There has always been a lot of speculation about what a post-disaster world would look like. I remember reading books 40 years ago, where the author tried to grapple with the idea of a world after a nuclear war. Through the ensuing years, each potential disaster has brought its own flock of such books, as author after author tried to peer into the future and see what it might reveal to them.
This goes on today, too. One of the biggest potential risks that we face now is similar to the one we faced in the Cold War: that of thermonuclear weapons. But there’s a huge difference now. Rather than taking the hearts out of American cities with their nuclear-tipped missiles, our enemies would be better served to use them to create an EMP, destroying the electrical grid and all our electronic devices.
Looking at this potential disaster, many a writer has equated the post-EMP world to the 1800s, the time before Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse electrified our world. The analogy is simple. Remove electricity and the world should be like it was before electricity changed the world. But the analogy is wrong.
There are a number of key areas where we aren’t ready to live in an 1800s world, and that’s what causes the analogy to break down. Without the proper preparation, you and I aren’t really ready to do things the way our great-great-grandparents did them. The world has changed in many fundamental ways, and removing electricity from the world won’t just turn the clock back.
There are countless areas in which we have lost the knowledge that our ancestors possessed. How many blacksmiths do you know? But the blacksmith was a central figure in any 1800s community. How about icemen who cut ice in the winter and delivered in the summertime? Seen any of them lately?
We can even find our knowledge lacking in areas where we think that our knowledge has surpassed that of the 1800s. Take medicine, for example. Today’s doctor depends heavily on a multitude of tests and the complex equipment that makes them possible. They spend little time with their patients, examining and talking to them. But when that fancy equipment and the tests they can accomplish are removed, will doctors still be able to diagnose their patients’ problems? Perhaps not.
People in the 1800s were hardier than we are today, with the average person being in much better physical shape than we are. That’s not because they spent a lot of time in the gym, either. Working out in the gym produces artificial strength that’s focused on specific movements. Rather, their strength and vitality came from back-breaking physical work.
Some of the strongest weightlifters likely would get injured doing the physical work they did back then, simply because they haven’t trained for it. Their great strength is stylized — for lifting, not for working. Swinging an axe or building a hay pile is different than lifting.
Another way that their physical activity helped them is in fighting obesity and the diseases it causes. While there were people who were overweight, they were an aberration, not the norm. So high blood pressure, diabetes and other diet- and weight-related diseases were rare.
The main motive power in the 1800s was animal power. Everyone owned horses. Farms were cultivated with horses or oxen; people rode horses and used wagons for transportation. Horses even were used to provide power for industry — harnessed to a horizontal wheel, which drove overhead axles to power machine shops and other industrial facilities.
There just aren’t enough horses available today for us to go back to the 1800s; most people would end up using manpower to do their work. Travel would be limited and would mostly be on foot. It would take decades for enough horses to be bred to provide for the need.
The other motive power used extensively in the 1800s was water power. Much of the localized industry was powered by waterwheels, especially grain mills and sawmills. While these could be built once again, it would take time to figure out how to build them and then a considerable amount of hard work to accomplish the task.
Today’s commerce is purely interstate and international. Little of what any of us use is locally produced. Once transportation comes grinding to a standstill, that commerce would stop. We would be limited to being able to buy or trade for only things which are locally produced.
Yet the average community has little local production of any products. Cottage industry has been replaced by mega-industry — major manufacturing corporations producing huge quantities of those items. Once again, reestablishing those cottage industries is possible, but it will take time and effort to learn how to build the necessary equipment. The difficulty of that will be compounded by the fact that it has to be done with manual tools.
Power tools essentially didn’t exist back in the 1800s. Drill presses existed, but they were either powered manually or by animal power. The electric drill, which has become so common in our world of tools today, was actually invented for use in Henry Ford’s factory, which wasn’t until the early 1900s.
While manual tools still exist today, few people have them. We are highly dependent on our power tools, both at home and at work. But worse than that, we don’t have the skill to use them properly. Whereas a cabinetmaker in the 1800s could miter a board with a back saw and miter box and get a tight fit, few of us can do so today. We’ve not only lost the manual tools, but the finesse to use them to their maximum.
Society in general was much more decentralized in the 1800s because it was an agricultural society. Although the industrial revolution started in the 1700s, it took time for it to catch on. Massive commercialized farms were an invention of the later 1900s; before then, a much larger portion of the population was employed on family farms.
What this means is that there was much more local food production than there is today. Family farms also grew a greater variety of food, combining fields of grain with garden plots to raise vegetables for their own consumption and to sell in town. Vegetables didn’t come from Southern California or Florida; they were locally grown.
Today, those who live in the city may go their whole life without seeing a farm, and if they do see one, it will probably be one of those commercialized mega-farms, with miles and miles of the same crops. Those will not be very useful in a post-disaster world, where the factories that turned that grain into usable food products will lay silent.
We are an information-based society, with everyone connected all the time. That would be one of the first things we would notice missing. Even if our cell phones survived the EMP (which is quite possible), the network they depend on wouldn’t. Communications would revert to verbal only, with those who live nearby.
Even shipping and postage, things that they had in the 1800s, would be curtailed. Without airplanes and over-the-road trucks, there is no real way for the Post Office, FedEx, UPS or any other shipping company to get letters and packages from point A to point B.
What do you think a post-disaster world would be like? Share your thoughts in the section below: