Global disaster. World destruction. The Apocalypse.
They’re the stock and trade of science fiction writers. After all, when you’re imagining the future, Earth could become the hub of a galactic empire, the gleaming homeworld of a cosmos-spanning race. Or the coin could land tails and our few thousands of years of human history will in some way be derailed, leaving behind wilderness or wasteland. Post-apocalyptic worlds have been imagined hundreds of times, and as I sit at my laptop mulling over one such concept that might form the setting of a novel, I find myself wondering, “If civilization were to hit a brick wall tomorrow, and Earth returned to a world of wild forests and primitive villages, what remnants of our technology would still be useful?” Say a tribal chieftain and his flunkies somehow dug up a long-buried Walmart or Canadian Tire store, how much of what they found would be of any use to them?
It’s easy to guess what would be useless junk. Anything that requires electricity to function.
Without the infrastructure to produce 110V 60Hz electricity, microwaves, toasters and toaster ovens, vacuum cleaners, blenders, hot plates, George Foreman grills, Instant Pots, electric shavers, hair dryers, clothes dryers, washing machines…a long list of items would become no more than shiny doorstops. Freezers and air conditioners would tease with their unfulfilled potential. Televisions, radios, projectors, iPads, cell phones, game consoles and more would not only be inoperable without power, they’d have no content to deliver anyway. Certainly, all of the ‘smart’ fridges, heaters, lights, music players, and security systems would merely mock us with their brilliant—and completely useless—sophistication. Computers and smartphones—the technological darlings we can’t live without (we think)—would be inert lumps of exotic materials.
Gasoline would be worthless after a few decades, so forget about cars (sorry Mad Max). It’s conceivable that some contrivances powered by rechargeable batteries might last a long while, if kept topped up by solar chargers, but that doesn’t make your Tesla a sure bet because synthetic hoses, gaskets, and a host of other parts break down with time. Heck, most roads would crumble thanks to thermal expansion and contraction, and pervasive weeds growing through every available crack.
Another category that would no longer be useful is items that are too specialized for a particular purpose or related product. Forget refills for this or that air-freshening system. Motor oil might still come in handy for lubricating wooden axles or something, but fuel injector cleaner not so much. Not gas stabilizer, not carburetor cleaner, not rad stop leak, brake fluid, or a whole department’s worth of Canadian Tire stock. All those car parts and fancy accessories to pimp out your wheels would be only curiosities. The same with all those star-athlete-endorsed pieces of esoteric equipment for all of the strange sports and recreational activities that somebody has talked us into trying but will leave future generations stumped. Our twelve-and-eighteen-speed bikes might amaze until they hit the first big rock.
Fishing rods would attract some initial interest, though they’re not as practical as nets or spears. Firearms would be treasured marvels, but only while ammunition supplies lasted, if it had never gotten wet. And not assault weapons—or not for long, They might put a warlord at the top of the hill, but wouldn’t keep them there because of their voracious appetite for ammunition. Boring old rifles and shotguns would be the real treasures to a hunter-gatherer society. While camping gear made of advanced materials would be a coveted prize, the use of accessories like Coleman-type stoves would have to be so rigorously rationed as to be nearly useless. Water filters and firestarters, yes. Hiking GPS, nope.
It occurs to me that our far-future descendants won’t much appreciate the fancy-looking and amazingly lightweight plastic gardening tools and wheelbarrows we consider so convenient (and cheap!) once they break after the first hard use. Think of how many of our consumer goods fall into that category, quickly obsolete or broken, meant to be discarded and replaced.
Lightweight, durable, and even dirt-repelling clothing and footwear would be a hit (although eye-stabbing colours might not serve well for hunters stalking their supper). Current styles might well run afoul of the moral standards of tightly-knit rural communities, though. I suspect the swimwear section might well end up in a big bonfire.
You know what I think would be among the most desirable department-store items to a future subsistence society? A good sharp knife and a non-stick frying pan. Seriously, what preparer of food can’t use a knife whose blade keeps its sharp edge and a cooking dish that doesn’t require big muscles and handfuls of beach sand to get the bear grease out? And let’s not forget books! Real, hardbound paper books chocked full of valuable information or entertainment.
Try this out for fun: look around your home and calculate which of the things you see would still be valued in a world stripped of our technological infrastructure. (Voilà! You’re a science fiction writer!) In a way, it’s an exercise to decide which of our clever creations has lasting value because, when you think about it, the more technically advanced an object is, the more likely it is to be rendered obsolete by new advancements too, not just a societal breakdown. I’d love to know what you come up with.
And that’s not even talking about our cultural products—music, art, movies, literature, and games. Those might leave people scratching their heads only a generation or two from now, no apocalypse required.