Why You Don’t Want Civilization to Collapse, Part III

In the first two posts in this blog series, I’ve pointed out that, if high tech civilization collapsed and we reverted to the technology of the year 1750, there’s a 90% chance you’d starve to death. Even if you were one of the survivors, you’d then have a 90% chance of scraping a living from the land as a farmer. That accounts for 99% of the people reading this post.

But let’s suppose you’re in the 1%. You survived the mass starvation, and your ability to process words and run TPS reports has landed you in the nobility, the clergy, or the bourgeoisie. Congrats. Your life is great, isn’t it?

No. Not at all. Here’s an example of why.

On July 7, 1924, a 16-year-old boy died. A week earlier, he’d played tennis without wearing socks. A blister formed on one of his toes, then got infected, then led to fatal sepsis.

Sad? Absolutely.

What’s the relevance to this blog post?

That 16-year-old boy was Calvin Coolidge Jr., the son of the President of the United States.

Think about that. Even if President Coolidge wasn’t the most powerful man on Earth, he was in the top 20. The US in that era was among the most advanced countries in the world regarding public health. And despite all that, the president’s son died of something that seems staggeringly minor to any of us who grew up in the late 20th or early 21st century in a First World country. An infected blister. How could someone die of that?

Simple. Penicillin was discovered in 1928. Sulfa antibiotics were discovered in 1932. Sulfas were the first to be commercialized, in the late 1930s. More than a decade too late to save Calvin Coolidge Jr. Let alone anyone, even the elites, living in 1750. Or with 1750 technology.

But it’s not just antibiotics that didn’t exist back then. Want fresh fruits, vegetables, milk, and meat? The first mechanical ice-making machine was invented in 1805. Oh, you want your refrigerator to be electric-powered? That didn’t get invented until the 1920s. (And the first electric refrigerators cost about 60% more than a car). Speaking of cars, the first vehicle built around an internal combustion engine dates to 1885.

Could you get by with local, in-season foods, candles and lanterns instead of electric lights, and horse-drawn carriages instead of automobiles? Perhaps. But some things we take for granted lack any 1750-technology equivalents. Want to send a message to someone? Write a letter and hope the postman gets it to the recipient while the message is still relevant. Want to visit a country on the far side of the world? If you train as a sailor, the winds are favorable, and you don’t lose all your teeth to scurvy on the way, you might be able to. Want to play Candy Crush on your phone? Sorry, no phones, tablets, or computers.

And I haven’t even gotten to dishwashers, washers and dryers, microwave ovens, central air and heat, ballpoint pens, LEGO sets, MP3 players, insulated mugs, bicycles, bike helmets, ibuprofen and acetaminophen…. Think about your favorite things. Something that brightens up your day or makes things easier. And think, just for a moment, how many people use how many machines to let you buy and receive that thing in the app store, Target, or Amazon.com.

Maybe you realize all that and accept it. You might be thinking something like, “To save the Earth, we all must give up something. Even kings, priests, and millionaires must sacrifice. If I can’t send emails or check my fantasy football team, or even if I run the risk of dying from spoiled food or a scratch that turns septic, I will gladly make that choice.”

You will? I’ll bite back the obvious rejoinder, why haven’t you done so already, and instead tell you this. Even if you give up modern technology to save the Earth, modern technology is going to come back.

A bold statement? I’ll explain why it’s true in my next post.