A few weeks ago I was introduced to the concept of post-catastrophe resilience, and promptly thereafter linked to the 80k podcast episode with Lewis Dartnell by a friend. I’ve still got a lot of reading to do on the subject (and would welcome suggestions), but so far have found it fascinating. For balance, I’ll also welcome suggestions for arguments that deprioritise or refute efforts to build such resilience, but I continue writing under the premise of tentative excitement. To provide context for anyone not familiar with the subject, the hope is that if a catastrophe such as (but not limited to) a nuclear war or severe pandemic brought mankind to its knees, hard though it would be, the survivors could eventually restore civilisation. Looking to the long-run future, our potential would not be permanently lost. Interventions in this area would better equip our (un)fortunate inheritors with the tools and knowledge to accomplish this.
Humanity has been taking to the seas for aeons, to trade, fish, fight and explore. With the advent of radar and GPS, we have achieved a degree of mastery over ocean navigation that our ancestors would have thought divine. The few thousand years in between not only saw countless sailors lead lives of hard labour, but a tremendous intellectual effort to understand the world and how to cross it. The design and construction of ships is a whole subject in itself. In the 1500s, building a warship was arguably among the most complex engineering tasks in the world, as with nuclear submarines today. Greater still, I would say, was the matter of surveying the many aspects of nature that affect a mariner. Depth soundings, times and heights of tide, meteorological models, the movements of the stars, cartography. Each of these represents an incalculable number of person-hours of meticulous observation. Frankly, I’m glad that all of the above doesn’t need to be redone.
I don’t for a second think that preserving this knowledge should make it onto the first A4 page of EA priorities at font size 10, or maybe even the fifth, or tenth. There are bigger fish to fry (including plant-based fish metaphor alternatives). However, I happen to be undergoing professional navigation training in perhaps the most historically prestigious nautical institution. Unless there are more longtermist sailors out there than I am aware of, I would be unusually well-placed to look into and act on this. I write this post to get your thoughts on whether I should research this further, or dismiss it as seeing a lot of nails while holding a hammer. Listed below are the relevant questions as I see them. For brevity, I consider only nuclear war and pandemic scenarios.
What level of maritime capability would survive a catastrophe?
What size of vessel, and how many of them, would remain functional?
Are major ports likely to suffer significant damage in a nuclear war? All coastal nations have them and surely not all countries will be targets of direct nuclear strikes. Presumably, port infrastructure would be unharmed during a pandemic. Many vessels currently in service could, therefore, survive. How much maintenance does the typical merchant vessel require, and could this be provided by a shattered society? Would requisite spare parts be accessible or simple enough to reproduce? I confess I don’t have enough background in marine engineering or logistics to comment at this stage.
What seafaring knowledge would be lost?
Most nautical publications exist in both physical and electronic forms. I would place more faith in the resilience of books and paper charts than software, owing to the uncertain supply of electricity and maladies of the machine in the decades following a civilisational collapse. Maritime communities could revert to using physical publications with relatively little difficulty. If these communities did not survive, and the printed information was left scattered for those without a nautical background to find, I worry that assembling and interpreting it would be very hard, although not impossible.
How much supporting technology and infrastructure could be retained?
GPS (along with its Russian and European cousins) is of tremendous value but represents very low-hanging fruit in efforts to undermine an adversary’s military capability. I’m sceptical that we should count on these satellites remaining operational through a catastrophic war. Furthermore, GPS satellites are updated on their own location from ground-based tracking stations. I don’t know the details of this, but would hesitate to assume it would continue in the wake of any catastrophic event. Provided nothing had been destroyed, however, could GPS systems be restarted?
Are sailors more likely to survive the apocalypse?
Knowing what they get up to after a few drinks, the prospect that sailors might inherit the Earth terrifies me. However, the inhabitants of ships at sea will be protected from the initial spread of a pandemic. If they accessed sufficient food supplies, they could wait it out. Similarly, nuclear fallout zones will only extend so far beyond the coast. Provided that countries least affected by the war were known and fuel to get there could be obtained, an influx of mariners might bolster the surviving population. The resources mentioned above would not be easy to come by, but there are a lot of ships at sea at any one time. Additionally, the crews of nuclear submarines are probably the most likely people to survive a short-timescale catastrophe. Their ability to dive beneath the penetration of radio communications into water may even provide an advantage in whatever disasters a rogue superintelligence could inflict. While horrendously difficult vessels to maintain, their reactor cores last for upwards of a decade. They may prove the most certain means to cross the oceans in a world without diesel. If further research determined the most valuable function such submarines could serve post-catastrophe, political lobbying could have this altruistic mission added as a clause to the letters of last resort.
What degree of maritime capability is make-or-break for a post-catastrophe civilisation?
How severely would failing to cross the seas limit survivors?
Even if an appreciable fraction of the present population persisted, the effective populations of producers and consumers for the purpose of economies of scale (a necessity for rebuilding civilisation) would be bounded by whatever landmass a person happened to be on. Furthermore, natural resources and perhaps the intellectual assets of the survivors will not be evenly distributed around the globe. Confinement to one continent could deny access to energy sources, minerals or ideas required to solve crucial problems.
Which resources would be most essential to trade across the seas?
Others will have thought far more about this than I, in the context of which resources would be most essential more generally. I shall not labour the need to figure this out. The one point I shall add here is that accessing the Svalbard seed vault may well be of critical importance, and getting to the island may not be easy otherwise.
What is the easiest class of vessel to preserve or rebuild which can carry these resources?
If sending messengers to exchange news and scientific discoveries was all that would be required, a competent yacht enthusiast would suffice. It’s likely maritime freight will be a necessity, however. I don’t yet have much knowledge of this sector, but answering this question seems critical.
Would we return to the age of sail?
Modern cargo ships consume unholy amounts of diesel to get from A to B, best measured in yards per gallon. If there was any difficulty whatsoever in accessing oil reserves with a small, fractured population, this would become Herculean to support. The first power-driven vessels ran on coal, which would likely be easier to mine in a post-catastrophe world. Of course, the industrial capacity to build and maintain these engines is no longer in use and would need to be resurrected. If that proves beyond our reach, the power of the wind could be harnessed. A hybrid approach might see coal-burning engines driving rotor sails to achieve wind propulsion with less manual labour.
How do we ensure sufficient maritime capabilities could be maintained?
Would our maritime heritage continue unbroken?
If people, no matter how few in number, carried on taking to the sea in ships through and after a catastrophe, then the art and science of the mariner could be passed from one generation to the next. Such apprenticeships were the very basis for learning the associated skills throughout history. While written texts would be of great benefit, the tasks of the sailor are too varied, too practical and too subject to external difficulties to learn entirely from a book. This question could probably be rephrased to consider what fraction of the population must be wiped out before the world’s sailors would focus on other, more pressing tasks ashore.
Which of our observations of the natural world are worth passing on?
Surveying the depth of the oceans would take lifetimes, but likely won’t be critical to the survivors. Understanding the safe routes into and out of ports and along sea lanes would be vital, but would very likely be preserved in living memory as discussed in the previous point. These smaller areas could be sounded with lead lines if all records were lost. My intuition is that losing the ability to predict heights of tide would likewise be inconvenient but not game over. Meteorology requires constant observation across the world, which could be achieved relatively easily as humanity got back on its feet. Once again, this is very nice to have but not vital. Arguably the most important to preserve would be predictions of the movement of heavenly bodies. Books are published which tabulate the positions of the sun, moon and “navigational stars” with reference to the Greenwich meridian, allowing for longitude determination. These tables only look out a handful of years from time of publication, however. Navigational software can achieve these predictions much further into the future but will be vulnerable to any number of limitations on computer use, especially at sea. With precise clocks, it would still be possible to determine longitude, but a ship’s position outside visual/radar sight of land could not be fixed accurately without astronomical predictions. In conjunction with losing records of depth soundings, ships would be in substantial peril.
How could a repository of knowledge be prepared to this end?
Much as with the question regarding important goods to trade, I do not yet have specialist knowledge on this, simply on how this information is currently stored and distributed.
A brief note on cause prioritisation. This seems roughly similar in tractability to the general field of catastrophe resilience, with arguably reduced scale because it is one niche aspect of a larger whole. However, to my knowledge, it is entirely neglected and would be my comparative advantage. Therefore, if I were to conclude that catastrophe resilience was a top area to work on, then that conclusion should extend to support my working on this aspect of it.
As a rough conclusion based on initial intuition alone, I don’t feel worried that maritime capability would be a limiting factor in scenarios where an appreciable fraction of humanity survives, assuming there are enough sailors that can continue plying their trade to preserve it. With smaller or less coastal populations, it does concern me how difficult it would be for this legacy to be revived and that this may prove stifling for such a society. Interventions to address this would either focus on improving the survivability of ports or preserving usable instructions and assets to aid the relearning of nautical skills. Returning to my earlier request, would you be excited to see more research or work done on this subject? If you happen to know of relevant sources, do let me know!