If America were hit by massive cybersabotage that shut down electricity and online we would revisit the constrained life of bygone decades. We recently saw what ransomware did to meat packing and gasoline supply and how a Texas winter knocked out power for days. And we experienced what COVID did to jobs and supply chains.

All these hitting at once is not fanciful. Say, President Biden warns Russia and China to end hacking but gets ill-disguised snickers. To retain credibility, Biden must retaliate. He orders Russian servers disabled. Putin, enraged, orders a massive cyber counterattack that shuts down everything in the U.S. Suddenly and unprepared, we’d be thrust back a century or more — but much worse.

What would our lives be like? Structures would be standing but inoperative without electricity. With a gas range or camping stove you could still cook, but everything in your refrigerator would quickly spoil. Your telephone landlines would be dead but your cell phones might still work. Without power to relay towers, though, they might not reach far. And how would you recharge them?

Newspapers and television would be silent but your battery-operated radio would still work. You could sit in your car to get the news on emergency channels. Without email, however, news gathering and dissemination would be

spotty. Our children could rediscover radio, which, because you had to use your imagination, was often better than


Supermarkets’ meat and produce would rot. Eat up the ice cream fast. If you can get there quickly, grab canned and packaged foods — pasta, tomato sauce, Spam. But how to pay? Swiping a card would do nothing; the network would be down. You’d have to use cash or checks. ATMs wouldn’t work; your bank might cash a small check. That is, if they could open their cash drawers. Without cash registers, clerks would keep cash in cigar boxes.

Motor vehicles would still run, but traffic signals would be out. Cross-country trips would be limited because refueling would be largely unavailable. Pumps totally depend on computers and electricity. Gasoline and diesel would still be in underground tanks but with no means to lift them to the pump. Trucks supply all of our stores, and drastic shortages would soon develop. Airplanes would likewise lack fuel, but some trains could run.

I’m old enough to remember the last manual gas pumps in the 1940s. The attendant would hand-crank gasoline up to a big glass cylinder atop the pump. Gallon marks were engraved on it. He’d release the gallons into your tank and multiply in his head the amount due. Simple, gravity-fed and long gone.

Hospitals have emergency power, but few businesses do. Unlike COVID lockdowns, you would not be able to email for work or pleasure. You might still work in your office by window light and with paper and pencil. Your computers and Wi-Fi would be out. All stock and commodities markets would be closed.

Heating your home would be a problem: no electric or oil heat. Natural gas would still flow, but gas heat usually requires electricity to push warm air through the house. A wood-burning stove could save you, provided you have put away a cord of dried hardwood. You could even cook on it. Kerosine heaters could do the same, but you’d need many gallons of kerosine on hand. Fumes from such heaters are unhealthy.

Postal service should still be mostly working, and we could learn to write letters again. Reading could be an outlet, but mostly daytime. If libraries are closed, you could swap books with neighbors.

Plan in advance. Have bottled propane on hand for your camping stove. Put aside LED flashlights and extra batteries. Prepare to backdrain your plumbing before it freezes and cracks.

How long before we recovered from such a catastrophe? Weeks might be optimistic. How many businesses have prepared workarounds for such scenarios? Few to none. Do local, state and federal governments have plans to overcome major outages? If electricity grids can switch to manual controls, power could flow in a few days. Computer networks might have to be massively purged or replaced.

The really scary thought: How do you retaliate after a shutdown like that? The Pentagon would raise the DefCon alert level, which our adversaries would take seriously and do the same. As during the Cold War, this could trigger runaway escalation.

Actually, declaring in advance that cyber attacks can escalate to nuclear might be a good idea, making both sides pause before starting anything. We defended West Europe during the Cold War by warning Moscow that a Soviet attack westward would force us to use our Europe-based nukes. Such plausible threats helped stabilize the Cold War.

Few take seriously the prospect of a total shutdown, but we’d better. I suspect most strategic catastrophes are preceded by the words “They wouldn’t dare!”