Nuclear war aftermath = no more technology or civilization

NOTE: I’m not trying to make light of nuclear destruction or radiation sickness. But you know how in just about every post-apocalyptic movie it’s taken for granted that the characters will never again have phones, or electricity, cars, or any of the technological trappings of civilization that we take for granted.

But assuming that one per-cent of the population managed to survive the catastrophe, wouldn’t that group include all the sorts of people–engineers and such–who would be able to get things back on line eventually? And similarly with other areas of civiliation–wouldn’t there be at least some physicians who could save medical knowledge and pass it on?

Just wondering.

Consider the dependence our civilization has on large-scale infrastructure. Power generation, telecommunications, auto and other heavy manufacturing, petroleum refining, heck even the transportation of most goods (including food) from their origins to market would all be wiped out - or at least profoundly disrupted - by a full scale nuclear war.

Sure, there would likely be people with the knowledge to rebuild the power plants or hospitals (for example), but if the buildings have been turned into piles of radioactive slag, there’s not much they can do. Rebuilding such complicated structures would require supplies, equipment and coordination that would likely not be available in a post-nuclear world, even if enough workers could be found to take time out from trying to feed themselves to help with the construction. And how about replacing computers and equipment which require parts from all over the world?

I’m guessing that our technological society would eventually be rebuilt, but it would probably take several generations at least. If we’re lucky, most knowledge could probably be saved and passed on.

The latest developments in science and technology would be lost, but at the very worst, we wouldn’t slide back to a pre-1950 level or so. That would be well before the advent of personal computers (and cell phones) but it’s hardly neolithic, only two or three generations back.

Consider the rebuilding of western Europe after WW2, possible in one generation because the industrial capacity of North America was still intact. As long as a benefit still exists, it can be readily transplanted and copied. Unless a nuclear war destroyed all the computers, your survbiving 1% would still be able to read from a vast supply of CD-Roms containing a huge amount of information. The painful rediscovery of basic science wouldn’t be necessary.

Basic survival (assuming the entire environment wasn’t toxic) wouldn’t be a huge problem. The building of waterwheel electric generators is pretty well understood and even one good mechanical engineer could slap one together and show others the basics. A steady electricity supply could make the survivors more comfortable than anyone living in the 18th century or earlier, not least because you’d be able to refrigerate and preserve food . An electrical engineer should be able to cobble together a working telephone system, depending on what parts could be found. Having steady light, heat, communications and a food supply would help immensely, and none of them require 21st century technology.

No-one would be pursuing genetic research (for a while), but knowing the simple fact that you should wash your hands and your surgical equipment would put a surviving doctor ahead of all pre-20th-century medical science. In a similar light, knowing that you should boil water before drinking it would greatly reduce the chance of dying of cholera and/or typhoid, both major killers in 1900.

Fact is, lifespans got a lot longer in the last 100 years not because of exotic technology, but because of fairly basic applications of cleanliness and food preservation. Large-scale engineering made it possible to do this for whole cities but this isn’t going to be a problem for a small post-nuclear population.

Most of what we now call “science” is of relatively recent discovery. Germ theory was considered a wild fiction prior to Louis Pasteur (and for some years afterward), and that’s only going back to 1860 or so.

Making babies has never required a high-tech solution, and ensuring most of them survive to adulthood requires good but not extensive medical knowledge. A viable population would be able to reproduce fairly quickly. As their numbers grow, the populations will spread into the deserted cities as the radiation levels slowly drop. They’ll grab whatever leftover machines they can find and they’ll know how to use them, which is crucial to getting humanity back up to speed.

Most small towns have fairly complete libraries. Many homes in fact have fairly complete basic libabries.

A couple of generations to reach the technological level we currently enjoy, probably three generations to achieve the penetration of technology through the populace that we currently enjoy, and maybe six or seven generations to restore the destroyed infrastructure with equivalent infrastructure…


Even ‘global nuclear war’ will leave many quite advanced nations completely untouched. Who is going to bother to nuke South Africa? Thailand? The Phillipines? Brazil? Argentina? There are plenty of other nations that enjoy a high standard of living, and are on no practical target list. Even at the height of the cold war, there simply weren’t enough warheads to ‘reduce the planet to ashes’, and with the much reduced stockpiles of today, that’s even more true.

Even a Pakistan - India nuke exchange would be comparitively limited in damage, as they don’t have enough megatonage to do more than gravely wound each other.
Kinda creepy thinking in terms of millions of dead as ‘only’ a ‘grave wound’, but there it is…

Not much will be ‘lost’, although the damage will be massive, and the ‘haves’ and have nots’ will be massively rearranged, and the participant nations will likely never completely recover.

Brian Elkers: You do make a good case, but there would be severe disruptions in everything we think of as ‘civilization’: Power generation (How many people do you know have the ability to create a working generator?), communications (and with it any semblence of civil order above the level of village), manufacturing (which cannot be done without large-scale communications and power generation, at the very least), and transportation (We will be wishing we had more horses when the local petroleum supplies run out, but we don’t. Look forward to not being able to travel much beyond what you can walk, and very few members of industrialized societies can walk much at all).

Our modern age is a marvel of mass interactions and mass consensus on basic assumptions (money is good, settling down is good (nomadic life is bad), individual survival is worth something (life is better than death)). These concepts, by and large, only came about recently (past few thousand years), and the last one is very new to the scene (post-Feudal in Europe). Our society is a refinement of those basic ideas, and a complication of them. They are based on having large groups of people living in one area and subsisting on external (rather than home-grown) suppiles of food, a central government being able to administer far-flung regions using good communications (Appian Way, telephones, Internet, all just basic variations on a theme), and having a certain measure of commonality among different regions (shared language, shared currency, shared values).

All of this would be severely disrupted, if not destroyed outright, by nuclear war. That is how nuclear wars have always been designed.

C3I (Command, Control, Communications, and Intelligence) is the basic outline of what to kill with a first strike, and what to keep killing with subsequent strikes. If you can kill the head, the body will die. A thousand engineers are no more than a thousand frightened civilians without the structure of a society around them. With no way to communicate, coordination breaks down. Production halts as resources do not get to manufacturing sites, and as manufacturing sites are converted to radoactive waste and fallout. Government dies of information starvation, and ends its life as an impotent figurehead in whatever mountainside retreat it has cowered under. Humanity in the afflicted regions (ie, the earth) goes back to more primitive modes, sometimes all the way back to Neolithic societies based around what we would call warlords, but what aboriginal groups have always called chiefs. Maybe some would salvage an iron age or a bronze age existence, but an industrial-level society would be untenable for the reasons listed above.

‘Basic knowledge,’ as expounded by Bryan Elkers, would save thousands of lives, but it would not be able to save our beautiful, fragile, centralized society.

Unfortunately we do have enought nuclear warheads to kill up to 95% of the human population. Not all of the US’s nukes were aimed at the USSR, China & the other eastern block countries, but all over the world.

Plus it isn’t all that hard to change the target of a nuke, and it’s not like if you miss the target by say, 50 miles that you aren’t going to do any damage.

The other thing which I think people aren’t taking into account is that a large percentage of the survivors would have radiation poisoning. My home town used to have a “civil defense shelter/bomb shelter,” but it was turned into storage space after the Soviet Union fell. And a bomb shelter is going to do little if any good against radiation, which can and does go straight through steel, concrete etc.

To sort of put the cherry on the top of it all, much of the surviving plant and animal life would be so irradiated as to be toxic; the same with much of the water supply. Unfortunately I think that cockroaches would hang around longer than the human race.

Maybe you should tell these people

Since this was not a “within 50 miles” nuclear weapon hit but a direct one I would imagine you might be exaggerating just a teensy bit.

The biggie for the guys remote from the direct conflict (& I am talking after full on U.S. - USSR exchange circa 1986 & even then +500 jackasses in each WARRING state would still be alive & on-line for decades under a mountain), places like the Seychelles, Ceylon, Madagascar, Terre del Fuego would probably be the environmental catastrophe and disruption that followed.

Even if there were no worst case “nuclear winter” i.e. 10 years without regular sunlight (and something like that COULD happen), The effects on the Ozone would be severe. It COULD be that crops won’t grow, fishes have no foods etc.

Moreover, virtually everything you can imagine people needing food, medicine, fuel - are resources the less-developed countries be in competition with what was left of the developed world for.

Satellites, even radio in the attacked areas, would be gone. As has been noted radioactive water supplies & epidemic diseases borne by the largest migration of desperate and dying refugees mankind has ever seen, could/would lead to further disruption probably to the total breakdown of these “remote” societies.

IMO SOMETHING would survive, I think it might be closer to the Mad Max world tho, than to a small but redoubtable group of Americans building Athens on the edge of a wasteland.

Hmm, the radiation must be mutating the way my named is spelled. Anyhoo…

Thing is, I wasn’t talking about (and I don’t think the OP was talking about) trying to maintain large cities and infrastructure after WW3. My essay was based on the OP’s assumption that “one per-cent of the population managed to survive” which I took to mean isolated rural pockets. Sure, the infrastructure falls apart. But with 99% of the population dead, does it matter?

Actually, I know a few people who could certainly fix a generator and who could improvise what they don’t have. I don’t think the OP was talking about the survivors being completely without tools (if they were, this would be a much different discussion. At that stage, I’d trade an engineer for a skilled girl scout). If the survivors have access to a normal range of tools and equipment, they could do reasonably well. Heat sources will have to resort to simple wood-burning fireplaces, but a reasonable amount of rationing should allow the cars to run until enough horses can be bred to be used as transportation.

If I was among the survivors and we didn’t have an electrical engineer, we might still be okay. I’m not an engineer, but I am a technician, so I can read technical manuals and I know how to follow schematics. I don’t have to rediscover the principles of electricity. I just have to find a good book on the subject and salvage some spare parts. I would of course be highly motivated to do so. And if I had 100 people with me who were reasonably educated and hopefully not prone to panic, we could probably hang on for quite some time, reading up on procedures as we needed them. We wouldn’t be especially skillful, but we wouldn’t be completely helpless, either. I don’t believe many humans are completely helpless, even in the industrialized west. It may be fashionable to believe so, but I don’t buy it.

The big chunk of your post about “mass interactions” doesn’t really address basic survival, which would be of primary concern post-nuke. A group of reasonably industrious people can survive or even thrive because a lot of the major hurdles can be overcome. They won’t die of many common diseases because they’ll know to boil their water and they’ll know that fevers aren’t caused by demonic possession but by virusses and can be treated with warmth and fluids. Those two simple facts weren’t common knowledge as recently as 150 years ago.

Sure, national trade, communications and government would be disrupted. So what? You don’t need to be able to buy exotic foreign foods to survive, assuming some agricultural land in your area is still arable. You don’t need to have a working Congress if the nation itself has largely been toasted. And when I spoke earlier about rigging up a telephone system, it was meant at the strictly local level, so survivors could set up homesteads several miles apart (they’d need to have access to large tracts of land if their survival depends on agriculture) yet still stay in touch to share information and call for help.

Centralized? I sincerely hope not. I don’t need Ottawa to ensure my survival as a Montrealer. And if Ottawa gets blown away, I rather doubt lumber trade issues are going to be high on my priority list.

Geez, if you’re convinced that societies are so “fragile”, then I don’t want you in my enclave when the big one hits. I just want people who are reasonably hardy and optimistic. You can go down the road and link up with the Liberal Arts faction.

Bryan, in any world where economies can be killed by a simple lack of confidence in banks you sure have a rosy view of how well an organized group could survive without support systems. Rural groups of normal civilians don’t have very many actual tools or machines, let alone technical manuals. We have knowledge, true, but not where anyone could get at it if 98% of everyone was killed off and all major population centers were converted to toxic rubble.

We know to wash hands, but how many can prepare a simple vaccine? Simple enough in concept, but the specifics would kill us (literally).

We know to give liquids and bedrest to people with the flu, but how many people could treat pneumonia? I know quite a few medically-trained people, many with military field surgery experience, and I would really want them around, but very few people share their skills. Alarmingly few people know basic CPR, one of the big advances in first aid in the last thirty years (even if it isn’t as helpful as it was once thought). If you can’t treat pneumonia, a good flu could really decimate your population (viz. Spanish Flu).

My point is that knowledge is specialized. If we can pick and choose those who have useful specializations, we’d do all right (hell, maybe better than we’re doing now). If we end up with a few hundred telephone sanitizers and tax attorneys, we’re screwed.

I once read a theory that it would have been more deadly not to target cities for destruction. The idea was to knock out the enemies’ c3 structure with the use of EMP explosions. Then when their economy has collapsed and the food stops arriving in the cities, the millions of starving urban refugees will spread out and destroy the rest of the country. The idea was that if you destroyed half of the country, 90% of the population would be killed fighting for a share of the other half.

The other big question would be whether the nuclear winter theory is correct. If so, even a moderate nuclear war would be the big one. It’s hard to imagine maintaining a civilization without agriculture.

Well, there’s no point debating the issue of whether or not the survivors have tools and manuals unless the OP gives more details of his scenario. Where are the survivors? Is winter approaching? How many survivors are there? Are they injured? How much equipment has survived? Is there a library, even a small one, in their area?

And you keep describing how the big infrastructure things will collapse. I’ll just point out again that it won’t matter if infrastructure collapses because if 99% of the population is dead, why would you need a banking system?

“Very few people share their skills” ? Under the circumstances, I can’t imagine a reasonable person holding back.

Most of the common airborne infectious diseases, including pneumonia, aren’t that dangerous if the patient stays warm and dry and has plenty of clean water. The great flu epidemics of 1917-18 were helped along immensely by unsanitary conditions and impure water in the major cities. Something really bad like tuberculosis could wipe out a precarious popuation, but I don’t think even that is a gaurantee.

Okay, I’ve changed my mind. You can stay in my enclave of post-nuclear optimists. If we get desperate enough, we’ll eat you.

First off all, the nuclear weapons we have today are measured in MEGA TONS, not KILO TONS like what was dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I am not trying to reduce what happened to these two cities but those bombs ARE BABIES compared to what we have today. Those weapons were crude and primative nuclear devices by todays standards.

Also, we, the U.S., STILL have Boomers (nuclear powered, nuclear strike subs, 4 stories high) doing circles above the ocean floors loaded with Trident nuclear missles ready to surface and unleash hell-fire on everyting and everyone. They are ALL still there. They were also not going to strike against enemy targets… maybe this might be too scary for some… hmm… but also ourselves if neccesary. In order to prevent any one group from taking over the country. The U.S. Gov’t passed law (Executive Orders) ensuring that no one would take anything over… that only the U.S. Gov’t would be running things. Look 'em up. Very spooky.

Although the primary targets would be our enemies we would also take everyone else out to make sure they would not come and take over U.S. territory. And, like Russia and China, etc. We LIE LIE LIE about what we have… or, re-word, re-phrase, certain items to make them appear not really what they are. Who wouldn’t? Inaccurate information is the best misinformation. Heh.

Who really knows how many of what we have and they have exists. It’s just damn sacry any way you look at it.

On to other things…

Treating pneumonia… penicillan? That mold that grows when you leave food out? Also, I gues sit would be safe to assume that people out in the country, people who are mainly self-reliant… on anything from home reapir, keeping their truck working, basic medical stuffs, etc. So, assuming they would help us, things may get rolling pretty quickly.

Nitpick: Ninety percent cannot fight anyone but the other ten percent. 90% + 50% = 140%, which means math mutates in the presence of heavy elements.


Anyway, using humans as locusts sounds like a great plan, and one it would be very hard to counter: The only intelligent plan would be to nuke your own cities to prevent the starving masses from killing everyone. Isolate the plague. (Burke, incidentally, agrees with you: Cities only have a few days’ worth of essential suppiles and too much population density to manage without a modern infrastructure. A mass exodus from the urban centers would be disastrous, and would kill thousands, directly or indirectly.)

Fallout depends entirely on the kind of bombs and they way they were used. Airbursts, or bombs that explode in the air to maximize immediate radiation dosages and blast effects, produce little to no fallout unless they are ‘salted’ somehow (more on that later). Ground bursts, or bombs that explode close to (or beneath) the ground, produce massive amounts of fallout in the form of irradiated dirt and, in the case of cities, metals and organic chemicals and other debris our modern world lives on. Such fallout is briefly radioactive and mainly just blocks the sun, which is bad enough.

‘Salted’ bombs, also known as jacketed bombs, contain a layer of some non-fissile (fissile: produces a nuclear reaction and explodes) substance that serves to create fallout. Cobalt bombs are a prime example: They are coated with Co-59, a nonradioactive isotope of cobalt. Upon neutron bombardment, Co-59 transmutes to Co-60, a fiercely radioactive metal with a half-life of five years. Having Co-60 floating around is enough to ruin everyone’s day: Imagine radioactive atoms carried on the wind, getting into water and plant life and animals. Salted bombs have been proposed as true ‘Doomsday Devices’: Weapons that, in themselves, could end life on Earth. Given the violent nature of Co-60, I tend to agree.

‘Burke’ being James Burke, author of Connections and The Day the Universe Changed.

This discussion is bringing back memories of the first few chapers of the former.

Well, like Yogi Berra said, Nuclear War is 90% mental. The other half is physical.



Repeat that until it sinks in. We do NOT need any more superbugs from mis-prescribed antibiotics. Tricycline-resistant TB is scary enough.

Second, it’s trickier than that to find penicillin (or other beneficial molds). That’s why you should not, not, not pick your own mushrooms, or accept those picked by others. Most molds are useless. Some are toxic enough to kill your liver. Only a few are only toxic enough to kill pathogens without doing damage to you (and ask anyone who’s been on heavy-duty antibiotics how gentle they are). Leaving out some bread will, most likely, give you nothing of value, as well as a few strains potent enough to make you wish they could kill you.

He means: “Very few people have those skills.”

  1. The ballistic missile submarines do not have to surface to launch their missiles.

  2. It is ludicrous to suggest that a U.S. submarine would launch its missiles at a U.S. target, or that such an order would be given. :rolleyes:

Okay, I’ll admit I was not entirely clear. What I meant was that if you directly destroyed 50% the infrastructure in the country, you would indirectly destroy 90% of the population because of the fighting for the remaining 50% of the infrastructure.

For my next trick, I’ll explain where the missing dollar went.