evannichols (evannichols) wrote,
evannichols
evannichols

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Y, The Last Man

You may have gathered that I’ve been reading graphic novels lately, in preparation for writing some of my own. I’ve read the Fable series, “Birth of a Nation” and tried Nextwave (so far, I couldn’t stomach more than one). My latest read is “Y, The Last Man,” by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra. I’ve had some thoughts about it, behind the cut, for Herein Lie Spoilers For Vol. #1.

The series premise is that suddenly and inexplicable, all male mammals on the planet die. This includes all fetuses, fertilized ovum and even sperm. Yet somehow, two male primates survive: Yorick, the protagonist, and Ampersand, his pet Capuchin monkey. Two months after the mass die-off, Yorick makes himself known to the world’s surviving women. He immediately becomes a focus of a struggle between factions; some who want to save the human race, some who want to eliminate the last of the “Evil Male Oppressors.”

Admittedly, I’ve only read one volume so far, but the problem I see is an overestimation of conditions after two months. Instead of driving motor vehicles and engaging in scientific research, I’d think the rapidly-diminishing survivors would be reduced to a fraction of previous population by famine and disease, and most efforts would be devoted to obtaining food and defense from brigands.

The first problem would be collapse of infrastructure. Remember the concerns raised by Y2K? One of the major issues discussed was how interrelated our systems are, and how few areas produce all of the resources they consume. Our urban areas rely on regular delivery of food and fuel, and those systems rely on a large web of subsystems to provide them.

For example, in areas where electricity is produced by coal-burning plants, you need to get trainloads of coal to the plant on a regular basis. That means a large workforce to mine the coal, a large supply of petrochemicals to transport the coal, an interstate commerce system to sell it to the utility company, which requires reliable telecommunications, which needs electricity. With a sudden loss of half of the workforce, all of those links in the chain are at risk, and if only one fails completely, it hoses up the whole chain. So immediately after the Event, there’s a good chance that coal isn’t going to get to the plant for a while, and once all the available fuel is burned, the plant goes dark.

If the survivors try to get the plant going again, they’ll need to reestablish at least minimal functioning for each of these supporting processes, without electricity (except with localized generators, perhaps). This will certainly be complicated by the loss of half of the experienced workers*. If women made up 50% of workers in every job in every industry, you’re still dealing with half the available force, in a time of crisis. And since gender distribution is probably still not equal, some departments would be wiped out, or nearly so. Then there will be attrition due to people fleeing the area, loss to disease, rioting, etc. Plus, at least some of those people lost will be the Subject Matter Experts who are key to function in a business or department, and it’s very hard to replace that knowledge. So there are some pretty big challenges to be overcome, just to get this plant running again.

Another big problem is transportation. It’s easy to think that gasoline comes from the pump at the gas station, but there’s a long, complex process that has to happen between subterranean crude oil and filling a car’s gas tank. In the chaos after the Event, most local fuel supplies would probably be consumed, either for transportation or power generation. Even if one can run trucks to bring in more fuel, why truck it any distance, when demand is high by the production facilities? Or sail a tanker across an ocean? Areas far from production or distribution points would run out, and supplies would not be replenished.

This leads us to the second biggest problem: Food distribution. In urban areas, grocery stores have about three days of food. In a crisis, people would empty the stores quickly, even though half the population is gone. Within two weeks, food supplies in urban areas would probably be depleted, unless supply lines are reestablished. Without fuel to drive the trucks bringing in food to the cities, what will people eat? The last half of the first month would be ugly. Competition for food would be fierce. People would start dying of malnutrition. As population dwindled, the available resources to reestablish order and infrastructure would shrink quickly. One could power vehicles with alcohol, which can be locally produced, but that requires knowledge of both distillation and modification of vehicles to handle the alternate fuel. How many people know how to do that? How many would it take?

Rural areas would have the advantage of lower population density and more capacity for growing food and self-sustenance. Of course, people fleeing the cities would start encroaching, and the resulting competition for food might not be friendly and cooperative. And even rural individuals and communities would be hit by the #1 Problem: Loss of reproducible food supply.

As the Environmental Movement reminds us, the biosphere is delicate and tightly interrelated. The sudden elimination of all male mammals would have drastic and irreversible impacts. The drastic influx of carrion would be good for scavengers at first. But usually when food is plentiful, an increase in population follows. Without males, that wouldn’t happen.** Then the creatures with short life spans and high reproduction rates would start dying out. For example, mice. They’re prey to a lot of creatures, as well as traps and poisons from humans, but they survive because they can have multiple litters each year and mature quickly. Even though the number of predators would also be cut in half at the Event, the ratio of predators to mice would remain the same. But after the Event, no new mice would be created. So mouse populations would start decreasing rapidly. With mice being less and less an available food supply, predators would be forced to look for other prey. Carnivores would have it the worst, regardless of what they eat. Their food supply has suddenly gone from infinite to finite, and the faster it decreases, the wider they have to hunt for food. Birds and fish would become primary sources, and the surviving predators would reduce their numbers dramatically.

Meanwhile, the human food supply is experiencing the same problem. Right after the Event, farmed livestock would be plentiful at production centers (although about half would also die off, and if not promptly processed, would be lost). But as they’re consumed, there’s no replacements. People who can travel would migrate to where the food is, but as the transportation network collapses, population centers would have to eat what’s local. They’d consume what they had, and branch out to other creatures than cows, pigs and poultry. But by that time, the food chain collapse would meet them from the other end and humans would compete for food with the surviving predators. Perhaps people would have the foresight to save fish and birds, but that would take a coordinated effort to protect eggs for hatching, and not eating them. After a while, there would be no animals left, all eaten by someone higher on the food chain.

But what about Vegans? Perhaps humanity could survive on a vegetarian diet! We’d be lucky if the Event happened in Autumn, when many crops are being harvested. That could keep people close to agricultural areas alive for additional weeks or months. In urban areas, though, distribution is still a major problem. Individuals could grow their own food, if they have stored food to last them from planting to harvest. But without bats and other insect-eating animals, insects are going to have a heyday. Protecting crops is going to be harder and harder, especially without the science and technology for insecticides.

Perhaps people could establish a food supply that relied on birds, reptiles, mollusks, fish and alternative foods, like earthworms and yeasts. I don’t think living off Vegemite is at all appealing, but one does what one must do. But then there’s still the problem of competition. As food becomes more and more scarce, survivors would become increasingly aggressive about taking it from others. Which is the final nail in the coffin. When day-to-day survival is in question, it’s very hard to think of the “Big Picture” issues, like reestablishing telecommunications, interstate transportation or even power generation. Within a few months, survivors would be reduced to two strategies; growing or stealing food.

I admit, a bunch of this is guesswork, particularly the timelines. There hasn’t been a world-wide, infrastructure-breaking crisis to use as a model. One can use localized disasters for comparison, but those can recover by drawing on resources from outside the area, a global breakdown removes that option. And this scenario has a twist that makes it far more devastating than even a world-wide plague that kills off half of humanity. Removing all mammalian males would result in a rapid mass extinction of all mammals, and the resulting ecological shifts would eliminate a bunch of other animals as well.

The really interesting thing is to wonder what life-forms would arise when all mammals died off. Maybe Cephalopods...


* Perhaps one can run a coal plant at a fraction of capacity (and I’d assume that demand would be greatly diminished), but I don’t know if it’s fair to say that a plant run at 50% of production can operate with 50% of workers, or if it would need more.

** Yes, some species can reproduce parthenogenetically, but that’s very rare in mammals. I don’t know whether enough members of a non-parthenogenitcally-prone species could make it happen for them to ensure survival.

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