Ageing Infrastructure

What do you think is the most likely reason for a water grid shutdown?  It isn’t terrorism and it isn’t pollution. The answer is, the age of the infrastructure used to deliver the water or collect the sewage. Think about the city you live in. Chances are it has existed for hundreds of years, if not longer. Most cities water systems grow in phases. They keep adding to the network every year as the population grows. The end result is most cities have infrastructure that range from less than a year to hundreds of years and with many different materials. I have seen water mains made of wood in service as late as 2011. Like any piece of equipment it all has a useful lifespan, beyond that lifespan failures become increasingly more likely to be catastrophic. The result is a large volume and dollar amount of material and equipment that needs repairs or to be replaced.

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source

Wooden Water Main circa 1909 source

Normally the stress on water systems comes from population growth.  A water main that was ok in the 1980’s may not be large enough for today’s population.  As cities infill and build higher density buildings they frequently overburden the water systems.  Either causing contamination or total failure of the system.

Older equipment is also more susceptible to natural disasters, terrorism and human accidents. These three things can break a new system too, however they don`t have to try as hard with the older systems.

Climate change is having an affect too.  As severe weather events are on the rise, storm sewers might be found lacking, as was the case in Calgary, Alberta and Toronto, Ontario recently.  The system was grossly undersized for the amount of rain that fell.  They said things like “it was a month’s worth of rain in one day” on the news.  When the fact is, it once was a months worth of rain, and is now something more frequent, lets say a weeks worth of rain.    I’m not suggesting we build our systems to meet a 1000 year storm, but I am suggesting that our current idea of a 100 year storm may be an underestimation and that the error is getting worse.  To bring it back to infrastructure, if we are built to the current 100 year storm levels, what happens if the 100 year storms are getting worse?  We will find out in the not too distant future.

Calgary, Flood, Floods, Water

Flooding In Calgary AB 2013 source:

What are the options for people to take? The first and most important thing to do is to plan ahead and replace older parts of the system before they fail.  A $50,000 job to replace an old section of pipe at a time you choose is a lot cheaper than waiting for it to fail at the time you are least prepared.  If you are connected to a public utility, ask them about their equipment replacement plan.  If they are not looking 25 years into the future or longer then ask them why not? If you have private systems, you need to ask the same questions.  Can you afford to replace the septic system when it fails? Or can you afford to dig/drill a new well when the casing cracks?

As you can probably surmise the addition of more people + more rain + more water and more sewage means system failures will become more frequent and probably for longer periods of time.  What does this mean to the average person?  Plan for system failure.  Have a backup system ready to go when it does.  Know the age of your equipment and it`s expected lifetime. That way you wont be caught off guard.

Rebuilding Society: Agriculture

This is my latest article on what is important for rebuilding society after a societal collapse. Agriculture is important for obvious reasons. Without an adequate food supply there is no possibility for any society. Agriculture is the only long term method for managing the food supply. Hunting and gathering take too much time and area for current populations. Storing food is very temporary and doesn’t last very long. Trading for food is something many countries do today, but this is dependent on a very reliable transportation network.


The lowest level of sustainable agriculture is subsistence agriculture. This means the levels of production from agriculture are just enough to sustain your own existence (or your family’s existence). Subsistence agriculture is very time intensive. It leaves you with little to no time for other things like education, construction and any other form of employment. Societies heavy with subsistence agriculture are also societies rampant with poverty. Subsistence farming is not a way to grow a society, it is merely a way to survive. After a societal collapse, subsistence farming will become common place. Those with knowledge and the means to grow food will probably be able to produce ample amounts of food. It is everyone else who will struggle to achieve a subsistence level of food production. Those that fail will probably die from starvation.

The knowledge required for successful agricultural production needs to survive the collapse. Books on the subject are a good start. A much greater resource are people who are already successful at propagation of food plants and raising livestock. Agriculture at any level is more complicated that putting seeds in the ground or letting a herd roam free. There will be local conditions that determine best chances of success. Soil and weather patterns vary widely at surprisingly small scales. If someone you know has knowledge like this, make them your new best friend.

Historic techniques for farming will be very useful. Many modern crops and farms are dependent on pesticides and fertilizer. Unless someone knows how to continue making these chemicals, those supplies will quickly run out and in some cases expire. Ideally, the knowledge required is more than just historical farming techniques as many of them were destructive to either the environment at large, water sources and soil quality. The best knowledge to have are the low technology techniques for treating current agriculture problems. A good example of what I mean is how flies around cattle can spread pink eye around the herd. Currently this is usually controlled by a bovine insect repellent sprayed over the cattle. It works great at keeping flies away, but after the collapse the industry and transportation infrastructure may not be present or reliable. A low technology solution is to feed the cattle garlic. Something in the garlic makes the cattle less appetizing. You may not notice less flies around the herd as you would with the insecticide, but the infection rates of pink eye will go down, and isn’t that the problem that needed solving? With the prevalence of garlic worldwide, this solution for pink eye cold be done by almost any cattle farmer (I’m not sure if garlic would affect milk taste in a dairy cow). My point is, all the farmer needs is to grow some garlic and he/she has something with multiple uses and is dependent on nobody to do it.

After subsistence level agriculture, comes increasing levels of food security, wealth and time. Historically we moved beyond subsistence farming by improving techniques and creating new techniques, new hybrid crops and breeding animals to better suit local conditions. This was achieved through research, experimentation and trial and error. After a collapse, research and experimentation will probably stop, leaving just trial and error and people who know better slowly spreading the best techniques through word of mouth.

As society begins to reform, places with food will become boom towns and places without will disappear. Sustainable agriculture is the best way towards a stable society.

Rebuilding Society: Education and the Transfer of Skills

In my series of rebuilding articles, I examine what is necessary to rebuild society after a major disaster after basic survival needs are met. In a large enough disaster there will be a tendency to ignore information that is useless to the immediate survival concerns. In all my reading on the subject I rarely hear people mention that proximity to libraries is ideal. Now a library won’t be necessary when you are starving and cold. But after you have been fed, you are warm and secure; this is the time when improvements can be made. Better farming techniques, better construction methods, better healthcare, this list doesn’t have an end. Everything can be improved, and unless there is someone there to teach you a better way, that leaves self directed learning in the form of reading. I will point out, that learning is easier today then it will be after society collapses. Take advantage now.

To paraphrase John Wyndham; author of Day of The Triffids, We have something that no other group tasked with rebuilding civilisation has ever had. We have to collected written knowledge of the previous civilisation. Think about the implications of that statement, everything mankind has learned so far is written down. All we have to do as individuals and as a society is make a point to save the information. Starting from scratch is something we can avoid. We wont have to relearn everything, just focus on the dissemination of that knowledge to new minds. This is formally referred to as education if you are young and re education if you are older.

I am not an advocate of any particular format of education, as long as the knowledge is passed successfully and accurately. Whether it is more efficient to have formal schools with dedicated teachers or a dispersed network of mentors/apprentices depends largely on specifics. The size of the group, the nature of the skill being taught and the situation all play significant roles. I do see increased emphasis on self directed learning in extended periods of hardship as the negative stimulus from life will create a strong drive to improve the situation. As they say necessity is the mother of invention. Difficult situations inspire ingenious solutions.

I have some thoughts as to what education could look like after a collapse of society. Initially groups will be small, everyone will need to be able to do everything. Everyone will need contribute to the group’s survival, everyone will be busy. Education will out of necessity be the “on the job” training variety. Here let me show you how to start a fire/disinfect water/gather food/build a fence, ok, you got it, now you go do it. In small groups and solo the only other option is self directed learning through trial and error, experimentation and as always reading.

As the group grows in size, there will increasing pressure and opportunity for specialization. Is it better to teach a doctor how to garden? Or let him/her focus on medicine and become a better doctor? Does the group benefit more from having their best hunters hunting? Or having the hunters learn how to do something else? It takes less time and resources if everyone does what they are best at, but becoming too dependent on someone else to do their job can be disastrous in it’s own right. In reality I see a mix of education formats and a mix of specialization with widespread cross training. Ideally, people will specialize in one or two areas and become competent in many others. This will maximize the number of people to do any particular job, and also create strong knowledge base for educating other people and advancing the field. I see a decrease in the emphasis on self directed learning, Mostly because of the way things are today, but I have a feeling it is tied to the fact that if the mother of all invention is necessity the contentment must be the executioner and contentment grows as the basic needs are met.

It is worth pointing out that it is way easier to learn something that other people have previously discovered than to discover or re-discover it for yourself. Take the time before civilization collapses to learn everything you can. It will make any transition easier on you and the people around you. It will also help you today, because knowledge is power and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

In H.G. Wells’ book, The Time Machine, the main character builds a time machine and travels into the future. He finds that the civilization he knows has been destroyed and he finds a preindustrial society has taken its place. Without ruining the book, he returns home and takes three books to the future. He has to decide what knowledge to save and what knowledge he will need. THey never tell what three bookshelf chooses. I have often wondered myself what three books would I take? I cannot however, settle on the top three. This inability to choose led me to conclude that it would be worth saving as many sources of knowledge as is humanly possible. A conclusion reiterated by the remake of The Time Machine (the movie) made in 2000. Instead of three books, an artificial intelligence interface to a compendium of all human knowledge is brought to the future. Now THAT is something you want when trying to rebuild a society. Since that doesn’t exist yet, and I don’t have the ability to bring to Internet with me, that leaves books. I will leave you with the same question indirectly posed by The Time Machine, which three book would you take?

Rebuilding Society: What’s Next After Survival Needs Are Met?

In this article I will explore one of the skills I think will be useful in the post apocalypse. Immediately after our survival needs are met; what becomes useful?

I think chemistry is an often overlooked field that will become more useful with time. We are a a chemically dependent society and chemicals appear in areas we will fail to consider. Every manufacturing process uses one chemical or another.

Let’s take water treatment as an example (because it’s something I know well). Even just the sodium hypochlorite (or bleach as it is also known) will run out and expire. Iodine, and water tablets, the gas in uv lightbulbs all will need to be replaced. Almost every step of water treatment involves one chemical or another. Long term water security depends on having an ongoing supply of these chemicals. Continue reading