What would it be like to be the last person on Earth?

Every time I post a link to the Daily Mail, I get a bunch of email from UK readers telling me that the Daily Mail is a horrible fascist newspaper that would instantly putrefy any fish you wrapped in it, but I still enjoy some of the articles in it -- such as this speculative piece on what it would be like to be the last human on Earth.
Picture 5-48 Some areas of rural Britain would be worth avoiding, not least because a potent threat to our survivor would come from Britain's two dozen or so remaining nuclear reactors, mostly dotted around the northern and eastern coasts.

If their staff vanished, and as back-up power supplies failed, a real danger would be that one or more would go into meltdown as cooling pumps failed.

The equivalent of several Chernobyls could render big areas of the country uninhabitable. With prevailing winds as they are, it would perhaps be best to head for the westernmost parts of the country or even try to escape Britain altogether.

Assuming our survivor avoided this radiation fall- out, hygiene would be an issue - if he chose to remain in the city, he would find the lack of mains sewage and drainage a problem after only a few days, as the pumping stations failed, while rivers would probably be too polluted to bathe in.

The only hot water would come from a stove, and washing oneself and one's clothes would be a chore (fortunately the world's shops are full of many, many lifetimes' worth of clean clothing).

As for our survivor's health, the lack of any other people to spread infectious diseases would be a blessing, but the risk of accidents would be a constant worry - even a broken limb could quickly prove fatal if the injury was not dealt with correctly.

The best last-human-on-Earth novel I've read is Earth Abides, by by George R. Stewart (cover shown above). Link (Via Spluch)

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  1. I read ‘Earth Abides’ last year. Loved it.
    I was reading that book about John Titor, the supposed time traveller who was debunked and accused of lifting large chunks of his account of the future from ‘Earth Abides’, which prompted me to seek it out.

    Wow, I just looked up the link for the John Titor book on Amazon.com….. they’ve got used copies going for $228.98

    Shit I’ll have to sell mine! (It’s a collection of his internet posts arranged in a chronological order and very plausible and you WANT to believe it’s real. It’s almost hair-raising in its realism. ‘Earth Abides’ is too, but in more of a 1950’s Twilighty Zone way.)

    :)

  2. Aside from any ideological reasons to hate the Mail, this article is bogus. Britain’s reactors would not spontaneously melt down if nobody was in charge of them — passive safeguards prevent that. They’d just gradually stop producing power. Several hundred years later, sure, there would be problems as concrete started to decay (leakage, possible groundwater contamination). But the idea of a ring of mushroom clouds around the coast is misinformed.

  3. On the subject of being the last person on earth, I thought you and your readers might enjoy this little video:

    :)

  4. I remember reading Earth Abides in high school, back when we were all sure that we would be living in a post-apocalyptic world by now.

    Dammit, Where’s my cow skinned covered jet car!

  5. I have to say, though, the original Last Man on Earth is still my favorite.

    That’d be The Last Man by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. It’s really great SF, especially given that it was written in the 1820s.

    Shelley is probably one of the most underrated SF writers, probably because she only really wrote two books, and one was reduced to a Hollywood genre.

  6. Top Five Tips For The Last Man On Earth

    1. Arm yourself. In all probability you are not alone. Handguns for now.

    2. Look around, cautiously. Do the best you can to determine what kind of empty world you are in… don’t yell to find other people until you know you want to meet them. They might be zombies, mutants, alien zookeepers, etc. Ask yourself some basic questions: Are the animate dead walking the street and hungering for living flesh? What do you smell? rot? decay? Is the hideous shambling form you spot in the distance a horrible mutated survivor or the undead? Will the mutants hate you for your good looks or blame you for destroying the bulk of humanity? Will the alien zookeepers bring you a mate? Will she be hot? It will take at least one act before you know for sure what’s going on, so stay flexible in the first few days.

    3. Get some wheels. A motorcycle will get you through all the wrecked and abandoned but you have to worry about wrecking it (no doctors) and it really can’t carry much in the way of ammunition and supplies. A rugged off-road vehicle with simple mechanics would be best, but nothing with an open top (zombies.) Take spare tires and basic vehicle fluids and parts and equipment (battery, spark plugs, distributor cap, etc.) Fill up as many gasoline cans as practical before the power goes off. Getting gas out of underground tanks is not as easy as it looks in the movies and siphoning gas out of other cars is time consuming and leaves you exposed (zombies.)

    4. Hit the grocery store. Stock up on canned goods, can openers and calorie-dense foods with a reasonably long shelf life such as nuts, chocolate, and dried fruits. Eat all you want… your weight will never be a problem again. (If there is a last woman, she’ll accept you for who you are. Probably.) Bottled water, medications, hygiene products are also on the shopping list, but don’t try to get everything, this is all just to tide you over until you…

    5. Get out of the city. Hundreds of tiny events out of your control can go wrong in a city and kill you: fires, disease, roving gangs of mutants, etc. You want to think fortress. Find a little place in the country and clear the trees around it for a free-fire zone. Stock up on firewood and candles. Keep a generator going if you must, but ease back on it so that when it breaks or there’s no more gas, it won’t come as such a shock. Make trips back to urban centers to stock up on food, medicine, and to hunt for the last woman on Earth (unless you already found her… but would a spare really hurt?) Stockpile, stockpile, stockpile. Food, weapons, ammunition, medicine, pornography, clothing, fire extinguishers, how-to books and tools. Take up farming. And if any lived, get a dog. Try to avoid surrounding yourself with mannequins; they are just a path to madness.

  7. Billegible,

    Very few LMOE stories actually feature the literal last surviving human being on the entire planet. (There is almost always, at the very least, a last woman.) Only Shelley and a particularly brutal little short story called “Adam and No Eve” by Alfred Bester are all that I can recall right now. (I’m trying to write the LMOE genre entry for wikipedia, but all my research is at the house.)

  8. While I enjoyed much of the book, I was disappointed by the conceit of Isherwood Williams. While I am willing to give allowances for the fact that he suffers from PTSD, I always thought him a poor hero.

    I always refute the claim that the book was Man vs. Nature. Ish’s failures derive from himself, and I wonder if a more dedicated, more robust hero would have fared better.

  9. @sugarfree – one might try heading for the nearest military installation. Big source of guns and ammo, not to mention armored military vehicles. Most do not require keys; look for a bolt cutter to remove the lock and chain from the steering mechanism.

    The military also maintains a fleet of tanker trucks for refueling. I don’t know if those are kept full for readiness purposes, but if so, you avoid the problem with underground fuel storage.

    Also available on military bases would be various sizes and types of generators, some conveniently mounted on trailers, which can be used to operate pumps for getting at those underground fuel sources.

    There are usually several dining facilities on such a facility, which hold a large store of canned goods, enough to last one person a lifetime, or at least as long as they remain unspoiled. That’ll get you through several failed attempts at farming. Meals, Ready to Eat (MREs) are good for ten years under normal storage conditions.

    Medical supplies are another thing commonly found on military bases. These include everything from aspirin to surgical equipment to morphine and antibiotics. Every base has a hospital; I suggest looking there first.

    Also, consider engineering equipment such as bulldozers, backhoes, etc. You can’t run an Army without engineers, and I’m sure you don’t want to be building fortifications by hand. Essayons!

    In short, military installations are one-stop shopping centers for any Last Man On Earth. There’s enough there to hold off the zombies for dozens of lifetimes.

  10. I second the recommendation to read The World Without Us. Weisman’s book is certainly an inspiration for the article.

  11. The meltdown canard rears its ugly head again, I see.

    (Let’s see: the AGRs are designed to go into passive shutdown. They don’t need active cooling, and if the core *does* overheat and there’s a loss of coolant — which is also the moderator — there’s a hopper full of barium-impregnated glass beads sitting on top, waiting to melt and flow through the gas channels, vitrifying the reactor into a block of glass laced with a neutron-absorber that poisons fission reactions. The Westinghouse PWRs used elsewhere in newer UK installations have much the same shutdown mode as any other PWRs: they’re designed to inherently reduce output if the core temperature rises. If they lose coolant the reactor shuts down because the coolant is the moderator: no moderator, no fission chain reaction. That leaves the Magnox reactors — which might be a bit less reliable, but generally regarded as relatively safe (they have low density cores and are gas cooled, and were designed to contain the products of a LOCA): and as they were built during the 1950s and early 1960s, most of them have been decommissioned.)

    The presence of one piece of alarmist rubbish in an article doesn’t automatically invalide the whole thing, but it *does* call for a few extra pinches of salt to be applied.

  12. I’ve always wondered how hard to operate hydroelectric dams were, as that would be a good source for electricity for my you’re-the-last-person-alive scenario. You could operate freezers, microwaves, DVD players, pinball machines, etc. You would also have plenty of fresh water and a solid (hopefully) structure to use for a home.

  13. an unattended reactor does not have to melt down to create an environmental catastrophe.I am sure there are many other unpleasant scenarios with equally long-lasting results.

  14. Once you fortify your local mall against zombies, you can go ahead and take all the photos inside the mall you like, with impunity. At least until you run out of batteries.

  15. After “Earth Abides”, which has graced my bookshelves since I was 12, my favorite LMOE story is an old “Twilight Zone” episode in which Burgess Meredith is positively delighted about being left alone — all that time to read and no one to interrupt! — at least until he stumbles and breaks his glasses (sob…).

  16. The nuclear plant bit assumes people just up and disappear like a fart in the wind. If a virus or zombie outbreak were to occur the people manning the reactors would likely have the good sense to put them into some kind of shutdown/standby mode.

    In the excellent World War Z, Max Brooks came up with the term “Lamoes” (last man on earth) which applied to people who roughed it alone through the zombie plague.

    Earth Abides is excellent, focusing on the loss of thousands of years of human culture in the face of catastrophe.

  17. The best description of the Mail I ever heard wasn’t so much that it was a fascist newspaper but that its sole purpose was to frighten the middle classes. And I agree: who are all those people behind the Last Man On Earth?

  18. How long would an unattended,un-continually remediated Hanford last before poisoning three or four American states?

  19. @ Takuan-

    As a geology student I got a tour of the Hanford reservation in the mid 90s. As best as I can remember the concern was that the waste is moving toward the Columbia River via ground water. I don’t recall any concern about a big kablooie sort of thing that would cause mass ruination.

  20. Mimicing other comments, anyting but the most ancient russian reactors are designed to shut themself off rather than explode if left alone, so all that guff about chernobyls across the east coast is not likely. The rest of it describes situations that much of the world deal with perfectly fine today.

    However if a daily mail reader were the last human on earth , I wouldn’t trust them to survive long without breaking something’s leg. Or at least trying to build a wall around Britain.

  21. Dave Hutchinson:

    It was kind-of a fascist newspaper. At least it’s open about its current status as the paper of choice for reactionary imbeciles. However, I always find Metro faintly sinister – it’s published by the Mail but masquerades as a happy-go-lucky free sheet for everyone. Today’s front-page news: Gays can be intolerant too!! Well, actually that important story had to share space with something about debt/mortgages/house prices, another perennial Mail obsession.

  22. TAKUAN @32, I don’t see humanity as a cancer or a bad thing. I’m a humanity, and so are both of my kids.

    But I’d like to see people put things in perspective: despite significant problems with it, we have a potentially viable technology, fission power, that has virtually unlimited fuel and which would solve a host of environmental problems. It gets a bunch of bad press because of “things that go bump in the night” stories told by people who are apparently ignorant of what a good thing for the local environment the Chernobyl disaster has been.

    Humans aren’t very good at making statistical judgements (entire industries depend on this, to say nothing of entire political parties). But the future well-being of our species and the world we live in depends on us making judgements that are at least not absolutely antithetical to the truth of the matter.

    It is not too much to say that the simple fact of human habitation is a bigger environmental hazard than the most badly designed, incompetently run nuclear power station on the planet after it has melted down.

    That undoubted fact should give one pause, and cause reflection. Perhaps better public policy might involve pushing for more nuclear power and higher density habitation, rather than more coal plants, more roads, and lower taxes on gas?

    This is not about hating humanity (although I’d probably be willing to make an exception in your case, if you’d like). It’s about the kind of world we want our children to live in.

  23. The people in northern England, and many other places besides, who were drenched with radioactive rain from the Chernobyl plume, thought it was a bad thing.

  24. Thinking about being LMOE. Has anyone got an idea how long the GPS constellation of satellites would be useful?

  25. cha0tic,

    They’d probably last quite a while, but geocaching all by yourself gets old real fast.

  26. If you were the only person who ever lived, would you live forever? I mean cause you’re the only thing in the universe with a perception of time. Hmmmmm…

    Okay, I admit I’m trolling…

  27. Most of the radioactivity from Chernobyl was successfully contained within the hastily-erected sarcophagus, but it’s still there and if the sarcophagus is ever breached any time in the next few thousand years we will see the true degree of contamination caused by the accident.

  28. the last GPS satellite would likely fail at twenty years.. plutonium is forever

    as for “true costs”; what is the “true cost” to even one family bereft of a mother or father due to thyroid cancer?

  29. Takuan: it is one tenth the true cost of ten lives lost due to a blackout, or one hundredth the cost of the hundred lives lost in warming driven-storms.

  30. @BILLEGIBLE: those are Morlocks – a type of zombie.

    Any LHOE will have much worse problems than old, shut down nuclear reactors to worry about. Appendicitis. Pneumonia. Psychosis. Salmonella. Tigers. It’ll be one of the little not-so-dramatic things that get ya.
    Most people these days might last a month at best is my guess before they do something in error, get sick or commit suicide.

  31. Time Machine was on AMC or Turner a couple nights ago – and I think Morlocks are at least some type of zombie anyway…I mean i bet they would eat yer brain….

  32. @mioumiou: i wondered when someone was going to mention The Road… complete with real life baby-roasting survivors! ewww.

  33. Takuan,

    Plutonium is most certainly not forever — all isotopes are unstable and decay.

    Pu-238 is a strong alpha emitter and is the isotope used in power generation in space. It has a half-life of 88 years. Pu-239 is the fissile component of most nuclear weapons and has a half-life of 24,100 years.

  34. The Quiet Earth: Interesting film, about a guy who wakes up to find everyone else in the world gone. Well almost everyone. And, inevitably, the movie starts well and slips fast, down towards suckdom. But still, worth renting if you can find it. Some fun scenes and ideas.

    http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0089869/

    Earth Abides: if only someone would make a good, honest film of that. Set in the late 1940’s like the book, in San Francisco. And allowing itself to be pretty damned depressing, like the book. I like an open, dark ending, me.

  35. I was profoundly disappointed by Earth Abides. “Let’s imagine a future centred around a feckless academic type”. Meander, meander. And no, it wasn’t the ending, that was OK-ish, but overall, so many questions went unanswered, so many obvious decisions weren’t taken. Implausible.

  36. EARTH ABIDES is one of my all-time favorite sci-fi novels, and reading it kinda put an end to my interest in the sub-genre, since it did such a good job.

    Yeah, he was a ‘feckless academic’, I think that was kinda the point (not much different really than today’s tech nerd, plus/minus .5 C’s worth of culture change). It was so… mundane. Localizing of disease… sub-critical social size… yeah.

    First read it 20+ years ago. Read it 2, 3 more times since then, haven’t read it in probably 10 years.

    Greak book, flaws and all.

  37. Anyone else find it odd that, apparently, without human activity, rivers will become unsafe to drink when sewage treatment plants go offline…

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