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North and South America totally cut off from world trade for years in modern times. No intercontinental except between the two. Would there be any current technology that couldn't be made due to lack of resources, or would they be self-sustained? Just resource-wise, geographically, and technologically, not politically or socially.

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    $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Sep 3 at 3:42
  • $\begingroup$ Two questions: 1. Are islands like Cuba or Puerto Rico included in "North and South America"? 2. Can N. and S. America still trade over sea routes or are they restricted to land routes? $\endgroup$ – Dragongeek Sep 3 at 22:20

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So international trade with the USA is just wacky; eg 6 Of Top 10 U.S. Imports Are Also Top 10 Exports

Many things we worry about day to day will be fine - USA is essentially self sufficient for many things, when South America is included in the trade bubble you're almost perfect. Oil, petrol, most rare metals: all fine. The biggest things it will lack will be:

  • Tech heavy Asian manufacturing. (Most of these industries will probably slowly return to Americas, some given to Americans, some low skill or high risk ones outsourced to Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, but you won't get all of them).
  • Bangladeshi (and neighbors') clothing sweat shops (Fast fashion will be over. This will also move to South America, but they wont be able to match the disposable fashion America currently enjoys).
  • A place to dump low-quality recyclables. You're going to have to recycle your own products, which means you're going to have to sort properly. No more mixing oily pizza boxes and clean white paper into one bin, bailing it up, and shipping it to the third world as "Low grade recyclables".
  • Cobalt, needed for Li-Ion batteries. Mostly comes from Congo. Also Russia, Australia, Philippines, Madagascar, PNG, South Africa, Morocco. Some small deposits in Cuba and Canada, but you've lost 99% of the world's supply.
  • The USA is the world's largest exporter of weapons. By making more than needed, and selling those extras to friendly countries the world over, the unit cost of a brand new fighter jet can be halved. If this cost doubles, weapons manufacturers will be less profitable.
  • Illegal, cheap, or generic drugs. Heroin and Opium come from Afghanistan. (Cocaine, Weed, and Meth will remain available). Fentanyl mostly comes from China and India. Most "buy cheap drugs online" sites ship from India. USA can start making their own drugs, but they'll cost the American price.
  • The USA's space program will be too risky to continue - they need a few emergency landing sites scattered over the planet just in case, and if they can't get the crew and ship back, they can't use it.
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    $\begingroup$ Colombia can probably cover the cocaine and weed? $\endgroup$ – sabik Sep 1 at 7:50
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    $\begingroup$ The return of astronauts is probably not classified under trade xD Otherwise great answer! $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm Sep 1 at 7:54
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    $\begingroup$ Cobalt is rarely the primary product of mining operations; most cobalt is produced as a byproduct of copper and nickel extraction. As it happens, Chile, which is a major producer of copper, seems set to develop its cobalt sector. (And anyway, Cuba and Canada have ample proven cobalt reserves. What's missing is an incentive to compete with Congo.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 1 at 9:51
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    $\begingroup$ One notes that if you are indeed totally cut off, you have less need for weaponry. $\endgroup$ – Mary Sep 1 at 12:45
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    $\begingroup$ @Mary history does not bear that out. Europe had no difficulty fighting amongst themselves before the Americas were discovered, and indeed there have been plenty of wars purely between combatants based in the Americas. Also, I don't have anything other than anecdotes to prove it, but I also suspect that when there are no distant rivals to fight, countries tend to instead fight rivals closer to home - I know my own country became a mess of small warring kingdoms after the fall of the roman empire. $\endgroup$ – James_pic Sep 1 at 14:24
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Location sites for filming historical and fantasy dramas. The Americas are very short of buildings, villages and towns that look like they’re in mediaeval or even early modern Europe, and European locations are still a lot cheaper and better than using CGI, or such shows wouldn’t be filmed on location at present.

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Phosphates, and with them the ability to produce plant foods in anything like the quantities we currently do.

I've seen estimates projecting a drop of as much as 90% when the world's known phosphate reserves (Morocco and China) run out. (Morocco runs out in perhaps 40 years, then the Chinese hegomony of the world begins and runs for 60-ish years. Then we go back to 1900 population levels.) Whatever the exact drop turns out to be, it will be powerfully significant.

Everything else is just details and first world problems when there is so little food for so many people.

At least our soldiers could die for something mor edifying than crude oil... batsh_t. Guano. Congressional Medals of Honor citations including lines like "His actions secured 800 tons of batsh_t for America. He will be remembered."

(Seriously, though, this is incredibly important and not just to this question. Something to think about so perhaps your grandchildren don't have to.)

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    $\begingroup$ If you could cite some of these with links that would be helpful. $\endgroup$ – rek Sep 1 at 17:21
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    $\begingroup$ Phosphates are neither rare, nor expensive. The USA has one billion tons of proven reserves of phosphates. and Morocco has fifty billion tons of reserves. When this reserves will be exhausted, in about 400 years from now, the price of phosphate rocks will increase from dirt cheap to almost dirt cheap, and at that new price we have reserves for a very long time. (When reading about such things, it is important to understand that in this context "reserves" means "we know it is there and we can extract it profitably at current market prices". Reserves increase as prices increase.) $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 1 at 23:52
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    $\begingroup$ To put this in perspective: the current reserves are estimated based on the assumption that it is profitable to extract phosphates only if the raw rocks in the deposit have more than 3.7% phosphorus in them (that is, about 20% of the brute rock is phosphate mineral). If market prices were a little higher, exploitation of deposits with 10% phosphate mineral will become competitive, and those are aplenty. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 1 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ To put AlexP's comment in context/perspective, the same thing was true of oil. Oil reserves were "running out". IE, the stuff that was profitable at the current market prices. Market price went up, and suddenly (also due to some tech advances) shale oil became profitable. Suddenly, we have a lot more oil available! (Price has since dropped and it was no longer profitable.) $\endgroup$ – JKreft Sep 2 at 0:58
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    $\begingroup$ So basically the economy would go batshit crazy? $\endgroup$ – user253751 Sep 2 at 12:12
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After long enough, a lot would change, although just a few years might not have that much of an impact.

Two recent examples were Albania and North Korea, which each continually degraded over fifty years of self-isolation from international trade. In the case of North Korea v. South Korea we have a very clear comparison to societies that diverged enormously from a common starting point in the 1950s.

Historical examples need not be limited to small countries either. China and Japan, respectively, fell far behind in economic vibrancy and technology after prolonged period of isolation from the world economy.

On the other hand, the U.S. could reasonably expect not to fall as far as Afghanistan, which in the early 1970s, was relatively prosperous and modernized. But it is now the least developed country outside of Africa, mostly because its whole society has been ground down by four decades of civil wars with only brief interludes of peace.

The U.S. is big and advanced and has diverse resources, so it could manage reasonably well in the short term. But, for example, the U.S. economy depends heavily on imports of cheap foreign goods which account for a majority of manufactured goods in the United States.

It isn't that the U.S. isn't capable of building sophisticated goods like microchips or navigation systems with rare earth metals. Economics rarely operates in an all or nothing manner. Instead, manufactured goods, pretty much across the board would become more expensive relative to services - basically unwinding the last 50 years of economic restructuring in the U.S. economy.

U.S. tech industries would lose the constant influx of foreign graduate students in STEM fields and the lateral hires from foreign countries in tech and medical fields that are crucial to productivity growth in the U.S.

Further, competition calibrated to a global economy and then reduced to a merely U.S. economy, would be greatly reduced. Imagine what U.S. highways would look like if the only U.S. carmakers still in business were General Motors, Ford and Tesla, and furthermore if General Motors and Ford had to slash their design budgets and HQ operations because the rump companies would only be serving the U.S. market, rather than the global or even North American market.

Pretty much across the board, product innovation would plummet and the number of choices would be far fewer for every kind of product.

In the grocery store, in good times, there wouldn't be much difference in the produce section except higher prices since harvesting, etc. would have to be done with entirely domestic labor. The U.S. is narrowly a net exporter of agricultural goods. But the "net" in this case conceals a lot. Fruits and vegetables would see prices vary much more dramatically between times when they are in season in the U.S. and times when they are out of season in the U.S. and can only be grown in greenhouses or from food stored from previous seasons. Likewise, adverse weather in a place where a particular crop is grown - cotton in the Southeast, citrus in Florida and Southern California, Pineapples in Hawaii, Cranberries in Maine, potatoes in Idaho, wine grapes in Northern California, etc. would have a much more intense effect on what you would see in stories, usually for an entire year at a time.

Technologies that the U.S. hadn't adopted at the time of the break might be widely adopted everywhere else in the world and yet not in theU U.S.

For example, China is a world leader in fabricating large components of high rises in factories and then assembling them on site in a matter of days while it takes a year or two to do the same thing building from smaller components in the U.S. This Chinese construction method might become common place everywhere else in the world, while the U.S. continues to use slower, more costly, less safe to workers, and lower quality control, status quo methods for construction.

Another big change would be in population growth. The U.S. birthrate is about 15% less than the replacement rate without immigration, and immigration also, on average, keeps the age pyramid of the U.S. population from getting too top heavy, providing young people to carry the economic burdens that retirees and elderly workers cannot on their own. As the cost of living grows, since the U.S. would no longer be benefitting from cheap imports (and generically, all imports are cheap relative to domestic made goods, otherwise we wouldn't import them), people start to have even smaller families, and in short order, the U.S. is seeing its population decline as fast as countries like South Korea, Japan and Italy.

Lack of population growth, a greatly reduced pace of technological innovation (and with it the pace of productivity growth), and non-monetarily driven inflation for a huge swath of goods, would shift the U.S. economy from one in which it is a bull market most of the time (as measured by GDP growth rates) to one in which the U.S.is in a recession most of the time and economic growth becomes the exception rather than the norm. Over a period of a couple of decades it would rival COVID-19 or the Great Depression, and would almost surely be worse than the Financial Crisis of ca. 2008-2009.

This would not impact all socio-economic classes equally. For example, U.S. STEM professionals would see a huge surge in their economic clout and incomes because a huge swath of the imported labor supply would be shut off going forward.

Middle skilled technicians would likewise benefit from a huge surge in manufacturing employment as everything once imported has to be made locally or not consumed. Maybe the number of manufacturing jobs would double. But the low skilled manufacturing jobs of the 1950s wouldn't return to the economy because early 21st century manufacturing has so heavily automated low skilled manufacturing jobs, or at least, served as a "force multiplier" that allows one manufacturing worker to do the work of half a dozen or a dozen workers in earlier years, even when the work itself isn't necessarily all that much more skilled.

North and South America totally cut off from world trade for years in modern times. No intercontinental except between the two.

Depending upon the reason that North and South America are cut off from world trade, South America could end up almost as isolated from North America, as the Americas were from the rest of the world.

There is no functional equivalent of North America's transcontinental freight train system, the Mississippi River barge system, or even first rate highways comparable to U.S. interstate highways to deliver cargo in large volumes from South America to North America by land.

If world trade has ceased because oceanic sea travel, and long distance travel over oceans and seas by air, is not longer possible for some reason, this slows the exchange of cargo and people from the United States, beyond Central America to a trickle, destroying the benefits (especially in agricultural goods) of trans-hemispheric trade. High value to weight goods might still be traded (along with a decent number of immigrants and information). But bulk freight would be incredibly attenuated.

Also, if oceanic sea travel was not possible, the Caribbean islands (which rely for daily survival on tourism and sea based imports over the Gulf of Mexico), oceanic fishing, and coastal oil drilling would be no more.

On the plus side, if the changes were effectively permanent, the U.S. could dramatically curtail its defense budget, shifting resources from guns to butter. And, if some sort of telecommunications were possible between the Americas and the outside world, the technological losses would be far less and remote learning could even preserve a lot of higher education serving foreign students.

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Right now we have a globalized economy with global supply chains. Stuff is sourced where it is cheapest, and often there are just a few factories, worldwide. That means even if the US could make something, they're not doing it right now.

  • The US is importing highly specialized machine tools. They're also exporting highly specialized machine tools. One shipment cannot replace the other.
  • Look where semiconductors are made and in which quantity. Yes, there are fabs in the US. But do they make enough?

How long to turn that trend back, and to reconstitute regional manufacturing? And can it all be reconstituted at the same time?

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    $\begingroup$ The time frame matters a lot. In a few month time frame, we could make do with delayed deliveries. In a one to three year time horizon, an inability to import certain highly specialized machine tools and semiconductors is a big deal since backlogs of supplies run out, more existing units fail and there isn't time to build new factories. In a five year or more time horizon, these concerns become a lot less pressing, because new factories can be built. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 1 at 22:12
  • $\begingroup$ Many of the US fabs are far more specialized than the "general purpose digital" fabs that dominate the Far Eastern fab market; these specialized fabs are important as many analog and power parts still can't be made on "bog standard" digital CMOS, but generally aren't very good at making dense logic, either. $\endgroup$ – Shalvenay Sep 4 at 2:12
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In the short term the Americas would have a shortage of a number of common items. I'm thinking things like lightbulbs, certain clothing items, some high tech electronics, certain minerals and other raw material. Long term though the Americas would not be in a lack of anything. The US military has a policy of sourcing everything domestically and so a great many items needed to clothe, feed, and indeed arm, a military is a matter of making do with perhaps items that in a time of greater trade would be discarded and replaced rather than repaired.

One thing to look to in how this might work is to look at the USA during World War 2. That war made overseas shipment for anything other than war materials impossible. People had to do with apples and strawberries instead of bananas and oranges. Sugar was in short supply. Fuel was in short supply but this was more about the need to use it in fighting a war than any shortage of shipments or supply. Today we can produce all the energy we need but it's simply cheaper to export oil from Alaska to Japan and import from Brazil to Texas than to ship Alaskan oil to refineries in Texas.

We have the ability to produce electronics domestically but the best and fastest electronics are from Asia. It would take years to build such facilities in the Americas. This means existing computers, cell phones and the like would become quite valuable. Also from overseas are many photovoltaic cells. Solar power would revert to the realm of pocket calculators rather than being on rooftops. With the abundance of energy from wind, coal, uranium, petroleum, and hydro this would have little effect on the price or availability of energy.

My concern would not be over what the Americas would lack but how long it would take to adapt, and that adaptation would only start once people realized that overseas shipping was indeed going to be unavailable for a very long time. After that it's a matter of some things being more expensive than before, and perhaps some becoming cheaper since the USA exports a lot of products. This means the rest of the world would likely be far worse off than the Americas, as an example the Americas export a lot of food and refined fuel.

The Middle East might have a lot of petroleum but they don't have much in refining capability. This could mean diesel fuel being very cheap in the Americas and being quite rare elsewhere. Large engines (like in a ship or power plant), boilers and heaters (residential and industrial) aren't all too picky on the quality of the fuel so they can run on the minimally processed crude we see from the Middle East. With some work a large diesel engine in something like a truck or tractor can run on this stuff. What won't work, at least for very long, are small gasoline engines, aircraft, and other items that need "clean" fuel to burn. The USA will keep flying but the rest of the world might not.

The large and varied economies in the USA, Canada, Mexico, and Brazil are highly self sufficient right now and so losing overseas trade will mean mostly that certain "luxuries" are lost to the average consumer. The basics of food, fuel, clothing, and shelter would see minimal disruptions as supply and demand for given commodities find a new balance. This means people that like tea might have to drink coffee instead. Buildings might use more concrete and brick instead of wood and drywall. I'd think the rest of the world losing access to the bananas, coffee, refined fuels, and other commodities that are quite unique to the Americas could mean big problems for the rest of the world. By not being able to export them that means they'd become cheaper where they can be sold.

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No one mentioned the lack of human resources. People are one of the most valuable assets in our world. If the Americas are cut off from the world one of the major problem would be not the lack of existing manufacturing and natural resources but lack of people.

Modern civilisation relies on high specialisation, high population density, and a large population that can supply enough manpower to fill all necessary positions. The Americas have a little bit less than 1 billion people. It is not entirely clear if this is enough to sustain current technological levels.

It also might be impossible to build industries that the Americas do not have now due to the lack of specialists in corresponding fields. It is not enough to have enough food and natural resources to keep modern lifestyles. Those resources need to be extracted, refined, processed, and manufactured into goods. Each of these steps requires skilled workers and the presence of specific technologies.

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The answer here depends strongly on how this end of all trade is organized and how quickly it is imposed. If this happens slowly (think over a few years) and even afterwards people can still fly around and see how things are made, Ashs answer is very good, the effect might not be that bad.

If on the other hand you have some kind of major event which stops all phsyical trade right now so that afterwards only phone/ internet contact from the Americas to the rest of the world is possible, then both parts of the world will fall back to the technology level of say the end of world war II and only slowly over a few decades come back to where we are now. Any high tech good that exists today involves manufacturing steps and knowledge spread out all over the world.

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Luxuries

The America's has quite a lot of resources. It can conceivably create anything. Even if some resources become less or are absent, there are probably acceptable alternatives. Phosphor as an example. They mine their own, but as far as I know they import a lot for fertilisers. With less, you'll just have less produce per field, increasing the price. Certain kinds of steel aren't made in large enough quantities right now in the USA and America, but they can create their own over time or substitute with different steel.

But it's not just products. Knowledge is imported often. Sea and water projects, new kinds of concrete, different solar panels etc. All this now has to be done on the continent, meaning you need to have a larger highly educated population or lose quality.

In the end some products get cheap, as with no export there is a lot of supply. But my guess is that most (luxury) products get more expensive and might experience a drop in quality. I would sum up the lack of resources as thus:

  • certain knowledge
  • (cheap) mass labour
  • many types of fabricated resources
  • a few rare resources (not necessarily lacking, but at least reduced)
  • many cheap products
  • many cheap luxury
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    $\begingroup$ No cheap mass labor in the Americas? What about Mexico and Brazil? $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 1 at 9:59
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP you have cheap labour there, but is it enough? Lacking means nothing or short supply. And would they accept being only cheap work horses? They might actually capitalise on it and ask higher prices, as the richer countries have no where to go. Thus it wouldn't be the cheap labour they could previously get. Supply and demand etc. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane Sep 1 at 10:11
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    $\begingroup$ The result of losing cheap mass labor is automation, which is already in progress. This just hurries it a bit. $\endgroup$ – Mary Sep 1 at 12:47
  • $\begingroup$ Knowledge is imported? Sea and water projects we can't reproduce? Concrete? (I've never seen concrete that wasn't delivered from a local gravel pit.) You're not being specific. Please be specific. What, specifically, cannot be replaced or done without if the western hemisphere were cut off from the Eastern. The answer, of course, is nothing at all. Costs might go up (temporarily until the economy adjusted), but the OP want's to know what can't be replaced or ignored. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 1 at 14:03
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH You are ignoring the time scales required for capitalism to "adjust". For high tech products, that could be anything from 5 to 50 years. I'll give you a quote from a senior executive at Boeing, from 30 years ago: "The problem is, we don't have any employees left who actually know how to design a completely new airplane because it's so long since we last did it". (And the shambles of the 787 battery fires and the 737-Max grounding, ongoing for 18 months now, proved him right, of course). $\endgroup$ – alephzero Sep 1 at 14:35
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Most critically, young people.

The US economy was once self sufficient and they would be able to produce most goods domestically or transition to alternatives if it were necessary. Of course it would be costly and economically tumultuous but the labour shortage in the long term would be far worse.

What they can’t replace is their workforce. An aging population is a serious issue. Countries with low rates of immigration (Japan, South Korea, Mainland China) are on the brink of economic crisis. Healthcare and Pension costs are rising and the number of taxpayers to cover it is shrinking. People have less children to care for them when they’re older too. Overall this creates a higher problem for society and the economy.

The only reason that western countries are not facing the same crisis is decades of immigration. The US, Canada, Australia, and European countries all also have low birth rates and smaller families. They difference is higher rates of immigration from countries with higher birthrate. Without this influx of young people workers to train and pay taxes, America would also be in trouble. In the long term this crisis would shape the politics of an isolated nation.

This isn’t just talented workers for high paying jobs in Silicon Valley. Countries with low birthrate and low immigration are facing an unprecedented crisis. They don’t have enough young people trained in trades. They don’t have enough graduates for entry level positions of office work. Older people cannot retire as there is no one to replace them. Japan is considering raising the age of retirement as high as 80 years old. The government doesn’t have enough tax revenue to pay their debts.

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Rare Earths (Magnets and similar)

Approximately 80% of the world's rare earths are produced by China. Cut off that supply, and much of modern technology becomes impossible, or impractcal.

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    $\begingroup$ Please prove that it would be impossible to meet the western hemisphere's needs if the supply is cut off. The fact that 80% of the supply is produced by China today does not mean that 80% of the supply is only available in China. It only means that it's cheaper via China. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 1 at 19:38
  • $\begingroup$ Background on supply chains of rare earths. fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/R41347.pdf $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 1 at 22:19
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    $\begingroup$ Pages 13-14 of the link indicate the US has lost not only production capacity, but has lacked refining and now also lacks intellectual know-how to get the material from the mine into a usable form. The study further details efforts to change this, but it's unclear how far (if at all) we've progressed. As it stands based on the document (from 2013), if supply were suddenly cut off, the US would have a very hard time picking it up in a reasonable time frame. Refining capacity just doesn't exist any more, and recreating it would take years. In the meantime, the tech sector is dead in the water. $\endgroup$ – Joel Coehoorn Sep 1 at 23:01
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The answer is strongly depends on circumstances. However, if some country being cut from international trade it leads to replacing this country on international market by another countries. For example if US get banned from international oil market, Russia or China will take the place. Even if we consider country is strongly self-sufficient, it's good to be on the market because it gives you additional money.

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Welcome to Worldbuilding.

Normally with a question like this I'd post a comment explaining that Stack Exchange uses a one-specific-question/one-best-answer model and that fishing-for-ideas or infinite list of things questions like this aren't a good fit.

Except, to be honest, the only practical answer to this question is "not a darn thing."

There is no fundamental resource needed, useful, or necessary for life not found in the Americas and we can live without French fashion, Russian vodka, and real Chinese food without consequence.

With the possible exception of common sense. At least the U.S. is missing a bit of that right now, I think. Maybe British TV, too. At least some of us would die without our Dr. Who fix.

Keep in mind that it's plausible that specific but otherwise unnecessary items could be lost. Specific kinds of fish only found in the eastern hemisphere, or specific kinds of wood only found in Africa. But those don't count as a "resource" in my book. As I said, they're unnecessary — luxuries that can be easily replaced by something else. And that assumes that they're not already in the western hemisphere, in zoos or other conservatories, and available for commercial exploitation production — meaning if the western hemisphere were cut off from the eastern, we'd have all that, too.

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    $\begingroup$ That's interesting, the system automatically removes phrases like "Hello Tom." Huh. I didn't know it did that. Oh well... Hello, Tom! $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 1 at 6:11
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not sure if it's that simple. With the trade disputes we already saw the USA was lacking a certain type of steel in cheap and large quantities. How about cheap clothing? I think what the whole of Americas will lack is a lot of different cheap luxuries, as the south will probably not accept just being cheap labour for the USA and Canada. $\endgroup$ – Trioxidane Sep 1 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Oh, yes it is. If we were cut off the market would simply adjust. Capitalism always utilizes the least cost for the most profit. It would simply rebalance itself and move forward (and South America already is cheap labor for the U.S. and Canada... farm workers and construction labor, household services, as a publisher, I had books printed in Mexico because they were cheaper than China.) $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 1 at 14:00
  • $\begingroup$ didn't you ever see the American Dr. Huh? .... :) $\endgroup$ – CGCampbell Sep 1 at 17:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Trioxidane Everything we import today was made here in the past, back before free trade changed the economics, and we could presumably do so again—though the adjustment period may be ugly. $\endgroup$ – StephenS Sep 1 at 17:50

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