Loss of Industrial Civilization
Several human-caused and natural catastrophes could cause global-scale temporary or long-term electrical grid failure. Without the electricity, the majority of industry and machinery would grind rapidly to a halt. As our current agricultural productivity depends on industry (mechanized planting/harvesting, fossil fuel based fertilizers and pesticides, etc.), many experts fear there would be mass starvation in these scenarios.
Types of Catastrophes
Multiple High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulses
If a nuclear weapon were detonated high in the atmosphere, it would trigger a high-altitude electromagnetic pulse (HEMP), which could disable electricity over part of a continent. If multiple HEMPs were detonated around the world — as a result of a nuclear world war or terrorists commandeering nuclear weapons — it wouldn’t just destroy the majority of electrical grid infrastructure globally, but also disable fossil fuel extraction, which is generally reliant on electricity.
In the past, solar storms have destroyed electrical transformers connected to long transmission lines. And within the last 2000 years, two solar storms likely occurred that were much more intense than anything modern society has endured. Therefore, an extreme solar storm could also disable electricity and industry globally.
The transmission of electricity across a power grid requires Large Power Transformers (LPTs). Because of their size and complexity, LPTs are time consuming to build and challenging to transport and replace, and the US Department of Energy worries that replacement would be extremely difficult in catastrophe scenarios. A powerful solar storm could destroy most, if not all, LPTs, potentially leaving most of the world without power for years.
Cyber attacks could also compromise the electric grids. Stuxnet was a computer virus that destroyed Iranian centrifuges to disable their nuclear industry. A computer virus may have disrupted electricity in the Ukraine. A coordinated attack on many electric grids could also disrupt industry globally.
Estimating Agricultural Productivity Given Sudden Loss of Electrical Infrastructure
Looking at pre-industrial levels of food production can help us understand and estimate the impact a disaster could have on today’s modern agricultural output. If we suddenly lose power and industry and can’t run the farm equipment, create fertilizer or pesticides, or refrigerate foods, farm production would likely drop to around pre-industrial levels.
Preindustrial agriculture produced about 60% less food per acre than the current global average, which implies that up to 60% of people would starve without industry. Productivity could still be higher than pre-industrial levels — thanks to things like our increased knowledge of natural fertilizers and pesticides. But productivity could be lower because of the sudden loss of industry. We assume a full 60% drop. However, we have good reason to believe that there are steps that society can take — at both individual and government levels — to make sure most people are still able to eat enough to survive.
- Grains make up about half (~1.9 billion tons per year of ~3.8 total billion tons per year dry weight) of the calories currently produced. Modern farm machinery has enabled fewer farms to grow more food, but we could still harvest grains by hand or animal-pulled equipment if we lost access to electricity and fossil fuels. However, this also means more people would have to contribute to the farming process.
- Studies on food loss in developed countries show that the majority of food losses occur at the consumer and food service level. This points to a few loss reduction solutions:
At the food service level, sell or give away food that is close to going bad, even at reduced prices.
At the production level, package or preserve food products in ways that give them longer shelf lives.
- Reduce human edible food to livestock. Unnecessary livestock can be slaughtered and the meat can be preserved through drying. This would both provide people an increased short-term supply of meat, and it would free up more of the grains that are currently fed to livestock. Necessary livestock can be fed discarded food scraps and foods that humans can’t digest. .
- As drying the meat from the unnecessary livestock will be a labor-intensive process, communities will have to come together to help farmers prepare and preserve meat. Drying meat has the additional benefit of making it easier to transport.
- Draft animals (horses, cows, or other animals that can pull a plow) can be eaten at the end of their working lifetime. Draft animals certainly still require food, but can be fed with agricultural residues not edible to humans, like leaves (possibly after we extract some human food from the leaves) left over from some crops. The high number of draft animals in existence (about 1.4 billion cattle in the world) means that some could be used for transportation. Excess draft animals could be raised for food by grazing on land that is not easily farmable.
Fertilizer is extremely important to crop yield, but current agricultural production depends on fossil fuels for much of our fertilizer. Fertilizer production and distribution would be limited in a catastrophe, but local solutions can help mitigate losses. The fertilizers we focus on are potassium, phosphorus, and nitrogen.
|Burning construction waste from landfills||Ash high in potassium, but low in phosphorus|
|Burning plywood, particle board, and orientated strand board from excess or old housing||Ash high in potassium, but low in phosphorus; burn completely to ensure binding agents are broken down|
|Waste material from leaf to food conversion*||Phosphorous, nitrogen|
|Planting legumes (beans, peas, peanuts etc.) next to other crops||Bacteria in roots fix nitrogen in the soil|
|Human and animal waste||Nitrogen, phosphorus|
Adjusting to farming without electricity will require pre-industrial tools such as plows. Making tools from iron or wood from landfills is a feasible option. Many farmers are resourceful and will have the know-how to create such tools, but we’ll need to see a significant increase in people helping on farms, and many of these people will need to learn pre-industrial farming methods..
Draft animals can be used in conjunction with tools to perform many farming tasks. Once plows and draft animals are fully implemented, a single farmer could feed many people, but it would likely take months after a catastrophe to get enough farms converted.
Transportation will be reduced with less access to electricity and fossil fuels, but moving food to areas with the most need and moving people to places with labor shortages would be an important part of feeding everyone.
Corporations and governments would have the resources to retrofit ships with sails and rudders. Skysails (kites that extend on cables higher than normal sails) could propel large ships. For transporting food on land, draft animals could pull train cars or modified road vehicles. Transportation would be more difficult than currently, so growing and distributing food locally should be done as much as possible.
Relocation of People
Pre-industrial productivity on currently farmed land would not quite feed everyone on each continent with no trade. With other food options considered below, there would not need to be any movement of people between continents. However, we would need to move people out of the deserts (or move food to them). Transportation without industry is easiest on water, and could be achieved from coastal desert cities like Los Angeles and Dubai by wind powered ships. Meanwhile, on land, cow-pulled railcars could transport people and food.
Expanding Planting Area:
In extreme scenarios where current land use is insufficient to supply food, deforestation could expand the amount of farmable land. Without industry, removing trees could be done by girdling, which involves removing a circle of bark all the way around the base of the tree. This kills the tree. After the trees dry out, in about a year, they can be burned to clear land. This brings an added risk of the fires getting out of hand and putting a large amount of smoke in the atmosphere. But it could potentially triple food output.
At the local, corporate, and government scales, the U.S. and the world need to be prepared to create food in the case of a large scale disaster — and preferably before a disaster occurs. A regional loss of industry (such as one HEMP) is far more likely than a global one and the techniques mentioned above could be applied regionally as well.
Preparation by strengthening electrical grids against solar storms and HEMPs and having security practices that reduce the likelihood of coordinated cybersecurity attack can reduce the risk of grid failure. However, these would likely cost about 1000 times as much as preparing to feed everyone if industrial civilization is lost. And until the world’s electric grids have been strengthened, it’s best to have a plan for food production in the case of disaster.
ALLFED has begun research on technical solutions for food production in disasters, but there is more work to be done. Governments and communities need a better understanding of what the risks are and how food can be grown and transported in the event of a disaster. And more experiments are necessary to establish better data on the amount of food that groups can produce given various resources and techniques. A global network of shortwave (HAM) radio transmitters and receivers would allow coordination globally. Improving knowledge and infrastructure is key to preparing for global catastrophes.
With planning and preparation, we can increase the chance that we feed everyone even if industrial civilization collapses.
Feeding Everyone if Industry is Disabled
D.D. Cole, D. Denkenberger, M. Griswold, M. Abdelkhaliq, J. Pearce.
Proceedings of the 6th International Disaster and Risk Conference, Davos, Switzerland, 2016.
M. Abdelkhaliq, D. Denkenberger, D.D. Cole, M. Griswold, J. Pearce. Proceedings of the 6th International Disaster and Risk Conference, Davos, Switzerland, 2016.