Completely non-scientific thoughts on EMP-type doomsday stories

Well, nonscientific in that I am not going to even Google anything about the science on this (yet). Jericho was on TV yesterday in reruns–a big block of four episodes that I DVRed but ended up deleting when I realized that it was much later in the season, and that there are several episodes between when I stopped watching and the episodes I had. But it got me thinking about shows in which electromagnetic pulses (EMPs) are used as a doomsday device, and win.

My first example isn’t exactly the best one, but I use it for a reason. In Ocean’s Eleven (*spoilers*), the guys use an EMP to knock out Las Vegas’s electric grid for a time. With a complete acknowledgement that they’re probably playing fast and loose with the science of it, if an EMP knocks out delicate instruments, how in the world was Las Vegas able to come back up so quickly? Did they knock out all the computers on that grid, too? How many millions or billions of dollars of damage would such a pulse have done to the electronics of the part of Las Vegas that the EMP affected?

Then there’s Dark Angel–which we only see 20 years after the pulse, so there’s admittedly little dealt with in the series itself about the immediate effects of the EMP, but we do see a lot of interesting social extrapolation, where only the rich have the newest technologies and the U.S. is plunged into a new kind of depression that they might not recover from for years. (After all, when the banks’ systems crash, all those little ones and zeroes turn into just plain zeros, according to Dark Angel’s voiceover narrative in one of the earlier episodes.)

How does it happen? Well, we’ve got a service-based society, I can see how it might happen in the big cities at least. Small towns, though, tend to be a lot more self-sufficient. What Midwestern farm town doesn’t have at least two or three farmers with their own machine shops (not electromechanical–actual machine shops with tools probably inherited from their grandpa), wood shops, or even a guy or two who’s into hunting and trapping that might have a smoke shed for preserving meat? It wouldn’t serve the needs of the entire area, but that town would have resources beyond its electronics, and the food would be right out there in the fields (barring a subsequent natural disaster–it might be only corn and beans and whatever animals they might raise, plus every country garden, but they’d have food and people who knew how to cultivate it).

Limitations on even a small town, of course, would be distribution of fossil fuels and electricity. No power tools, etc. But from my experience, small towns are populated by resourceful people. As in Dark Angel, it’s the cities that would suffer most, because they generally don’t grow their own food and rely more upon electricity and fossil fuels for basic necessities like heat in the winter.

And that brings me to Jericho. The reason I stopped watching the show? All the frozen meat was thawing when the local grocery store’s backup generator died. What did they do? THEY HAD A PARTY and ATE ALL THE MEAT. No, they didn’t find the guy with the smoke shed who might be able to teach them how to preserve the meat for the winter, even though they knew they’d probably run out of food before the electricity was fixed (if it was ever going to be). No, they didn’t find the local crazy environmentalist survivalist (my town had at least one, didn’t yours?) who would be able to help them know how to cut wood in the spring and summer so that it would be dry enough to use in fireplaces and wood-burning stoves by the winter. And forget coal, which most midwestern small towns I’m familiar with would still have someone hanging on to.

Or perhaps that’s just me. My dad didn’t get an electric furnace for our house, which is 3 miles out from our small Illinois town of 2,700, until the coal hopper for our wood-burning furnace (as in, the only furnace our house had, central heat from the basement powered by wood)  finally quit, which was about 3 or 4 years ago I believe. He still cuts wood, but not as much anymore because he doesn’t have four kids at home to help him cut, haul, and stack every weekend.

We froze our meat (which we raised–pig, cow, rabbit, chicken), but my dad had plenty of friends who knew how to preserve meat, and several friends who had harness-trained horses (we raised horses for pleasure/trail riding; our family vacations were spent camping on the Jubilee College State Park horse trails near Peoria, IL) and if necessary we knew several people who could haul out their old horse or oxen-drawn plows because nobody who grew up in the Depression ever seems to have thrown anything out. (When my grandpa died in 2000, we–mostly meaning my dad and several aunts and uncles–cleaned out his barns on his farm and my grandma’s house. It took months. We found enough antiques to sell to the local antique man that we were able to establish a house maintenance fund for my grandma. We also found peaches that had been canned by my great-grandmother before she died in 1972. Sploosh!)

Okay, point being that most small towns I know have resourceful people, and the people of Jericho? They didn’t seem smart or resourceful enough to have actually populated a small town at any time in the history of the last fifty years. It was as if they’d all just moved in from L.A. last year. Oh! They did!

This is why Life As We Knew It fascinated me so much, actually. It’s not an EMP story, but it does take into account all the various ways that people can be resourceful in a doomsday scenario. And it makes me wonder how the main character of LaWKI would cope with a mere EMP blast (as opposed to the moon taking out half the earth’s ability to grow food and catastrophic climate change). I think she’d do pretty well, actually.