Could "civilisation" have survived a global nuclear war?

I’ve watched several nuclear war films of late, including The War Game, When The Wind Blows, and most recently, Testament. I’ve seen Threads and The Day After too. This isn’t a Cafe Society post though.

Several of those films portray a severely diminished post-apocalyptic society and several others show “civilisation” essentially dying out.

If the Cold War had heated up and there had been a general nuclear conflict between NATO and the Warsaw Pact countries or NATO and China or some other configuration do you think “civilisation” would have survived anywhere on the planet?

I mean “civilisation” in the sense of a coherent community or group of communities, subsisting or more as opposed to handfuls of survivors living off remnants of the pre-war societies. I can imagine in remoter parts of the world, away from targets such as major population centres and not in the path of fallout-carrying winds that communities could perhaps survive but I wonder what y’all think. Am I’m overly optimistic?

Obviously it all depends on what you define as civilization, and where you’re talking about.

Generally speaking, a “global” nuclear war would have likely concentrated on NATO & the Warsaw Pact, with non-aligned nations suffering relatively little.

So, using that scenario, it’s likely that South America, Africa and much of Asia would be relatively untouched, except by fallout, and that wouldn’t generally be lethal except in areas adjacent to areas hit by nukes.

There would be a large realignment obviously, with Europe, the US and Russia out of the picture.

Within those nations, things might be different, although civilization would surely survive, although in more of a 19th, maybe even 18th century state for a long time. The reason I say this, is that the rural areas of the countries involved might avoid deadly fallout, and it would be more or less the same as before, except that they’d have to grow their own food, make their own stuff, and there wouldn’t be much in teh way of pharmaceuticals.

What about nuclear winter, would that not equally disrupt the South America, Africa, and Asia?

We cannot allow a mine-shaft gap!
Personally, I think rebuilding would be pretty quick, if enough information survived. A good library left intact in, say, Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires could be critical. The key would be to keep cities that weren’t nuked from descending into infrastructure-destroying riots and panic. If even 5% of the industrialized world survives intact, I figure 100 years, tops, to get back to previous levels.

But this is neglecting a key point. The undeveloped regions of the world would be spared the full effects of nuclear war for the simple reason that they are undeveloped. Those countries can’t make the advance to the modern era NOW, why should they do so if the first world countries are reduced to smoking cinders?

A nuclear war wouldn’t solve the problems of third world countries, it would intensify them. Most of these countries would stop existing as states in the modern sense. It’s possible a lot of technology would survive, in the sense that lots of existing factories and infrastructure could be maintained, but technological innovation would be over. And once technological innovation is finished, the ability to maintain the remnants would be lost over the generations.

Eventually we could imagine a renaissance of some sort, but it wouldn’t be a matter of simply rebuilding and starting over. It would require a whole new history of civilization.

We have the idea that there is an arrow of progress, mankind might be knocked back a step or two, but for every step back we take two forward. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Look at the disaster of the fall of the Roman Empire. Where did the technology of the Roman empire go? Where did the political organization? It took a thousand years for Europe to recover.

Well, the question falls back on which area has the best combination of high industry and low nuclear-target importance? How significant a target was Buenos Aires, or Calgary, or Budapest, or Dublin? Make a list of the 100 largest most developed cities worldwide at the height of the Cold War (say, 1985). I figure at least a handful would be spared direct attack.

I think it’d all go down much like in The Canticle For Leibowitz. Massive desolation, everything resembling civilization still left would be torn down with scorn except for small outposts of learning…and they’d rebuild it all again.

Except that “rebuilding” in the sense of recreating today’s sort of industrial civilization, is not inevitable. Not that they’d revert to “barbarism”, firearms are so useful to various sorts of people that there’s no way we could lose them. And there would still be histories and books and plans.

But I’m talking more about the intangibles of civilization. Sure, Buenos Aires has several universities. But do they have the critical level to maintain a 20th century infrastructure, even on a third world basis? Argentina isn’t going to start producing more engineers and scientists and entreprenuers just because the United States and Europe and the Soviet Union have been turned to slag heaps. In fact, they’re almost certainly going to produce LESS. Just because you have blueprints for building a jet airplane doesn’t mean you can just build a factory and start churning out jet airplanes.

Given current conditions our expectation of ever-increasing knowledge and ever-increasing economic prosperity are reasonable. But rip the heart out of industrial civilization and it’s not certain that the periphery could maintain what they have. History is full of examples of civilizations that lost knowledge and had long term economic contraction. Sure, if human beings survive, eventually they will meet and surpass what we have today. But it isn’t a matter of simply “rebuilding”.

Well, then, what does “rebuilding” mean?

I know there were many different scenerios for nuclear war between the US and the USSR, but weren’t there plans by one side or the other to nuke the neutral countries anyway, sort of a “if we go, everyone goes” mindset?

Perhaps because the First World countries wouldn’t be screwing them over economically or politically. It would be a rather Darwinian way of finding out which countries are being kept down, and which are being propped up by the great powers. No more economic aid, but no more coerced economic restructuring or massive foreign debt either. No military aid, but no more US ( or put your alternate First World country here ) sponsored coups or presidential assassinations.

I would like to remind every one of Australia and New Zealand. Two first world industrialised nations. Australia was entirely self-sufficient in terms of manufactured goods, agriculture and raw materials, and New Zealand almost so. New Zealand would almost certainly have been unscathed in any nuclear exchange and Australia would have been the target of only a couple of strikes in remote areas.

So here we have two developed nations, self sufficent, educated populace with minimal damage. The rest of the world could have been completely vapourised and these two nations would have continued on with at least a 1950s technology level.

So no, a nuclear war woudln’t have destroyed civilistaion. At worst it would stall it for a hundred years or so. Peopel would still have been going about tehir business essentialy unaffected. People in Christchurch would still be attending university, people in Adelaide would still have been producing motor cars and aircraft. No technology woudl be lost and very little would even have ceased production.

Which brings us to the beginning of On the Beach. Though that novel posited that the fallout would be so bad it would eventually overwhelm Australia, even though no bombs were dropped there. But I seem to remember seeing charts that showed that wouldn’t happen.

Remember the Doomsday Device in Dr. Strangelove? Simple concept: bury a lot of massive H-bombs where they’ll put a tremendous amount of irradiated dust into the air when they’re detonated, and salt them with isotopes to make the fallout as lethal as possible. The scary thing about that was that it sounds entirely feasible technically. They made up “Cobalt Thorium-G”, but I guess Strontium 90 and some other stuff mixed in might work as well.

I wonder if the experiences of Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Chernobyl show us that fallout won’t be a significant problem?

With respect to specific countries being unlikely to be nuked, perhaps we could modify the OP’s scenario and speculate an alien invasion that’s fought off at tremendous cost, with nowhere having escaped?

I think it all depends upon how much of humanity dies off. Take the population of the U.K.: a 90% die-off will leave 6 million people. That was the population of the country a few hundred years ago. People will be easily able to find other people. A 99% die-off will leave 600K people. Still a very significant number. 99.9%? Now you’re talking. 60K people spread out over the whole U.K. is going to be difficult but not insurmountable. 99.99%? That’s 6K people. That’s real trouble. There are going to be very few - less than 2K - women of breeding age; that’s not in itself a problem, but they’ve got to survive to meet men and breed.

But translate that to India or China, with populations of over 1 billion. A 99.99% die-off leaves over 100K people. To get to the trouble zone, you’ve got to get to 99.999%.

As Tennyson wrote of Nature, “So careful of the type she seems, So careless of the single life.” Our sheer numbers should ensure the survival of the species and the survival of civilisation in some form.

So were fallout and nuclear winter hyped? I was always led to believe that a global nuclear war would be worse for any survivors than those immediately killed. I would have imagined that several cities in Australia would have been targets but I don’t know of any likely target list, I don’t know about New Zealand. Would nuclear winter have only been a localised phenomenon, not having an effect in the Southern Hemisphere?

I mean sure we’re sitting in Christchurch going, “that was close” but then what if none of the crops can grow and it gets extremely cold?

I doubt it. After all, the CDC estimates that the 1,000 or so nuclear tests conducted between the 1940s and 1990s killed about 11,000 people in America indirectly through fallout:

The CDC’s study on health consequences of nuclear tests, page 7.

Maybe some people consider 11,000 deaths insignificant, but to put it into perspective, that’s almost four times as many Americans as were killed on 9/11. This from tests that were conducted in remote areas and, from the 1960s, mostly underground. It would be much worse if the bombs were detonated in populated areas and above ground. It would also be much worse if facilities to treat those with what are currently non-fatal cancers are destroyed - facilities that would probably be annihilated with the major cities they are found in.
I think there’s a disturbing trend for people to think that if the world didn’t end and the results don’t look like a Hollywood disaster movie, it wasn’t a problem.

I agree with this part, actually. Even with horrific rates of death, enough people will probably survive, especially in the southern hemisphere. I’m not nearly as optimistic as you about civilization surviving in an area as small as England. People will survive, sure, but I doubt they’ll want to live there for long.

I’m willing to bet the recovery from WW3 would be faster than from the Black Death, though I’m happy to leave the matter undecided.

Eh, I’m not so sure. I’m one of those who thinks the number of people killed during the first week of the nuclear war would be smaller than the people killed in the next year. The black death didn’t destroy infrastructure, and the people who survived were in some ways better off afterwards, because there was the same amount of farmland, the same buildings, the same roads, except shared among fewer people.

Except in the case of a nuclear war, the infrastructure that supports our population would be destroyed. Lots of people would be killed in the the first blasts, but more people would be injured than killed outright, and most of those people would recieve no medical care, and would die lingering deaths. Transportation nodes would be blasted out of existance. And then comes the secondary die-off. More people would die of starvation, disease, civil disorder, and exposure than would die of wounds recieved in the bombings. And that’s what would kill the country, the absolute breakdown of civil society. Farming communites might survive, but that would require a willingness to shoot refugees on sight, otherwise the refugees will overwhelm their ability to absorb them. So either the farmers keep out the refugees or the refugees swamp the farmers and then all of them die because the refugees can’t keep the farms running.

Over fifty years, it is insignificant, especially if it strikes people past child bearing.

I sometimes think South Africa would have been the chief “beneficiary”. A pariah for most of the Atomic Age, so that nobody would bother sparing any missiles for them. And an educated middle class, used to holding a larger native populace in subjugation. Well situated, if anyone would be, to expand into southern Africa and thence north.

I would have said Egypt, but I bet WWIII would include a nuclear exchange in the Middle East. Likewise India/Pakistan.


I think we’re mostly conflating it all.