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I've created an alternate Earth where recurring G5 geomagnetic storms have eliminated the use of electricity. This means no major manufacturing and no shipping of everything from basic household supplies to food to medicines. The second book starts 30 years after the event, so how hard would it be to get common things like pens, paper, ink, thread, fabric etc.?

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    $\begingroup$ "G5 geomagnetic storms have eliminated the use of electricity" . . . only if some supernatural supervilain has also made all engineers into idiots. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 4, 2022 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ What exactly does "eliminated the use of electricity" mean? Brief downtime? Destroyed hardware? Permanent inability to use electrical equipment? Something else? Hard to answer sensibly without knowing that. $\endgroup$
    – BillOnne
    Dec 4, 2022 at 18:45
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    $\begingroup$ Our brains and nervous systems are also electricity based. Are you saying everyone is dead? $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Dec 5, 2022 at 3:12
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    $\begingroup$ There could be plenty of shipping - it might be noticeably more difficult/expensive than now, but I'm not sure a steam ship needs any electrical parts, never mind a sailing ship. Even with no electrical technology at all you're only back to the 1800s and there was plenty of shipping then. But the question may be how quickly can they start rebuilding technology that doesn't need electricity. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Dec 5, 2022 at 8:28
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    $\begingroup$ Did you intend to use the 'post-scarcity' tag? It seems at odds with your setting of survival and post-apocalypse. $\endgroup$
    – quarague
    Dec 5, 2022 at 10:41

8 Answers 8

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Your civilization could start to rebuild technology inside of Faraday cages. This would be difficult, but inside the faraday cage, the electronics could be protected.

If the geomagnetic storms are frequent enough, they could also use them to generate electricity. For example during the Carrington event, telegraph operators noticed they could disconnect their batteries from the telegraph lines and still communicate. Of course, they also have sparking at the telegraph keys.

With out electricity, you are kind of back to the 1880's when a lot of looms and machinery were water powered and really very large factories were built for textiles. Similarly, steam power was used.

For other things you are probably 1940's to 1950's. I think that if you look at combustion engines carefully, and diesel engines, while electronics can help with the timing and efficiency that you can have gas powered motors. Similarly, if you have a motive force, you can still probably rig up things like vertical mills and lathes for machining. You can still probably get high tolerances, but it is much less convenient without electronic indictors.

The collapse, social issues and lack of people with knowlege is where a lot of the problems in implementing technology will come from. But if you had a group of engineers and scientists, and a place where they have some resources, or ability to scavenge source materials, I think a lot could be done, but everything would be much more expensive in terms of time to make, and in the number of things that could be made.

But a large steam powered plow (there are examples from the 1900's-1920's) can do the work of many horses, and the steam engine can also make other things like threshing grain much easier and such items would become community assets.

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  • $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that a lot of equipment already exists inside faraday cages, sometimes entire buildings are shielded for defense or security purposes. See for example NATO program codenamed TEMPEST or MILSTD-188-125-1. Even a powerful "surprise" geomagnetic storm would not knock out all technology as we know it, so the rebuilders would not be starting from scratch. $\endgroup$
    – David
    Dec 6, 2022 at 17:11
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It depends on how hard civilization crashes.

Your scenario means a lot of people starving. Before they starve they will go looking for food. There are a lot of weapons on Earth. People will fight. It will be bad.

30 years later there will be a lot less people. Clearly one can have fabric because in 1850 the economy did not use electricity but people definitely wore frilly bloomers. And thread; much thread. But if the collapse takes humanity back to the stone age subsistence farming, 30 years will be too soon.

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    $\begingroup$ Assuming that these storms had been occurring regularly since the beginning of recorded history, society would have gone in a completely different direction after 1870 or so. So there wouldn't have been any apocalyptic collapse - just a stable history very different from our 20th century. $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2022 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ The wording "30 years after the event" in the question sounds like they haven't been, though. $\endgroup$
    – A. B.
    Dec 5, 2022 at 8:30
  • $\begingroup$ A.B., you're right. It would be like taking the world today and experiencing a Carrington Event-level storm. Regular folks don't know how to make paper, ink, thread, fabric, clothing etc. offhand. In struggling to survive, nobody is going to think about how to do those things- but they will eventually. How hard would it be to scavenge stuff like that? $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2022 at 0:52
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    $\begingroup$ OPs setup feels a lot like Steve Stirling's Emberverse, and while his "Alien Space Bats" did more than just turn off electricity, just doing that I think would undermine the life support systems needed to keep cities alive completely enough to result in megadeaths. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emberverse_series $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2022 at 19:20
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How fast would supplies become rare? The Texas electrical crash of 2021 provides some answers - days. Food in cities started to become scarce. Part of this is that stores could not operate (except for HEB stores that had their own generators). Thus, any food that needed refrigeration could not be shipped to stores nor kept for sale. Once electricity came back, it took over a week to stabilize the system.

Our whole supply chain depends on electricity for coordination. This is everything from the factories overseas, to the ships carrying it to this country, to the trucks moving it to warehouses or delivering to customers. Without that coordination, the whole system collapses within days and a whole new system must be figured out.

Trying to figure out a new supply system while some people are running around with guns taking the supplies they believe they need is an almost impossible task. Once some people realize that electricity is not coming back, they will step outside the law saying that unprecedented times require unprecedented action, and they will act in their own interests.

A civilization collapse is not smooth nor easy. People will want to force things to be in their favor and the process will see wars start. The result will be an even faster collapse of society breaking any existing supply chain even further.

If we look back at previous civilization collapses, the main lesson is that small villages built around local subsistence agriculture still survive. Examples: after the Dorian Greek civilization collapsed, the record shows that pottery styles became local. Likewise, after the Romans pulled out of Britain, trade collapsed, and local villages survived when the towns were abandoned. Trade becomes barter based. Coins become valued only for the metal in them. Traders need to have enough guards to protect the value the traders carry but will become rare as almost nobody has the wealth to buy anything worth trading.

Pen, ink, paper, thread, and fabric all can be made locally and will be.

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    $\begingroup$ BTW, the war in Ukraine shows that a distributed electrical system is needed. I suspect that a system based around neighborhood generation and storage (small cells able to operate without a national grid) would survive both recurring electrical storms and a similar enemy rocket attack on the electrical grid. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Dec 5, 2022 at 16:45
  • $\begingroup$ Correct, and the non-electrical system will support a LOT fewer people than the electrical one, so population will have to shrink massively. "Luckily" (for the survivors) the collapse of the previous civilisation will, through famine, disease, and fighting have caused that to happen so large scale culling of "undesirables" will probably not be required (though it likely is to happen anyway, including the good old custom of killing or casting out (which amounts to the same thing) anyone who's "not productive" or has the wrong religious beliefs. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Dec 6, 2022 at 7:17
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They wouldn't become rare

It would suck a lot for people, and a lot of people would die, but we could transition back to a low electricity society where it was only set up in extremely localized areas. Most vehicles can be made to run without electricity, and we could design simple computers that ran without electricity.

There would be a very hard transition time with a lot of people dying, but we don't actually need electricity to function as a society.

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    $\begingroup$ We don't actually have to do all that much to negate most of the deleterious effects of geomagnetic storms. In particular it is not really all that hard to shield power lines. At most, using large computers in open air would be problematic, but we don't actually do that very often anyway. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 4, 2022 at 17:10
  • $\begingroup$ I am assuming that these geomagnetic storms are somehow able to destroy electricity, since OP says they can. Maybe they're magic, or sentient and angry. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Dec 4, 2022 at 18:13
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    $\begingroup$ Frankly, the entire industrial revolution was due to steam technology, not electricity. I wouldn't be able to stream my favorite Netflix shows and the availability of goods would be reduced. But rare? The industrial revolution sped up the availability of goods compared to pre-industrial conditions. It should be noted that losing access to social media and streaming entertainment would have a beneficial effect on the economy. The loss of electricity would be a greater negative effect, but don't ignore the increased availability and focus of the workforce. $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Dec 5, 2022 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ @toolforger: It is not really all that hard, nor is it prohibitively expensive. Mostly all you have to do is wrap the cables in a metallic mesh connected to the ground. And cost is not a problem -- after all, in some places people build and use underground power lines, which are much more expensive. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Dec 5, 2022 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP a mesh around the wire will be a massive capacitance, but the actual point is a different one: since shielding the long-distance lines is the hardest part, if they can shield these, their electrical infrastructure will be shielded in general and EM problems won't affect them at all. $\endgroup$
    – toolforger
    Dec 5, 2022 at 18:18
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a pen is basically ink and an applicator. You can make a pen with a feather from a bird, suitable grass or even make something more complex with a non electric lathe. Pencils? Carbon sticks with wood around them. Thread and fabric have been made for millenia pre electricity.

Assuming motors and electronics are dead, you can still do quite a bit by converting existing machinery to steam power (and we do have a significant industrial base there) or even air. We'd lose a lot of precision machinary, sure but we already would have these devices - just unpowered, which is a better situation than pre-industrial revolution when folks made stuff up as we went along.

Industrialisation increased efficiency and reduced cost. The labour to make a shirt would be more, but you could still make shirts. We also have fairly advanced chemistry and knowledge on non electronic, non volatile storage media... books.

It would be painful initially, and people certainly will die, but We'd probably be easily at industrial revolution levels of tech fairly quickly.

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  • $\begingroup$ And you can grab a feather without killing the bird. $\endgroup$
    – David R
    Dec 5, 2022 at 15:17
  • $\begingroup$ hm, True. Assuming all birds are not robots, and the loss of power didn't cause them all to be ex-birds... $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2022 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ .... It does sound a little like you need a whole bird, which might be a bit unweldy $\endgroup$ Dec 5, 2022 at 15:30
  • $\begingroup$ Lol! The thought was, if I scavenged an Office Depot 30 years after electrical collapse, would the pens I find even still work? $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2022 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Montromancer the ink would have long since dried out in most of them. But the pencils would still work, and well sealed bottled ink would still work as well (though may need a good shake). $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Dec 6, 2022 at 7:20
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The question ("how fast would supplies become rare") can hardly be answered hard-scientifically by anyone, partly because it depends a lot on external factors (where in the world you are), partly because we have not witnessed it on a global scale just yet (i.e., even in case of regional or even national disasters, there was always someone left to send help).

But this is a good thing - it would mean that your book could really play this out for great enjoyment. You are free to pick and chose as you wish. Compare "World War Z" (the book, not the movie): it poses a fundamental change to how the world works, and then explores it in form of individual chapters. What makes it such a great read is that each chapter describes how different areas of the world handle the issue, and they are very diverse indeed.

All of that said: experts on the matter think that a general breakdown of infrastructure would lead to utmost disaster very quickly, in areas high-population density. Maybe slower in rural areas, but very fast in big cities. (Source: a friend works in the fire department of a city of about 1 mio people, and "enjoys" occasional lectures about this - he tends not to be all too happy afterwards). I have no numbers for you, but I could imagine anything from days to (few) weeks until your city becomes a mess of looting and pillaging. Hunger and thirst make people do uncivilized things very quickly.

EDIT/APPEND: Also, on how long the recovery takes. Yes, 200 years ago we got along nicely without electricity, but the knowledge about how we did that (and hands-on experience) is long gone in the developed countries. We do not only need to survive the initial slaughter, but then slowly work up from basically nothing to where we were. Sure, the survivors, at least the first generation, will know what is / has been possible, but the critical knowledge is things like how to create a fire hot enough to melt metal, or how to create threads from plant material to create clothing.

I find it more likely that we will be thrown right back to the stone-age, i.e. people will figure out how to create basic hides from animal skin, and then painfully work their way up, while they use very basic means to find stuff to eat (even though farmers will still know how to plant crops, all means of mass production will be gone for good - the surviving farms will be a constant target for raiders).

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  • $\begingroup$ THIS. EXACTLY! I do Health and Safety for a living near Washington, DC. I can tell you now trying to get food in from elsewhere would be a nightmare without electricity to pump the gas to go in our cars, even if the cars worked. $\endgroup$ Dec 6, 2022 at 0:57
  • $\begingroup$ Pumping gas manually isn't an especially complicated task. $\endgroup$
    – Nepene Nep
    Dec 6, 2022 at 1:22
  • $\begingroup$ @NepeneNep in theory no. But given the volume needed for our existing truck fleets, plus the fact that most of it is stuck in underground tanks without easy access except using electrical pumps, it becomes a lot harder. $\endgroup$
    – jwenting
    Dec 6, 2022 at 7:19
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I think your question is rather story-based, because you as the author can decide what kind of post-apocalypse you want to write about. There are quite a range of possibilities:

  1. A scenario in which people sort of see disaster coming. They are worried about increasing inflation, rising oil prices, genetically modified frankenfoods, the influence of mega corporations, etc., and there has been a "back-to-the-land" movement growing for several years leading up to "the Event". So lots of people have already been moving to the country, learning to produce their own food, taking up handicrafts, etc. In this scenario, there is a lifestyle shock where people are going through a kind of "withdrawal" as their TV and social media addictions are suddenly cut off, but afterwards they settle down in their local communities and are quite content, even more fulfilled and happy than before. To answer the question directly: necessary supplies don't become scarce but actually become abundant within a few years, and higher quality, although the list of things we think of as "necessary" will change. For example: We'll use less paper (because no laser printers, junk mail, etc), but what we'll have is smaller quantities of high-quality handmade paper.

  2. A scenario in which people are increasingly urbanized, increasingly dependent on "the system", and increasingly unaware of how many things it all depends on. The disaster comes as a total surprise at the worst possible moment (like a major oil pipeline blowing up just as winter is coming on) and no one really knows how they're going to survive. Urbanites panic. Some turn to the government as their savior, and government takes full advantage of the opportunity to assume the power of a dictatorship. Some flee to the countryside to impose on their distant relations and old friends, who are not prepared to care for such an influx of moochers. There is fighting and starvation, mass hysteria, cats and dogs lying down together, etc. In this case, supplies become scarce and lower quality, perhaps being produced sluggishly by state-owned factories as in the USSR under communism.

  3. Another scenario is where both of the above happen simultaneously, in different regions (countryside vs. city, or red states vs blue states). Then you have a more complicated picture with opportunities for conflict or trade, or for your story's characters to visit different locations and see "how the other half lives".

This is not an exhaustive list, of course. Just a sort of spectrum that I've observed in such stories.

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  • $\begingroup$ Essentially, the Event happens right now. In the case of a coronal mass ejection, we'd have 15-18 hours of advanced notice, barely any time to get milk, bread and toilet paper. By the time we realized that food was running scarce, with no way to process credit cards to pay for more at the stores, we'd be pretty screwed. There's a really good video from Physics Girl on YouTube about it. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2022 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ So, scenario 1 is kind of what's been going on in the USA lately and scenario 2 is kind of what's been going on in Europe lately. Both are plausible. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Dec 7, 2022 at 5:18
  • $\begingroup$ Very true! I've been watching prepper videos on YouTube and grilling my friend who's a Director of Emergency Management for the state. My apocalypse might not be as bad as I originally anticipated. $\endgroup$ Dec 7, 2022 at 12:10
  • $\begingroup$ It's a more interesting story if it affects different areas differently. $\endgroup$
    – workerjoe
    Dec 7, 2022 at 14:20
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A good illustration is Stirling's first book in the Emberverse series, "Dies the Fire"

However geomagnetic storms chiefly target long wires. Enough induced voltage to fry transformers.

You would have to have some serious storms to fry common electronics that wasn't connected at the time.

If you can come up with a plausilbe way to have high strength Electro magnetic pulses, you have a better chance of frying consumer goods.

But military equipment is designed for a EMP enviornment. Redoing the commercial electronics world wouldn't take overly long. A decade or two, once you had some infrastructure again.

In the GMS, long distance transmission lines are affected. So you end up with islands of electricity for X miles around a generating source.

If GM storms are assoiciated with a given time of day, you can run generators part time.

I suspect you could design super circuit breakers to shut down the lines rapidly when a storm was in the process of starting.

Net effect is that you would have erratic power for a period of years and gradually rebuilding as more robust tech replaced the vulnerable tech.

But if all wired power worldwide was cut, people would die. Phoenix Arizona's wells are 9000 feet deep. Even with all cars working LA couldn't evacuated before people started dying of thirst. And gas station pumps are electric.

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