, smelting equipment…whatever you think is necessary. Since this material must be finite and there’s no resupply, I’ll assign an arbitrary limit of 10 times the weight of each person or roughly 1500 lbs. per capita.

The question is the same as last time: How long will it take before our colony has reestablished a 21st century American/European standard of technology and quality of life?

I think we should call this the “Pitcairn Island Scenario.”

I guess I should elaborate, for those not familiar with the story:

After the famed mutiny on the Bounty, Fletcher Christian and his band of mutineers took the ship to remote Pitcairn Island. There (if I recall correctly) they unloaded what supplies they could, and scuttled the ship.

Like our hypothetical band, they were completely cut off from civilization, and had to carry on with the few goods they’d had aboard ship.

They survived, of course. There was, I believe a violent battle between the Englishmen and the Polynesian men over access to the women, but the “colony” still survived.

I am very optimistic about the scenario in the OP. Put our folks down in the planting season, so they can get a crop in. Set up a metal shop. Start copulating like rabbits, and I can see civilation being rebuilt within 100 years (given the shortcuts that would be available to them).

The OP can also be analogized to the situation faced by early American settlers. Our colonists would have the disadvantage of not being able to depend on trade with the mother country. On the other hand, they would have a huge technological advantage over, say, the Pilgrims.

The US was built in 400 years, from small primitive farming colonies to what we see today. I think with the head start our hypothetical colonists have, 100 years is do-able. (Though on a smaller geographic scale than the US.)

I think it’s important to know how many people are sent back.

Well, since I was about the most optimistic person in the original thread, I’ll bet you can guess where I’m going here. Careful choices for the original material (i.e., for mining exploitation, plus a basic machining setup), will go a long way toward the whole advancement phase. Likewise, materials for setting up immediate shelter will cut down most of the edge on that first killer year. The rest of the material can be nonperishable food (to replace nutrition that may not be available immediately, such as vitamin C), or copper and iron bar stock (to produce tools that only become obvious in hindsight).

On the other hand, initial population size is still going to have a *huge influence on the development curve- there won’t be any need for roller coasters, for example, if there’s nobody you can possibly spare to operate them.

My WAG: immediate ability to produce modern metal tools (that machine shop is a bonanza); five years until resource exploitation means that any arbitrariy large amount of something can be produced; ten years from start date before any particular production environment can be replicated- at which point we have effectively passed the benchmark for replicating civilization.

Two caveats:

  1. Certain resources (gold or semiconductor-quality silicon) are going to take a long time to locate (and yttrium is Right Out)- those phases of development will lag a bit.

  2. Likewise, certain things are a waste of space if there aern’t enough people to make them worthwhile (like that roller coaster). In these cases, I think “we could build 'em if we want to” is a better gauge than a forecast of potential population density (which has a fixed, and easily calculated, maximum regardless of the scenario). You may disagree :p.

This is somewhat closer to S.M. Stirling’s scenario, as depicted in his Island in the Sea of Time trilogy, than the original “How Long…” topic.

The “wish list” of stuff should only include commodities that are non-renewable within several generations, assuming constant progress. Medicines, seed stock, domesticated animals, machine tools, forge/smithy outfit, specialized hand tools, weapons and ammunition, and precious, precious knowledge in the form of “how to” books in durable, weather-proof containers.

Given a fairly diverse cross-section of our modern society, I think a sustainable equivalent to the early-mid 19th century could be established within a generation.

Naturally the comparison won’t be equal across the board; many technologies available then (today, even) haven’t any concievable application until some bright person figures it out, which is why technical innovation can seriously lag behind scientific breakthrough.

Knowing then what we know now would allow the inclusion of some 20th century innovations such as medicine (technique and anatomy), health (hygiene and sanitation), nutrition (adequate and balanced diet), environment (soil and water conservation, and efficient utilization of natural resources) while excluding things like cars, trains, ironclads or serious mass-production industry, as they are too resource intensive for probably several generations.

I see initial (years 1-5 +/-) development as an agrarian commune, with a small cadre of techno-specialists (geologists, metallurgists, blacksmiths, chemists, plus some more I’m probably skimming over) establishng the foundations for the next generation. Included in this would be the beginning of mechanical agriculture, with first-generation animal-drawn machinery, and wind/water powered mills.

(Years 5-10 +/-) As land cultivation becomes normalized and food surpluses allow, mechanical advantage can be exploited with first generation steam engines, manufactured using the inventory of machine tools our colonists most probably brought with them. If they didn’t, they need their heads examined. Hell, even a lathe would be worth its weight in gold many times over, as it’s one of the few machine tools that can reproduce itself. Mechanical agriculture will free up personnel to devote time and effort towards technical specialties (even if it’s only carpentry, shipbuilding, etc.)

Other than a very few, maybe even only one, motor vehicles are an unecessary luxury, IMHO. Use the established weight allowance for domesticated livestock and worry about motor transport later.

Competent carpenters, shipwrights (traditional) and sailors/mariners are a good idea as well, unless our nominal civilization wants to completely redevelop the maritime trades and industry from scratch; in which case include a competent mathametician and cartographer. Plus the sea offers many resources to our budding colony, not the least of which is food.

Organization and prioritization are absolutely key; without it, I don’t care what they bring with them, they’re dead or reverted to primitive H-Gs within a generation.

A “Council” type democratic gov’t is possible, but ultimate executive power would most probably reside in a council of technocrats or specialists. The margins of survival are too thin for anything but a cohesive society working under intelligent, directed effort, and it’s a very long walk home.

After the first decade, then the path of development is pretty much open to whatever the locals decide. Their priorities will dictate future allocation of resources to developmental imperitives.

The weight limit is a bit more problematic than I first thought.

Livestock will eat up a lot of weight. How large a population of cattle will you need to establish a viable breeding program? Horses? Sheep? Chickens?

I suppose you could fudge a bit by bringing along calves rather than full-grown cows, but it’s still a problem. Calves may or may not survive to adulthood. Furthermore, you can expect to lose some of your livestock to predators, unless you are prepared to keep them under 24-hour guard. (And that may well be necessary.)

You also have to bring enough food supplies to last until your first crops come in. I suppose you can bring some staples, to be supplemented by wild game, but that didn’t work out too well for the Pilgrims.

(Ex Tank is right. Fishing may be a critical source of food early on. Don’t forget to bring plenty of line, and some boatwrights.)

The problem with replicating modern technology (as noted by several posters in the earlier thread) is that you need a large population to do so. That is why I am estimating at least 100 years to reach that sort of population level. And that is also assuming that we have some very randy colonists.


At the Mars Society convention in 1999 I heard someone give a talk proposing rabbits as the principle livestock for a Mars colonization mission.

They’re small and lightweight, can be used for meat or clothing (even without killing them, if you bring Angoras), and they breed like rabbits. Exactly like, in fact.

Along with getting rid of the cosmologists and telephone sanitizers we forget about bulky books for the esoteric knowledge and bring it in the form of microfilm to be rediscovered by some later generation. We wouldn’t really have to worry about people not understanding it, we could have a whole series of texts building this knowledge from first priciples.

Balduran: I was thinking of a couple of fairly powerful PCs or a Mini, run off of wind, water or solar power, chock full of useful application programs and a veritable library of CD-ROMs. And spare parts for them.

For our budding colony, knowledge is survival. The list of possible useful programs/data is potentially too long to go into here, but I’ll toss off some possibles I’d want:

[1] Meteorology
[2] Metallurgy
[3] Soil/Land/Water Analysis
[4] Cartography/Surveying
[6] Medical Sciences
[7] Veterinary Sciences
[8] Architecture[/ul]

Just to name a few off of the top of my head, in between bites of supper.

Man, you guys are being WAY too optimistic. If we’re starting with 3000 people, you’re not going to see an advanced civilization again for generations, if for no other reason that sheer lack of manpower. Think about how many people it takes to make something as complex as an engine - How many miners, how many people to transport ore, to smelt it, to build sand castings, pourings, extrusions… Then there’s the rubber for insulation for wiring and tires and seals and such, which requires harvesting the rubber itself, vulcanizing it, etc. Then there’s the petroleum, construction of cracking plants, the list goes on.

And remember, this is only one very small piece of technology. And you still people to grow food, built shelters, teach children, etc. ad infinitum.

Even assuming that our colonists walked into a WHOLE WORLD fully stocked with today’s technology, it would take generations before they had enough people to operate everything, by which time most of it would be in ruins.

I think that the minumum population you need to sustain a technological society is on the order of millions of people. Hell, you probably need several thousand people just to maintain production of ball bearings.

Then think of all the specialized trades you need to maintain even a middle-tech society: Saddlemakers, blacksmiths, tool and die pros, miners, seamstresses, loom makers, carpenters, (nail makers!), the list goes on.

My personal opinion is that allowing the colony to bring along a few thousand pounds of goods will give them a more comfortable life, and greatly increase the chance of the colony surviving and thriving, but it won’t do much to shorten the time it takes to get back to a 20th century technological level.

All the tools and equipment they bring are going to wear out, and they won’t be able to replace all but a small fraction of them. So they need to prepare for the 18th century lifestyle their children’s children are going to have to lead.

The first thing I’d bring is a nuclear reactor. Something like the nuclear electric generator on the Cassini mission, only at a slightly larger scale. Double or triple the spares for anything that could wear out or degrade. This thing would form the core of the colony - with enough power, you can achieve anything, and a nuclear generator could last for hundreds of years. That means heat, light, power for tools, electric fences to keep out predators, etc.

Then lots of basic tools. Not fancy, just very high quality. Wheelbarrow hardware (you can carve the wood frame for it later), saws, axe heads (make axe handles later), titanium drill bits and saw blades by the gross, etc.

Forget cows if we’re limited by weight or volume. They’re inefficient. Bring a few male goats, dogs, sheep, and other small useful animals, plus lots of young, pregnant females. The cheapest way to take your animals is as embryos inside mom. One male can fertilize lots of females, so you want to take like a 10-1 ratio of females to males.

There are a few small machines that could last a long, long time and be incredibly useful. Treadle operated Singer sewing machines, metal looms, spinning wheels. Load up on those.

Forget anything high tech. Computers only last a few years, and will never be replaced. Gas engines need gas and wear out fast.

Sam Stone-

I agree that a large population is needed to regenerate civilization. However, you could attain such a population within a hundred years if fertility rates are high enough.

Not long ago, it was not at all unusual for farm families to have anywhere from 5 to 10 children, or even more. Even allowing for mortality (which shouldn’t be too high, given the fact that you are bringing medical knowledge back with you), a couple might reasonably be expected to raise six children to adulthood. In other words, every generation at least triples the population.

At that rate, starting from a base population of 3,000, you could probably get to 1,000,000 in a little over 100 years, which is why I was using my 100-year estimate for a return to modernity.

Also, I think that in both this thread and the prior one, the difficulty of mining has been over-rated. When man first started working metals, there were ores lying around on the ground. Only when those were exhausted did he have to start digging. I can show you a place right now where you can find exposed flint and exposed iron ore in quantity on one small ridge. When they started producing oil in Pennsylvania, the stuff was bubbling up all over the place. The Upper Peninsula of Michigan still has copper nuggets lying around if you know where to look.

On another point, there is at least one gas engine I would bring- a chainsaw, with a few gallons of fuel. It would earn its space by allowing you to quickly clear a place for your initial settlement and farms (whereas the same chores carried out with hand tools would take weeks or months, and would tie up manpower that could be utilized for other tasks). The chainsaw would also quicken considerably the construction of log cabins.

One important technology which has not yet been mentioned is glass-making. Should be able to get that one up and running pretty quickly, I imagine.

Oh yeah, and Sam Stone, I think both you and Fiver are underestimating the importance of cattle. You can use them for meat, milk, cheese, butter, leather, glue, and perhaps most importantly, as draft animals.

(That is, unless y’all were gonna use bunny rabbits and sheep to pull your plows…)

As an aside on gas powered machinery, why not take multi fuel adapted chainsaws etc and run them on alcohol- stills would provide using available heat and natural sugars. If such machines were retro-engineered for simplicity of rfepair rather than simplicity of mass production (and built in obsolecence) they would last generations with machine repairable/manufactured replaceable parts.

Farm animals are important, but they take up a lot of valuable space.

So I would decide which species were needed, and bring a fair number of infant females of those species, together with a lot of fertilised ova in liquid nitrogen. I can aready see the objections being raised, but soft cryogenics, such as liquid nitrogen production, is actually a very simple, ninteenth-century, technology - really no more complicated than the back of your refrigerator. Heck, I would not be surprised if it was possible to create a foot-powered liquid nitrogen plant - basically a relative of a foot-powered bicycle pump.

So why stop with domestic animals? We have 3000 people, right? I would add say ten times that number of fertilised human ova, to ensure genetic diversity.

By the way, I believe that the problems involved have been grossly overstated by some posters. You do not need thousands of people to build an engine. A small reverboratory (sp?) furnace can be operated by one person, with some unskilled help when loading the furnace. And as posted above, usable ores once could be found right on the surface of the ground in various locations - and I have to think that these locations would be known beforehand to the people involved, who would plan their destination accordingly.

Without addressing any particular detials, I thought I would address a key weakness in the optimist analysis here, one shared with the prior thread.

Abstracting away from opportunity costs. 3K people --above all 3k people without draft animals-- have a limited amount of work time to allocate among many pressing tasks. Further, in analyzing these scenarios one has to build in allowances for (i) less than optimal performance by machines and people (ii) disaster risk, above all environmental.

In regards to a first stage pressing tasks include
(a) subsistance agriculture – early groundbreaking
(b) establishing at least artisanal industrial shops --if for repairs only
© construction of housing, residential and industrial and infrastructure to support both residential and industrial acitivities.
(d) exploration of region (not for the romantic reasons, for risk control)
(e) natural resource extraction
(f) of course human maintenance --training, child bearing/rearing etc.

Each of these has a differential claim on time. I believe there has been a tendency so far, in both threads to focus in on whatever issue the poster is thinking about, say smelting, and abstract away from the global claims on energy and time. Trying to do too much will result in rapidly diminishing returns and likely to overinvestment in unsustainable infrastructure/projects.

I’ll repeat from the prior thread, if there is one thing which working in the 3rd world has taught me, it is the extent to which accumulated infrastructure is necessary for the long term maintenance and efficiency of any project, above all technologically intensive ones. Frankly, I think most posters here are not grasping the extent to which efficiencies in technology use are interdependant.


My extrapolations are derived from the experience of European colonists in America. Our hypothetical colonists are in an analogous position. They have some advantages over, say, the Jamestown settlers, in technological abilities. They also have the advantage of not having to worry about a pre-existing and sometimes-hostile native population. They have a disadvantage in not being able to rely on help from the home country, or from natives.

All in all, though, I would say the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. I still think 100 years is reasonable to create the sort of supporting infrastructure you are talking about.

If you bring along a chainsaw, you have a working example of an internal combustion engine. Ditto for other technologies. You don’t have to re-invent the wheel, so to speak. Granted, it will take a while to marshal the natural resources needed to create an internal combustion engine from scratch, but you enter upon that task knowing in advance what is needed.

If the original European colonists could create our current society in 400 years with no advance knowledge of technology, I see no reason why our hypothetical colonists couldn’t do it in 100.

Just wanted to stop by again and remind Collounsbury, Groundskeeper Willie, spoke- et al. that there is nothing in the OP which specifies a base population of 3000. Someone used that as a ballpark figure in the previous thread and it’s been repeated as a precondition, but what I actually wrote was that you have as many people as you need.

And the supply allowance is per capita, so it shouldn’t make much difference how many people you take; you’ll have enough for all of them, assuming food is most of what you take.

Maybe that’s a poor assumption. I’ll admit I have no idea how much plutonium batteries weigh, or even a cow for that matter.

*Originally posted by spoke- *


I think your reasoning is a bit flawed, as can be pointed out by comparing the two paragraphs above. I’m not criticizing it, just that you’re missing a crucial point. While the original European colonists to the US were initially isolated for extended periods of time, they weren’t totally cut off from other populations (natives and Europeans).

One of the reasons why we (the US) and others (the Europeans) were able to advance technologically was that there was a sufficient population base. To me, an important issue is determining or establishing what the critical population level is in order for civilization in its most rudementary form to emerge. Once some type of civilization has been establish will it be possible to achieve any kind of technological progress.

I think Collounsbury is quite correct in not underestimating the importance of an underlying infrastructure required to make technological progress. An important need, then, is a critical population mass for the formation of a civilization sufficient in establishing the necessary infrastructures. We need one sufficinetly large enough if we want to reduce the amount of time it takes to recreate 21st Century civilization/technology. If we don’t have a large enough “seed population”, then the prerequisite civilization/infrastructure won’t be in place (at a later time) to do so.

I don’t know what that critical population is, but I’m guessing anywhere from 50,000 - 100,000 people as an initial seed population to develop some sort of civilization. Also required is fairly rapid population growth not exceeding its food production capabilities. At some future population level, “economies of scale” and “agglomerations” will kick in making technological progess possible (you need some sufficient population level not only to make technological progress, but also to sustain the current level of technology).

In re spoke’s analysis:

I did not mean to criticize the 100 year benchmark directly, in fact on first view it strikes me as reasonable if we allow for certain problems. My real criticism was directed towards the “general” assumptions of ease —not really your assumptions. But at the same time eponymous rightly points out that the comparison with the New World is somewhat flawed because of the lack of trade opportunities, as well as the open question of immigration, but more on that below.

Further the analysis:

Dropping the 3k limit but raising a new issue, which is to say a resource bottleneck. We have a potentially serious problem in regards to bringing in numbers of people.

On one hand, if we want the colony to survive and maximize growth in the near term, we need as large an initial population base as possible. I will accept the 50k plus estimate just for argument sake.

On the other hand, such a large number of initial colonists, whether spread out or concentrated present real issues in terms of
(a) marshaling initial resources in the first year in order to present starvation — either on a wide scale or local
(b) to allocate resources in the near term, and prevent over-utilization — a sort of locust effect.

While not impossible, we need to consider this as a challenge — I do not do logistics so I can’t say I have any real experience in this area, however I suggest that the issue of scale in terms of numbers cause the problem of provisioning and successfully maintaining to increase exponentially. That is not to say insurmountable, but certainly problematic.