What Would Happen If You Were the Last Person on Earth?
At some point in our lives, a thought, equally terrifying and fascinating, has crossed our minds: What if I was the last person on Earth? What would it be like?
Of course, logically speaking, the chances of the entire human species, bar one, disappearing entirely over a short space of time is practically zero, unless of course Earth were ever visited again by one of those giant celestial bodies that befell the dinosaurs. If anyone was ever unfortunate enough to gain the mantle of the last person on Earth, it would probably come about as a result of decades, or maybe a century or more, of continuous and steady population decline.
In this article, I want to try to examine not how a person would end up in this situation, but what they would have to do next. Could they find enough to eat and drink? Could they find enough shelter? Most importantly of all, could they tolerate eternal solitude?
A Tainted Paradise
Let’s imagine that as per normal our person goes to bed at around 10:30 pm, after a long hard day at work. They fully expect to wake tomorrow to the sounds that have greeted them virtually every morning of their life: in particular, the sound of human voices, whether it be the TV, radio or the people they share their house with. Tomorrow will be just another normal day, right? During the night, however, as our little thought experiment commences, every single other person disappears, leaving them totally alone.
The next morning arrives, and they end up waking up late; both their radio and alarm clock have failed to rouse them. Moreover, their customary glance out of the window alerts them to the fact that there is something not quite right. The only sounds they can hear are the gentle rustling of the wind, birdsong from the trees, and maybe a dog barking hereabouts. Their mind quickly registers the absence of ever present sounds such as the hum of traffic, and the roar of jets coming into land at the nearby airport.
As the day wears on, the stunning reality of being totally alone begins to hit home. They’ve inherited a tainted paradise, a world in which they are King or even God, they can do whatever they want, but they’re a King without a Kingdom, it takes subjects to make a Kingdom.
What happens next, very much depends on the persons personality, if they are of the rugged, individualist mould, they make welcome, perhaps even relish the chance to remake the world in a way they see fit. But we’re in danger of sliding further into the realms of fantasy, so what is the reality? How long would the average, run-of-the-mill person survive alone on the planet?
Coming to Terms
Initially of course, the person would have to come to terms with the total shock and grief of losing loved ones and also the sheer bewilderment of it all. But how would quickly would a 21st Century westerner be able to adapt to a world, where they are responsible for all aspects of their survival.
Survival and Bushcraft experts always talk about three simple basic necessities- water, food and shelter. Finding shelter would be simple; the person would have a wealth of empty buildings to choose from. On average, a human can survive six weeks without any food, but barely a couple of days without water. With everybody else gone, there’s no more electricity, no more maintenance. As a result, pumping stations and treatment works plants that help supply water to our homes would quickly stop working. Our survivor would be able to gain access to considerable amounts of water stored in domestic tanks, but the window of opportunity would be brief, as the water would turn stagnant pretty quickly.
As a matter of fact, our survivor, instead of simply being able to drink freely from any fresh source, would probably have to resort to one of the ultimate symbols of 21st Century decadence, bottled water. If they managed to break into a supermarket, then they could easily utilise thousands of litres of purified water sealed tightly in storage containers in the warehouse. In addition to preserved water, they could gather preserved food; the best option would be to harvest tinned food, some of which can remain perfectly edible for decades. However, fresh food would very quickly disappear from the meal, as most such as fruit and vegetables would begin to spoil within a day or two without preservation. With nothing to power the refrigerators, the same fate will befall frozen foods, in more or the less the same sort of timescale. If our survivor ever wanted to once again savour the taste of fresh food, then they would have to learn how to either grow or gather crops, and also how to fish and hunt. The hunting, in particular would be a tall order for our survivor, because they would have to track the animal, kill it, and then butcher it properly before finally getting the chance to taste the meat.
Learning New Skills
So, if our survivor wanted to learn how to live off the land, how would they go about it? There are plenty of places that stock fishing rods and other equipment, so obtaining fish would be simple in one way, but of course, catching a fish is more than just casting a tackle into a body of water. It’s about knowing where the best places are? How not to disturb the fish? And which species are the best to catch? With hunting the principles are similar, our survivor would need a good weapon such as a rifle or shotgun, but of course ammo would be in limited supply, and they would find it near enough impossible to make more; so, somewhere down the line our survivor would need to learn the art of bow making and also honing their marksmanship skills with a spear.
Even, if a survivor were able to obtain these crucial items, they would also need to learn the habits and behaviour of game, the way that their scent and the direction of the wind are interlinked, and the way it can either help or hinder them. They would also need to learn the different tracks and signs left behind by animals to aid with hunting.
In reality, unless they were a truly exceptional individual, it would take years just to learn, let alone master these skills. Our survivor would have to rely solely on the information contained in books. While literature can be very useful, certain practical skills require that you witness somebody else performing the task beforehand, so you can then copy, and then learn by rote. Sadly books cannot replicate this important step in the learning process.
Earth Without Humans
While our survivor adapts to a new world, time continues to tick by blindly as it’s done without interruption for an eternity. For our survivor, weeks will soon transform into months, and months into years. Looking at their survival over this sort of timescale, means delving further and further into the world of speculation; but one thing we can be certain of, is that in the long term the cities will become dangerous places to live.
Almost immediately the works of humanity will begin to crumble. There are some buildings of course that will stand the test of time for centuries, maybe even millennia. We know this, because of startling manmade beauties such as the Pyramids, Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China that will age like mountains. Among our more modern beauties that will endure into geological time will be Mount Rushmore, those famous presidential faces will still be recognisble perhaps in millions of years time, providing there is anything around to recognise them.
However, very few of our buildings are truly built to last. Without regular and careful maintenance, most of our buildings will fall victims to periodic attacks of rain, frost and heat. Indeed, many of our family homes that seem so secure, would be reduced to mere rubble in as little as thirty years. Roofs would lose their tiles; the walls would absorb moisture, resulting in damp and mouldy patches appearing everywhere. The woodwork would rot, and vegetation would blow in, through open windows and force its way through concrete and asphalt. In a few decades, the onslaught of vegetation would literally suffocate the house. An equally significant threat would be fire, all it would take is a single lightning strike, and without a fire service to stop it, a small house fire could transform into a city wide inferno.
The countryside wouldn’t be without peril either. Over time, the depletion of livestock and crops would make food harder to find, thus paradoxically our survivor would be compelled to venture into dangerous, crumbling cities in order to get what they need. Some areas of the countryside would be best avoided altogether. Don’t forget that the world is now home to over 400 nuclear power plants, while many have automated systems in place to avoid meltdowns in the absence of humans. There is still the danger of spent fuel, without people to keep the fuel cool in massive pools, the temperature would increase rapidly, causing a rolling blanket of explosions all around the world, spewing radiation out far and wide. Each explosion would be the equivalent of a Chernobyl, which would mean that certain areas of the planet would be no go areas for maybe a decade, but what Chernobyl has taught us, is that eventually the environment would recover; nature is more resilient than we think.
Hygiene would be both a short and long term issue for our survivor, as already mentioned most fresh water would be unsuitable. Remember that sewage pumping stations around the world help to ensure that by and large our rivers and lakes are kept free of waste. But without the human element, these vital sources would quickly become too polluted for bathing, and crucially for drinking. Any water collected would need to be purified for drinking. Another important consideration is clothes, washing clothes without modern machines would be a back breaking chore, so it would probably be best if they simply make forays into abandoned department stores and swipe whatever clothes they could find.
General health would be another major concern, while the chance of catching an infectious disease would be practically zero, a simple cut, sprain or accident could prove fatal if our survivor fails to take steps to train themselves up medically. Then there’s transport to factor in, initially the world would be their oyster, but as the roads become progressively clogged with weeds, only the most rugged of vehicles would be able to traverse them. In as little as 20 years, the roads would be inaccessible to even the most practical off road vehicle. In 50 years, trees would be growing out of the crumbling asphalt which were once Motorways.
More on the Chernobyl Disaster and the Natural Recovery
- Chernobyl: Life After Death
The Chernobyl Disaster was the biggest nuclear accident in history. The area surrounding the power plant was evacuated and declared a dead zone. But just two decades later, it's a wildlife paradise.
Alone in a New World
The challenges presented above are daunting to say the least, but our survivor would have no shortage of help, in the form of millions of books stored in bookshops and libraries. If they look hard enough they could find the suitable literature to help them with almost every problem. For our survivor, life would be tough and at times brutish, but provided they kept their wits about them, and stayed out of trouble, our survivor could lead a comfortable life, maybe even a luxurious life if they so choose.
They may find the changes occurring in the natural world fascinating, namely the gradual erosion of domestic plants and animals, mostly unfit to survive without humans; although some would live on, albeit after going through a rewilding process, e.g. dogs crossbreeding with wolves, and gradually merging themselves into the wolf gene pool. For our survivor the world would be their playground, they could go anywhere, perhaps raiding museums and art galleries in order to obtain the finest works of art known to man, they could drive the best cars ever made, and wear the coolest clothes.
But as the years drift by, these pleasures would pale into insignificance, as it would gradually dawn on our survivor that their biggest challenge wasn’t simply to keep themselves alive, but to keep themselves sane. The truth of the matter is that humans are not solitary creatures. We evolved to live in tribes; it’s likely that our survivor would swap all of their material luxuries for just one single human companion. They could keep a dog, but man’s best friend can only do so much, from time to time they would need to talk to another human, to share triumphs, to express grievances, to take comfort in the one thing that another human being can offer that no dog could, empathy. While life for our survivor would be fun for a while, the lack of human company would almost certainly result in them descending into madness. Hopefully this terrifying fate will never happen to anybody.