Brad Wardell's views about technology, politics, religion, world affairs, and all sorts of politically incorrect topics.

About a year ago, I wrote “The lights go out: What happens if the grid goes down”.  It talked about what would likely happen if the power went out and works through the first 4 weeks.  In short, it’s not a pretty picture.

Doomsday Scenarios

Below are my opinions and just my opinions. They’re based on reading and researching these topics in my spare time out of morbid curiosity.  I define a doomsday scenario as a scenario where the civil society could potentially break down as a result.  The break down of civil society (law and order) would, in turn, activate the “preppers” various bug out / bug in contingency plans.

Scenario #1: Economic Collapse

I consider the likelihood of this happening to be basically zero.  It seems to be the most discussed, most feared scenario I read online. At the risk of alienating preppers right off the bat, I consider this scenario largely baseless.

 

Scenario #2: EMP attack

imageThis is the scenario where someone sets of a powerful electromagnetic pulse that fries the power grid and many low voltage dependent systems.  There is a lot of debate on the level of damage this would do.  My opinion is that any EMP attack worth considering would, at the very least, wreck the power grid for an extended period of time.  However, I don’t think it likely that it’ll take out cars (even modern cars).  While the computer systems in cars are sensitive and a car isn’t a true “faraday cage” I am highly skeptical that an EMP would take out most cars, modern or not.

Nevertheless, an EMP attack would probably cause many millions of people to be without power for an extended period of time.

The odds of this happening in our lifetime I think are pretty low.  If I had to guess, maybe 1 in 100.

Scenario #3: Solar based EMP

imageSometimes called coronal mass ejections, these solar based EMPs could truly wreck our day. We’ve had them before (Carrington Event) which occurred in the 19th century. Had this hit us today, we’d have a huge issue (I’d guess worldwide power outages that could take months to repair).

We had one in 2013 on July 16th…well, almost. It missed us by a solar day.  So this isn’t a question of if, it’s a question of when and how bad.  The electrical grid in most countries is hooked up like an extra fragile Christmas tree.  It would not be inaccurate to describe it as “cobbled” together.  It works but it’s not very robust.  It takes remarkably little to knock out the power for huge swaths of territory.

The odds of this happening in our lifetime are pretty low also. I’d say 1 in 50.

Scenario #4: Cyber based attack

imageThis one worries me quite a bit because few people are aware of it. Some people have heard Stuxnet and other weaponized computer worms that have been used to slow down Iran’s nuclear program.  But few people have given much thought of how vulnerable the United States and other western countries are to this kind of attack. 

In 2003, the Northeast of the United States and Canada went without power for about a week, affecting 45 million people. It was largely caused by a software bug at a single power station in Ohio.  Imagine a malicious attempt to wreck the control systems for the power grid.

The odds of this happening I think are a lot less remote than people think. Probably 1 in 25 in our lifetime.

Why losing power is such a big deal

Overall, I’d say that the odds of something causing a national, extended power outage to be about 1 in 10.  Anyone under 50 probably has no experience of just how recent electrical power actually is.  A century ago, most people didn’t have electricity and even 75 years ago, it was considered pretty flaky.  Yet, today, we are totally and completely dependent on it.

Let’s walk through a few of the things that would happen if we lost electrical power for an extended period of time.

  1. Our logistics system would be trashed.  We are now very dependent on “Just in time” infrastructure. That is, we don’t keep huge warehouses anymore. We deliver things just as needed to maximize efficiency.  To put things into perspective, you could cripple our economy just by wiping out the computers at Fed Ex and UPS. 
  2. Little food. Your local supermarket relies on daily inventory replenishment. Even if the trucks and trains and such are still running, the ability to deliver food would be severely disrupted. 
  3. No gas. Our capacity to refine, deliver and distribute gasoline would be curtailed dramatically. So while I don’t personally think there’s a realistic scenario where your cars and such would be directly affected by a viable doomsday scenario, your ability to drive might not last very long.
  4. No money. How much cash do you keep on hand? No power, no credit card processing.  Let’s focus on this a second. Next time you’re out doing something, consider what would happen if you no longer had the ability to use a credit/debit card but instead had to rely purely on the cash on hand. How would that work out for you? Imagine a cyber attack that disrupted the merchant account services sector and nothing else. What about ATMs? Nope, they’re down.  How about going to a teller? No power, they can’t tell you how much you’ve got in the bank. I think we’d be able to quickly adapt (i.e. write things down, as long as you have an ID, but it would slow things to a crawl).
  5. Water. Water is something I think we would probably do okay with. We’d soon run out of running water but barring a truly worst case scenario, this is one area I think the government could help large %’s of the population with (distributing water). But if you’re in a more rural area, it would get sticky and our ability to produce and deliver food would still become a huge problem.  I’m just saying I don’t think water would be the “SHTF” trigger in a likely doomsday scenario. At least, as long as the government is up and running and can coordinate with local producers/distributors of bottled water.
  6. Habitation. God forbid that this happen in the Winter.  Natural gas would likely flow for a long while but you wouldn’t be able to do much with it if there’s no electricity. Similarly, our ability to store food (no refrigeration) would be reduced.
  7. Communication.  Our ability to communicate would drop to nill. I think much of the Internet, powered through extensive backup systems (depending on the severity, a really powerful EMP might wreck the ability of natural gas based backup systems to function) would be ok.  But our ability to connect to it would be greatly reduced. I’m not confident my local cell tower or Comcast would be up for the duration.

There’s probably more I am not thinking of here. In, fact, I’m sure there are.  Moreover, the severity of the points above really are dependent on how resources/handy you are. The big question though is how long would modern civil society be able to last without electricity?  How habitable is a modern American city without electricity? Would/could order be maintained?

The big assumption I make here is that our vehicles would still work.  I can envision EMP based catastrophes that are bad enough to fry most cars. My problem with those scenarios is that they’re about as likely as us being hit by a extinction level asteroid/comet or a mega volcano or a super plague at which point, all bets are off.

No, to me, the big question would be maintaining civil society.

The thin veneer of civilization

For the purposes of our discussion, things don’t really “hit the fan” until civil society breaks down. In my opinion, the most likely trigger for that would be lack of food.

I have a high confidence in our government’s ability to obtain and deliver water for a long period of time.  I also believe that state and local authorities could obtain and distribute food for an extended period of time – a month for instance. But without our modern logistics system up and running, after a month, food shortages would become very serious. 

There have been many documentaries on how our food is produced now (manufactured is probably more accurate). It’s a very complex industrial process with a lot of moving parts.  It’s not like we would stop producing any food at all.  But our ability to feed 300+ million people daily rests on our modern manufacturing and logistics system which is dependent on electricity.

So for me, the big question is, how long, without electricity, would most people be able to obtain enough food to feed themselves and their families.  Once the ability to obtain food without violence disappears, so too does civil society.

So what do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Also:

Check out the Ultimate Bug out Vehicle.


Comments (Page 1)
on Aug 12, 2013

So for me, the big question is, how long, without electricity, would most people be able to obtain enough food to feed themselves and their families.

About 2 weeks ...

on Aug 12, 2013


So for me, the big question is, how long, without electricity, would most people be able to obtain enough food to feed themselves and their families.


About 2 weeks ...

That's a shame, I've always been taught to have at least a 3 month supply of food and water. But I grew up in Cali, where earthquakes could knock out the grid for at least that amount of time. I know my parents have enough food to feed 30 people 1 year in their house. Thus, themselves for roughly 2 years. (mostly canned foods (and yes we have manual can openners and lantern supply for at least 3 months of good light, probably stretch that for 6 months as well.

Unfortunately, I would say that food stocks would last people probably 1 month (tops). Although I think 2 weeks seems more reasonable for people.

on Aug 12, 2013

Probably a good portion of people would lose it when they couldn't charge their iPhones.

 

on Aug 13, 2013

My big concern is the loss of knowledge and data. While the possible collapse of civilization and the loss of life may be tragic and all, it would also be tragic to lose a great wealth of knowledge that enables our civilization to work. Imagine trying to reinvent the computer, or losing all progress in medicine in the last few decades. It think it would hurt. Once we stabilized again, not only would we have to repair things, we would have to figure things out again that we once knew. When the Roman Empire collapsed, a lot of knowledge was forgotten for quite some time (and some of it is still lost).

Also, as for backup, are there good options for non magnetic storage, and if so, how often is it used? Even if you were successful in backing up such data on non magnetic mediums, would technology that could read them still work? Add to the problem, there seems to be entire industries designed to combat piracy. Would technology in a few decades be even easy to understand or figure out by those without special education or manuals?

Edit: I don't mean to sound uncaring about the loss of human life (I'm not sure if I do). I feel that knowledge plays a major role in the good that we as a civilization can do. Losing decades of knowledge will push back all the good we able to do by the same amount.

on Aug 13, 2013

parrottmath

 I know my parents have enough food to feed 30 people 1 year in their house. Thus, themselves for roughly 2 years.

How does '30 people for 1 year'convert to 'roughly 2 years' for themselves?

Making the rough assumption that you have 2 parents, What lasts 30 people 1 year should last 2 people what, 15 years?

Either way, on that note, holy crap! How many cans is that? Are you sure about that number? If we're talking rather light rations, say 1 can per day person. 1 Can * 30 People * 365 Days = 10,950 Cans?!?!?

Do your parents have a small warehouse of food or something?

 

on Aug 13, 2013

I live in Sweden, almost nobody uses cash (as in, of the 100 people I frequently talk with 0 use cash). I think the most pressing thing for us Swedes, if power went out, would be having our access to cash through our credit cards wiped out. In a few days no power would mean people would need to start looting food stores for the non-refridgerated goods. After that, as the stores wouldn't be restocked (no motors = no deliveries) I guess exodus from the cities and destruction of all livestock would happen within the month. I don't think there will ever be time to set up some kind of bartering system. Guns are outlawed here so the people who owns the food would have no way to defend themselves against mobs.

on Aug 13, 2013

How fast necessities run out will depend a lot on where you live and if the problem is localized, nationwide, or global.

Being able to get some kind of help from somewhere else is going to make a huge difference.  It is pretty hard to knock out the entire country, unless of course the whole world is affected.  Assuming it is the whole world.....the biggest cities are probably going to have looting and anarchy within days, well before people actually deplete canned and dry food.

A city like Los Angeles is going to really suffer because everything is brought in... the water is pumped in via aqueducts.  I am not certain that water could be distributed from the local reservoirs without power.  Even IF the port could be used to bring in relief from somewhere unaffected, it would be hard to distribute it without the infrastructure to unload cargo ships and transport goods across the urban sprawl.  Many will be looking for water and food within the first week, and while some will have adequate food supplies to last months, a majority of the population would probably descend into anarchy within days due to fear of starvation.....it would probably take a few weeks for most of the food to be depleted.

Anyone living in a town on a river near farmland COULD be able to last long enough for the community to boot-strap itself into limited self sufficiency.  It is hard to say how many months it would take to achieve, but with fresh water and local agriculture, and without the pressures of rioting hordes of starving urban dwellers, they shouldn't have a problem.  The only question is will society function in these places when the starving refugees from the cities start showing up after a few days.

Thinking about a post apocalyptic survival game again?

on Aug 13, 2013

Hehe, yeap, we'd be in a hurt.  I can last a month with food and water.  But thats not the problem.  The inner citys would run out fast and the riots would spill over and start moving outward.  The looting and killing will be running wild(for food and water).  How would you defend yourself and what you have will be the problem.  Yeah, a doomsday senerio.  One person can't last forever.  You would need to band together to survive.

Think about the drug gangs in east LA.  They would shift from drugs to food and water, and they are already armed to the teeth.

on Aug 13, 2013

Well, I am one for thinking that it's not going to happen, for reasons I won't explain here, not because they are not valid, but because a lot of people wouldn't believe the efficacy in them.

Remember, what you focus on is what you tend to get, so focus on love and acceptance and not fear.  Note it is a Fact that you make your own luck by focusing on positive stuff, look what Brad has achieved over the last 20 years.

on Aug 13, 2013

StevenAus

Well, I am one for thinking that it's not going to happen, for reasons I won't explain here, not because they are not valid, but because a lot of people wouldn't believe the efficacy in them.

Remember, what you focus on is what you tend to get, so focus on love and acceptance and not fear.  Note it is a Fact that you make your own luck by focusing on positive stuff, look what Brad has achieved over the last 20 years.

While I won't argue that postive thinking can improve ones life, the power of happy thoughts isn't going to stop a high altitude nuclear detonation nor one of those coronal ejaculation thingies from the sun. 

There's a lot that can be done down here on earth in terms of controlling nuclear materials, so hopefully things remain alright on that front for a while, but not a hell of a lot we can do for the sun thing. If the Earths orbit puts it in the wrong place at the wrong time, we're kind of fucked.

on Aug 13, 2013

Well, did you ever think that with all the bad things that COULD happen, how few of them actually have, and the ones that have had had some consolation in them?  That's what I think when I hear about bad things that could happen.  Why worry about things that will probably never happen or that we can't do anything about, when we can focus on the Now and enjoy the time we have to the fullest extent of joy, love and compassion for ourselves and others?

on Aug 13, 2013

StevenAus

Well, I am one for thinking that it's not going to happen, for reasons I won't explain here, not because they are not valid, but because a lot of people wouldn't believe the efficacy in them.

Remember, what you focus on is what you tend to get, so focus on love and acceptance and not fear.  Note it is a Fact that you make your own luck by focusing on positive stuff, look what Brad has achieved over the last 20 years.

How'd that work out for German and Polish Jews in the 1930s? 

Being aware of your surrounding society and the path that it is on, even (or especially) if that path could potentially lead to dark places, is the duty of any adult, even if most of us don't bother with it most of the time. 

on Aug 13, 2013


Think about the drug gangs in east LA.  They would shift from drugs to food and water, and they are already armed to the teeth.

Depending upon the time horizon I don't know that it would matter.  Cities would become graveyards in weeks.  Those gangs would not be able to corral a significant amount of food before the population of the city tore through it, even if the gangs were able to kill and collect every day starting day one of the incident and even if there wasn't organized resistance from residents and/or from municipal forces.  Those gangs only hope of really surviving through violence would be to make for the hills and find somewhere to set up shop lording over an existing farming community.  

No major city in the world would survive for very long.  The survivors would all be people in farming country or in remote tourist locations (think of a place where the population fluctuates hugely between tourist season and the rest of the year like Martha's Vineyard or Block Island).  

on Aug 13, 2013

It is a different time from the 1930s, and there are a lot of positive things happening, if you avoid the doom and gloom merchants (the mainstream media).

And worrying about all the worst possible scenarios isn't really beneficial or productive.  If it happens, it happens.  Why reduce one's own happiness today for something that might never happen, and even if it did, there would be nothing one could do about it?  I'm not going to, but what you do is up to you.  The current time is the only thing you can do something about, and if there is a combo of, might never happen, combined with, nothing I can do if it does happen, well, worry is a waste of time, anyway.  Action based on something you can affect is different.

Best wishes to all.

on Aug 14, 2013

StevenAus

It is a different time from the 1930s, and there are a lot of positive things happening, if you avoid the doom and gloom merchants (the mainstream media).

And worrying about all the worst possible scenarios isn't really beneficial or productive.  If it happens, it happens.  Why reduce one's own happiness today for something that might never happen, and even if it did, there would be nothing one could do about it?  I'm not going to, but what you do is up to you.  The current time is the only thing you can do something about, and if there is a combo of, might never happen, combined with, nothing I can do if it does happen, well, worry is a waste of time, anyway.  Action based on something you can affect is different.

Best wishes to all.

 

The point was not would it happen, it was just a mental exercise regarding what would happen if the power went out everywhere.  I agree, it is pretty gloomy to think about apocalypse scenarios and global power loss is highly unlikely.  While I certainly don't recommend worrying about these things, we have enough to worry about, you are missing the point.  This is a forum post by a game designer...someone who deals with "what if" speculation... all of these games he makes about futuristic and fantastic civilizations nuking the crap out of each other shouldn't cause one to be alarmed either.  Contemplate and be entertained.

Meta
Views
» 27427
Comments
» 39
Category
Sponsored Links