Out of all the factors being discussed here, lack of clean water is the one that seems likely to kill most of the humans currently living on the planet. It will probably take a few more generations for the feedback loops we have triggered to completely wreck the atmosphere to the point of being unbreathable, but we have already wrecked the planet’s water supply by dumping billions of tons of sewage, toxic chemicals, plastics, heavy metals and so on into pretty much every body of water on Earth.
Waterborne diseases are currently the world’s leading killers in developing nations, and thousands of towns and cities in the United States already have dangerous levels of lead and other toxins in their water supplies. Let that sink in. Millions of people in the richest nation on Earth are already being poisoned by unsafe water, even with all of the money, energy and technology we currently have access to. As collapse progresses (remember, it’s not a singular event, it’s a process), these problems will increase exponentially as fewer and fewer resources are available.
Eventually, most water sources will be so degraded that they will be deadly to drink without advanced filtration and purification techniques, which are entirely dependent on industrial technology at anything beyond the household scale. When supply chains finally break down entirely (whether due to economic collapse, war, pandemic, EMP, solar flare, cyber attack or a combination of these and other factors), virtually everyone will run out of clean water within a week or two.
History has demonstrated over and over again that thirsty, desperate people rarely have the foresight or ability to maintain drinkable water supplies, paving the way for the rip-roaring return of classic killers including cholera, dysentery, botulism, typhoid, Legionnaires’ disease and many, many more. While many of these illnesses are treatable with current medical tech, they rapidly become deadly in the absence of functioning hospitals and clinics. Even minor cases of diarrhea can kill humans through dehydration when clean water is not available.
Notice that we haven’t even talked about the wars that will be fought over access to water at the global scale, or the interpersonal violence that breaks out whenever there are water shortages. As you have probably guessed by now, cockroaches are much hardier than humans when it comes to water needs. Not only do they require much less water to survive, they are also immune to many of the deadliest waterborne diseases humans have to deal with, making them exceptionally efficient disease vectors for spreading viruses and bacteria. So watch out for that, too, I guess.
Survival Score: Cockroaches 3, Humans -10 (Note: I didn’t plan on the score going negative, but polluting the entire planet’s water supply has got to be one of the dumbest fucking things a species could do, so I’m subtracting 10 points for massive stupidity and arrogance. Way to go, humans, you dumb fucking idiots.)
Switching up the format a bit, let’s start this section with a look at what cockroaches can eat. According to Wikipedia, cockroaches can survive on a vast variety of foods, “including bread, fruit, leather, starch in book bindings, paper, glue, skin flakes, hair, dead insects and soiled clothing.” Some species even have symbiotic bacteria that allow them to eat wood and digest cellulose. Discover Magazine also notes that they can eat “human detritus such as feces, sputum, toe nails, and bodily residue on surgical swabs.” (Sorry about the gross-out factor there, but it should be clear that they can eat just about anything.)
With such a wide range of food sources, it’s pretty much certain that cockroaches will be able to find something to eat just about anywhere they go, no matter what’s happening to human beings. People, on the other hand, despite being omnivorous and fairly flexible when it comes to eating habits, have a much narrower range of potential food supplies. Industrial agriculture has already impoverished most of the soil on the planet, getting worse with each meal we eat, and the increase in C02 is also causing our food to lose essential vitamins and become less nutritious. And on top of all that, recent studies suggest that the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by 2050, so don’t count on replacing land-based calories with seafood unless you like a heaping helping of mercury and microplastics with your sushi.
As climate change makes it increasingly difficult to grow staple crops like rice, wheat, corn and soy, billions of people will begin (and continue) to suffer from malnutrition and eventual starvation. In a slow collapse scenario this could take decades to fully play out, but keep in mind that a fast collapse trigger (global economic collapse, war, pandemic, EMP, solar flare, cyber attack, etc…) could make it impossible to grow and transport food on an industrial scale virtually overnight.
Grocery stores in the U.S. (and I assume in many other developed nations) rely on daily shipments of supplies to keep shelves stocked, and in the event of a major disaster, many staples like bread and bottled water disappear within hours. Most people don’t bother (or can’t afford) to keep more than a few days worth of food at home, so even a localized disruption to the transportation network can quickly become a matter of life or death.
As the collapse unfolds, there will inevitably come a time when industrial food production and transportation can no longer be maintained at scale. At that point, most people will be left to fend for themselves to find whatever food they can in an unstable and toxic environment. Historically, in the absence of industrial agriculture, people survived by hunting, fishing, foraging and gathering necessary supplies from nature. Tragically, this is no longer possible in most places because we have cut down the forests, paved over the fields, dammed the rivers, eradicated the animals and poisoned the plants and streams with dozens of toxic chemicals.
When the lights finally go out for the last time, in most places the only major food source for hundreds of miles will be human beings. While many people would rather die than become cannibals, history has demonstrated that some will not be so conscientious. Once the food trucks finally stop rolling you can bet your bacon-tasting ass that humans will be hunted in the streets like fat and clumsy deer. (Is it becoming clear why zombie movies have become so popular the last few decades?)
Survival Score: Cockroaches 10, Humans -20 (Once again, I have awarded negative points to the humans for epic failure to understand the basics of survival. The cockroaches earned bonus points this round, though, since they will also be able to eat whatever the cannibals leave behind. Talk about evolutionary success!)
Next up in Part 3 – Hunkered in a Bunker Waiting for the End, we’ll talk about how royally screwed people are, even the billionaires who can afford fallout shelters and survival bunkers. Wheee!