Monday, 27 November 2017

Thoughts on the Post Apocalypse

I was thinking the other day about the worst days in my life. (Don't ask why I got onto that subject.) I tried to come up with a top 5. I quickly decided that by a long stretch, the top of the list was 11th March 2011, the date of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. That was the biggest negative watershed that there's been in my life: relationships almost irreparably damaged; treasured belongings destroyed; loved ones in mortal danger; financial ruin for the extended family. The actual physical experience was easy to get over and I don't remember at any time feeling any great sense of fear, but the aftermath was literally indescribable. The best I can do is to say that it was like living in an Etch-a-sketch picture which God suddenly grabbed in both hands and violently shook into disintegration for no reason. Or living in a kaleidoscope which had been stuck on one pattern for years and years and was then suddenly twisted repeatedly by a capricious child, throwing everything into utter confusion.

But fast forward 6 1/2 years and things have stabilised, as they inevitably do. There is a new normal. Recovery is underway. Homes have been rebuilt. Huge white-elephant "economic stimulus" public spending projects of the kind in which Japan specializes have been completed. Children have been born and others have grown up. Time has healed psychological wounds. Thing will never be the same as they were - the land is permanently scarred, friends and family members have died, the decline in the population levels in coastal towns may never be fully reversed. Yet the post-apocalypse, it turns out, is the green freshness of spring. Sometimes the apocalypse isn't an apocalypse at all; but it takes years to find that out.


One thing I'm always struck by when in the hills of Scotland, Wales or Northern England is that walking through those landscapes is to walk through the aftermath of an environmental catastrophe that in totality if not in scale far eclipses the deforestation of the Amazon. Once, Britain was almost entirely covered in woodland. In 1919 only 5% of the country was forested. The hills have been stripped bare. Entire ecosystems have disappeared, to be replaced by bleak windswept humps picked clear by sheep. What remains has great beauty, but it's almost a dead landscape. Just the merest fragments are left - some songbirds, badgers, foxes, the occasional buzzard. Refugees of a disaster that took place in slow motion over thousands of years. To them, modern Britain is like Gamma World.

It isn't over yet, though. Sheep were the unlikely harbingers of doom in previous centuries. Now it's monocultures and other modern agricultural practices. Turtle doves have declined by 97% since 1967. When I was a kid vast clouds of starlings would swarm in city centres at dusk. Their population has crashed by 89% since 1967. Sometimes a post-apocalypse isn't the end of the matter. Sometimes the apocalypses keep on coming.


Sheep - innocent, stupid, fluffy sheep - are often at the forefront of the apocalypse game, as it turns out. Visitors to the Scottish Highlands and islands are usually staggered by the emptiness of the landscape. It's one of the least-populated areas of Europe. The reasons for this are complicated, but one of the main ones is that during the 18th and 19th centuries landowners decided sheep were more profitable than people, and the latter had to give way as a result. An entire way of life disappeared over the course of a few generations; the island of Tiree had a population of nearly 5000 at one time; now it's a little over 500. Gaelic culture effectively no longer exists, the language is barely spoken, and all that's left is whisky distilleries, the occasional ceilidh, and holiday homes for rich people from Edinburgh or England.

A post-apocalypse may have its benefits for outsiders.


  1. "A post-apocalypse may have its benefits for outsiders."

    My current 5e campaign is very much about this. The Glorious Golden Age was wrecked by warring wizards. As the fighting waxed, the terrain was cursed in all sorts of terrible (and neat for gaming) ways: blasted plains that glow in the dark, metropoli turned into Clark-Ashton-Smith-style necropoli, vast fields filled with the cyclopean bones of siege-beasts, literally enchanting deserts, and dozens-of-miles-wide brambles that constantly, if slowly, devour more territory.

    As the various factions ground each other into exhaustion, the genies and demons they'd enslaved to fight for them and power their war machines broke free. At the present time, most of the few safe places to live are ruled by genies or demons who use their power to keep the dangerous warped landscape and ravenous war-beasts at bay.

    The result is a sort of reverse-colonialism, as if the troops imported from the colonies to fight WWI had stayed and taken over.

  2. I thought you were going to discuss an older and much greater apocalypse than the agricultural one. Long before the Early European Farmers deforested Britain, the Ice had swept the land clean of all life.

  3. A lot of the displaced Scots wound up as Canadians, particularly in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia, and their influence trickled down through the Great Lakes and down through the Appalachian mountains too.

    I had some friends growing up whose family participated in a very large and well attended Highland Games event held annually in Ligonier, PA, and my family often went there to cheer them on and partake of a hearty dose of Celtic culture. Imagine the constant, incessant trill of bagpipes punctuated by the thud of cabers as background noise to a bright, blustery September day. Aye...

    If there's someplace left to go to, the post-apocalypse often drives a diaspora.

    1. A lot of descendants of Scottish highlanders ended up leading the Red Sticks I think.

    2. I can't cite but I recall reading somewhere that the Native Americans got the idea for buckskins from early Scottish & Irish settlers who brought over old Celtic designs over with them. YMMV as to whether that's factual or not. :\

  4. The Apocalypse boxset from Mayfair had a similar, though obviously fictional, example. A Silk Road like nation where the climate recently got wetter and suddenly the families who controlled everything via the water supply found themselves looking into the void. Not only that, but monsters that would avoid deserts are finding their way into these new lands to colonize.

    Too bad Wizard buried the Mayfair books and boxes, there is so much good stuff to mine from them.

  5. The colonization ot North America is one of the most extreme post-apocalyptic scenarios from history. In South America, military invasion and smallpox happened at the same time, but in the north colonization only started after 95% of people were already dead and almost all of the farmland lay abandoned, ready for the taking.
    Natives capturing settlers was not about taking slaves.

    It was about repopulating the Earth and rebuilding civilization for the natives. And if I recall correctly, living as nomads in tents on the planes wasn't the original culture of those tribes. Those were the bands of survivors that had been fleeing from the invaders. (Who had been deliberately herding them there and then decided to starve them by making the bisons go extinct.)

    All of America is the aftermath of the apocalypse.