I realise this is an unlikely scenario…but what would happen to most societies if electricity ceased suddenly to exist?
It is my bet that, in relatively advanced societies such as the UK where I live, most people (say 90%) would be dead within a year. First those with pacemakers, those on life support, those in aeroplanes would have very little time, but I just can’t see the majority of us making it through the year. No computers, no banking, no cars, no radio or TV, no fridges, every mechanised thing seems to rely to a certain degree on electrics, starter motors, spark plugs. Food would be a real problem, and we are all totally unskilled in survival, and that’s why I think most of us would perish.
And then how long would it take an alternative society to develop which thrives without electricty? The dark age would be quite long I think, hundreds of years.
I think the trouble is that it’s not just an unlikely scenario, it’s essentially a meaningless one from a physical point of view. What does it mean for “electricity to cease to exist”? Electricity is based on fundamental properties of matter at the elementary particle level.
It isn’t just modern technological civilization that depends on electricity, it’s innumerable other processes such as neural activity in the brain and the contractions of the heart. If electricity itself somehow totally ceased to exist, we’d all be dead immediately, as our bodies simply wouldn’t be able to function any more.
All matter as we have ever directly experienced it would cease to exist as electrons, free of the binding power of the electromagnetic force, flew away from atomic nuclei at nearly the speed of light. Other, more interesting, interactions would most likely take place at the same time, but nothing remotely resembling life as we know it could possibly be around to observe them.
That would be ‘Bad’.
(I’m just getting that out of the way. Others will be around to spin various After The Disaster scenarios. Personally, I think a large percentage of the human race wouldn’t notice much of a change.)
The electromagnetic pulse from a nuclear weapon isn’t permanent, but it can cause devastating effects and disrupt, or even destroy, electrical and electronic systems, as well as having many other effects on infrastucture. It’s not a direct answer to the OP, but it is a real possibility.
Here’s one of many articles on the subject: http://www.geocities.com/capecanaveral/5971/emp.html
There are lots of disaster/science fiction books that explore very similar questions – usually the disasters destroy the power grid, causing widespread blackouts, which is essentially the same thing the OP is asking (well, except for the airplanes and pacemakers and whatnot). Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer goes so far as to have southern Californian civilization reform around a single nuclear power plant that has managed to survive the comet impact that wiped out much of the developed world. Even closer are Charles Sheffield’s books Aftermath and the sequel Starfire deal with Alpha Centauri going supernova, and the resulting gamma ray burst results in a global electromagnetic pulse that destroys all unshielded electronic equipment.
Didn’t we do this just recently? The short answer is that we’d do just fine once we’re over the short-term hump. Electricity is a very recent invention. Computer technicians would be in trouble, but accountants would just dust off their ledgers.
I think that if atoms were to fly apart because of no electromagnetic force then ALL atoms would disintergrate throught the Universe. In other words the Universe as we know it would not exist. I wonder what would be left over then?
If it happened suddenly with no warning, civilization would collapse- the shock would be just too great and the bloody messy aftermath too chaotic for any kind of regrouping effort.
If you mean what could we do if we had to go completely without electricity (and somehow had the time and means to prepare and adapt) then it might go something like this:
The biggest challenge would be the loss of computers and telecommunications. Semaphores would be the only halfway fast means of relaying information and they would only exist for high priority traffic in prosperous stable countries. Everywhere else information would only travel as fast as mail delivery. The art of letter writing and correspondance would be revived along with penmanship Computers and their applications would cease to exist. All-mechanical calculators could be used for pure number crunching but that would be about it. Pre-computer tools like mechanical drafting, ledger books, manual typewriters, typesetting, etc. would be used.
Industry could mostly function at a late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century level without electricity. The loss of electrolytically produced chemicals such as sodium and aluminum would make many things unobtainable however. Purely mechanical steam power would allow trains and steamships to exist, and possibly some sort of non-sparkplug (diesel?) internal combustion engines could be improvised. Gas lighting and oil lamps would provide better-than-nothing illumination.
I have an ancillary question: How many people on Earth would not notice any significant changes whatsoever? Obviously, the people living as part of ‘uncontacted’ tribes in the middle of the Brazilian rainforest wouldn’t notice. Neither would the nomadic herdsmen in the middle of certain parts of Africa and Asia.
In fact, I am willing to predict (as I already have) that at least 51% of the total human population wouldn’t feel any significant effects from the complete destruction of the human race’s ability to generate electricity.
First: Which civilization? The !Kung-San civilization would probably do just fine.
Second: Humans aren’t that stupid or that easy to kill off. There are still plenty of people in America who recall living prior to widespread electrification, either in their area or nationwide. Some skills have been lost, some skills would be lost completely, and some skills would become irrelevant, but civilization is more than a specific skillset.
Population would cluster near to sources of energy like rivers, waterfalls, forests, coal deposits, etc. The neat thing about electric power is that it easily transports steam and water power virtually instantly over great distances.
For example, I’m thinking of something like the Los Angeles Aqueduct which starts in the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada Range and falls about 6500 ft. on its course to Los Angeles. A lot of electric power is generated along the way. That would be replaced by water wheels at intervals with the intervals being long enough to get a drop of, say, 10 ft. or so. Of course the products made would be used locally. That is, unless some sort of waterproof container could be devised to float them down the aqueduct for retrieval elsewhere.
So out of all mountains a series of long aqueducts could be built into the lower elevations and water wheels installed along them.
Coal mining would be mostly open pit. Underground mining with internal combustion engines to run the drills would be difficult on account of the need to ventilate the mines.
And, by the way, does the oil refining process depend on electricity in any fundamental way? I mean the process itself, not the transport of the oil around the refinery or the telemetering of data or stuff like that.
I think aluminum production would cease. As far as I know, all of our aluminum metal is made by an electrolytic process.
SM Stirling dealt with precisely this question in his novel Dies The Fire.
In this book, electricity and certain explosively-rapid chemical reactions abruptly stop working for unexplained reasions. Cars don’t run. Planes go dead in midair. Police officers discover that their guns don’t work. Fires in cities cannot be fought except by hand pumps and bucket chains.
Things fall apart.
There is a sequel, The Protector’s War, but it’s not out in paperback yet and I haven’t read it.
I am begging to realise that this is a wonderful website. I only just started here. I am sorry if you did something similar to this recently, but I haven’t figured out yet how to “google” this site.
I know for certain that I would not be a survivor. I am quite concerned how peace could be kept in a developed economy, where ownership of wealth is mainly in electronic form. Revolution seems the obvious short term result - can’t see how we could avoid it. My whole work depends on being able to easily talk and communicate with the rest of the world and I am one of those people living in a big city where growing food is not an option.
And where would I go to get my questions answered eh? Certainly not “Straight Dope”