One more time

One of our local error sources suggested that it would be impossible to rebuild technical civilization, once fallen. Now if every human were dead I’d agree, but in most other scenarios it wouldn’t be particularly difficult, assuming that the survivors were no more silly and fractious than people are today.  So assume a mild disaster, something like the effect of myxomatosis on the rabbits of Australia, or perhaps toe-to-toe nuclear combat with the Russkis – ~90%  casualties worldwide.

Describe the recovery process, why it’s feasible and in fact almost easy. Show your work.

There’s no reason that I should have to explain everything.

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139 Responses to One more time

  1. jb says:

    One thing I’d like to point out is that the foundation of any rebuilt technological civilization would have to be scavenging dead cities. There isn’t any more copper or zinc or tin in the ground (or silver or gold for that matter) that is accessible using neolithic methods, so it’s not like you are going to have another bronze age. I’ll be interested to hear your take on it, but my own feeling is that if our civilization falls really hard, we could be looking at a million years of wood, stone, and iron.

    (I’d be curious to know your “error source”. )

    • gcochran9 says:

      The error source was another commenter.

      Books are everywhere. In the type of scenario I sketched out, almost no knowledge would be lost – so Neolithic tech is irrelevant. Look, if a single copy of the 1911 Britannica survived, all would be well.

      You could of course harvest metals from the old cities. But even if if you didn’t, the idea that there is no more copper or zinc or tin in the ground is just silly. “recoverable ore” is mostly an economic concept.

      Moreover, if we’re talking wiring and electrical uses, one can use aluminum, which makes up 8% of the Earth’s crust.

      I’m calling on others to carry this. Let’s hear some sense.

      • I Am Error says:

        How does our situation compare to our ancestors’ in potential to build civilization?

        On the upside:

        Metals and many other resources are more plentiful now that they can be found in cities.
        Crops and livestock have been genetically improved for agricultural life, and so have humans. Also the spread of crops across continents, e.g. potatoes and corn from Latin America in exchange for rice, cows, etc.
        Substantial populations of modern humans are spread all over the world.
        A great accumulation of technical knowledge, including some that requires little infrastructure, like crop rotation, gunpowder, selective breeding, proper use of animal fertilizer, the idea of science, the zero, double-entry accounting…
        Obvious proof that advanced technology is possible from advanced artifacts, and also obvious warnings about the danger of repeating the same catastrophic mistake (although that may also attract people who want the cause of the apocalypse for conquest or MAD). Societies will know what is feasible and have reason to push to attain it.
        If 10% of the population survives, that is in line with the world population in 1700 although things may collapse further if the catastrophe has a lasting effect: nuclear winter interfering with agriculture, plagues continuing to ravage survivors.
        There are substantial efforts in place to save people and knowledge: seed banks, archives, the Mormon Church, survivalists, government bunkers, etc.
        There are reserves of a number of months of food in granaries, the oceans (fish), the existing stock of cattle for the current population. Much of this could be ruined in a catastrophe, but some could survive. Wood-to-food conversion (chemical, termites, etc) could help to offset nuclear winter or other disruption of agriculture, and there is a very large stockpile of wood in forests.

        Some things that reduce those upsides or worsen our position:

        Crops and livestock have been specialized for ready availability of extensive fossil fuel as a source of power and fertilizer. In some cases supply is more centralized.
        Fossil fuels have been substantially depleted. There are still big reserves of coal, especially with higher prices, but oil is more depleted, especially in developed countries using lower-tech methods.
        Electronic storage is not very robust over time. But enough paper books last long enough to deal with this.
        Carbon emissions warming the planet could be bad news. The tropics are the least developed regions, with their high burden of disease. So even though longer growing seasons and more carbon dioxide could be great for primitive agriculture, recovery could be harder.
        Some other minor resources, like bat guano and aquifers, have been depleted, but these seem to be dwarfed by fossil fuels or renewable on somewhat longer time scales.

        But even if our position is probably better than the first time around, and we probably would recover, there is still some risk from the possibility that cheap fossil fuels played a key role in the the Industrial Revolution, and without them a recovering civilization would grow on a slower trajectory that might turn out worse (e.g. lower per capita income, longer time with nuclear weapons before space colonization, etc).

        The core case I have seen fairly sophisticated people make for a meaningful chance we would not recover our current level of technology, like 10% or 20% (not 50%), is something like:

        We don’t understand the Industrial Revolution well, and perhaps it was a fluke that let us get the Industrial Revolution before getting trapped in some bind that would stop progress.
        A disaster that initially killed 90% of the population could kill more with the aftermath: nuclear winter, artificial plagues continuing to kill survivors, conflict over food stocks leading to waste or being spread too thinly. This could take population down to really low levels until after books had rotted or become incomprehensible.
        Recovery from really small populations that lost key skills might need luck not to get stuck in a bad equilibrium. More expensive fossil fuels could make that a bit worse.
        Even with recovery, more expensive fossil fuels might mean things go worse, with lower per capita incomes or slower progress, and the post-recovery society is more likely to screw up and actually render itself extinct before it becomes robustly stable.

        Dr. Cochran, what’s your take on that argument, or your model of the Industrial Revolution and its probability/inevitability given modern homo sapiens?

      • Patrick Boyle says:

        Sorry I can’t help. My ex-wives’ uncle the Monsignor promised me that Britannica when he passed. As I remember it was printed on vellum. Divorce you know. Maybe my deepest regret.

        But I don’t think it’s really all that hard. I’ve read a lot of Wikipedia articles and I remember a lot of it. I could probably remember enough about the Bessemer process to make something that would work.

        Invention is pretty easy if you know it is possible. How long would it take to reintroduce penicillin? The first time it took ten thousand years. The second time it might take a couple months. If smallpox returned it wouldn’t matter much. I know about Jenner. I would go find a milk maid.

        When I was in high school in the late fifties We had a teacher confidently explain to us that mankind could never achieve orbit. He had some kind of chemical or mathematical ‘proof’. All that satellite stuff was never going to happen – he said. Now that was catholic military high school where there were a lot of odd ideas floating about, but the point holds. If you know it can be done you’re halfway there.

        Blow up all civilization and we could be back on the moon in a few years.

        • Fourth doorman of the apocalypse. says:

          My ex-wives’ uncle the Monsignor promised me that Britannica when he passed.

          Your ex-wives were related? Isn’t that classified as an unforced error, at least after the first one?

      • jb says:

        Greg —

        I have to admit I was thinking of a collapse even more complete than your 90% — something more like in Earth Abides, where even literacy is lost, and you really have to start from zero. Yes, 10% of 7 billion is still a lot of people to work with.

        Nevertheless I stand by my assertion that there is no more copper or zinc or tin in the ground that can be mined using neolithic technology. If there is, then the head of every geology division of every mining company in the world needs to be sacked! Here is a wonderful quote from the ancient writer Diodorus Siculus, which I found in Barry Cunliffe’s Europe Between the Oceans. The writer is describing a great forest fire in Spain that burned for many days:

        Much silver trickled away from the fiery ground and, as they melted, the silver-bearing ores formed countless rivulets of pure silver. The natives did not know how to exploit it but once the Phoenicians heard of the affair, they bought the silver in exchange for objects of negligible value. The Phoenicians took the silver to Greece, to Asia and to all the other countries they knew, thus obtaining great riches, It is said that such was the cupidity of the traders that they replaced the lead anchors of their ships with silver ones after there was no more room for silver in the vessels, and there was still a great quantity of the metal left over.

        Humanity will never see natural ore deposits like that again!

      • Toad says:

        Books are flammable, so will fare better in the mixtoasts scenario than the nuclear one.

      • melendwyr says:

        You DO realize that aluminum is extraordinarily difficult to extract from ores… unless you have access to electricity already, in which case it’s merely energetically expensive.

        There’s a very good reason Napoleon had the golden eagle atop his standard replaced by an aluminum one, and why the Washington Monument was topped by a pyramid of aluminum. Unless people figured out how to use electric current to purify the stuff, it was more valuable than gold IIRC.

        • gcochran9 says:

          But we do know how – and it’s effectively impossible to forget. Too many books.

          • Sinij says:

            Impossible to forget? Perhaps, but when your population is concerned with survival you won’t have any use for books but to burn them for fuel. I really disagree with your notion that our knowledge is robust – we are over-specialized, our food supply is centralized, and we are increasingly digital.

            Another aspect to consider – human governance. You are assuming that central government will survive. It won’t. We will go back to tribal leaders that are not concerned with rebuilding, but concerned with taking over the village next door. Without centralized government, even if there was interest, there won’t be polling of resources available to rebuild.

            Also consider what kind of people are likely to survive. It won’t be academic erudites that are experts in many fields. It will be ‘strong backs’, paranoids, cultists, isolated communities and so on. These people might not even want to rebuild civilization.

            • gcochran9 says:

              Some of those book tell you how to win.

              Look, assume that some communities strive to relearn how to make automatic weapons and some don’t. How does that story end? Do I have to explain everything?

              I guess so!

          • Sinij says:

            I very much enjoyed reading this topic, thank you for creating it. I have to admit, I am now a lot less certain in my views as many excellent counter-points were made.

            Three questions still remain unanswered:

            a. Out of all civilizations and cultures, only Western produced Industrial Revolution. It wasn’t co-invented in multiple places as it isn’t technology-based, but attitude/goals based. For example, I read somewhere that Greeks were aware of basic steam engine (aeolipile) design, but that didn’t lead to anything. As such, I am not convinced that knowledge is the only necessary ingredient for a technological civilization.

            b. ‘How to win’ reaches diminishing returns very quickly after discovery of firearms, basic farming techniques, and sanitation. I don’t dispute that no matter what disaster happens, humanity will still retain the knowledge of how to shoot at each other. This does not mean that technological civilization practicing scientific method and in search of enlightenment will exist.

            c. If civilization rebuilding is not started within one generation, what will prevent superstition and religiosity from delaying it long enough that everything has to be re-invented, and no simply recovered. My key point, if it has to be re-invented, it might not be feasible to do so without cheap energy. How much Roman and Greek knowledge was retained after collapse of their civilizations? Not all of it, and that knowledge was more basic and robust, and collapses where nowhere near severe in magnitude comparing to 90% die-off.

          • ursiform says:

            By the time of the industrial revolution you could communicate and travel around the world in less time than it took to conduct the “revolution”. So you would expect it to happen once and knowledge of it to spread.

          • melendwyr says:

            Extracting aluminum from ores requires the generation of a significant amount of electricity, and the entire pyramid of technological development that requires. It then involves techniques for making use of the stuff, as molten aluminum is one of the most reactive substances we know of, particularly with water.

    • MawBTS says:

      There isn’t any more copper or zinc or tin in the ground (or silver or gold for that matter) that is accessible using neolithic methods, so it’s not like you are going to have another bronze age.

      Sir Fred Hoyle had similar ideas. He thought that human civilisation was a one-shot affair and if we knocked ourselves back to the stone age there wouldn’t be enough high-grade ores (etc) left to pull ourselves back up to where we are now.

      I don’t think it’s true. People look at the particular path things have taken and think that it’s the only path, which isn’t necessarily the case.

      • kernly says:

        We don’t “use up” the metals we pull out of the ground… We put them in things that are above ground, and they stay there. In terms of metals, a re-emerging society should have all they could use and more simply from scavenging…

  2. Bryan Bell says:

    I suppose all you really need to describe is material science. Without the advances in materials we wouldn’t have modern civilization.

    1) Electricity is relatively easy. My dad already does microhydro with nothing more than essentially a car alternator. No more need be said.
    2) The metals necessary would be easy to scavenge. We already do this with scrapyards.
    3) Maybe the hardest part is modern integrated circuits with the necessary clean rooms. A lot of this is a black art. But…all of that was developed in the last ~50 years.

    The main point is that most of modern technology was /incredibly/ hard to invent. Think GPS, which needed Einstein. But is easy to copy.

    • kernly says:

      GPS didn’t ‘need Einstein.’ They would notice that clocks were running funny, and add fudge factors to compensate. They wouldn’t need to understand why clocks were acting in the funny way they do in order to create a functioning system.

      • William O. B'Livion says:

        GPS isn’t based on time dilation due to speed, it’s based on knowing the exact location of each satellite in the constellation, and calculating the distance from that sat based on the time it takes the the radio signal to get to you.

        You can get “good enough for nukes” without much advanced physics at all–just solid orbital mechanics. Good enough for 500 pound bombs probably. Good enough for hand grenades doesn’t require relativity, but does require understanding out the atmosphere bends the radio waves.

        If you want sub-centimeter accuracy you might need Einstein, but at any time there’s an Einstein or two floating around out there. The problem is identifying them and getting them interested in what you’re interested in.

        • kernly says:

          “…The combination of these two relativitic effects means that the clocks on-board each satellite should tick faster than identical clocks on the ground by about 38 microseconds per day (45-7=38)! This sounds small, but the high-precision required of the GPS system requires nanosecond accuracy, and 38 microseconds is 38,000 nanoseconds. If these effects were not properly taken into account, a navigational fix based on the GPS constellation would be false after only 2 minutes, and errors in global positions would continue to accumulate at a rate of about 10 kilometers each day! The whole system would be utterly worthless for navigation in a very short time. ”

          Can you refute this?

          • karch_buttreau says:

            Actually, the almanac and ephemeris data would go invalid pretty quickly, too. This is the information that a space vehicle sends out to tell you where it is. Basically, you will know that you are somewhere on the surface of a sphere with a radius = time * speed of light with the center of the sphere being the space vehicle. That’s how GPS works… Then it’s just 4 equations and 4 unknowns, basically, (3 spatial dimensions and time). I used to work in the field as an EE.

            If there were some kind of catastrophe, I would think the survivors would be like Cuba after the commies took over. Some 50’s, 60’s technology. Much better than the stone age, but probably no semiconductors for generations. It took Germany, Japan about 20-30 years to rebuild their infrastructure after WW2, so it would be a different world, for sure.

        • dearieme says:

          Maybe Einsteins come that cheap but I’ll bet Newtons don’t. There’s no sign that there’s been another since Sir Isaac, and possibly none before, either. Still, the point is that if Newton’s work isn’t lost you don’t need another one. But what if you get a world full of the sort of guys who think that if a book ain’t the Koran it ought to be burnt?

          • Jim says:

            Newton was pretty remarkable but I don’t think he was that unique.

          • Justin says:

            This bit about the Koran was my first thought too. This is going to be a world of Australian Aborigines and guys holed up in Saskatchewan. Maybe there would be some mining engineers left in Greenland or other remote places, but the big and small cities are gone, especially in the most advanced countries. With any luck a few Navy guys would survive on submarines (the most functionally smart person I’ve ever known was a submariner).

            The upside is that anyone with technical skills would be incredibly valuable and would have fertility advantages. I’m thinking of the ‘mine gap’ scene in Dr.Strangelove “we would have to select the females based on zer sexual characteristics”. Everyone would be so desperate to get the internet working again that the egg heads would be protected by Lord Humongous types and have high status. Smart non physics/engineering types could fairly quickly retrain

          • Justin says:

            This is in reply to Cochran asking me why the internet would be a priority to rebuild: The internet is popular, people like it and it is hugely useful. Once we had food, basic transportation (mix of horses and trucks), electricity and housing down, it’d be a top priority. Remnant states that could get online would have a big advantage in restoring national cohesion and economic growth. It’d certainly allow useful post apocalyptic tips n tricks to spread. Every town would want an internet cafe.

    • Cleanrooms and photolithography aren’t that hard to do if you really want to. A cleanroom is a fairly low tech operation, it is primarily a matter of getting the air flowing properly and following the appropriate procedures to prevent the introduction of outside contamination. There are really expensive ways we do this now where you could substitute labor instead of capital. As for photolithography, the hard part is getting really small. As long as you are willing to scale up your circuits, it is a desktop process.

  3. ckp says:

    How much coal and oil are in the ground that can still be extracted with 19th century tech? Honest question; I don’t know.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Lots of coal left. Not so much oil (using simple methods), but one could make it from low-grade coal, with the Fischer-Tropsch process. Sasol does this.

      Then again, a recovering society wouldn’t need much at first.

  4. gcochran9 says:

    That’s more like it.

    #1. Consider Grand Coulee Dam. Gigawatts. Feeling of power!
    #2. Of course.
    #3. Might be easier to make superconducting logic circuits with MgB2, starting over.

    • Toad says:

      Who is going to be capable to operate the dam with 90% of qualified personnel gone? What if a turbine needs maintenance?
      Interior of main control room: What does that blinking light mean?
      Water turbine grandcoulee: Maybe we could loot an auto shop for a crane?

      • TWS says:

        No you could not. Those fuckers are big. My family worked on the dam from day one. It is an amazing structure. But I’m a pessimist I think away from the dam/nuke plant/ etc there’ll be howling wilderness for generations. Sure little places with a big asset like Electric City and Grand Coulee will ride it out (unless they are nuked) but there’s no reason to assume the useful will survive or that their children will read the EB. Besides the library in Grand Coulee is smaller than my garage.

  5. NobodyExpectsThe.... says:

    Chain of events:

    1º Went to the movies to see the new Mad Max this afternoon. Great non-CGI visuals, but they even managed to shove pc-nonsense, in the few lines of dialogue. Silly movie.

    2º …but enough to excite one of my favorites. “Civiliztion decay and collapse”. So late night here, and wanting to re-read that post about the indian castaways in Australia instead of goign to bed.

    3º When done, refresh page and see these. Even more time awake…

    Nah, I shouldnt complain. This is an easy one. For God´s sake we were running on the sinew of beast and men just 250 years ago. 10% of 7 billion people? Thats more than enough.

    Sure the knowledge for making the lattest smartphone will be lost. And a lot other things, at least temporarilly. But I bet there would be a few guys (God forbid if they were also white too!) that will remember that thing about how you should put a separate condenser in a Newcomen engine. And that is even better if you burn that black stuff that is so widely distributed across the world, instead of just wood.

    Once you know how to unlock concentrated energy, instead of only relying on the yearly photosynthesis input, everything is easy.

  6. AKarlin says:

    This is my feeling as well, at least with a 90% of the population-dead type collapse. (In reality, there are grounds for optimism, since even a fullscale nuclear war between the US and Russia is unlikely to kill more than 10%-20% of the world’s population). But if it’s much more than that then I’m far less sure about civilization’s long-term prospects.

    Of course post-apocalyptic civs will “mine” city ruins. But while this happens the world’s electronic knowledge base will fully vanish, while even its paper knowledge base will massively depreciate (few people to maintain libraries, plus modern paper isn’t designed to last). Once the city ruins are fully mined out, you will have to rediscover modern technologies to keep industrialism going. But I am not sure during the interval that even 19th century let alone 20th century resource extraction technologies will be successfully preserved. This might then result in a second and this time terminal collapse.

    It is however likely that average human genotypic IQ will resume increasing under the new Malthusian conditions, however, at least once order has been reestablished. Eventually, society’s mindpower might reach a critical point at which it is able to relaunch mass industrialism but this time without the help of the massive easily accessible hydrocarbon resources that fueled the first industrial revolution.

    • misdreavus says:

      But while this happens the world’s electronic knowledge base will fully vanish, while even its paper knowledge base will massively depreciate (few people to maintain libraries, plus modern paper isn’t designed to last).

      So this means 4chan, encyclopedia dramatica, the Furry Database, Stormfront, tumblr, the World Net Daily, Breitbart, and Playgirl magazine will be obliterated forever. What a tragic loss to humanity.

      The average life expectancy of acidic pulp paper is a couple decades or so, depending on humidity, temperature, and other conditions. Just about every scientific journal worth reading exists in print, and there are plenty of redundant copies available — and just who is going to bother stealing the latest copy of PNAS when the electricity goes out? Even Bruce Charlton’s goofy journal exists on paper, and I’ve even seen it at my university library. I think we’ll be just fine.

      It is however likely that average human genotypic IQ will resume increasing under the new Malthusian conditions, however, at least once order has been reestablished.

      That is, assuming that higher IQ carries a higher fitness value. You don’t know that. What if the new government is full of Pentecostals?

      • gcochran9 says:

        Your typical paperback is in fine shape after 50 years. Acid-free paper is thought to be good for at least 500 years.

      • Brian says:

        “What if the new government is full of Pentecostals?”

        What if they are? I live in a small university town in the South that is full of professionals (and even a few professors, mainly engineers) who are Pentacostals or the equivalent. If anything, they are fitter than most whether you judge by professional success, economic and social success, or the nitty-gritty: big broods of healthy, bright, good-looking (and usually athletic) kids. My dentist, whom I go to because I think he is the best in the area (and will see you on a Saturday afternoon during a local football game), will look you right in the eye and tell you the earth is only six-thousand-something years old. I have little doubt that he aced most of the many science courses he was obliged to take, and can vouch that he wields his knowledge most competently (and charges accordingly). By the way, his “watchtower moment” occurred in high school, so he was a believer all thru his training ( I know because I have heard about it a dozen times… what one will listen to patiently when one has a drill in one’s mouth).

        I think for most people (dare I say for normal people?), religion just boils down to group loyalty -with loyalty to a crazy idea used as a test, the crazier the idea the better the test, etc, etc. He just happens to belong to a group that extreme-crazy tests its members, and so requires loyalty to an extremely crazy idea. They appear to get fitness bonuses from the resultant bond, not the contrary.

        At any rate, I find such people easy to get on with; we just agree not to talk about certain things. The only locals I get in trouble with are those (usually atheists) who consider me a facha genetic determinist because I think some of the variance in human mental characteristics just might be heritable.

        • facebuck says:

          I think what he was arguing is that a Pentecostal society might not be eugenic for IQ, so much as for religiosity, conformity, etc.

        • Thank you, Brian. I have said this, though less well, for years. Young Earth Creationists are of course tedious. But I am more worried by Senators who insist that Big Oil is lowering gas prices prior to elections in order to favor Candidate A, even though a back-of-the-envelope calculation shows this is ludicrous. Or psychoanalysts, educational theorists, social anthropologists, locavores, or other Smart People.

          Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch is on my wish list, but I plan on giving it to my children rather than reading it myself. No one’s going to listen to me after the Apocalypse anyway.

          • gcochran9 says:

            Too bad Dartnell’s book is not printed on acid-free paper!

            I read it: not a bad book.

          • magusjanus says:

            I read it a few months ago. Well worth the effort. He has some hosannas for “climate change” which are cringeworthy, but I they’re few and far between… consider it the price of admission.

            But definitely, if one had to pick a single book to carry into the post-apocalypse, “The Knowledge” would be at the top of my list. Particularly in our high division-of-labor times wherein many with high iq jobs have little notion of how to build or do anything that makes their jobs possible (basic agriculture, manufacturing, power generation, etc. to say nothing of even making paper or glass)

    • epoch says:

      [blockquote]It is however likely that average human genotypic IQ will resume increasing under the new Malthusian conditions, however, at least once order has been reestablished.[/blockquote]

      I think a 90% die off is the opposite of “a new Malthusian condition” as such a die off would free a lot of resources for the survivors.

      • NobodyExpectsThe... says:

        I think you get the Malthusian conditions, WHILE you are in the process to get to the 90% die off.
        If those conditions favor the intelligent with higher survival, and/or reproductive rates, I suppose will depent on the nature and lenght of “the process”

        For example Philippe Rushton, was of the opinion that one of the main causes that kickstarted the Renaissance, was the Great Plague of 1347 causing a rise in IQ on european populations.(Btw I would love to know Greg´s opinion on that hypothesis)

        • gcochran9 says:

          “causing a rise in IQ on european populations”
          No chance.

        • Douglas Knight says:

          The Plague brought scientific progress to a dead halt for two centuries. Science was doing great in 1350, much better than in 1450. The first century after the Plague was a pure dark age. The second century, the Renaissance, had great art but very little science.

    • Toad says:

      But that 10% to 20% would be North America and Europe.

  7. jamesd127 says:

    Assume multiple nuclear wars. The first wars result in a world in which every nation becomes a nuclear power or is ruled by a nuclear power. A knock down fight then ensues to determine which nuclear power shall rule the world, which ends in the destruction of every government larger than a small city council, every major city, every major airport or seaport, every major military. Remaining authority is city councils (of small cities), local police forces, mercenary forces, and rentacop forces of major businesses

    Well, I live in a small town in the middle of nowhere. 45 minutes from me is an airport from which international flights could land or take off. At present they never do, but with major airport hubs now glowing in the dark, they start doing so. Agriculture continues as usual. Behind my block is a guy who has fabrication facilities that can make pretty much any machine. At present he makes specialty stuff, such as car parts for semi custom or rare cars, which he sells world wide.

    The mercenary forces generally get jobs preventing piracy and brigandage, rather than engaging in piracy and brigandage, or at least become stationary bandits rather than mobile bandits – become Lord so and so and King such and such.

    We have substantial local generating capacity which, however, runs off liquified natural gas. Within a few hundred miles of where I live there are major sources of natural gas, whose output goes to a major port, which will presumably be nuked. So, power stops for a while. Many people around here have portable generators. Islamic State demonstrates that you can keep up fuel supplies even when the US air force is trying to stop you, so, I assume after the nukes stop falling, fuel gets supplied after a bit, and power resumes.

    From where I stand nuking every major city, every major airport, every major seaport, and every major military does not look as if it would bring modern technological civilization to a halt that would necessitate rebuilding from scratch.

  8. William O. B'Livion says:

    There is (well, was) a utopian socialist science fiction author by the name of Ian M. Banks who, politics aside, built this wonderful universe in his “Culture” series. In on of his books the point was made, in regards to technology, that there are lots of ways up the ladder.

    There are (or would be) very different problem associated with rebuilding after a toe-to-toe exchange than after a virus that takes out 90% of the population (assuming relatively even distribution of dieoff. If 99.9 percent of Europe, the Anglosphere and China/Japan/Korea go, but the ‘Stans and Africa have lower casualty rates, or the survivors are mostly Arabic Muslims, why things just might take a little longer.

    With a nuclear exchange of sufficient magnitude to take out 90% of the population you’re going to wipe all (well, statistically “all”) of the US and Russia, probably take China out, at least the coastal regions (where most of hte tech is). That takes the leash off India/Pakistan and those go up next.

    You’re going to have most of South America and Africa left alone. Assuming they don’t get massive IDK about Africa, but S. America’s got a decent technical base to build from, and some reasonably well educated/trained folks. There will be some die off there as some long simmering feuds break out, but hey Argentina will finally get the Falklands…

    As long as South America survives with some reasonable infrastructure you’re going to get a decent rebuilt/repopulate time.

    It would be tough to describe the recovery process as the details of the destruction are important. Reconstructing a year or three after a massive epidemic where you can still get into places that have stockpiles of material[1] and where many of the computers will still light up if you have a power source v.s. one where a significant percentage of the material was in irradiated rubble and there are still spots where there are significant concentrations of lethal radiation or heavy metals.

    In any event, it will start off as local rebuilding–there won’t be any functioning trans-national organizations to lead (especially in a nuke/Carrington event, or in a large asteroid collision). There will be a warlord stage (probably). Hell, there basically is a warlord stage right now in much of the world :). The events that lead up to the treaty of Westphalia will probably replay themselves more or less.

    The other side of the coin is that technology is more a way of thinking about the world and problem solving than it is a physical artifact. As long as there is the belief that the world is knowable, and that tools can be built to learn and manipulate the world then we’ll be climbing up.

    [1] There was a line in SM. Sterling’s “Dies the Fire” series where someone is talking about re-forging steel for swords and another person notes that there’s no need to as there’s lots of cars on the roads (dead in this case) with leaf spring suspension and you can shape a perfectly good sword from that)

  9. emafox says:

    Even highly specialist knowledge lives in hundreds of heads. With a 10% survival rate humanity won’t forget much besides the most obscure skills. (If deaths weren’t random and killed all engineers and all those who could become one from reading books we’re fucked. At least I would be fucked, some of you might actually just have to live in the stoneage until evolution produces some smart folks again).

    If you look at how much work we spend on frivolous stuff (I am not complaining) 10% of the population seems enough to provide the essentials for 7 billion people, never mind the 0.7 which would then still be consuming goods.

  10. Oh, look, I found a book!

  11. Cattle Guard says:

    10% of the current population is still a lot. Assuming we’d have 10% of today’s farmers, 10% of today’s engineers, 10% of today’s unemployed bums that’s a lot of knowledge. And even unemployed bums would be more useful than today, because if there’s one thing they can do it’s salvage metal resources from cities. There’d also be a lot of real estate and salvageable resources per person – Malthus would like it.

    I like crappy post-apocalyptic movies. One of my favorites is “Survivor” from 1987. The villain (played by Richard Moll, best known as Bull from “Night Court”) plans to rebuild a new and improved civilization with only a few dozen people and nothing but desert around. Here’s his big speech:

    10% of humanity would be easy by comparison.

    • aandrews says:

      “10% of the current population is still a lot. Assuming…” that +90% of that 10% is composed of individuals like this.

    • ChrisB says:

      I don’t think a 90% die-off from plague, even well distributed, would even end our civilization, though it would be a hell of a disrupter. The major centres that survived (some cities and other things, some military bases maybe) would recruit enough refugees from the hinterlands to bring their populations up to 50%-plus of pre-plague levels, enough to ensure continuity in all important areas. There would still be a president of the United States. In fact, you might have five or six rival claimants, but not thousands of tribal chieftains . The mostly depopulated hinterlands might be Mad Max territory, but they’d be irrelevant, reconquered and re-civilized within a few decades, a couple of centuries at most.

  12. For populations within reach of cultivatable ground in moderate climates, little reason to encounter many problems. For big cities and extreme locations the first winter would most probably prove the hardest. New books on farming would sell well. Most garages have enough kit to run small holdings and minor workshops. Cars can be kept going for 40 years. Shelter is easy. Survival would be relatively simple. Will post-apocalyptic poetry be any good?

    • Kudzu Bob says:

      Will post-apocalyptic poetry be any good?

      That is one thing that would definitely be improved by an all-out nuclear war. For starters, post-Collapse poets would have something to write about besides suburban ennui or the patriarchy. More importantly, the MFAs and creative writing teachers who have ruined contemporary literature would be among the first to be enslaved by Lord Humongus (who would no doubt soon be overcome by disgust and feed them to his mutants).

      • Cattle Guard says:

        True, there aren’t a lot of creative writing teachers in any of those movies. But we do know that hair care products will be widely available in any post-apocalyptic scenario.

  13. SeanV says:

    There’s actually a really good book out there called “The Knowledge” about precisely how to rebuild civilisation from scratch. A great read – I suppose I should print it out really!
    Agriculture should be fairly straightforward. With more industrial stuff a few knowledgeable folks surviving would make a huge difference I would think. Low density energy also shouldn’t be too difficult. The more technological stuff will have to wait.
    In many ways the social structure and organisations would be the most interesting.
    “OK, you grow the wheat and I’ll raise cattle, etc.” Wonder what sort of governance would emerge. Property rights would really matter – and I ain’t paying no taxes so that I can be bossed around – unless they clearly add value, of course.

  14. MawBTS says:

    You made it too easy. China now has the population of Mexico. The USA now has the population of Australia. 10% is a ton of people.

    I guess you’d see martial law in a few places, national borders being redrawn, people comfortably installing themselves on prime real estate in the Upper East Side and Malibu, long-haul truckers and people who can repair electrical transformers making money hand over fist, a rebirth of the labour unions, good stuff happening for the environment, science and technology slowing down, and Vicodin overdoses among young girls now that most of One Direction/5SOS is dead.

    If enough people died to take down the internet, you’d still have a few hours/days of service. You could haul ass to the nearest industrial printer and madly print hard copies of Wikipedia’s top 1000 pages until the power grid fails.

  15. Sandgroper says:

    I once had the dubious privilege of excavating into an old rubbish dump to find a suitable founding layer for a pier foundation for a bridge I designed. It was in fact the capital city’s (originally settlement’s) first rubbish tip – it started out on the outskirts of the settlement, in a swamp, and wound up pretty close to the middle of the city. It ceased to be used some time in the 1920s, having been started about 150 years earlier, and was now inconveniently where they wanted to build my bridge. Rubbish and peat are both way too compressible, so it had to come out.

    You would be amazed by what we found in that tip. A 1920s motor car, still with bright shiny metal, no rust at all, because it had been dumped into a peat swamp. Endless reels of old silent movie film, perfectly preserved. Paper preservation? No problem – we found books and newspapers that we could read with no difficulty. If it had been prudent to really sift through it all (which it wasn’t, out of sanitary/medical considerations) we could have dug out all manner of stuff, in an almost perfect state of preservation. All you need is mild acidity and exclusion of oxygen, and most stuff will hardly rot at all – viz. all the bog people.

    • Spike says:

      Considering the bulk of silent films are lost to history, I sure hope someone looked at those reels before chucking them aside.

      • Sandgroper says:

        Sadly, no. There are rulez about digging in human waste, for good reason.

        Digging in another more recent dump, I was the only one of my crew not to come down with Hep A. But then, I’ve had a lifelong compulsive thing about cleanliness ever since I survived intact a polio epidemic at age 4 that took away the legs of one of my little pals. And I know what goes into rubbish dumps, including all the stuff that is not supposed to.

  16. bob sykes says:

    It depends who the survivors are. If it’s Germans and Japanese, reconstruction will be fairly rapid. If it’s Africa and Latin America and the Pacific archepelagos, there will be no reconstruction, only slow decline into something like the Roman era.

  17. Rolf Muertter says:

    I agree that it would be relatively easy to rebuild. It took us 10,000 years to build the current civilization, but rebuilding would be much faster since we’d have a head start. Make that two head starts: one cultural, the other genetic.

    Not all of technical civilization would be gone, and at the very least, a lot of it would live on in the heads of the survivors, so they would know what’s possible. That alone would be a huge advantage.

    Genetically, we’re not the same species we were 10,000 years ago either. Most of us are more or less adapted to life in civilization. For example, through the process of self-domestication we’ve acquired traits that make it easier for us to cooperate on a much larger scale than any hunter-gatherer ever could.

    The question isn’t if civilization will be rebuilt, but how long it will take, and to what level it will be rebuilt. The question of what level of complexity we can attain is interesting even if civilization doesn’t fall. Once we’re at Earth’s carrying capacity, things will be very different from the 10,000 year explosion. Fewer resources, more intense competition, and no economic growth will all be limiting factors. However, since we will continue to evolve culturally, we will always be the dominant species.

  18. pyrrhus says:

    Rebuilding a technological civilization (a non tech civilization would be much less demanding) will depend on two crucial factors: the average IQ of the survivors, assuming a normal distribution, and the availability of readily accessible fossil fuels. If the average IQ is too low, say sub-90, it will take a long Malthusian process to increase it sufficiently before any kind of advanced civilization can develop (A Farewell to Alms). If fossil fuels are not available to the survivors, the best they will be able to do is a Roman style civilization…

    • Cpluskx says:

      700m survivors with avg iq of ~90 vs 70.000 survivors with avg iq of ~145. Which one do you prefer?

    • Bruce says:

      C Northcote Parkinson’s teacher said ‘you either know how to make bleach or you do not. If you do, you can have an Industrial Revolution.’ Bleach is almost as easy as beer, once you know.

      If fossil fuels were unavailable -or just uneconomical at first- we’d be back to charcoal for our Stanley Steamers and railroads. We’d still have both.

      • gcochran9 says:

        The French, and others, used wood-gasifier trucks during WWII.

      • pyrrhus says:

        Britain was running out of wood by the late 17th century, due to it’s use for charcoal, etc, and was already importing it from Scandinavia. Good thing they discovered the plentiful coal deposits, or the Industrial Revolution would have been indefinitely postponed.

  19. It would be terrible to live through a time when humanity got wacked down to 10% of the existing population. Excluding the scenario of the world becoming a radioactive wasteland within a couple of generations average life style for the remaining 700 million people would be considerable better than if the herd had never been culled.

    We actually have a precedent, not a great one but it will do. After the population of Europe was reduced by 50% because of the black plague life was considerable easier for the average man as soon as the plague had passed. I could see infrastructure collapsing making life horrible for those who managed to live through it but once order had been restored we have the same planet with ten times as much natural resources for everybody.

    Cochran is right, we can’t possibly lose this information, that is ridiculous. If part of the world is too damned incompetent to rebuild than historical precedent once again tells us it won’t be too terribly long before some able replacements come along and fill the gap.

    • Jim says:

      The plague didn’t destroy infrastructure. I’ve read that approximately 50% of the population of Germany perished during tthe Thirty Years War and I assume that infrastructure was heavily damged also.

      Archaeological investiagations in the Peloponnese indicate that after the collapse of Mycenaean civilization the population there was reduced by something like 99%.

    • pyrrhus says:

      Indeed, for the survivors life might be a lot easier….but they will probably be more focused on getting steam locomotives back in service than building Teslas or mass spectrometers.

  20. Yudi says:

    Greg, what do you think it would take (short of extinction, obviously) to get humanity in a situation where rebuilding a technical society actually is nearly impossible?

    • Three more seats for the SNP

    • MawBTS says:

      Imagine if every bacterium in the world was replaced with a large muskrat. That wold probably do the trick.

    • William Newman says:

      I’m not Greg, but I think you’d need to have something that really destroyed all the knowledge. I can’t think of anything plausible except the passage of many centuries to do that accidentally. So you’d either need some powerful malicious force (aliens? human death cult? berserk AI?) destroying the knowledge intentionally, or some accidental catastrophe which prevents the humans from using the knowledge for a thousand or so years while the knowledge decays away on its own. The only accidental way I can think I can think of preventing it from being used is holding the population so low that specialized skills can’t be maintained. So have an unbelievably huge nuclear war with survivors knocked back to hunting and gathering with a population of 500 or so on each of a few isolated islands. Or weirder scenarios, like the Earth warming up enough that the isolated population can be isolated on Antarctica where there are vanishingly few old artifacts to find. Away from all the old tech artifacts in Antarctica, maybe after a bottleneck of a few hundred to forget everything, you might be able to let the population rise back to millions without much risk of rapid return to advanced tech.

      If you have millions of population left, and they were knocked back by accident instead of some superpowerful anti-tech secret police, they’re not likely to lose paper and the printing press and guns and steamboats and electric lighting and radiotelegraphs and genetics and the germ theory of disease. From those it didn’t take all that long to get to the twentieth century even when people had to invent everything for the first time instead of learning shortcuts from old documents and artifacts.

  21. Toad says:

    It all depends on on how much interference you get from the zombies.

  22. Jim says:

    I think the biggest obstacle to recovery would be a violent struggle for power among the survivors. Once it got sorted out who was in charge then it would be a lot easier to rebuild a technologically advanced civilization.

    The recovery of Western Europe after the fall of the Western Roman Empire took a long time due in part to violent conflict. The wars between the Byzantines and the Lombards in Southern Italy prevented much recovery there and just after Charlemagne seemed to have gotten it all together the Vikings struck and brought down the whole shit and shebang.

    • bb753 says:

      Assuming attrition by disease, and random mortality, I suppose humanity would be fine as long as law and order don’t collapse. After all, the infrastructure would be mostly intact.
      Could we keep our societies in working order with less people? Well, there’d be more resources per capita for one thing. We’d have surplus food and energy, plenty of empty housing spaces. Today we manage to get by with say 50% superfluous population: senile old people, unemployable morons, thugs, most civil servants, etc. It’s not as if we really need all the people who now live on this planet.
      So I say civilisation will be restored in a matter of weeks, if the outbreak spreads fast and kills even faster. The hastle would be burning all the corpses, and taking care of the sick or dying.
      Now I don’t see how we could possibly survive even a small scale nuclear war. Radiation and nuclear winter would spread around the globe. Survivors of the strikes would die of cancer and starvation, or freeze in a short time. Maybe some people would survive in nuclear shelters. But not 10% of the population. 1 % with luck. It would take centuries to recover under this scenario.

    • pyrrhus says:

      Skeleton data shows that the average peasant was significantly better off AFTER Rome fell, due to the lack of government parasites stealing his food. That only reversed around 800, with a new group of Holy Roman parasites.

  23. Toad says:

    Instead of myxomatosis, we could imaging a brain virus that causes a compulsion to have small families. TFR dips below replacement, and over a period of decades, population drops to 10% of original. Suggest a recovery scenario from there.

  24. amac78 says:

    Caveman Chemistry by Prof. Kevin Dunn, from 2006. 26 projects laid out as a college course.

  25. TangoMan says:

    These guys might help – the Open Source Ecology movement. They’re not writing code, they’re developing open source plans for equipment that society can use to bootstrap up the technology ladder. They even offer a “Civilization Starter Kit” DVD which might be useful if you have a DVD player and a TV and electricity after civilization does down the crapper. Here are some videos on their “Global Village Construction Set.” Plans for soil pulverizers, well drilling rigs, compressed earth brick press, etc.

  26. Anthony says:

    Years ago, maybe more, there was an article in Analog asking which six books would you take/preserve in order to most efficiently get started on rebuilding civilization. The author plumped for the CRC Handbook of Chemistry & Physics, Mark’s Mechanical Engineer’s Handbook, and a few similar books.

    I’ve got a 1911 Britannica and a small collection of 19th century and early 20th century technical books. There are lots of them around.

  27. melendwyr says:

    Well, a lot of the food sources of our hunter-gatherer ancestors are extinct. The ones we selectively bred to be awesome food sources generally require renewal each year – stored seed lasts only a few years, and domesticated animals need lots of human care to survive. So any disruption of farming that lasts more than a few months can have permanent effects.

    A lot of our technology relies on existing technology to persist – it’s not like there’s crude oil bubbling out of the ground as there was when the Petroleum Age began. If the tech we use to extract fossil fuels is damaged, we won’t be able to build it up again.

    Much depends on the nature of the disaster. If the infrastructure remains but people die, we could rebuild easily. If the disaster is long enough or damaging enough to eliminate the machine base, we likely would have a very hard time rebuilding – it would take many generations to recover or recreate what was lost. People themselves are expendable, as the Black Death taught us – particularly if the smart and rich disproportionally escape. (Reality is unpleasant, sometimes.)

    • melendwyr says:

      After additional consideration, I’ve concluded not enough detail about the nature of the die-off is provided.

      If the structure of society is preserved despite losing 90% of the people – if all the cities above a certain size were Vernor Vinge-style Bobbled, ferex – the rebuilding would begin immediately, and would probably result in a Golden Age for the survivors.

      If the structure of society were disrupted – particularly endeavors like agriculture and animal husbandry – that 90% decrease would be followed by another wave of death, and the survivors would have to work very, very hard to recover what’s being lost, once they’d managed to re-establish the systems that keep people alive, and that’d be harder to do than it was in the past. We’ve already lost many varieties of our crop plants, but a prolonged societal collapse could lead to extinction of species. If creating a food surplus took long enough, many additional resources would be lost, too. Steel rusts.

  28. Eric Hiatt says:

    Obviously if everyone had the desire to rebuild civilization it would be easy, just as building a Mars colony would be easy if enough of humanity decided today to focus resources on such a single objective. but how much opposition are we building into this reset model? And I don’t mean this in a necessarily ideological sense. For example, biker gangs aren’t going to start reading encyclopedias with the intent of rekindling technological progress. They’re going to rape and pillage everything they can from the apocalyptic smorgasbord. This will obviously interfere with a cooperative techno-civilization quest, especially since the remaining technology is going to work more in their favor initially than ours given its lawless applications.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Like we got where we are today by everyone being nice. Knowledge is power, those who have it will win out over those that don’t. Competition for power will further preservation and recovery of knowledge.

  29. Mack says:

    I think modern humanity may have built its own doomsday device in that when modern civilization collapses, there will be no one to tend the the 450 or so nuclear reactors in the world, and their associated spent fuel pools. From Chernobyl and Fukushima we know that within days the water boils off, and even the spent fuel rods will spontaneously ignite and send up plumes of radioactive smoke for years. I am not sure there will be anywhere humans can survive with this level of contamination which will last for many centuries.
    And the lifespan of those left may be very short before dieing of radiation induced sickness. How much knowledge can one amass and use if the average life span is 25 years?

  30. Douglas Knight says:

    We’ve tried this exercise before: civilization was overrun by barbarians in 150 BC. It took 1500 years to match the Antikythera mechanism.

    Competition for power will further preservation and recovery of knowledge.

    Is this what happened to the libraries of Alexandria and Pergamon? Varro names 50 Greeks whose books he read, because he valued their knowledge. He distilled the parts he could understand into his book, but he condemned most of it as “philosophy.” He cared about concrete advice like: do not live near a swamp, but he discarded theory. Of course, in that passage, he does mention a germ theory of disease, but surely there was more to it (whether right or wrong) that he did not record. And that’s Varro, the great scholar! Most of the Romans didn’t think there was anything to lean from the Greeks.

    At least the Romans didn’t destroy the books. It’s cheap to preserve books in Alexandria. A century after Varro some Greeks managed to learn more from reading: Galen, Hero, Ptolemy. But that Renaissance was a dead end.

    The lesson I take from this is that it takes a lot of knowledge or attitude to even read books. That part is not written down, and if we lose it, the books may be of little use.

    • gcochran9 says:

      Well, perhaps having a zillion times more books around would make a difference. That and all the “X for Dummies” books, which I think the Romans didn’t have.

      A lot of Classical civ wasn’t very useful: on the whole they didn’t invent much. On the whole, technology advanced quite a bit more rapidly in Medieval times.

    • athEIst says:

      The Romans defeated Macedonia in 146 BCE and got the Greek city states as part of the spoils. But we don’t usually think of this as:
      civilization was overrun by barbarians in 150 BC.
      But it is an interesting point of view.

      • Douglas Knight says:

        Yes, the Romans are the barbarians and the civilization is Hellenistic, but I did not choose 150 to refer to the Peloponnese, which was a relative backwater, but to an event poorly described by “overrun.” The most important step in the end of Hellenistic civilization was the suppression of Greek culture in Alexandria, a century before nominal annexation. This was quite damaging because it broke continuity, while the Romans were interested in exploiting the engineering knowledge. It took a few more decades for Rome to swallow Hellenistic Anatolia, particularly Pergamon in about 130.

  31. Rick says:

    As long as there is sunshine, everything would recover very quickly. Even at 99% die off. People have more kids and read books.

    But. If there was some kind of repeating meteoric or volcanic situation where the sun was blocked for a couple of decades, that would be a whole different story. Most plants would die, and most animals would also.

    Without food, books would be nearly useless, and metal would be useless.

    How long could humans survive without sunlight?

  32. Let’s face it, Hollywood isn’t the least bit interested in the plausible. Whatever nonsense sells they will repeat over and over until people stop coming back. One of the many fiction plots that do sell is a black swan event followed by humanity forever mired in middle age suffering. This isn’t any more plausible than emo vampires, zombies, super hero tag team death matches, cowboys shootin’ it up in space, ect ect.

    That is all fine and dandy, who cares. I’ll sit in short attention span theatre enjoying the latest Mad Max movie with the rest of them.

    Where it gets stupid and annoying is when the dumbshits start confusing entertainment with reality, and Lord, do they ever. The Pentagon doesn’t have to work hard to justify their next ridiculous budget, the press does all the heavy lifting for the pentagon scaring the shit out of the public with assholes run amok somewhere. The Taliban and ISIS are just the last in a long line of rabid dipshits that scare the crap out of gullible americans who somewhere in their fevered brains think they are close to running down their street like a bunch of staggering zombies.

    What threats are plausible? No one asks. Not thoughtfully like Cochran could, which is a problem, someone should. If we get a solar storm like hit the earth in 1859, called the Carrington Event and some parts of the world are too stupid to shut down their electrical grid (we will only have 15 minutes notice) then a whole lot of huge transformers will potentially be fried. How soon can they all be replaced and the electrical grid up and running? It could take years depending on the severity. Anybody care to imagine what life is going to be like on our east coast without electricity for two years? It would make New Orleans after it was hit by a hurricane look like a choirboy picnic.

    • gcochran9 says:

      I was thinking about a Carrington event, especially that part about crucial huge transformers taking two to three years to build.

      I don’t believe it. I have this strange notion that more resources would be applied to the problem and would greatly speed up production/repair.

      For example – The carrier Yorktown was heavily damaged in the battle of the Coral Sea. “A 551-pound armor-piercing bomb had plunged through the flight deck 15 feet inboard of her island and penetrated fifty feet into the ship before exploding above the forward engine room. Six compartments were destroyed, as were the lighting systems on three decks and across 24 frames. The gears controlling the No. 2 elevator were damaged. She had lost her radar and refrigeration system. Near misses by eight bombs had opened seams in her hull from frames 100 to 130 and ruptured the fuel-oil compartments. Rear Adm. Aubrey Fitch, aboard the damaged carrier, estimated that repairing the Yorktown would take ninety days.”

      But they managed to get it working in three days – not a perfect repair, not good as new, but good enough to win the battle of Midway.

      • magusjanus says:

        On the WW2 Pacific theater topic, are you also of the opinion Halsey was a tool whose cavalier recklessness almost led to the largest naval catastrophe in US history at Leyte? Were it not for the combination of Kurita losing his nerve and Sprague’s heroic (insane even) defense the US might have lost a battle that should have been a sure thing.

        It makes the that 5th star awarded to Halsey seem that much more of a travesty relative to Spruance’s 4. Meanwhile idiots criticize Spruance for his calculated defense at Philippine Sea that basically wiped out Japanese seaborne-air power at very little cost. Go figure.

        Curious what your take is on the “controversy”.

        • gcochran9 says:

          Putting it politely, the war had become too complicated for Halsey. Perhaps, if we cloned Spruance in order to have him lead a future Galaxy-wide struggle, one that involved AIs, Pak on steroids, time travel, hostile Von Neumann machines, and hyperspace – a situation that made Alastair Reynolds sound like Dr. Seuss- it might eventually become too complicated for Spruance. We all have limits.

          Halsey was a screwup and Nimitz knew it – but he believed that telling the truth would ruin the reputation of the Navy’s chief symbol, and cause them to lose future budgetary wars.

          Personally I think that a tradition of punishing prominent screwups might serve the country better than the tradition we have.

          An uncle of mine was there at the Battle off Samar, in a DE charging the Yamato. He got close enough to see the crew running around on the deck. He didn’t enjoy it one bit.

      • Yea, you are probably right. They could rebuild those transformers far faster than two years IF they really wanted to and they would really really want to. Especially after all hell breaks lose in a few cities that don’t have electricity. Probably the worst effect of a Carrington event world wide would be every satellite in space fried. I’m not particularly attached to my cell phone but that makes me an oddball.

        • pyrrhus says:

          They would need to rebuild them a great deal faster, since almost everyone in the cities would be starving to death after a full scale Carrington event, causing a total breakdown of order, with mobs rampaging wherever they might find food. Most likely the energy infrastructure would also be incapacitated in most of the affected area…

        • Ilya says:

          @dave chamberlin: technically, you don’t need GPS in your cell phone. The cell towers themselves are connected via optic lines and various backbone technologies that don’t need orbit-based communication.

  33. Unhappy City Cog says:

    The history of cities is one of recurrent decimation–from fires, to bugs, to memes–but they nearly always rebuild and grow.

    The only way to stop cities would be if clueful nomads roamed the earth snuffing out dense populations in their infancy for the existential threat they are.

  34. Erik says:

    “One of our local error sources suggested that it would be impossible to rebuild technical civilization, once fallen.”
    “So assume a mild disaster, something like the effect of myxomatosis on the rabbits of Australia, or perhaps toe-to-toe nuclear combat with the Russkis – ~90% casualties worldwide.”

    I think you two may have been talking past each other. ~90% casualties worldwide doesn’t sound to me as though technical civilization would be fallen in the first place. Even if the casualties are heaviest in the most advanced places like North America, West Europe, and East Asia, that’ll still leave (for example) ten million people in Iran, twenty million in Brazil. Even at 99% casualties, I’m fairly confident you can find industrial professionals and handymen of practically every sort among two million Brazilians.

    So here’s my view on the recovery process from the basics, assuming handymen: Wood, fire, earth and stone are easily at hand. With those, you can make bricks and a kiln. Kiln produces charcoal. Charcoal gets you a forge. (Here I am very pessimistically assuming that every existing forge and its fuel has been destroyed bydisaster.) Raiding the ruins of a hardware store gets you tools. With a forge and tools, some of those brazillions of brasilians can start refining better forges and better tools to the standards they used to have. So far we’re up to approximately the Iron Age. Next there’s the Migration Period. This will probably happen of its own as people loot towns. Then the Medieval Period, where the horse collar and the carrucate plow don’t have to be reinvented from scratch. Maybe maypoles will come back into vogue, as will the three-field system. Hooking up a waterwheel to a river gets you mechanical power, which some smart fellow can presumably turn into electricity with wire and magnets. If the forge-complex has made it to producing small fine gears by now, we’re out of the Renaissance and hitting the Industrial Re-Revolution, and I’d consider technical civilization to have been rebuilt.

    There are probably some important intermediate steps I haven’t thought of, but that’s fine, there are two million Brazilians to do that.

  35. John Hostetler says:

    There seems to be a lot of basic ignorance about the Malthusian fit between a civilization’s technology, its most vital resources, and its population size.

    Naivete about forests, for example: how vital they were for navies for almost 4,000 years, but how quickly they were exhausted locally by the need those same navy-possessing civilizations had for graze, farmland, charcoal and saltpeter (and ships, of course).

    Naivete about the way modern economies of scale are basically the transmutation of fossil fuel into food and ore. Food used to be that bit of sunlight you could turn into comestibles using human and animal muscle. Now, it’s sunlight transformed by diesel for tractors and natural gas for fertilizer plants.

    Ore and metals used to be those high-grade deposits you could wrest from the earth and transform using muscle and charcoal, now it’s those very low-grade deposits you also extract with diesel and gas. Aluminum’s very ubiquity is its problem, absent high-grade energy.

    There is a fit between these things, such that a large population is part and parcel of the extraction of diffuse resources using concentrated fuel. You can’t remove one part, the large population, and expect everything else to carry on.

    About the only convincing argument Greg has made here is that we fluked into leap-frogging from coal to oil and gas, leaving abundant coal still. That could do the trick.

    Wood gasification? Pshaw – a trickle where an Amazon is needed.

    • gcochran9 says:

      You know, we need to find a simple way to measure the ratio of opinion to knowledge in people.

      • melendwyr says:

        Perhaps we should use the metric of how often they make contentious claims then act surprised when people expect them to back up those assertions. We could use the same unit of measurement Star Trek applies to warp field strengths.

  36. simontmn says:

    Civilisation survival/rebuilding would require survival of the culture-of-curiousity that is found in only a relatively small number of nations; if they were destroyed or conquered by the incurious then no more technological civilisation. We’ve already seen how this works.

  37. mattykyle says:

    I have a better scenario, that I offer up to Greg or any commenter here.

    White people in a random European country atone for the sin of racism by leaving their own country, and handing it over in full to African migrants.

    Describe the recovery process, why it’s feasible and in fact almost easy. Show your work.

  38. amphibious says:

    In the late60/early70s when self sufficiency was the response to tekocalypse I began assembling a library and acquiring ‘stuff’ for just such a contingency. After a couple of years, I bought the remnants of an old bloke’s cache… and he’d done the same thing, in the 20/30s so some of his books went back to the start of popular printing in the UK & USA. Everything that was known to Victoria could easily have been produced from his library.
    It made me realise that although I could reassemble a civilisation up to WWII, the fiddly bits beyond that actually required a vast infrastructure – the pre-war things -AND their precursors- were within the skill of a smith or mechanic, sparkie or smellie.

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