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How long to rebuild after nuclear war?


Eclipse Now
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Hi all,

An interest of mine that I've been discussing in other places is how long would it take to recover from a nuclear war, back to roughly today's level of technology?

 

Has anyone heard about the Olduvai theory which, while presenting peak oil as an inevitable Malthusian catastrophe (something I now disagree with... the inevitable bit anyway), also makes an interesting claim about society in a post-collapse world.

 

The claim is that industrial civilisation is a one-shot affair. Apparently Sir Fred Hoyle stated this in a speech once. If society DID completely collapse due to an all out nuclear exchange, what happens next?

 

All useful items are scavenged, all cupboards are bare, all survivalist bunkers eventually exhausted... "The Road" comes to mind.

 

But say we buzz on 50, 100, or even 500 years down the track? Say the nuclear winter is now over and the survivors emerge to form villages. (Although this might be impossible... the nuclear wiki has some recent studies that are not very encouraging at all!)

 

Assume that some human communities survived somehow... and that we are now the other side of the nuclear winter. (Anyone know how long a nuclear winter would be?)

 

Villages emerge, law and order is restored, and a few good libraries are dug up and schools emerge. While they might have all the knowledge to kick start industrial civilisation again, there is probably no easily accessible fossil fuels left or good dense pockets of metal ores left.

 

The Olduvai theory says that we'd never climb up above the Middle Ages ever again, because it takes so much time to get the basic infrastructure in place.

 

So I've presented the general 'vibe' of the challenges of rebuilding from scratch. But back to nuclear war. Here's an analysis I found interesting... and then what's yours? How long do you think it would take for us to rebuild a semblance of today's civilisation after an ALL OUT nuke-fest?

 

(edit to explain) This quote comes from a pro-nuclear blogger (I sometimes cross) at Brave New Climate. I don't know who he is other than that he seems to have had time in the nuclear industry, and so has thought a lot about nuclear power and the politics of nuclear bombs.

 

The quote comes from this comment on the BNC blog. I just thought it was an interesting perspective.

2/3 CCQA1 Barry Brook on how we know the earth is really warming « BraveNewClimate

 

We should not get hung up on post nuclear holocaust depictions from fiction to make long-term predictions. The truth is that there will be a great deal left intact, even if most cities are hit. Recovery would be faster than you might imagine.

 

In depth studies of this have been done for decades, by almost all governments and it turns out that with cities taken out of the picture, recovery of a country after a nuclear attack can be quite rapid.

Many have wondered why there was not as much in the way of bomb-shelter building in the West during the Cold War, as there was in the other bloc. The grim facts are instructive.

 

Any country can be divided into two parts. The first is the big cities, the industrial and population centres and the resource concentration they represent. Big cities got to be that way because they are in desirable locations, near good ports, river crossings or mountain passes. When the city goes, so does the locations.

 

And then there is everywhere else. In effect the cities represent a big vulnerable collection of assets gathered into single spots. The other zones represent dispersed ranges of resources spread over large areas. This is a very important distinction. The relative value of the urban areas and the rest of the country depends on the nation and society involved. However one thing is constant, the support and supplies that the cities need to survive comes from the outside. Given time, the non-urban zones will rebuild the cities. Their survival is, therefore, critical while the survival of the cities are not.

 

As cold-blooded as it sounds, not producing a lot of hungry refuges from broken, radioactive cities, by building shelters for them to survive the attacks, will increase the chances that the zones outside these devastated charnel houses, can recover in a reasonable time, and keep the country as a viable state in the immediate aftermath.

 

Western strategists did this sort of cold calculus early on, and civil defence preparations were made accordingly. These did not include a program of bomb-shelters in big cities.

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  • 3 months later...

But even if the memory and knowledge of modern industrial technology was still available, would the means to keep it running still be there? I'm thinking of writing a kid's adventure novel, kind of like "Mad Max" meets Harry Potter. It's about a kid in high school 20 years after a super-virus wipes out 95% of the population.

 

So the technological limitations of a post-disaster society seem to me to lie in the sheer "Complexity" of our multi-stratified, inter-dependant, globalised society. Just think of what happens when the nukes / super-virus / zombie plagues mean workers don't turn up to keep the grid running and the water stops pumping out of our taps! How many would die just from that one limitation, if it were equally calamitous across the country? Then where our food is grown is so vastly far away from where we eat it in our cities. Then, the systems for growing that food require complex machinery and fuel stores, and the people to pump and move that fuel are gone, and the super-tankers are not coming in loaded with fuel. The shipments of widgets from China to even make our tools are gone.

 

The system just crashes. It's not just that A affects B affects C affects D, but that B, C, and D are all under attack from other directions as well!

 

I'm setting this story in a post-disaster Sydney, Australia. The super-virus was a military-grade beast with a long incubation and infection period, so that by the time symptoms show up hundreds more have been infected. Think Day of the Triffids levels of dieoff.

 

The city and suburbs are intact (until the next Aussie super-fire!), there are dead bodies everywhere, there are NO triffids: yet I'm betting malnutrition and starvation and disease would frequently take a huge toll on the survivors for at least the first decade.

 

What would your first priorities be a few weeks after the disaster, and you had gathered say the first 500 people? You've been elected Mayor. Go for it. Any and all suggestions welcome!

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Good topic!

 

First of all, all apologies to Lemit. I have accidentally deleted his reply - there's a spam post up there which I wanted to delete, but the new layout kinda screwed me around. Sorry Lemit!

 

Any case, back to the matter at hand:

 

I believe that the scenario you paint would be pretty much it for the technical civilization we know. Reason being, that sure enough - the countryside would be pretty much left intact in an all-out nuclear exchange, but all the tools and equipment required to run a successful farm comes from the cities. If you take the cities out of the equation, you not only lose the stream of technology required to run a food-producing farm in the sticks, you also lose the scientists and engineers who produce it. They are all located in the big cities where the big money is.

 

I live on a farm. My tractor runs on diesel, and I can easily get it to run on sunflower oil. So fuel should not be an insurmountable problem. I can use vegetable oil to run (and to a certain extent lubricate) my diesel machinery. But if the diesel injectors give up the ghost, then I'm pretty much screwed. They were made with precision equipment to tolerances I cannot achieve with the tools in my workshop, in a factory in a city that's now reduced to ashes. Same with the tires, the bearings, etc. I can then possible revert to animal power to plough and harvest, but then I won't be able to produce enough food for lots of people. Good thing that they're all dead, then. The demand for my produce will come down by a fair bit. However, things become harder when you need steel beams for construction, even a simple thing like glass - you need silica and some sort of a flux, like soda. But where to find it? There are many examples of rural know-how that is terminally dependent on big-city supply.

 

I believe it will take much, much longer to get civilization back on track than the optimistic case presented by Lemit in his now-deceased post (sorry!), also because a much-reduced population will have a much smaller demand on research and development - lots of our research today is purely linked to the demands placed upon research by population pressure. Things have to be cheaper and more advanced, because we have to make billions of them. If there's less people, there'll be less of an industrial demand, with sub-sequentially lower resources spent on research.

 

But then, I think we need to quantify matters first. If you talk of a massive die-off (regardless of cause), what do you mean - 80%? 90%? Strictly urban, or rural, too? Infrastructure? Keep in mind that a recent study (I have forgotten where - I'll take a look for links) have shown that if sky-scrapers aren't maintained, they have an expected lifetime of less than 50 years! Same thing goes for roads. If they're not maintained, they fall to pieces - and rather quickly, at that. So if the population is erased to the point that there are not enough hands available for simple things like maintenance, all infrastructure like roads and skyscrapers are as good as gone, in any case. So a big enough death rate from a simple thing like a virus, with no bombs going off, and no immediate impact on infrastructure, will, in about a generation or so, amount to a full-scale nuclear exchange in any case, as far as damage to infrastructure is concerned. Even if you do know how to patch a road, if you don't have a supply of tar, you're screwed.

 

...and then, of course, the few scientists who evaded the initial cause of this massive die-off, will be too busy surviving to be bothered with research. Harvesting a field is of much greater immediate importance than doing research with no immediate pay-off, food-wise.

 

Just a few depressing thoughts...

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Sounds like the Amish would have the advantage, horses and mules would have to replace that diesel tractor. Any one skilled in wood working would be a super star as would back smiths. If we had access to libraries i think civilization could come back in less than 500 years depending of course on how many people survived. I can't see even a nuclear war killing more than 75% of the people and rural people who know how to farm and live a more primitive life would be selected for. but these people are not stupid, they could and would advance technology quickly, I'd say no more than five genrations.... We might not end up with space travel that quick but a reasonable level of living shouldn't take long...

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If we had access to libraries i think civilization could come back in less than 500 years depending of course on how many people survived.
It would also depend on how many amanuensis would be preserving the content of those books. Knowledge is already degrading today and I think a lot of it would get lost after a global nuclear war.

 

If even only 75% of people are wiped out immediately, I think plenty of survivors would be unable to give viable offspring so population would decline for a while yet. It's impossible to guess how well industry would be preserved, even though a lot of infrastructure might remain standing; the basic problem would be the organization no longer sustaining itself professionals who's skills are no longer of immediate use would count no more than any dumb laborer. There would be chaos and looting for what materials could still be useful. You'd soon have a generation that wouldn't believe the things older ones told them about; they'd tell'em to shut up and keep digging.

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  • 2 weeks later...

It would also depend on how many amanuensis would be preserving the content of those books. Knowledge is already degrading today and I think a lot of it would get lost after a global nuclear war.

What do you mean... the standard of education?

If even only 75% of people are wiped out immediately, I think plenty of survivors would be unable to give viable offspring so population would decline for a while yet.

Due to radiation poisoning?

 

It's impossible to guess how well industry would be preserved, even though a lot of infrastructure might remain standing; the basic problem would be the organization no longer sustaining itself professionals who's skills are no longer of immediate use would count no more than any dumb laborer.

True, but how much do all our 'regulations' tie us back and fill our lives with paperwork? Imagine a village of a few thousand reforming on the edges of a major city. There might be a number of suburbs and regions that still had viable raw materials to scavenge and use. The sparky's and grease monkey's would run riot, salvaging all manner of things. I imagine that quite soon sparky's would have ripped off all the unused solar PV and rigged them up to their village. And old service-station / chop shop would soon be manned as a priority. (Or moved to a more defensible location). People would 'bike move' on bicycles, or rig up all manner of wagons from school buses cut in half and attached to horses or bullocks. Adaptation and scavenging would be the name of the game.

 

There would be chaos and looting for what materials could still be useful. You'd soon have a generation that wouldn't believe the things older ones told them about; they'd tell'em to shut up and keep digging.

Culture is the key. Who takes over in each region within the first decade is the vital factor. We saw that in "Day of the Triffids", and David Brin's "Postman" which I found to be a fairly rich book (even though the movie apparently sucked). It was the thought life of the historian / arts major as he travelled around looking for power tools. He was constantly asking the questions that you raised. "Who will take responsibility to join up these independent villages and kick things off again? Who will dream the larger dream, and move from subsistence farming to a civilisation again... and then onto an industrial civilisation?"

 

If they got it right, it wouldn't be long before they started building local wind turbines out of timber lying around. These off-grid hippies at otherpower.com are just too cool.

 

 

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It depends on who is left. If it is mostly engineers, skilled craftsmen and scientists things would scale back, but be functional again in a short time. If only lawyers and politicians were left, nothing would get done but a lot of talking, so most things would rust away. If it was mostly soldiers, they would survive, set up a chain of command and start to rebuild. If was only people from prisons, it would look like a Mad Max world where predators roam. If it was mostly religious people, they could live with simplicity and work together to form pockets. If it was a bunch of intellectuals, they would discuss and argue all the options, but not be able to make it a reality.

 

If we have a blend of all, the most useful may not be the ones who end on top. It may go from useless to useful with Mad Max leading. The exception may be the soldier who will think in terms of survival and try to make the order more in line with survival's needs.

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  • 2 weeks later...
Culture is the key. Who takes over in each region within the first decade is the vital factor.
Exactly. You can't be certain of who it will be. The mob doesn't always listen to those with most knowledge and insight. You could also have predators looting on your efforts.

 

The harder an idea is to figure it out, the less the mob will pay attention to it until they see it working; you won't have a workforce at your command unless you show them an immediate benefit at the end of each day. You'll see clever but simple ideas catching on like wildfire. You won't likely see large scale projects for a while. Most of the ones you might have all the knowledge for would trip up on the availability of some resource, either it being scarce or hard to maintain. This would make enterprise much more costly as well as need clever ideas for adaption, and therefore less feasible.

 

Nice to be optimistic and it's even possible things could work out in some places and then spread elsewhere, but it's one mighty roll of the dice.

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My hunch, though I have no links to studies to back it up, is that it is extremely unlikely (at this time) for a large-scale, global nuclear exchange to occur. I think the greatest threat to civilization at the moment would be a highly infectious biological agent which had a substantial incubation period where it could be spread before symptoms developed. It seems to me to be easier for a group of motivated individuals to gain access to biological agents rather than the materials needed to make a large amount of nuclear weapons. And while conflict is certainly not a thing of the past, I don't see large scale nuclear exchange between nations as a significant possibility. (Again, right now. As strategically important resources become more and more scarce, who knows.)

 

Then there's always problems with accidental release as well, such as in the grey goo scenario.

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Long time, sir, mighty long time.

 

 

"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones."

Albert Einstein

 

Such is the human race, often it seems a pity that Noah... didn't miss the boat.

Mark Twain

 

There are times when one would like to hang the whole human race, and finish the farce.

Mark Twain

 

If the world comes to an end, I want to be in Cincinnati. Everything comes there ten years later.

Mark Twain

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Grey goo already exists. They usually call it DNA.

 

You are either intentionally missing the point, or did not read the wikipedia link and we are talking about two different things. In the scenario I am referring to, an artificial self-replicating thing is released into the environment either intentionally or accidentally that converts everything into exact self-replicating copies of itself, until there is nothing left to convert. Clearly there is a difference between that and DNA.

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Side-track for a moment (as I started the thread ;) ), who thinks we're going to roll that dice? :o

I think the dice is being rolled for us, already. And nothing as spectacular as nuclear warfare or any other global catastrophe, and it won't be quick and painless, either. Nonetheless, I am of the opinion that the human race will number around 1 billion at the end of the 21st century. Of course I don't have any hard evidence to back it up with, but you only have to look at the increase in general mayhem and misery, not to mention disease and dying, as population numbers climb uncontrollably.

 

Look at rats: Have a bunch of them in a cage and they will multiply up to the point where all resources are gone. Then they will die off, catastrophically so. We are so bound to artificially high resource availablility like basic foods - there's no end to the stuff. Yet, Russia suffers a hiccup in its grain harvest, and Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, goes up in flames because all of a sudden bread have increased in price with 30%. This happened two weeks ago. I kid you not. Immigrants from all over Africa gets violent in Johannesburg because there's no water available in the field in which they decided to erect their squatter shacks. There never was any water there, that's why nobody lived there to begin with. With transborder migrations (be it legal or illegal - the problem's the same) becoming more and more a feature of everyday life as people either run away from incompetent, corrupt and violent governments or run towards basic resources like food and drinkable water, uprisings like the Maputo bread war or the Johannesburg water wars will become global in scope.

 

...and then you just need disease thrown into the mix.

 

But at one point, we will outstrip the planet's ability to feed the population. We already can't feed the numbers we have without pumping billions of tons of fertilizer into the soil, nitrogen-rich compounds that destroy river systems downstream. We can't feed these billions without resorting to tons and tons of poison being sprayed on plants to keep the insects at bay. We can't sleep at night knowing that there are hungry kids somewhere in the Third World in need of aid. So we send more aid to Africa, making another generation dependent on western aid, enabling yet another generation who shouldn't have been there if they were allowed to settle their numbers into the land's carrying capacity, to breed yet another generation. And so the cycle continues. But at one point there will simply be too many of us. Our crops will fail, the land will eventually have to lie fallow for many years just to be allowed to recover somewhat. Bugs will eventually be resistant to our pesticides (some species are already - we are, after all, only killing those individuals in the species who are susceptible to our poisons. Those that aren't, don't die, and they are the parents of the next generation. Eventually a super-locust will come to the fore and we will be royally screwed. And we are actively working towards just that scenario with every bottle of pesticide we spray on our gardens).

 

To make a long story short, we are screwed. And nobody seems interested in addressing the problem of the population explosion. Least of all the capitalists and industrialists of this world, to whom the billions of bright-eyed babies in this world are only yet another New! Improved! Bigger! set of consumers who will buy their products and make them even richer than what they are today, while in reality, those little ones sucking on their thumbs and goo-gooing and ga-gaing are the actual bringers of doom. Nothing spectacular like nuclear flashes and mushroom clouds, we will breed ourselves to death and we will die a hungry, thirsty choking death in our own wastes and wants.

 

I know this has all been said and done before, but all population growth-limiting efforts have only been effective in the sector of the population that are literate and productive - in short, those that don't need telling. The backwards, Third-World component of the population (I'm talking globally here) which makes up about two-thirds of the human population, have not figured that out yet. They have ten kids without batting an eyelid. And the affluent West will then give them massive aid to ensure that they survive and breed yet another generation - whilst their own productive numbers go down.

 

Seems like we will die not only a massively thirsty, smelly and hungry death, but an illiterate, thirsty, smelly and hungry death, at that. At least we won't be alone, though.

 

Make a universal one-child policy, enforce it by aborting second babies in the first term. Make no exceptions. If we don't consciously decide to bring our numbers down, the decision will be made for us. And sooner than we think, I fear.

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Boerseun, you sound like me! Or the old me at least. From my summary page:

 

The sheer speed of growth

 

Not only this, but all these trends are accelerating. Most humans think in a linear fashion, with each ‘step’ followed by a comprehensible, similar sized ‘step’. We’ve all seen the domino cascade game, toppling along making interesting patterns as dominoes of similar size fall.

 

But now imagine that the dominoes gradually increase in size. They start off tiny, but as the toppling line continues before you know it they’ve scaled up to bricks, walls, buildings, even a sequence of ever larger skyscrapers all crashing down! Dominoes to skyscrapers: that’s exponential change over time.

 

For example, if Sydney’s population were to grow by just 2% per year, how many Sydney’s would we need at the end of one human lifetime (of 70 years)? The answer is four Sydney’s! That means 4 times everything a major city consumes: 4 times the electricity, 4 times the oil, 4 times the public transport, 4 times the fresh water, and 4 times the groceries. Now cop this: 3% annual growth for 70 years would produce 8 Sydney’s, and everything 8 Sydney’s would require. 4% growth every year for 70 years would require 16 Sydney’s! That is the sheer speed of exponential growth.

 

So every time you hear that the economy (consumption of goods and resources) is ‘only’ growing at 2%, I want you to remember that the planet ‘only’ has to provide 4 times as many goods and resources in 70 years!

 

But then of course I see exponential change in new technologies that might undo some of the damage and meet our needs in new and amazing ways.

 

But returning to the eclipse metaphor: there is light on the other side of this crisis. There really are new energy systems, recycling technologies, attractive new city designs and conservation schemes that could get us out of this mess. I call them the Radical Reforms. Most of them already have national or international campaigns you can join. My advice is to read up on as much as you can, but when something really grabs you, go with that campaign and try and do one thing really well.

 

http://eclipsenow.wordpress.com/eclipse/

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Clearly there is a difference between that and DNA.
DNA is a self replicating automaton inside the right environment, it evovled in such a way to build a membrane that keep the right invironment around it and some of the creatures that it evolved into are increasingly crowding and consuming the surface of this planet. Boerseun's post says enough about it, make contraception and education a requisite for aid and get the global population to come down.
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Well, god save the internet~ what if we house computers (with all the knowledge known to mankind in it ) in really really really strong bunkers around the world?

Of course, the people who own access to these bunkers will then be the 'gods' of the nuclear devastated world, unfortunately..

 

i agree with boersun on the problems with overcrowding.

but

Make a universal one-child policy, enforce it by aborting second babies in the first term. Make no exceptions. If we don't consciously decide to bring our numbers down, the decision will be made for us. And sooner than we think, I fear.

 

I don't like this idea, well nobody likes aborting babies. It never really worked anyway, look at China!

Education should be first, and this one-child policy should be a very strong suggestion instead of law.

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