Re-making a post-apocalyptic world sans fossil fuels? Brazil has the answer

A world reborn

A world reborn

“Is there any chance, for instance, that a post-apocalyptic society could reboot a technological civilization?” asks Lewis Dartnell in his thought-provoking Aeon essay. (Click here to read it but if you don’t, here are some of the high points.)

One can see where Mr Dartnell is coming from. His bio describes him as a UK Space Agency research fellow at the University of Leicester, who’s working in astrobiology and the search for microbial life on Mars. More tellingly, his latest book is about “how to rebuild our world from scratch”.

So what does he think then? Can we remake our world if a global catastrophe occurred and our civilization was wiped off the planet?

The main issue, he poins out, will be the lack of fossil fuels. “We have,” as Mr Dartnell says, “already consumed the most easily drainable crude oil … Fossil fuels are central to the organisation of modern industrial society, just as they were central to its development.”

True. But does that mean we cannot rebuild with just the renewables? What about solar panels? Photovoltaic cells? They’ll work for a while, says Mr Dartnell, but “the electricity generated by a solar panel declines by about 1 per cent every year so, after a few generations, all our hand-me-down solar panels will have degraded to the point of uselessness.”

It would be hard to create new ones from scratch, he says, because the processes required are pretty similar to those for modern semiconductor electronics components.  In other words, it would not be possible to harness the energy of the sun – and rebuild our world like today – if we’re early in the industrialization process and do not have fossil fuels.

But it’s not all doom and gloom.

He points us to Brazil, which he says “shows how the raw materials of modern civilisation can be supplied without reliance on fossil fuels”. This is by means of wood pyrolysis.

Brazil’s charcoal industry rests mainly on fast-growing eucalyptus and it is an industrial operation that powers blast furnaces and transforms ore into pig iron.

This could work – and certainly for a world with a small total population.

That’s alright then. A post-apocalyptic world would probably be sparsely populated anyway.