Would Society Survive An EMP?
By: Tom Chatham
There has been much talk the past few years of a possible EMP/CME that would cause a mass die off in society. There are those that rebuff the idea that a technological society like ours would simply die from something as simple as lack of power. In many cases these are the same people in society that expect the government to come to their rescue if something does happen. The idea of dieing from a lack of basic necessities is so far outside of their comfort zone that these people refuse to think about it or acknowledge it could happen.
These people like to think that simply losing power or technology is a temporary thing that someone will fix in short order and life will return to normal. They believe they will just survive as our ancestors did a hundred or so years ago and life will go on with few bumps until technology is restored. This type of thinking is shortsighted and naive at best, and here is why.
There are a few words that many people need to understand in order to wrap their mind around this threat. Those words are available resources, skills and infrastructure.
When technology fails society is suddenly limited to the resources it needs that are already produced and on hand for immediate use. If water suddenly stops being purified and pumped through the lines, you are limited to what you now have in the lines or storage tanks. Gas stations are limited to the fuel they have in storage tanks. Stores are limited to the food and clothing they have on hand. The failure of technology will stop water from being replaced, sewage from being removed, refrigeration from keeping foods edible, light from illuminating dark areas that must be traversed, elevators from getting people to upper floors, gas and electric for heating and cooking, water for fighting fires, communications for calling for help and medical devices to keep people alive.
The reason everything will stop is because of another word to remember, infrastructure. Without infrastructure nothing gets done, even on a simple basis. You cannot cook food without some type of infrastructure to produce heat, you cannot store food without some type of storage to keep it cold or some type of container to keep it protected from rodents and the environment. You cannot process or store food without equipment to cut, grind, dry, smoke, can or root cellar it. You cannot harvest, plant or grow food without some type of equipment to do those jobs.
The original definition of an acre was the amount of ground a farmer could plow in a full day. Farmers now plant hundreds of acres a day to keep Americans fed. With no modern equipment, how many acres can a farmer plant even if he had a trained team of horses and the equipment to pull behind them? Let us not forget that 2 percent of the population now grows the food for the whole country. How much would they now be able to produce even if they had the necessary equipment to do it manually? Let us also not forget that farmers need to buy their seed every year to plant. Very few individuals raise heritage seeds that they can plant every year from their own production. Where would these seeds now come from? Farmers also need lots of fertilizer to make these plants grow, where would that fertilizer come from? Many farms need irrigation to grow plants, so where would the power come from to pump that water? The age old practice of utilizing animal manure to fertilize fields only works if the farmer has livestock to produce that manure. Once harvested, how will that food now get transported to distant markets? How will farmers know where to send it without communications? A telegraph system is simple but must be built before it can be used.
Many people think that if technology fails we will simply live as past generations have but they conveniently neglect the fact that regardless of what systems you use you must have the infrastructure to provide for that system. If you go from mail to telegraphs or from analog to digital technology the problems are the same, you must have the infrastructure in place to switch to first. It is true we know how to build the older technology but where will the resources come from to actually build it? Remember, once technology fails you are somewhat limited to what you have on hand to work with.
If we had to return to 1880’s living, how many people have a team of horses, a wagon to hook them to, a butter churn, a grain mill, cheese making supplies, candles, oil lamps, matches, wood cook stoves, blacksmith supplies, hand pumps or dug wells? People were able to live back then because they had the infrastructure to do so. This is what many people do not understand. How hard would it be for us to go back to vacuum tube technology now without the infrastructure to support it, even if we do know how to build it?
In 1776 America, about 40% of men worked their own farm. Another 30% worked as laborers on farms. About 20% owned large commercial farms or plantations. The remaining 10% or so who were professional businessmen frequently owned modest farms where they might raise a cow, some chickens and have a garden to provide for the home table. Even those town people that had no farm usually had a cow, some chickens and a kitchen garden for home use. To go back to this model would be difficult if not impossible for many reasons only one of which is the fact that city dwellers have no room for gardens or the infrastructure to maintain cows and chickens on the large scale that would be needed.
The other thing that many people ignore are the skills required to live in a different system. Most people cannot simply plant seeds and suddenly become a great gardener. They do not know how to make cheese or how to improvise cheese making supplies from items now in the home. They do not know how to make soap or candles or something as simple as toilet paper. A roll of paper seems simple in design but how many know how to process wood pulp or other fibers to make paper? It does not matter if you are making ten thousand rolls in a factory or one roll at home, you need the skills and infrastructure to do it.
Skills come in many forms but the skills that society depends on the most are the craftsmen and engineers that design and build the technology we depend on. Without their knowledge, it would be difficult to replace the technology we now use. How many people know how to rebuild and maintain the phone system we now use? How many people know how to build and repair refrigeration units or make electric motors? How many people know how to refine oil into gasoline and diesel and make plastics and all the other things from petroleum?
In a long term grid down situation where society breaks down, many people would die and those that hold the keys to our technology would be among them. The longer the duration of disruption, the less likely it would be that those who could rebuild the systems would be able to do so. It is a situation where society’s capabilities decrease as time goes on.
Many people talk of hunting and fishing to fulfill their dietary needs but if even ten percent of the nation decides to do the same due to necessity, how long will the game and fish last before it is all gone? Even if you have some food and seeds to plant, it will take time to grow new supplies. In the days following an event, those that are not prepared will seek out supplies from those that have them, including those that have gardens. It is for this reason that it will be difficult to grow replacement supplies for the first one or two years following an event in most places. This would necessitate those that have supplies be able to support themselves and their families until new crops could be produced. The less prepared the population is the longer your initial supplies will need to last.
Once you take into account these things it becomes evident that it would not be easy to revert to an earlier type of system without major disruptions. It is for these reasons that it becomes necessary for the population in general to have the necessary resources to tide them over until infrastructure and skills can adjust to the new reality people find themselves in.
During the cold war the government maintained three years worth of grain in reserve to feed the population until agriculture could recover after a major attack. Today the government keeps little in the way of food for the entire nation. If something happens they depend on resources coming from unaffected areas of the country to help. In a nationwide disaster, there may not be any help to send. This is the reason individuals need to keep the necessary resources on hand to tide them over until the system can be stabilized in some way and some technology can come back on line.
Unfortunately in a worse case disaster, this would only buy some of the population a little time. If the technology we depend on is offline for longer than the resources that are available to the population last, then a mass die-off would ,occur. It is important to remember that only 2% of the nation farms today. Without the modern systems to farm large tracts of land, it would be impossible for any small percentage of the population to feed the whole nation utilizing older, manual techniques. The population would decrease until technology was sufficient to support the population. This would hold true for other parts of the system such as clothing production and healthcare as well.
Because of the high impact this scenario would have on the population, that is the reason people need to resolve to store supplies and resources to care for themselves in the unlikely event this happens. The possession of basic food supplies, medicines, toiletries, energy supplies and alternative transportation and communication systems can provide society the room it needs to extract itself from the worst of the situation. The lack of preparedness will only insure a higher casualty rate and more destruction of surviving infrastructure in the aftermath of an event. The lower the preparedness level of society, the less likely society will be able to survive and rebuild itself.