Question: If somehow there was a massive worldwide blackout and for some reason we didn't have any electricity AT ALL (batteries don't count), what do you think would happen to society? Also, although engineering doesn't technically require electricity but do you think that without it we wouldn't be able to make anymore advancements on what we already know?
Marcus Johns answered on 26 Jun 2014:
A few years ago New York suffered a massive blackout. It was quite interesting to see how people reacted. Most people came together as a community and there were impromptu street parties across the city. A few bands even wrote songs about it afterwards.
I think that it is difficult to imagine exactly what our world if all electricity suddenly ‘disappeared’ – they still had batteries and generators in New York so there was some power. I think initially there would be more crime as all the security systems in shops and banks would have failed and almost everyone would become very poor because the banking system is now electronic – how could you prove how much money you have and how would you get it out?
Initially, we wouldn’t have any transport apart from horses and bicycles – all our cars rely on electricity to start the engine – and wouldn’t be able to communicate long distances so global society as we know it would collapse. We’d only be able to eat food that we grew – no transport to ship bananas and the like from half way round the world – and we wouldn’t have fridges any longer. However, as we’re good innovators some normality would be resumed as we start using technology that existed before electricity – so society would go back to how it was around 150 years ago. This would mean that the population of the world would have to shrink by around 5 billion people, so we’d have more wars and mass starvation events.
What would be interesting is what would happen to all the technology that relied on electricity. For example, lifts wouldn’t work so tall buildings would become empty above the 10th floor – would you want to walk any higher? I also think that governments and other people would initially store the technology that didn’t work any longer in the hope that one day the electricity would come back. But if this went on for many years and nothing changed, what would happen? Would people end up worshipping pieces of equipment that no longer worked as relics of a by-gone age? Would people turn them into artwork? Would people go round smashing equipment that no longer worked as they wanted to forget what they had or what the world once was?
Without electricity I think we definitely couldn’t advance on what we now know – we rely too heavily on computers to solve very complex mathematical problems for us and a lot of research now relies on large groups of people based all over the world communicating with one another to develop ideas. But perhaps we’d relearn old, forgotten skills that became redundant with the advent of electricity.
Alex Lyness answered on 26 Jun 2014:
That is a scary thought. These are more like philosophy questions than engineering ones! I’ll answer each part…
Firstly without electricity our [Western] society as we know it would fall apart. Banking, communication, transport, manufacturing, hospitals are all massively dependent on the stuff. I think the future you are depicting was shown in a TV series a few years ago called “Revolution” you might want to check it out here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y4Bq-h2JCSE Yes, humans can survive without electricity, we just need warmth (fire), food (animals/plants), fresh water (rivers) and oxygen (air), but I do not think that our consumer driven society would cope being set back 200 years when we’ve all become accustomed to such [relatively] luxurious lifestyles.
Ironically, I think the nations/societies that would cope the best would be, what we call the ‘third world’ or ‘developing nations’ as they have a simpler way of life and are much better at coping living off of the land. They would probably seize power whilst the rest of us wondering how we were ever going to make new stuff again!
The second part of your question is probably one for a Historian. I’ll flip your question and say it would be amazing if you could travel back in time and give civilisations like the Aztecs, Romans or Egyptians electricity… imagine what they could have done! In fact I think the Romans did observe sparks of electricity but never realised the potential in what they’d discovered.
If around 200 years ago Telsa and Edison hadn’t harnessed the ‘manufacture’ of electricity could we now be living in some kind of steampunk crazy alternative? Possibly. However, I think electricity (as part of the electromagnetic spectrum) appears to be how the universe is hardwired soooooo I think it would be nearly impossible to imagine a civilisation on earth (or on another planet) that does not take advantage of it!
Hopefully that goes some way to answering your question 🙂