If civilization goes out

I’m not one of those pessimists believing humanity is riding for a fall. We’ve proven remarkably good at overcoming challenges and improving our condition. Climate change is a very big deal, but I believe we are capable of coping with its gradual unfolding. However, more sudden calamities, out of the blue, are possible. A recent PBS drama, “COBRA,” depicted a solar flare event knocking out Britain’s power supply. (Cyber-hacking could do likewise.) In COBRA, the problem wasn’t quickly fixable. Things got ugly.

Apparently such solar flares do happen periodically. An 1859 occurrence wasn’t catastrophic only because there was no power grid then; it did damage the telegraph system.

Imagine waking up one morning and everything is out. Electricity. Phones. TV and radio. No internet or newspapers, no access to news. No water. What is going on? No way for you to know! You might assume a quick return to normal. But nothing happens.

So: what do you do? Since watching “COBRA,” I’ve been pondering this.

I’ve felt I have enough money to protect against adversity. But it’s practically all in one electronic form or another. In this scenario I couldn’t access it. It may even be just gone. And what would “money” mean now anyway? As a coin dealer, I do have a lot of those metal disks on hand, but will someone trade food for them?

I would go through the neighborhood and put up notices calling a community meeting. First, to find out if anyone has any information. Is this a localized situation? If so, presumably government would eventually show up. But with no sign of that yet, it could be a national problem, even global. We’d better assume the worst, that we’re on our own, and act accordingly.

Are we in “Mad Max” territory now? Returned to a Hobbesian state of nature? Where everyone is vulnerable to predation by others. Philosopher Thomas Hobbes imagined people getting together to resolve such a predicament by agreeing to give up their freedom to prey upon others in exchange for mutual protection from predation. That’s the social contract; a system of laws, enforced by a government. Of course that story wasn’t intended as literal; instead Hobbes saw it as embodying the logic underlying our submission to laws and government.

But my neighborhood meeting should do something just like Hobbes hypothesized. I haven’t previously had much interaction with neighbors. However, now we’d want to set up a system to look after and take care of one another, cooperating to protect against possible bad actors who would privilege their self-interest over the common good.

We’d want to stockpile some gasoline as cars (still working!) could come in very handy. But the pumps in gas stations probably won’t work. Does someone know how to access their tanks? Food and water are of course critical concerns. Local stores will presumably be shut. We’d have to break in. Likewise at the mall for other necessities. Our social compact should encompass organized commandeering of necessities. Organized, not violent free-for-alls.

Normally such thefts would of course be wrong. But all ethics are situational; and this is not a normal situation. Store owners have a right not to be robbed, but that is trumped by people’s right to self-preservation. The owners are probably unavailable for consent. Perhaps we could leave IOUs.

Thinking ahead to winter, we’d want some axes, to lay in lots of wood (in my area trees abound); also plenty of matches, and candles. Also, I’d raid the library.

Maybe it would all be kind of fun. No, actually; maybe we could manage to just survive for a few wretched years. But I believe that no matter the nature and extent of the catastrophe, there will be enough people with the capabilities, ingenuity, and will, to restore what was lost. I do not believe civilization would collapse into permanent Mad Maxness.

We have lately experienced a different kind of global catastrophe, that disrupted our lives, in many cases dramatically. Most of us are coping. And in my rather more grim scenario here, one day the lights will come back on. What a triumphant day that will be.

5 Responses to “If civilization goes out”

  1. Don Bronkema Says:

    This eco-activist [1948-2021], EPA risk analyst, historian of science etc has harbored a hope you’d address this threat. It’s a biggie. Carrington today, if strong enuf to fry chips & transformers world-wide [a 30-minute process] would collapse civilization. You could see the stars at nite, but 7 BN would perish. 800 million or so could survive if warned in time to gather horti-tools, fertilizers, almanacs, bandages, med-books, mason jars/gaskets, aqua-purification devices & [we gun-haters concede], arms & ammo to fend off brigands ravaging town & country [round up the usual scenarios]. Your coins would obviate barter. But absent prep, only Amish, Starii Dukhobors, hillbillies, trappers, tribals, sailboat fishers & Global South peasants would survive. Owing to depletion of surface ores already by 1920 [& dispersion of metals in land-fills] there could be no tek-rebuild, even of telegrafs or steam-locos. Respondent’s 1944, V/2-inspired dream of colonizing Mars & the galaxy to probabilize lifespan of H. semper unsapiens [viewed then as wacko*] would evaporate & the kosmos would be obliged to make-do w/o us. Solar-studies are accelerating, but the 13 other calamities still obtain. *Faculty suspected madness, told parents. Mom exclaimed to Dad, “We are normal people, where does he GET these ideas?” Good thing she never lived to hear Reality mite be conjured by the brain [viz. Rovelli, Tonioni, Kaku, Tegmark, Bostrom]. Metafizix aside, we can all agree: ‘mind’ & ‘will’ are illusions. Quod Erat Argumentandum.

  2. David Lettau Says:

    As someone who has believed for thirty years now that global warming is the biggest threat facing humanity,and that human beings we’re probably not going to do much about it,I am not so optimistic.The massive loss in the numbers of insects,birds reptiles,etc,that I remember from my youth,as well as the warmer days and immoderate rainfall tells me mankind is facing an enormous,rapidly accelerating problem.Damage to Earths biosphere that provokes changes in the oceans and land is what I’d expect from any human population overshoot scenario in an ecology with limits.Living organisms can’t reproduce without producing entropic consequences and degrading their habitat. The cliche is true: don’t expect infinite growth on a finite planet, With the dissapearence of our animal kin it seems we have entered what E.Q Wilson I think calls the Eromozene:the age of loneliness.Instead of giving Nobel peace prizes to the likes of Barack Obama,(who bombed seven countries),they should be given to the people. who are fighting for life on our planet,like Wilson or Captain Paul Watson

  3. Don Bronkema Says:

    Per respondent’s previous 158,410 pp, we are not kaput yet. Check daily w/MIT & the verdicals.

  4. Axel Kornfuehrer Says:

    Parts of this essay sound familiar as a former German who experienced the total collapse of 1945 and its aftermath. Money was near worthless, but bartering worked. As a child after the war I marveled at humble farm families having oriental rugs until my father explained how bartering for food worked.

  5. Don Bronkema Says:

    As noted 06 AG 1945, wipe-out is possible–but if we can overcome the Bible-pounders, supply-siders, eco-wastrels, carbonites & Americanazis [c. 32% of cohort], then prospects will briten. Each of the 14 calamities can be minimized by geo/helio monitoring near-term &, during Kardashoff-II, near-star prophylaxis [timeline: 400 years]. Kardashoff-III [galactic engineering] remains probabilistic, but considering the ‘texponent’, maybe w/in a millennium. We nonagenarians exclaim in a single voice: past is prologue, ergo dimitte praeterita et specta ad futuris!

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