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If America Lost Its Electricity: An Electromagnetic Shock (economist.com)
181 points by clra 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 163 comments

There is this interesting old documentary with a similar premise called Connections by James Burke: (first episode) http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xnwpsp_veetle-connections-s...

It uses the 1965 New York power outage as starting point for the discussion on how modern society relies on technology and the consequences of a breakdown. It then goes through the technology tree from the humble plow all the way up to aerospace and how seemingly unrelated things cause us to end up in our current technological state (like how a excess of linnen lead to cheaper paper and widespread literacy).


I have fond childhood memories of the 2003 blackout in NYC[1]. Few cars were driving around because traffic lights were off and intersections became all-way stops. It was around ~90 degrees so food was going to spoil very quickly unrefrigerated.

The surprising thing that happened next was that people started up impromptu block parties with people pitching in ice cream and all the meat they had in their fridges for BBQs in the streets!

Being city folks, you don't really trust your neighbors let alone talk to them. But I got to meet a lot of them that day and it turns out people aren't that scary and are very willing to help one another in times of need.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northeast_blackout_of_2003

"it turns out people aren't that scary"

This is wonderful to hear. People are just people. Normally they have weird quirks, and some of them sound odd to your ears and look different to the people you normally hang around with, but they are all human beings. They all have hopes, dreams and fears of their own.

I remember realising as a teenager that everyone was in the same boat as me, and it was life changing.

But once all that food was eaten and the power never came back on...

Connections is absolutely brilliant. It's definitely one of my favorite TV shows, ever. Definitely worth checking out

The opening scene, and Swissair flight number, gave me chills re-watching it recently.

Coincindence, but one hell of a doozey.

Great series as well.

I don't recall anymore the name, but once I read SciFi book where mankid was back into the middle-age kind of society, with computers and electricity sources relegated to some sort of temples.

It was kind of interesting.

If all it takes is $4 billion to secure it and we don't, we kinda deserve it to happen. The same country has and is spending trillions in Iraq and Afghanistan..

On the other side, someone mention Pascal's Wager: storing a few basic needs and self defense weapons (were legal), costs practically nothing now but it could save your family's life. It's not a sure way but it's much better to have them then not.

Even in cramped apartments you could store stuff for a week or two; in private homes, you're talking months. IIRC, tap water in dark areas with a drop of bleach for liter will last for quite a while. Think 55gallon drums, replaced every so often.

And of course the people who made this horrible choice won't have to live with it's worst consequences in a functioning democracy we could vote to protect our infrastructure

Agreed. It leads me to believe that $4b is either inaccurate or it's not as simple as clearing $4B from the budget and selecting a couple of contractors.

Nope! It's probably quite accurate. The article opens with the March 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused massive blackouts in Canada. Canada implemented upgrades like the ones the US should get, to a cost of 1.2 billion[1]. Of course the US grid is significantly more powerful but the Canadian grid is spread much more sparsely, making it more vulnerable- regardless, the cost is certainly within the same order of magnitude, as the US grid only consumes ~8x more power and Canada is larger.

It really speaks more to the absurd level of war spending than anything else- and it truly was absurd. Trillions in direct, congressional spending. We shipped 12 billion on pallets[2] to Iraq and lost it, and most people don't even remember it. The cost of revolutionizing the US power infrastructure is literally peanuts compared to what we have spent in the middle east.

[1]: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/the-power-grid-is-getting-smar...

[2]: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/feb/08/usa.iraq1

Having weapons makes it more likely for violent acts to happen. Additionally there's a high risk that you will hurt yourself. And then there's the effect on the society: a society based on trust is more productive and safe than a society based on mistrust.

And not having weapons makes it more likely you will be attacked and killed for your provisions if the shit hits the fan. In other words, armed or not, violence is a given when it gets bad enough that people are scavenging for food. When it's so bad the police and military aren't there to protect you, you either roll over and die, or fight and possibly live another day.

I'm not saying you're wrong, just that we don't live in a perfect world with everyone following the rules even in the best of times. I would love it if your ideal world where we all trust each other existed; it would be true paradise. But, we're only human and even the very best of us are flawed creatures.

> And not having weapons makes it more likely you will be attacked and killed for your provisions if the shit hits the fan.

These violence fantasies are repeated on and on in prepper communities, but that does not make them more true. Violence may increase, but mostly people come together to help each other.

I'd be curious about historical examples.

My gut is that people come together and help each other for short-term disasters or where hope of help arriving is widespread (e.g. National Guard being mobilized, local disruption in a still functioning country).

Past ~week, or shorter if there's no hope for things being fixed, people reasonably revert to survival.

So if people come together and help each other, you won't need the weapons.

Engineers seem to understand making backups and hoping you never need them, why is this different? You have the means to protect yourself, and pray that you'll never have to use it.

(I am not a gun owner, by the way. This just seems perplexing)

"Fantasy"? Not even close.

We hope it stays far away, but when a highly technological society breaks down, it can happen very fast.

Just read about Sarajevo, went from thriving metropolis to desperate in a matter of days, in a matter of 2-3 months, people were dying of starvation. Gangs ruled, and you had to be organized and armed to survive. Venezuela is descending into that state now, even with recently imposed gun confiscation. (and those are just political disasters)

I write this without having made any particular preparations, as increasing instability has not yet crossed my threshold of probability.

But to think that it is a mere "fantasy" that things could get bad enough to need stockpiles and weapons is itself the fantasy.

Just read a bit of history, and/or do a bit or research into how fast things will run out --critical things-- when our Just-In-Time economy no longer delivers everything in time.

[[edit: add parenthetical on political disasters]]

Prepping is about being prepared for either scenario, or anything in between.

thats tautological and/or no true scotsman, and doesn't directly address his claim

There's no claim to address; history has shown both outcomes can happen.

Not a violent fantasy at all. I grew up poor and I know what it means to choose between losing the family car or eating that week. I'm a pacifist; I have been in three fights in my life, all started by someone else, all ended with me protecting my body but not fighting back, and all in 9th grade or lower. As an adult I've chosen to live a life of peace and maintain an attitude of tolerance.

But I'm also a realist. I may not like it, hell I hate it, but I'm going to protect my family and my provisions if I'm ever thrust into such a situation. That said, it's my sincere desire to live the rest of my life without ever harming a fellow human.

Having just lived through Hurricane Irma and received texted warnings of people ringing doorbells just after the storm, and then robbing homes, just a mile from me, I ask, who is living in a fantasy world?

>> Additionally there's a high risk that you will hurt yourself.

Probably a lower one than starvation, rape or a violent death in the hands of another desperate person.

>> And then there's the effect on the society: a society based on trust is more productive and safe than a society based on mistrust.

Nice one. What would happen, today--with all the infrastructure in place--if cops /soldiers stayed home for 36 hours? Now add starvation plus desperation and try again.

A society based on trust is a barrel of fish waiting to have stuff taken from them. Don't be a sheep. I'm not saying you need to be a militia member but you're dense if you believe that you're better off not having weapons because there will always be people that have them.

There is no scarcity of weapons, rocks are plentiful and very hard to control access to.

>Having weapons makes it more likely for violent acts to happen.

I mean... ish. It definitely makes you more likely to commit suicide, but it doesn't really have much bearing on whether you're more likely to be targeted[1] or hurt. There's a massively confounding factor in that people who live in areas that are more violent have more incentive to buy a gun.

[1]: http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/01/10/guns-and-states-2-son-o...

There is a reason Mad Max lives in Australia ;-)

for society yes, but for the individual no

Very good book on this topic based on a scenario-study from the German government. Study was researching what happens to society in case of a large scale energy outage.


https://www.amazon.de/dp/1784161888 (English)

Study (German) http://www.tab-beim-bundestag.de/de/pdf/publikationen/berich...

Study (English) http://www.tab-beim-bundestag.de/en/pdf/publications/books/p...

edit: study added

Why do you think the book is good? I've read it too, but I was not impressed. a) style and story was actually quite boring from my point of view b) I believe that the systems we have in place are much more resilient than people think (my dad was an electrical engineer building grids all over the world, I got my hypotheses from him :))

Really just asking, since I'm interested why this book is so well received

Agreed, Dad is an EE as well. From what I gather it would be easy to cause localized disruption but harder to cause a long lasting total outage.

Then again this is US only. I've been to Nicaragua before when lightening hit a power line. It took them over 3 days to get power back to the portion of the country I was in. It was such a common issue everyone has generators they would switch on, from hotels and restaurants to homes.

I can second that, this book is really worth reading.

"But the scale of the potential impact is mind-concentrating"

I've never heard this expression before. Is it common in English? Sounds to me like it is a descendant of "mind bottling" which again is a corruption of "mind boggling".

I believe it's a reference to Samuel Johnson's quote: "When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."

Interesting, hadn't heard about this.

I've definitely heard the phrase "concentrates the mind" when describing something so concerning that it takes away attention from other things to be dealt with. It's quite uncommon, though.

"Mind-concentrating" makes sense as an adverbial formulation of that phrase.

Just The Economist being a little playful with language. It primes the reader with the connotations of phrases such as 'mind-blowing' but then steps away and uses under-statement. The result is a mildly humorous collision in the reader's mind.

Mind-blowing. Mind-boggling.

These are the only two I think I am familiar with, never heard 'mind-concentrating' before nor does it make much sense.

Moving through West Africa I admire the resilience of people here. In many places, the power being ON is the surprise, not when it's OFF. I often wonder what would happen to the world if we lost power, or running water, or grocery stores, or really any of our "fancy" infrastructure.

In my experience and estimation, a massive percentage of people in Developed countries would wither and die, while undeveloped countries would continue to function almost exactly as they do now.

I think there is a lot to be said for knowing how to grow your own food, hunt your own meat, build your own shelter, etc.

> In my experience and estimation, a massive percentage of people in Developed countries would wither and die, while undeveloped countries would continue to function almost exactly as they do now.

Well, yes. That's what the infrastructure is for. Do not romanticise places without infrastructure; there you simply have a much higher risk of dying from something that westerners would consider preventable. Like maternity.

Growing your own food works until there's a crop failure. Who here is old enough to remember the Ethiopian famine of the early 80s, possibly the first and most shocking western TV news coverage of a famine?

OPs position seems to be that primitive societies are more resilient against any event that disrupts technological capabilities. I agree with that.

Your position seems to be that primitive societies are a horrible place to live and if it's a choice between the two, no sane person would argue for a return to primativism. I agree with that too.

There's a 'third way' that seems to be gaining some ground among luddites, preppers, off-gridders and primitivists. The idea is to take full advantage of modern technologies but also devote a portion of resources and time to maintaining the capability to do things 'the old way'. So, be 'on the grid' but combine it with on-premise solar/wind/hydro/genny. Use all the appliances in your modern kitchen but go into the woods a few times a year and test your ability to make fire from sticks. Buy goods from the supermarket but still grow a portion of your food at home.

This third way is far from flawless. It's still a gamble, not unlike Pascal's Wager: You are investing time and money into maintaining primitive capabilities that are far inferior to the technology-enabled capabilities available to you in the modern world, and you're double-spending to maintain both in parallel. But if you can approach it as a hobbyist, it can be a pretty fun and challenging pastime to get invested in.

This is veering into the "prepper" debate, which the Economist clearly wanted to set up with their disaster-porn writing in the article.

But the key question has to be: individual or collective resilience? Yes, it's not a straight up conflict, but I do think things could be greatly improved if people kept asking questions about collective preparation for crises, improving the civic and governmental responses to them, and (in the case under discussion) not ignoring problems simply because they are uncomfortable and expensive.

Agree 100%. A big barrier to those discussions is the view which society has of anyone expressing preparedness/resilience viewpoints. "You're not one of those tinfoil, gun-hoarding prepper hillbillies, are you?". You have to navigate carefully past that, slowly, to make any headway and get to the conversations you ultimately need to have to progress.

So right now you see most efforts concentrated at the individual and family levels, with isolated pockets of preparedness 'societies' emerging. But even those wider efforts are regarded as pretty kooky by society as a whole. I'm thinking specifically of the American Redoubt movement when penning this, but there are others - LDS, Amish are examples of groups making wider preparedness efforts but still very much siloed.

I think these discussions and wider preparedness efforts are unlikely to gain any ground without some events occurring that demonstrate a clear need for improvements in preparedness. Of course, nobody should be willing such events to occur because people will die. But the longer we go without such an event, the dimmer society's memory gets as to how to survive them.

What's that poem? Something like: Hard times create strong men, Strong men create good times, Good times create weak men, Weak men create hard times.

It seems appropriate.

> A big barrier to those discussions is the view which society has of anyone expressing preparedness/resilience viewpoints. "You're not one of those tinfoil, gun-hoarding prepper hillbillies, are you?"

How people's disaster preparedness is viewed depends on three things:

- are the disasters being prepared for plausible or not?

- do they give off the impression that they're somehow looking forward to the disaster, either as vindication or the opportunity to deem people "looters" and murder them without repercussion?

- is this a form of preparation that theoretically everyone could do, or is there an implication that, in the manner of Jehova's Witnesses, only a subset of the population can be saved?

So, if someone in Florida is preparing for hurricanes by securing their property, moving valuables out of the basement, and preparing for the possibility of evacuation? That's a plausible disaster with no talk of violence, and almost everyone could attempt, so that's a "normal" activity and won't get someone deemed the bad kind of prepper.

1. "any" disaster is "plausible", some just more probable than not. 2. Looking forward to a disaster? Do you mean like a firefighter "looks forward to" fires or EMS "looks forward to" MVAs? While I can't speak for the 'preppers' you generalize, I can speak for fire fighters and EMS in that they feel that when TSHTF, they want to be there.... unless the 'preppers' you know are straight up lunatics. 3. "Jehoavh's witnesses 'mentality' has nothing to do with 'prepping'. They think (IIRC) that only a certain number of people will be 'saved', preparations be damned. So... what does that have to do with 'prepping'?

Also, why do you inject 'no talk of violence'? as if all the survivors of a catastrophe will be peace-nicks? have you not read any of the studies put out by think tanks or books on previous governmental/environmental collapses? Violence is almost a certainty (in long-term, wide spread catastrophic anomalies). Why do you feel it isn't in your best interest to also prepare for that as you would food, water, etc... ?

>3. "Jehoavh's witnesses 'mentality' has nothing to do with 'prepping'. They think (IIRC) that only a certain number of people will be 'saved'

That's a little unfair. While one aspect of LDS preparedness might be their take on the rapture and how that'll play out, their teachings on preparedness are not solely aimed at that one scenario to the exclusion of other more likely/immediate scenarios. They also don't guard their preparedness teachings and learnings for exclusive use within the church, it's all quite openly shared to all without any reciprocation expectations. That's admirable, IMO.

Also, as a concept the LDS take on rapture as a reason to prepare, is very similar to how 'zombie apocalypse' is used as an engaging concept to drive home very practical preparedness thinking, while at the same time being in itself patently absurd.

Myths and legends of old served much the same purpose. All these things are fantastic tools if applied appropriately, and don't require being taken seriously/literally to be useful.

so are you talking about the Mormons (LDS) or Jehovah's Witnesses? they have two very different views on how the 'world ends' and what to do about it.

They are... somewhat different. How they frame the rapture, and whom might make the grade on such a junket - I wouldn't say they're fundamentally divergent on those topics because in LDS doctrine exaltation is obtainable by a potentially uncapped number of true believers that strive towards it, whereas for a witness there's a hard cap number on the souls to be saved circa ~150k. You make the team or it's goodnight. But how that grade is attained and what one should do to prepare.... both churches espouse the same basic tenets. JWs are just a bit more rigorous in terms of determining who made the team or not, and the alternative for those that don't seems entirely enjoyable so...

If you're of a particular church you're probably acutely aware of the differences and that's a point I have no appetite to contest. How it factors into distinctions in preparedness doctrines emanating from each church? Not much I reckon - They're both putting out a good message and I'm, irrespective of personal beliefs, comfortable taking on-board the core messages of both churches. They are doing good works and that is to be lauded!

tl;dr you can take or leave interpretations of the rapture; the idea of squaring away a few bags of rice and some tea lights has universal value to even the ungodly masses. Everyone wins, and there's nothing to be gained taking up a mantle of chief faith-questioner, I reckon :)

I am neither, but I have family who is a JW. Their viewpoint on anything remotely close to 'prepping' is that it shows a complete 'lack of faith' in the assumption that god will provide & protect. Now, this person doesn't live in earthquake/tornado/disaster prone area, so I'm not sure if this is a universal belief for all JWs. I can't imagine they would reject the most basic safety precautions such as 3-day kits or something of that nature...

Good list. There's a fourth major factor that might even be bigger than those three combined: How receptive the viewer is to ideas that don't mesh with their current world view.

Any discussion about fundamental preparedness has to be had with someone who's not already on board with the idea, otherwise it's just preaching to the choir. This means that the conversation will inevitably challenge their world view, often fundamentally. This is not a comfortable exercise for the recipient.

Many folks are deeply uncomfortable entertaining new ideas, and doubly so if the implications of those ideas would be unpleasant to them and theirs. For many people, if someone suggests to them that they might find themselves in a life threatening situation, is taken as if the person proposing that scenario is directly threatening their life.

Fundamentally it's an unfortunate human instinct to want to shoot the messenger, as an emotional reaction to the message.

Governments make rather large investments in preparedness.

The massive food subsidy is one such example where a vast drop in yields would not harm the food supply. CDC does quite a bit to prevent epidemics which are historically the second major wide scale disasters. In third place though most expensive is war / defense spending.

They tend to do less preparation for very rare disasters, but it's not clear that personal preparation for such things is all that reasonable or useful.

I think theres a valid argument to made for spending effort to maintain some degree of decentralisation. That is, enough individual resilience adds up to a degree of collective resilience.

I suppose I have been fortunate enough to have never seen people respond to a crisis in the ways outlined in the article though. My experience has been people pulling together and working collectively to help each other.

Centralised organisation is powerful but easily overwhelmed. Decentralised response can solve a lot of smaller problems at at once.

In some really abstract way: that makes sense!

But the problems of a widespread long term power outage sound like something a centralized preparation could cope with at least as effectively, if not more so; partially because it can simply be prevented appropriate preparations, and partially because even when a blackout cannot be prevented you almost certainly can ensure that recovery is relatively trivial (as compared to "rebuild transformers"). Both mitigation strategies simply aren't available to hyper-local prepper style preparations. Not to mention the fact that the population (even in the low-density US of A) is probably much higher than a prepper-tech based society can ever hope to sustain. I.e: mass prepping would likely replace famine and other catastrophes with immediate civil war, followed by famine and other catastrophes.

In abstract: Decentralization offers a remedy because it is distributed; however, the best way to make a system (more) distributed may still be via a coordinated (i.e. centralized) approach.

The optimum lies all along that spectrum I think. So combined global/centralized, localized/coordinated and individual/decentralized preparedness would give you the highest level of resilience. Defense in depth, if you will. It's also the highest effort/cost, of course.

I was thinking when the parent poster hinted at that - You see that broad-spectrum approach advocated and implemented by disaster preparedness agencies - A central coordination capability coupled with regional direct response capabilities, and strong appeals from them to citizens for individual/family-level preparedness.

That's sane sounding. But given how poor people are at dealing with low-probability, high-impact risks, the more individual levels of risk probably should have some formal guidance and/or legal requirements imposed by the the layers higher up.

Good point, reminds me of the Red strategy of the Millineum Challenge.


Aka the Amish, or even Mennonites. I spend a good deal of time in close proximity to these communities and they seem to mix old world / close-to-earth living (horse and buggy etc.) with new world-tech (solar/wind electricity generation). Each community has their own "rules" but it seems to be close to what you're describing (maybe minus all the religious stuff) I do see them at Wal-Mart ... so there's that.

> You are investing time and money into maintaining primitive capabilities that are far inferior to the technology-enabled capabilities available to you in the modern world

Except when it comes to food. Growing your own food and cooking it yields far better quality than what you can buy in stores or restaurants. Yes there is time involved, but with practice, your time is recouped in such a way that you're enjoying dishes on a similar level of taste as what you'd pay over $100 a head in a high-end restaurant. And you get to do that multiple times a week.

This holds even for food you don't grow but still cook (for me: meats). The downside of course is that now it is very hard to enjoy food in a restaurant unless it's high-end or in an ethnic specialty I don't master. (raises pinky finger :) )

Being good at cooking makes it hard not to be a buzzkill sometimes at restaurants. My friends will be all excitedly praising a place and I'm just sitting there mad about how much I paid for something I could have done better myself.

This is essentially how I was raised. My father was a depression kid, and they lost everything. We kids had to learn how to grow, hunt, fish and survive.

I spent the schoolyear like most kids, but summers we worked on the family ranch. Electricity was for an hour a day, only wellwater in a tank, shower with a wetcloth. Most workdays were on horse with one truck to haul equipment, water and food. We went to the store once a month - everything else was grown or stored.

The family ranches were 30k acres in the mountains, so getting hurt or caught in the dark meant required survival skills - medical care, making a fire, etc. Civilization was a 4 hour drive, and the closest phone was an hour though dangerous canyon roads impassible at night (for the sane).

I really enjoyed it as a kid - but I later realized that most people wouldn't want the hassle unless it was a family business of some kind.

I recommend scouting, camping and gardening. Ranching and farming is expensive and a lot of hard work! It's very rewarding though if you can make it a living.

You mill your own flour from your own grains?

Don't cook with it?

EMPs aside (which throw a wrench into any modernly-convenient cooking technique), grinding wheat berries into flour is easy to do at home. (I have a stand mixer attachment I do this with often.) So is growing wheat; it's just grass after all. What's painstaking at home-scale would be threshing and winnowing, but it seems [1] that you can do this by hand too.

[1] https://www.groworganic.com/organic-gardening/articles/grow-...

> Ethiopian famine of the early 80s, possibly the first and most shocking western TV news coverage of a famine

You are presumably too young to remember Biafra. The television coverage then was pretty shocking. The very name of the state became a British slang adjective for very thin; see https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Biafran

Let's keep the context: the Ethiopian famines of the last decades were all politically caused.

That's a nice fantasy I suppose. You're no doubt aware of how much West Africa's population has increased since WW2, such that they now have hundreds of millions of people. Most of those people - as in the West - can only exist due to increasingly advanced, connected economic and technological systems.

Nigeria's population as an example, has gone from 45 million to 186 million since 1960. That extreme population growth has equally big requirements that are necessary to keep all of those people from dying.

In a given year, the West is directly responsible for tens of millions of people being alive in Africa.

Routine food aid and supply, sometimes preventing famine and random general food scarcity. This has been a non-stop effort for decades and continues in many places across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Medication supply, preventing millions of deaths from everything from HIV/AIDS to TB to malaria to infection. That includes invention, manufacturing and delivery of drugs.

Outbreak intervention. The substantial response to the 2014-2016 ebola outbreak as an example, which stopped it from becoming a catastrophe.

A massive percentage of people - represented by typical extreme population growth curves of the last ~50 years - in low development nations would die in your scenario.

If you need a recent example of how fragile the lower development nations are (in part due to their commonly vast population expansions and weak supporting infrastructure), you need look no further than the global food riots from the commodity bubble of ten years ago, as it dramatically rocked the world's poorest:


I dont think food aids were responsible for the massive growth in Nigeria's population though improved healthcare definitely played a role in that. I think the biggest contributor to population growth has been the consistent susidizing of the local economy from oil income. Also, Nigeria was able to handle the ebola epidemic that got to its shores with little to no outside assistance.

its petroleum fertilizer. places like mexico were famine-ridden in the 40s until they figured out how to make industrial fertilizer

I wouldn't compare it to the lifestyle of someone in West Africa, but we have an off grid cabin that we built the infrastructure up from nothing.

Such excitement to achieve the milestones we take for granted back in the burbs. A fire pit. Rain water tank. A sheltered long drop to crap in. Solar electricity. Hot running water and a sink. A shower. Internet. Every one achieved was a huge leap forward in comfort.

It really helped me get perspective on what you really need to live, and cured us of any desire to strive for a bigger and bigger house with immense walk-in wardrobes.

Too many people for hunting meat to be remotely viable, probably by at least a 100, maybe a 1000. Everyone growing their own food is subsistence agriculture, and that cannot support the population, either.

It's a first world fallacy that you need to eat steak every day—or any other large animal for that matter.

It doesn't take a lot of land to raise chickens and with a few, you already have more eggs than you know what to do, ergo you can pool that with neighbors. Someone can own a cow, which requires 1 acre of pasture but produces enough milk for many families.

If you want to see what this looks like at scale, just look at the countryside in Europe a century ago. Villages are mostly townhouses all huddled together, often with long-stretching back yards supporting vegetable gardens, and fields all around. Is that hard work? You bet! A lot more physically demanding than city life. But also more sustainable. The downside of course being that there's so much focus on basic sustenance that few people can devote time to occupations of the mind (which is primarily what cities are devoted to). It seems over time the 2 models have fought each other and the city has won, but a question to ask is if this has been at the cost of resilliency.

To me, this is the attraction of suburbia. Not the nice lawns (though I have one) or country clubs, but the ability to have one foot in the city and keep at least a toe in the countryside, with my own vegetables.

Europe's population was a lot lower a century ago.

Thanks for bringing up this simple fact. Being skilled in hunting, fishing, etc. still doesn't mean you're actually going to be able to find game with any kind of sustained outage going on, unless you are in a very remote part of America given the numbers of people (and fellow skilled hunters) who will be in your same predicament.

Eventually, they'll be hunting each other. Until the population drops back to the subsistence level. But of course, international aid would kick in, well before it got to that. One hopes, anyway.

It would take years to get into place the infrastructure needed to supply aid for 300 million people. But the population would be greatly reduced by that time.

Yeah, you need to be realistic.

Ah... not saying that I'd turn to it immediately, but people are made of meat. If we're headed for a Morlocks vs. Eloi type of world, I know what side I'll be on. I promise not to devour anyone with a skill needed to reconstitute civilization. ...Maybe just take one buttock, and let them live, like the old woman in Candide.

I'll probably stop once the herd gets down to a sustainable size, and I'll definitely stop after someone gets wise to my tricks and murders me. It would be the post-apocalypse world, after all.

> I think there is a lot to be said for knowing how to grow your own food, hunt your own meat, build your own shelter, etc.

That's true enough. The problem is the people with guns, who will take all that from you. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a very depressing read. Its scenario is worse than grid collapse, in that nothing could be grown. But there wouldn't be much commercial agriculture without electricity.

Is that the one the Viggo Mortensen / Charlize Theron movie is based on?


It was well made and acted, but seriously one of the most depressing movies I've ever watched.

Also - the book One Second After is based on the premise of an EMP attack. https://www.amazon.com/Second-After-John-Matherson-Novel/dp/...

There are elements in the book that are worse than anything shown in the movie.

But if one likes the movie, I suggest reading the book.

It is, in fact, one of the most depressing books that I've ever read. The others are also by McCarthy. I mean, some of the stuff in Burroughs or Abercrombie or Morgan could be worse. But their tone is far more humorous than McCarthy's. Or maybe his humor is just too black. The humor of battlefields and slaughterhouses, as Abercrombie puts it. And he's just joking about it.

Having a .45 as your disaster/emergency preparedness plan only works in places like CA and a few other coastal states where the odds are very low that any random other person is packing.

I would not advise it.

It doesn't scale well, though. Especially because serious looters will have probably hit National Guard armories, before getting to you :( Indeed, once things get bad enough, the most serious looters will be former police and military.

My personal fantasy always has me going underground for about 10 years, then coming out once any violent purges are over, well-rested and ready to repopulate. Resilient, like a cockroach.

I always think that particularly when I watch "The Walking Dead." I'd just find a nice bomb shelter and try to write my the great American novel for about 5-10 years. No trying to seek out other survivors, no trying to rebuild, etc.

I mean, I'm pretty introverted (and also very overworked at the moment,) so really that just sounds like a nice vacation. Maybe in reality I'd get tired of it pretty quickly. But being bored and lonely for a few years still beats ending up as cannibal jerky hands-down.

Combine the best of both. Carjack your way to the boondocks with everything you need.

Box truck + travel trailer + contents of a Walmart garden center would be a damn good start.

/s (should be obvious)

Indeed ;) Except for everyone else doing the same :(

Most, if not all, of us here on HN would be out of our normal jobs. There isn't really any immediate need for developers when there isn't any electricity.

Think bigger.

Almost overnight you would have no access to food or clean drinking water. There would certainly be no gasoline, heating, cooling, showers, etc.

You wouldn't even be able to "get" money - ATMs won't work and you certainly won't be able to use your smart phone. So you would not be able to buy life necessities even if someone were selling them.

A job will be the last thing you think about.

I think what he is trying to say is, that developers will be useless dead weight in this kind of post apocalyptic scenario. Everybody will be out of there normal day jobs, but a lot of people can contribute to survival with their skillset. Doctors, mechanics, farmers, caretakers, hand labor, etc. will be in high demand. Office people & developers, not so much.

Am I one of the rare developers that grew up in rural USA that has remnants of what are now known as survival skills but I just consider as childhood fun?

I always tell my team that if things go bad then I'll be the one keeping them alive.

You sound like a good guy to be around :)

I like my team, I'll keep them alive. That way when society returns our children will be able to take over our webdev duties.

We are not dependent upon any specific technology. We are "fixers", and computers are just our hammer that makes everything else look like a nail. Take them away, and the other, lesser tools in the toolbox are still there.

I intend to attach myself to a raider strongman, to provide solutions to their difficult problems, such as how to crack an entrenched survivalist's defenses and get his stockpile out. I'm a decent hand at basic chemistry, too, like organic extractions and distillations.

There are many potential princes, and Machiavelli only needs one of them.

I was mostly being tongue-in-cheek. Of course we wouldn't care about a job at that point...its also why I have the required amount of necessities ready to go in case it does.

> the required amount of necessities ready to go

What is the required amount? And where where would you go?

I should say I have my required amount of necessities...

Where would I go? It depends

All developed countries have numerous storage depots, the existence and location of which are only accessible in some online form. Even offline digital form such as a downloaded wikipedia. So a computer-literate person might be of use to a post downfall warlord, plunked down before a laptop powered by a diesel generator and ordered to "do the magic" perl scripts to retrieve all Costco warehouses within a fifty mile radius...

Growing food is not that hard. If necessity calls for it, people can learn to do it sufficiently well from books and neighbors. More challenging issues are access to clean drinking water and fertile land, safety from pillaging, and getting proper medical care.

I grew up in a farming family, and I run a hobby sheep farm.

Supplementing your food supply with a family garden isn't that difficult. Completely supplying yourself and your family with enough calories to live via farming is enormously difficult, both in terms of physical labor and in terms of skillset. It also takes at least 45 days, from a standing start, to get anything edible, and that's if you are willing to suvive completely on turnips (which have the shortest yield period of any domesticated vegetable crop). Corn, beans, and potatoes, which are going to be the crops that provide the bulk of your calories in a survival situation, require roughly 100 days to yield, and they only grow during the right season.

Furthermore, without either industrial fertilizer or an established farming system that includes animals, you will only grow those crops once before your land begins to be depleted and your yields in subsequent years will drop until they are no longer survivable in approximately year three. You are growing the animals as much or more for manure as for meat.

And none of that includes the vagaries of the weather and various plant diseases that can decimate your crop.

Basically, if you don't have access to fresh water, you're doomed immediately. If you don't have at least a 12 month supply of food in your basement, you're doomed in two to three months. If you haven't already implemented a closed nitrogen system using composting and animal agriculture, but happen to have land, seeds and a hoe, you're doomed in two to three years. If you have done all of those things you can probably survive for a decade ot three, if you can outlast the looters.

For reference, the pioneers who cleared the forests in the midwest would go in on year one and girdle all of the trees. Then they'd go back home. In year two, they'd plant turnips and pumpkins, which would grow among the dead trees, and they'd survive on those for the first couple of years as the stumps rotted. It took several years to establish a sustainable farm. The pioneers who went eg to Utah, where there were no forests, would plant immediately, but the first crop was just seed potatoes, which they would harvest and store - they couldn't carry enough to eat, and were essentially bootstrapping a potato crop from what they could carry. They carried enough food to survive through a complete growing season, augmented by hunting and foraging. It was a hard life, they were living hand to mouth, and they already knew what they were doing.

>Growing food is not that hard. If necessity calls for it, people can learn to do it sufficiently well from books and neighbors.

Disagree. It's pretty hard, from a cold start, to reach the point of producing a significant number of calories independently. It's a far cry from keeping a veggie/herb garden, and even harder in turn to do it over a number of successive years. Also, if we're specifically considering a scenario without power, the preservation of that food through the year is a major challenge in itself.

>More challenging issues are access to clean drinking water and fertile land, safety from pillaging, and getting proper medical care.

Absolutely agree.

I encourage you to watch the first episode of James Burke's original Connections, if you believe that.

Wouldn't winter come and kill all your crops? How much food are you planning on growing?

Is "resilience" really the word for what's on your mind? As far as I understand, "resilience" is the ability to recover from loss. But if electricity is rare enough to be treated as a gift rather than a given, should it be considered a loss when it goes away?

One book that examines this scenario is "One Second After" by William Forstchen [0]. It involves a coordinated EMP attack over America and the effects on a small town in North Carolina. In the same vein as The Road but more detailed in how society devolves i.e. how people behave and what is valuable / scarce as the event progresses. It is not pretty but a fascinating read that will make you consider such a scenario and how you can better prepare.

[0] http://a.co/2DWrTJ5

That sounds almost exactly like Alas, Babylon but with an EMP instead of direct nuclear strikes.

'Alas, Babylon' was an amazing read as a teenager. Really opened up my eyes to the fact that war was actually a scary thing because it has the stark realism without the shock and horror that allows you to compartmentalize it. You start to realize that we do take a whole lot for granted in terms of simple needs.

The article doesn't even mention the Carrington Event in 1859, which actually hit earth (with limited damage due to lack of widespread electronics). On the spectrum of existential threats, this one seems to be fairly underrated.

There's an old (1943) but good, Sci-Fi book about the disappearance of electricity. It's French (Ravage by René Barjavel) but apparently an English translation exists (Ashes, Ashes) [1].

It takes place in 2052, but in a world mostly comparable to ours regarding reliance on electricity. Especially active reliance for some things that do not just become dead or useless, but immediately dangerous.

I expect it not to be very well known to US and UK readers, but I think it's worth the read, in France it's usually considered to be among the best and most important Sci-Fi stories.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ashes,_Ashes

At least our Bitcoin won't be lost since our wallets will be decentralized. Still, I won't be able to pay anywhere near the blast zone! :p

No, it'll be lost. With widespread telecom failures, the miners won't be able to reliably communicate, so the network will partition and will reorganize at random.

People love to think of Bitcoin as impervious, but it's subject to the CAP theorem just like every other distributed system.

It will certainly struggle but there are clear rules for how bitcoin will behave in a network split - the chain with the most work wins.

As long as the network comes back up at some point no bitcoins will be lost. Some might be double spent though

Bitcoin is great in a crisis.

All you need is a computer, electricity and the internet!

Which I think agrees with the parent post right? If there is a network partition, and people attempt to keep using bitcoin, then there will be consistency issues.

Is there some facility for incorporating (non-conflicting) transfers from the discarded chain into the primary? otherwise it sounds like all txns made during the split on the losing chains will simply be discarded, which doesn't sound desirable at all.

you might end up with a number of isolated BTC forks though. E.g. imagine if all transatlantic/transpacific communication was lost for a few days, america would have it's own chain, and people would not be willing to switch to a fork without their transactions on as they wouldn't be able to recover they goods they traded for the BTC at the time of the transaction

It's kind of worse than that. The various (temporary) islands, by default, would not make any decision to 'switch' to different islands. As islands reconnect, each time that happens, the larger island wins, and the smaller island automatically switches over.

Good luck buying eggs from your neighbor with Bitcoin.

"I'll pay you back when the grid comes up" lol

There was an old article in Omni in the late 80s or early 90s that claimed if you did a coordinated attack on only 6 transformer stations across the US, it would take down the whole grid for months. Given that they've never caught the people behind the Metcalfe attack, I do wonder if it's still possible: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metcalf_sniper_attack

That event still creeps me out. Clearly a sophisticated attack. Penetration testing? Dry run?

Hanlon's razor, eg Max Headroom[1]. Just a couple smart idiots with enough intelligence to override a network signal (a hell of a feat, from what I've gathered) and enough stupidity to use that to moon thousands of people.

The US is full of militias. All you really need is for one to happen to have a cop/ex-cop and a telecom/electrical guy in the same one, and you get this.

[1]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Max_Headroom_broadcast_signal_...

I'm surprised to not see any discussion about the cost to effectively harden a home solar system (or business one depending on size) against this kind of surge and damage. I could easily see locations with adequate rooftop solar to be mostly grid independent becoming a valuable part of rebuilding. If nothing else they might provide powered community centers and a way for people to recharge surviving small electronics. I can kind of understand why utilities would not be going ahead in investing in this on their own, because they are basically having to look at interests of their investors and anyone spending hundreds of millions or billions of dollars to protect effectively their part of the grid would probably not last long in a position. In addition, even if they took steps it's entirely possible or even likely that they would be negatively impacted or completely neutralized by incoming damage from other parts of the grid. It's also worth keeping in mind that the power grid in the US is not uniform. I believe the Texas is mostly a separate grid, and I'm pretty sure that there are multiple other places where there's some cross connect but the bulk of power control is through separate regional grids.

I remember seeing an announcement about an action by Obama to prepare for this. Not sure how much substance there is to it, but thought it might be relevant.


Wait, 5-10 billion USD for something that would prevent the complete collapse of civilization and Congress won't pony up the money?

It probably isn't as irrational as it sounds. I wish I still had a link to it, but I saw a more serious analysis that points out that the amount of ground an EMP nuke can cover has the radius go up linearly as the yield increases, and that the nuke that North Korea had would only be strong enough to knock out a radius of some rather small number of miles. I don't quite recall exactly but I want to say it's on the order of ten. At this point, it's pretty likely that the EMP radius of the North Korea tech is smaller than its inaccuracy if they actually tried to hit us right now, meaning they might just nuke a 10 mile radius in the ocean, or in the mountains or something.

The idea that one little nuke from North Korea could take out the whole of the United States in one shot is fantasy, so defending against that is not necessarily a high priority. For further evidence for this, consider that if entire countries could be nuked back to the stone age so easily, the Cold War likely would have ended differently, and much sooner.

You want to take about "taking out the entire United States" in one shot, look to the Big Nuke in the Sky. Or those targeted terrorist scenarios. (Which are still harder than they sound, honestly. Trying to coordinate such strikes such that they all go off at once without a hitch and with no possible response sounds easy to those who have never tried it, as if it's as easy as just telling everyone to fire at 11:32am or something. But there's a lot of issues between the idea and the reality. There aren't all that many instances of that working in history, and even the ones that come close still have failures, like 9/11 did.)

But the simple reality is probably that it is impossible to insure society against this level of disaster. We already have 7 billion people in the world, very few of which are willing to agree that they can forgo food and water and such now to help insure against such things, and the system basically hums along at capacity. To build such hardened infrastructure would require that we raise the standard to the point that the system would then be humming along at well over capacity, which basically means in the attempt to prevent the disaster we'd be bringing the exact same disaster upon ourselves.

Unless voters make it a priority, Congress won't do a damn thing.

EDIT: Which is how democracy should work!

I do believe that trying to prevent the collapse of our civilization is one of the expected duties, with a high priority, of an elected official.

That's the key distinction between a democracy and a republic. In a republic, we expect our elected officials to be smarter than we are about how to spend money.

You find this surprising?

I was surprised the price tag was so low.

It's amusing, and also damning, the idea that American civil society, designed pre-electricity, is somehow incapable of retaining civility without electricity.

I say amusing in a very condescending sense. We think of ourselves as modern, advanced, and really seriously quite a bit better, than our ancestors of only 150 years ago. And yet if the prediction of our devolution into uncivilized primal behaviors is true, our assessment as advanced or better is absurd on the face of it.

But more interesting, is why is this the case? Have we so much more trust in technology, and so much less trust in civil institutions over time? And in a moment where we need to shift from one to the other, we simply can't do it, and therefore civilization implodes? If so, that's embarrassing. Or it should be.

In South Florida, the 3 days since Irma have been hell. Without power, homes have become saunas.

The majority of Florida's population growth coincided w the widespread introduction of air conditioning.

The majority of population growth in the entire south coincided with AC.

> The majority of population growth in the entire south coincided with AC.

That's pretty hard for me to believe. People had been living in the South since before the formation of this country... Do you have any stats to back that up?

This I would agree with. Actually, having grown up in Florida, it really irks me when I go up north and stay in households during the summer. It seems like Floridians take air conditioning seriously, whereas northerners don't see it as a priority. Growing up in a hot place and always wanting to be in a cool place, sometimes it's just odd living with people who grew up in colder places that yearn for warmth.

Hell indeed.

In the days leading up to Irma, it was already like the apocalypse. You couldn't get gasoline, water, plywood, or non-perishable goods for love or money. You couldn't drive away because the roads were jammed. Closer to the storm, you couldn't get to a shelter because they were full. Airports shut down. There was nowhere to run (or hide, really).

During the storm, once the winds got to 40 mph, you were on your own - no 911, no police, no fire department. If someone decided to brave the storm and break into your house, it was up to you to defend yourself.

After the storm, there was no power, many roads were impassable, no gasoline, no food, no water, no sanitation, no way to flush toilets without using precious water.

It was a relatively short, but terrifying preview of what a prolonged loss of electricity would do. I think Scientific American compared the power output of a major hurricane to one 10 megaton nuclear bomb explosion every 20 minutes.

If anyone wants to know what a post-apocalyptic world looks like, take an area hit by a major hurricane, remove FEMA, medical support, and law enforcement, and multiply that by a couple of orders of magnitude.

It's a lot more real when you've been an unwilling participant.

old architecture was built to allow room to flow through the homes and be more livable.

new architecture is often like sealed boxes

Correct. Antebellum houses are surprisingly comfortable. The ceilings are twelve feet high, and the houses are one room wide with massive windows on both sides. And the walls are often brick, stone, and/or plaster, which gets cool at night and stays cool for much of the day.

The old plantation house on my family's farm is 120 feet long and only 20 feet wide. It's situated on the top of the highest hill for a mile in any direction, and oriented precisely to the prevailing winds. Brick foundation, horsehair plaster walls, and a detached summer kitchen.

Appreciate the architectural discussion. Reminds me of an architectural feature of ceilings in ancient buildings. I cannot recall the name of it, but it did allow for cooling of the buildings. The design would consist of a lower ceiling with the middle gone. An upper ceiling would extend over this. The section between the ceilings would have openings to allow for light and ventilation. Wish I could remember the name of this design.

So they've become a normal day at work for anyone who works outside?

The same temperature is far less tolerable indoors than out. Particularly in modern buildings, which are designed for total reliance on central air systems and so don't have organic airflow. (Which also has advantages, mostly better use of space; but it introduces a pretty hard dependency on operating in those buildings for long.)

People installing utilities in residential buildings (e.g HVAC technician), people in non-air conditioned kitchens (and especially dish-washing rooms), automotive/equipment techs and many others often deal with similar environments. Working outside in the sun sucks just as much, arguably more if you have to wear a lot of PPE.

The difference is, people in those situations get breaks (by law), and they also get to leave when their shift is over.

the chaos scenario lasted for 6 months and they estimated 7m people dying. So is the lesson to have 6 months worth of food and water storage in your home and maybe some propane tanks?

You need about 1 gallon of potable water per adult person per day. For 6 months and a household of three people, that would require 540 gallons (2052 liters) of water. That's about 110 water-cooler sized bottles of water.

I'm not sure where in your home you would fit that. A small swimming pool would easily hold that, but keeping the water clean and potable would be very difficult. I would guess you'd need to have a special water tank made, and to avoid detection or damage, it would probably need to be underground. How the water would stay drinkable is another challenge.

Just saying that the logistics around long-term survival appear to be daunting and expensive. Maybe those "crazy" survivalists are not so crazy after all.

For water, you probably have much better luck finding a place (home) next to a natural spring, while leaving the storage available in your home/bunker to food rations and other supplies.

No, because as soon as other people catch on to the fact that's you're relatively well off, you've got looters to deal with. You'd need a way to hide your supplies and the discipline to ensure that nobody else can catch on.

Or a gun or two.

Why are rock climbers needed to get people out of lifts? Ive been stuck in a couple. Opening the doors and climbing out didnt involve ropes, let alone a fire department.

I thought the same thing. I lived in a crappy building in college where the elevator broke all of the time. I just used the stairs, but some people insisted on using the elevator. They would pull the doors open and climb out on a floor.

Not only that, as a rock climber, what the hell are you going to do to help somebody? Set a rope at the top of the shaft somehow, rappel onto the elevator car, open the door, and give them a jumar? Or setup a haul system? Most casual rock climbers are not proficient at these things to the point where they should be attempting rescues.

A couple? I'd love to know where this can happen multiple times to the same person so I can avoid it like the plague.

I used to work in film/TV. Power failures. Fire Alarms. I was in one elevator that stopped because the overweight sensor was tripped. Getting out is normally just a matter of forcing the doors.

There is a book on the topic called "One Second After". I'm not a fan of it; I think his scenario is excessively dark, but its worth reading. On a similar note, living in Tampa, being prepared is on people's minds right now. No, you can't borrow my chain saw!


See this introduction to the global risk of geomagnetic storms from the Open Philanthropy Project.


How vulnerable are off-grid solar setups to this sort of EMP?

Charge controller, inverter and blocking diode could be fried. Keep spares in a Faraday bag.

What about all the junctions on the solar cells? They are no different from other transistors

Nuclear EMP would mean Nuclear war, which means there's not much sunlight getting through anyway

Speaking of resilience, this article fails to render under either Outline.com or Pocket, due to JS dependencies and complexity.

If the North Korean's were not considering this before, they surely are now!

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