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Post-apocalyptic scenario:

What would be the minimum number of cities (financial/transport hubs, e.g. New York, London, Beijing etc) that need to be taken out by nuclear weapons or other means which would create enough disruption to the world economies that trade shuts down and throws first world countries into anarchy and an every-man-for-himself situation, even in countries that do not necessarily get hit badly, if at all, e.g. Australia/Africa/South America (I have read other answers that state that these would be the least likely to be hit by nuclear weapons if there was a nuclear war.)?

Also, how long would the breakdown in each of these countries take, like the loss of essential infrastructure, electricity, sewerage etc., leading to the every-man-for-himself situation?

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    $\begingroup$ Without the context of being a Worldbuilding site, soooo many questions on here would be extremely troubling to see online... $\endgroup$ – thanby Nov 2 '15 at 13:50
  • $\begingroup$ @thanby Not really, most of the answers demonstrate a cascade of misunderstandings about human nature, the definition of society, markets, and basic history (and our role as just another leaf in the tome of it). It appears that most people have distinctly undangerous ideas in their heads. Not sure if that is comforting or not. $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Nov 2 '15 at 16:05
  • $\begingroup$ @zxq9 : At least, most of the people posting on here post so it appears they have undangerous ideas in their heads.... $\endgroup$ – Joe Bloggs Nov 2 '15 at 17:14
  • $\begingroup$ @JoeBloggs Now that is a much more interesting idea for a story. :-) $\endgroup$ – zxq9 Nov 2 '15 at 17:21
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean every man for himself? Even if 9/10 of the population was killed and we were bombed back to the bronze age, people would still help their immediate friends and family, and there would still be local trade. It would be to the next village no the next country though. $\endgroup$ – sdrawkcabdear Nov 3 '15 at 18:37

11 Answers 11

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One - aka the problem with Nuclear War

Wait? Just one? Yeah, just one. Because more than one would end in total collapse of the world as we know it. And just one can lead to big economical collapse.

Who attacks whom? As you did not provide any background, I am assuming that we are playing with actual world. So, best attacker to cause "just" economical collapse is North Korea. Any other attackers would lead to Nuclear World War III, in my opinion.

And even North Korea can lead to that scenario too. But lets see scenario where we cause "only" economical slowdown.

  1. North Korea launches nuclear rocket to Shanghai, China and manages to destroy it and make unsuitable for living due to radioactivity. According to this site it is the world's largest cargo ship port.
  2. The Security Council of the United Nations agrees on joint attack on North Korea
  3. North Korea regime falls, about 20 million people now need to be taken care of.
  4. South Korea, China and Russia (bordering countries of North Korea) are barred by influx of refugees.

In nutshell: China struggles economically because it cannot ship as much goods as they could and also they have to take care of immigrants.

Stock prices fall, world economy is in biggest recession as we know. it will take about a decade to get back on track...

Note: I did not collapse the entire economy, I just caused total recession of world economy. If you want total collapse, be prepared for total collapse of all humankind

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  • $\begingroup$ Dang it, I was about to post this answer :( $\endgroup$ – Nic Hartley Nov 1 '15 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ Interesting, but it's highly unlikely North Korea would nuke its closest (and more or less only) ally. What if they hit a similarly important city in South Korea? $\endgroup$ – Mason Wheeler Nov 1 '15 at 20:47
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    $\begingroup$ Render inhabitable? Did you mean render uninhabitable? $\endgroup$ – gerrit Nov 1 '15 at 22:10
  • $\begingroup$ "If you want total collapse, be prepared for total collapse of all humankind." It seems from the question that the OP is actually asking about a scenario that causes the total collapse of humankind. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Nov 2 '15 at 14:02
  • $\begingroup$ @gerrit edited answer. Language issue $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Nov 2 '15 at 14:05
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11 nukes

Nuke these cities with 50 megaton surface blasts:

  • Amsterdam
  • Dublin
  • Frankfurt
  • Hong Kong
  • London
  • New York City
  • Paris
  • Seoul
  • Singapore
  • Toronto
  • Zürich

This list is based on the assumption that all of the world's economies are highly interconnected and that instant illiquidity in one market will have immediate and highly destructive effects across all markets.

Since the Internet will still be largely functional, the world will know very quickly what happened. Mass panic in many metropolitan areas will ensue as no one has any idea if the attacks were a one-time thing or just the first phase. Expect mass exodus' from metropolitan areas as hundreds of millions of people attempt to flee potential target areas. This is a humanitarian crises of unprecedented proportions. No disaster management agency on the planet can handle that kind of scale. Fights over food, shelter and supplies will quickly turn deadly.

Panic is what kills people. Panic is what will rip the world apart.

The fallout from these weapons will irradiate much of Europe. Assuming a uniform wind from the south west, radiation levels of at least 1 rad/hour will reach Berlin, Prague, Munich, Hamburg, Edinburgh, and Boston. These cities are effected based on very very simple wind patterns. The actual fallout paths may be more or less widespread.

Note that The Hague isn't directly hit but it is inside the thermal blast radius where 3rd degree burns happen to all exposed flesh. If the winds are right, fallout rates of 100 rads/hour will fall on Shezhen and Donguan. Macau is also in the thermal blast radius for 2nd degree burns.

All told, approximately 41 million people have died with an additional 26 million injured. This does not include fatalities or injuries sustained from fall out.

Anyone who cares to look at a simulation of this attack may refer to this NUKEMAP.

Depending on how the records are kept, the destruction of all these markets will mean that ownership of trillions of dollars of assets can't be guaranteed or quickly verified. Stock ownership is certified by physical certificates which may or may not be destroyed when the markets are. Uncertainly like this has a high likelihood of inducing panic in investors who will want to get cash as quickly as possible. However, the markets are the only place to convert an asset to cash but the markets don't exist anymore. All across the world, investors who get news of the attacks will have no way of knowing when or where the next attacks will happen. They will try to convert whatever assets they have to cash since cash is the most flexible asset to use in emergencies. Some, perhaps many, people will keep their heads and not sell off all their assets but enough people will panic that it causes market crashes everywhere. "Circuit breaker" mechanisms in the surviving markets will halt trading to prevent the markets from crashing further.

Even though the Chinese and Japanese markets are still functioning, the local traders are well aware that their economic livelihoods depends greatly on the US economy which is now in tatters. The value of exports from Chinese and Japanese companies will decrease considerably because of the increased uncertainty concerning future demand. Without demand for products, factory managers everywhere will reduce the hours or outright lay-off many workers. The reduction in spending power of all these workers will hurt the local economies, further deepening the growing recession.

In these attacks, the offices of many companies will be destroyed, along with the people who run those offices. As of 2005, 602 headquarters operated from New York City. 40 of the Fortune 500 companies are headquartered in NYC. A company can survive the loss of its entire C-suite executives but it will take months to regroup and restart operations. Paris hosts the headquarters of 33 Fortune Global 500 companies. All those companies will need to find new headquarters or somehow restore HQ operations rapidly.

Destroying New York will remove approximately \$1.33 trillion dollars or 7% from the US economy. This is equivalent to the loss in GDP from the Great Recession except it's a permanent loss. London's economy is \$546 billion dollars or 18% of the UK economy. Paris' economy is \$792 billion dollars or ~27% of the French economy. This list could go on but you get the idea. The destruction of the global market cities not only instantaneously destroys significant fractions of each country's economy but it also removes that countries capacity to rebound quickly because of the loss of highly educated workers. New York, London, Paris and Zurich, and presumably all global financial centers have services-based economies. All companies outside the attack areas who previously relied on services provided in the destroyed areas must bring those services back in-house or must do without. This has profound effects on corporate profitability in many industries.

In the case of Amsterdam, Paris, London, Dublin, and Seoul the center of government for the respective country has been destroyed. All of those countries will have greatly reduced ability to recover from the attacks.

Humanity will eventually recover but it will take decades.

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    $\begingroup$ I was origianlly going the same road as you did, but I cannot get my head around how would you stop it on exactly 11 nukes? $\endgroup$ – Pavel Janicek Nov 1 '15 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ The problem I have with this is that the large financial markets are not strictly speaking necessary for the global economy. Efficiency would drop a lot and it would require governments to declare emergency and take partial control of markets. But if somebody just nuked 11 major cities, that would probably not be seen as much of an issue. $\endgroup$ – Ville Niemi Nov 1 '15 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ São Paulo, Moscow, Johanesburg, Delhi, Mexico City etc, can absorb a lot of the current market if needed... $\endgroup$ – Jorge Aldo Nov 1 '15 at 18:49
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    $\begingroup$ I do agree that the mechanism you describe will greatly disrupt the economy, but it is not clear how it must lead to "an every-man-for-himself situation". $\endgroup$ – Kolaru Nov 1 '15 at 21:55
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    $\begingroup$ I completely disagree with this answer. The global world economy is more than a bunch of physical systems in different cities. It is built on trust. During 2008 that trust was shaken by bad debt and the global economy was severely paralysed. Imagine the effect of a single nuke being used. $\endgroup$ – Aron Nov 2 '15 at 9:34
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That is a very difficult question because law and order is not enforced at the point of a gun. Consider the 2011 riots in England or uprising in Libya the same year. In both cases, the security forces were unable to cope. But most people in the UK agreed that having something like the present political system was better than anarchy, and a few cops could go back to chasing a few criminals because the riots stopped.

So the question would be "how many strikes until the average Joe on the street believes that food will run out and starts looting" and not "how many strikes until the food delivery system breaks down?"

I guess your story would have to hit several major hubs in the the US and China, and perhaps one each in Europe and Japan. That would lead to widespread panic. As side effects ripple through the economy, some people would start hoarding food and the government introduces rationing. They're not well prepared for that and the rationing causes even more panic.

As to how long, perhaps three days? Any longer and people start to think about what they're doing again. Much depends on the public information campaign by the governments in the hours after the strike.

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Zero--you don't need to take out a city to take out the world economy.

You'll need three bombs, each very large, each mounted on a rocket that can deliver them high in the stratosphere. (If you want to pull this totally by surprise you put them in orbit.)

Detonate one over the US, one over Europe and one over the Hong Kong/China/Japan area. Each will kill basically all electronics to the horizon--and from that sort of altitude the horizon is very far indeed.

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    $\begingroup$ You need to consider the distance and shielding of your targets. Most of the world's financial markets have offsite (and for the most part cyclically offline) backup sites which are shielded from EMP's and other electrical interference. Putting your nukes into orbit would mean they not only have to contend with punching through the upper atmospheres but also contending with the electromagnetic field of the earth. Depending on things like yield as well as your targets size and readiness, you may do absolutely nothing at all to the financial markets OP is trying to disable. $\endgroup$ – The Wandering Coder Nov 2 '15 at 6:16
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Striking the financial hubs would create chaos and a great deal of secondary and tertiary deaths as systems shut down, but the closing of international financial markets would not, in of themselves, create the conditions desired.

The closing of information hubs (the financial markets) would not stop regional economies from functioning, nor would they have a lot of "real world" impact outside of the blast zones. To create a fully apocalyptic scenario, the physical transport hubs would also have to be targeted. In many nations, this is often the capital city (especially in nations that were created out of older Imperial systems, where transportation was deliberately run to the capital to ensure control and allow the dispatching of troops to quell rebellions). Major sea ports would also need to be targeted, since there would be a major stockpile of goods in and around the port, not to mention reservoirs of fuel and skilled technical personnel who could assist in the rebuilding of society.

To be even more complete, targeting of electrical and energy infrastructure would also be needed; major generating stations (thermal, nuclear and hydro), as well as oil refineries and terminals. For the nuclear planner, there can be some economy of effort since sea ports like Rotterdam or Galveston are also oil hubs with terminals, refineries and storage facilities.

So while 11 cities might be a minimum to induce chaos and disrupt the international market, there would actually need to be several hundred weapons deployed across the globe to totally end human technological civilization. The exact details will require knowledge of the circumstances of the war, who is fighting and what the strategic goals of the combatants were prior to the start (modern nuclear war theory seems to emphasize destroying enemy nuclear capability rather than enemy cities).

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Trigger World War III.

The existing answers all postulate a large number of nuclear strikes required to completely bring down world trade. However, it is not necessary to launch such a large number of nuclear weapons in order to take out world trade.

With war comes the customary blockades and embargoes, which will quickly result in collapse of world trade.

To that end, only one nuclear launch needs to be engineered - A strike on Tel Aviv, Israel, that is launched from Syrian territory. Since NATO and Russia are on opposing sides of the Syrian Civil War, this creates a natural rift between the two ex-Cold War enemies.

This would lead to Israel activating its Samson Option, resulting in nuclear strikes over major European capitals. The resultant NATO - Russia conflict would quickly evolve into a nuclear World War III.

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None or All

Economies (of whatever scale) tend to start out as a de-linked systems of arbitrary trade, and slowly knit themselves together through various political contrivances. The scale of economics is determined by the same things that dictate the effective scale of war: logistics technology and geography. Today we can generally trade anywhere in the world, but that does not mean that every part of the world is inherently linked into a single economy consistent with the image politicians and media hope to evoke with the phrase "global economy" -- and most serious economists don't discuss things in those terms unless they are trying to popularize an idea.

Coupling

Decoupled, per-trade voluntary linkage is mutually beneficial (as per the goals of the participants, hence "voluntary") and ever changing, based on the various motives of the actors in the system itself. This explanation, however, does not define a system in the sense that nothing is pre-planned by any central authority -- it merely details a very consistent phenomenon. This is not really "linkage" because the success or failure of each venture is local to that venture (and particularly not "linkage by success" as the criteria of success are determined by the participants only, so "success" is a concept that can only ever be invisible to any central planning authority).

Fully coupled linkage by subsidy + protectionism is linking by failure and almost entirely static. Ventures deemed successful are drawn from while unsuccessful ventures are given to (very broadly speaking), so success criteria is an arbitrary determination made by a central authority (not tied to the actual trade goals of the actors making the initiating decisions) and forced linkage exists to support failures instead of promote successes. Incredibly, this is always done with the intent of avoiding massive crashes, but it is a one-way flow and predicts a single point of mass failure eventually. Postponing minor crashes at the expense of general success eventually adds up to pulling dead weight, and leads to a single massive crash. As far as I can tell throughout history these systems have always operated as a ratchet -- the only time this sort of linkage gets dialed back is when a major crash or war (often with a civil war component) occurs and winds up effectively resetting property rights and the legislative record of at least some of the locales involved.

Robustness

In a de-coupled state the loss of any set of cities would not destroy the entire economy, because the definition of "entire economy" only includes the set of active parties. The active set shrinking or growing can be a difficulty or a merit depending on who is being asked when, but such a system is extremely robust to total failure.

In a fully coupled state the economy will always tend toward an eventual total crash on its own without any cities being destroyed. When infrastructure is centrally administered and certain goods (like food) are price-fixed out of legal profitability the only real market becomes the black market (which may thrive in a crash), and the "official" economy can completely disappear for a time.

But People are AMAZING -- never underestimate them

Human history is replete with examples of how adept people are at recovering from unbelievable catastrophes in profoundly short timeframes (far less than a lifetime -- sometimes less than a quarter!). This sort of reaction to hardship is amazing. Once the hardship is over, though, the second amazing thing happens: most people forget what caused the last crash and double-down on the same problematic system of enforced couplings. It seems that very often this is because the majority of people never knew what was really going on just before the crash (had they seen it coming, they would have reacted differently) and just believe the prevailing rhetoric that existed at the time of the last crash, and assimilate that into their new worldview (if they even develop a new worldview). The few who were able to react successfully to exploit the crisis often wind up becoming a new force within the next political system at some point, and at that point suddenly they find it in their interest to promote the same fallacies for political reasons, and government and industry suddenly wind up in protectionist collusion once again, and the cycle repeats. (I don't think there is actually any solution to this: humans simply seem prone to bust cycles.)

Consider that some of the speculative scenarios in other answers predict a total economic collapse if, say, electronic devices are rendered generally inoperable (specifically, communications networks -- a surprising number of electronics are actually well shielded today). The day the internet dies is the day I start open a caravan trading business specializing in basic grocery needs, and sidelining in electronic and mechanical repair. I (and anyone else who wises up to the change in the nature of value indexing and information propagation) will be wildly successful. That's a hiccup, not the end of the economy. That sort of crisis is an opportunity, not a failure -- this is a mindset, not an absolute.

So how many cities? All, none, some -- it depends on what the circumstance is at the moment, and in any case the day after the world economy crashes is the birthday of the new unofficial economy. "The economy is dead; Long live the economy!" People fight, claim stuff, negotiate and trade, its just what they do.

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One. Even without extrapolating into a war.

Nuke Shanghai which is China's largest industrial city, and the world ends.

No nation that is a "serious player" in world economy can do without products manufactured in and around Shanghai. No other place could jump in as an instant or short-term replacement.

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    $\begingroup$ This would cause a global depression, but probably not a huge one. Other cities will pick up the slack quickly, and within ten years things are back to normal. $\endgroup$ – abcde Nov 1 '15 at 23:46
  • $\begingroup$ @abcde: I'm not sure "depression, not huge" would describe it properly. Virtually everything that is produced in Europe and USA (same for Japan) depends directly (as in, ca. 20% of the parts) on something produced in the Shanghai area. The only major company that might be unaffected would be Samsung (the Koreans make virtually everything themselves), but with no exports and nobody having money to buy Samsung stuff, they will go down, too. Stocked and in-shipment good will last for 10 weeks, not 10 years. $\endgroup$ – Damon Nov 2 '15 at 11:46
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Interestingly, you wouldn't need to bomb down and destroy whole cities with innocent civilians. Bombing down certain banks to the ground would effectively throw the world in such economic chaos that is beyond the imagination of anyone. The world trade will re-establish, but it would be after a LOT of confusion, disagreements, warring and chaos.

1- Industrial & Commercial Bank Of China

2- HSBC Holdings

3- BNP Paribas

4- Headquarters of Federal Reserve System

5- Bank Of America

Once you have successfully obliterated their data centers and board of directors, you can be certain that the world trade would take at least several years to return to normal/present levels again.

These are some of the top banks of the world (except Federal Reserve, which is basically a printing press of sorts) and here you would find bank accounts for monsters like Sony, Apple, Lockheed Martin, Samsung etc etc. Wiping out their boards of directors and the data centers (make sure you destroy any and all backup systems too) would ensue a terrible economic chaos which would immediately turn dangerously political, too. Either a lot of countries would be pushing out a lot of warships in the seas or there would be a confusion of accounts and debt record which will drown and muddle all world trade.

A litigation explosion would immediately ensue with banks suing the companies which have now refused to repay their debts (as all records are destroyed). A lot of assassinations and information leaks would occur during this period. Several international corporations would cease to exist altogether while others would gain even stronger hold.

If a world war does not begin immediately, it would be fun to see such a scenario.

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  • $\begingroup$ Some of the backup centres are build especially to withstand nuclear strikes. $\endgroup$ – Martin Schröder Nov 3 '15 at 15:05
  • $\begingroup$ I did not state that you should destroy the said banks with nuclear strikes. In fact I opposed that notion with the very first sentence. Dedicated arsonist attacks could be carried out for the said facilities for the destruction of data record. That is, gain access, go on, plant a dozen C4 charges on the cloud storage network hardware, jet out. $\endgroup$ – Youstay Igo Nov 3 '15 at 15:17
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I'm going to question the "anarchy" outcome, especially "every man for himself". Assume a worst case scenario where all the nuclear powers are destroyed to the extent that they are taken out of world trade: North America, Europe, Russia, Israel, India, Pakistan. Add to the list South Korea and Japan. That leaves us with your list of Australia/South America/Africa, plus various countries across the caucasus, middle east, and far east.

The big problem is that the global oil distribution economy lies in ruins. Perhaps OPEC have survived, but you can't pay in dollars or euros any more. Alternative arrangements would have to be made. Petrol rationing would probably apply to most of the world. Tourism-based economies face immediate problems.

Other than that, the decay is gradual as things break down and can't be replaced, rather than immediate collapse. Perhaps local wars break out, or local riots about the state of the economy - but that's already a problem in Africa. Places that already have effective government would institute rationing. Places that don't are already run on a hyper-local basis and tend to be less linked into the global trade system. The more rural you go, the longer it will take for people to start to feel the effects of the war.

It would look more like international development in reverse, or Greece-style political dysfunction, rather than "every man for himself". There's always a local strongarm group willing to restore order.

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If you take out entire currencies, surprisingly little happens. Hyperinflation and the like happened many times and while it has effects, historically it does not lead to an every man for himself situation.

If you take out all the markets, that means people don't know what the currency of the respective markets is worth anymore. People will fall back on trading product for product, or precious metals like silver and gold. You'd be surprised how many people have a stash of silver in their backyard for just that reason - it's obvious why they don't advertise that fact. People will still want food and other people still have food which will rot if they can't trade it, so they will find a way to trade.

Equally, if you take out all capitals, districts will still work on their own. Ask any Texan if Texas will work fine without Washington.

Nukes can't kill trade. The one thing that can hurt trade the most is fear. Use your nukes to create fear.

  • Fear of being nuked: nuke random cities at random time intervals, for months if not years. People will flee from the city which is a huge problem for trades.
  • Fear of starving: Nuke large grain stores, right after the harvest.

In any case you need loads of nukes, dozens if not hundreds.

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