The fear of nuclear war has been reawakened, and for good reason. I’ve heard a few commentators refer to the idea that such an event could kill “all life on earth.” While that’s an exaggeration (at the very least some microfauna would survive even in a worst case), a major exchange could certainly kill all humans, many immediately, and the rest the aftermath from fallout. I grew up in Omaha, which was on the target list because of the Strategic Air Command was based nearby, and we were told we’d be vaporized.
Destruction at this massive scale, much of it instantaneous, is certainly a horrific possibility, but its completeness is somehow perversely reassuring. Like, it would be over quick. But less drastic situations would be nightmarish in their own way, and could cause long-term suffering and social breakdown without the “relief” of extinction.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2020 modelled a scenario in which India and Pakistan fight a regional nuclear war and blow up just 50 bombs. They estimated that the particulates kicked up into the atmosphere by the blasts and the firestorms would cause a limited “nuclear winter” situation bad enough to significantly reduce food harvests and lead to starvation. The crisis would go on for years, and would be worst for those countries that import much of their food.
In a limited exchange between the US and Russia in which most cities were left intact, and some rural areas were hit (like where ICBMs are housed), we could still expect widespread disruption of gas, electricity, water treatment, shipping, etc., such that people wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere, there would be massive blackouts, lack of potable water, and stores would go empty. The economy would crash, and domestic violence would probably erupt. Radiation sickness would overburden an already struggling health system. The casualties from secondary effects could far exceed the number killed in the initial strikes.
So just imagine if, tomorrow, you were suddenly stuck where you are. The last thing you heard before the internet went down was that a few dozen missiles had been launched. It was an hour after sunset and you see a few distant flashes in the sky. The power blacks out.
The next day there’s a run on gas so nobody can leave. The stores are only accepting cash. Within a few days, the stores are empty. Even though its spring, the temperature drops and drops some more. It’s hard to stay warm and dry and you feel like you might be getting sick.
The uncertainty is the most maddening part, and people start panicking. The sounds of gunshots become more frequent. Somehow the cops are still able to drive around, and the sirens are almost constant. You don’t feel comfortable going anywhere by yourself anymore.
The consolation prize is that sunsets are crazy colorful from all the crap in the air.