What would really happen if you were the last person on Earth?

By MICHAEL HANLON

Last updated at 15:13 04 January 2008


You wake up late because the radio does not come on. Outside there is only the sound of the wind, and of the birds in the trees. The roar of jumbo jets coming into land is absent.

And, most shockingly, so is the everpresent rumble of traffic. As the day wears on, the full, horrible, bizarre truth dawns: you are completely, utterly alone.

This is the intriguing plot of what is turning out to be the first movie hit of 2008, I Am Legend, starring Will Smith as (apparently) the last man alive on Earth.

To wake up and find oneself the only human alive, marooned in a modern world in which everyone else has disappeared or been killed by some mysterious virus, is both the stuff of nightmares and of fantasy.

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For this would be a tainted paradise, a world in which you could do anything you wanted. You would be a god, a king, but your kingdom would be empty.

Those of a more rugged individualist bent would, one suspects, relish the challenge of remaking the world in their own image. But what is the reality? How long would the average person survive if they woke up to find themselves the only human being left on the planet?

After coming to terms with the shock and the grief, the loss of loved ones and the sheer bewilderment of it all, how quickly would 21st Century Man, whose practical skills extend no further than wiring a plug and putting up some shelves, be able to adapt to a world where he was responsible for every aspect of his survival?

Survival experts have a priority of necessities. At the top are water, food and shelter - the shelter, in a world full of empty buildings, would be no problem. But what about sustenance?

A man can survive six weeks without food, but only six days without water. With everyone gone, no electricity and no maintenance, the pumping stations and treatment works that supply water to the taps would soon stop working. There would be a large amount of fresh water stored in domestic tanks, but this would go stale quite rapidly.

In fact, our survivor would have to rely on that symbol of modern decadence, bottled water. If he or she broke into a large supermarket, they might find several thousand litres of the stuff - purified, sealed in handy storage containers, in the warehouse out the back.

Fortunately, supermarkets also contain a great deal of preserved food. Most tinned meats and vegetables have sell-by dates a couple of years hence, but the reality is that you could probably live off it quite safely for decades.

A couple of years ago, Manchester couple Les and Beryl Lailey celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a tin of chicken they had been given as a present . . . in 1956. It was fine.

So, food and drink would not be a problem, although fresh food would be off the menu after a few days, unless our survivor could grow and gather crops, and fish or hunt - which would be problematic for most of us.

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Fishing rods are easy to come by, but how quickly could you lay your hands on a rifle or shotgun, for instance?

And as weeks turn into months, and months into years, there would be other problems. It would be a good idea to get out of the cities, for example.

In the book The World Without Us, published last year, author Alan Weisman speculated what would happen if 'Earth's most invasive species' (us) was suddenly wiped out.

It wouldn't take long, he pointed out, for the works of Man to start crumbling. Of course, some of our buildings would last a great length of time. After all, our world is littered with thousand-year-old edifices, and there are even a few twice that age in regular use - probably the most complete being the Pantheon in Rome.

But few of our structures have been built to Roman standards. Without regular maintenance and subject to the ravages of rain, frost and heat, most of Britain's often shoddy housing stock would start to crumble and become dangerous within a decade or so.

Roofs would lose their tiles, eaves would lift and walls would absorb moisture, woodwork would rot and everywhere vegetation would push its way through concrete and asphalt. In the long term, our survivor would have to choose a solid, stone building dating back a century or more.

There would be another, everpresent-threat to our solitary urbanite: fire. One lightning-strike could set off a city-wide conflagration, with no fire brigade to put it out.

The countryside would not be without its hazards, either. Food, paradoxically, would be far harder to obtain, and forays into the crumbling cities and towns would be needed to replenish supplies.

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Some areas of rural Britain would be worth avoiding, not least because a potent threat to our survivor would come from Britain's two dozen or so remaining nuclear reactors, mostly dotted around the northern and eastern coasts.

If their staff vanished, and as back-up power supplies failed, a real danger would be that one or more would go into meltdown as cooling pumps failed.

The equivalent of several Chernobyls could render big areas of the country uninhabitable. With prevailing winds as they are, it would perhaps be best to head for the westernmost parts of the country or even try to escape Britain altogether.

Assuming our survivor avoided this radiation fall- out, hygiene would be an issue - if he chose to remain in the city, he would find the lack of mains sewage and drainage a problem after only a few days, as the pumping stations failed, while rivers would probably be too polluted to bathe in.

The only hot water would come from a stove, and washing oneself and one's clothes would be a chore (fortunately the world's shops are full of many, many lifetimes' worth of clean clothing).

As for our survivor's health, the lack of any other people to spread infectious diseases would be a blessing, but the risk of accidents would be a constant worry - even a broken limb could quickly prove fatal if the injury was not dealt with correctly.

What about transport? With no regular maintenance, most cars would last only a few years before they give up the ghost.

Obtaining fuel would, first, be a matter of siphoning from the tanks of abandoned vehicles, then breaking into filling stations, unscrewing the fronts of the petrol pumps and drawing up fuel from the underground tanks manually.

But while the roads would be mercifully free of traffic jams, after a decade most of them would become horribly overgrown with weeds. After 20 years, many would be impassable except in the most rugged four-wheel-drive vehicles. After 50, trees would be growing through the motorways.

Fortunately, civilisation would have equipped our survivor with the ultimate instruction manual - the combined wisdom of the millions of books contained within the world's libraries (with no one to run the servers - and no electricity - the internet would shut down almost immediately, although individual computers could perhaps be kept going indefinitely using some sort of solar power generator).

How to mend a broken car - and how to mend a broken arm, how to hunt, how to sail a boat . . . it's all there in black and white.

Yes, life would be hard and sometimes brutish but written help would be on tap. Provided he kept his wits about him, was of a reasonably practical bent and was lucky enough to stay healthy, our survivor could enjoy many years of relative comfort, even luxury.

There would certainly be some pleasures to keep him or her occupied. But it would be interesting to see how quickly nature regains the upper hand.

How long, for example, before escapees from the zoos made themselves a new home in the wild; how long before the forests began their march into the cities?

What would happen to all the domestic animals? Would packs of feral dogs become a threat, or would man's best friend remain on good tems with the only representative of our species?

Interestingly, there is one place on Earth that offers a clue as to the likely wilderness our survivor would inhabit. The one previously inhabited area that has been abandoned by humanity is that surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant, which has been empty for nearly 22 years.

Amazingly, nearby cities have become havens for wildlife, the empty streets echoing to the sounds of howling wolves and a hundred species of songbirds. The radiation which chased man away has been kind to nature.

For the surviving human, there would certainly be fun to be had with the remains of our civilisation. An enterprising 'last man' could raid the museums and galleries to build a temple to human achievement, containing the finest works of art.

He could decorate his home with Picassos and Da Vincis, fill his garden with Rodins and Michelangelos. He could drive any car, wear the best designer clothes.

But in the years to come, these pleasures would surely pale and our survivor would face a far bigger threat than starvation, thirst, radiation or even disease.

For as years turn to decades, our survivor would discover the grim truth: that humans did not evolve to be solitary. We are tribal, pack animals. Our survivor would probably swop all the treasures of the world for a single companion.

It is intriguing (and makes a good movie) to contemplate being the last survivor. What fun one could have! In reality, once the practicalities had been dealt with, he or she would almost certainly descend into madness.

It would, quite literally, be Hell on Earth.

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