Several renowned cryptographers, including Nick Szabo and Ralph Merkle (the inventor of Merkle Trees), have claimed Bitcoin would survive a nuclear war. While almost impossible to verify, today Protos asks: Is Bitcoin nuclear-proof?
Ralph Merkle’s latest paper states, “If nuclear war destroyed half of our planet, [Bitcoin] would continue to live, uncorrupted. It would continue to offer its services… The only way to shut it down is to kill every server that hosts it. Which is hard, because a lot of servers host it, in a lot of countries, and a lot of people want to use it.”
While it’s safe to say that under current circumstances the Bitcoin protocol is hosted on “a lot of servers” and that “a lot of people want to use it,” the realities of a nuclear fallout make Merkle’s strong statement debatable.
Bitcoin after nuclear war
A lot of the concerns and criticisms of Bitcoin’s proof-of-work regard the “waste” it creates due to the energy needed to secure the network — consuming more energy than some not-so-small countries.
However, one of the first issues humanity would encounter in a large-scale, or even medium-scale, nuclear conflict would be lack of reliable power sources. This wouldn’t simply be due to a “nuclear winter” — or a cooling of the Earth’s atmosphere due to radioactive soot being thrown into the air, rendering solar power sources more or less useless — but also due to global equipment shortages and transportation shocks.
It would instantly become more difficult and expensive to obtain fossil fuels, mine for resources, and ship anything. This means that everything will cost more and only very particular assets will be worth providing energy to. The main concern once nuclear armageddon begins most definitely won’t be securing the Bitcoin network — especially when one considers another resource scarcity: food.
In the event of a nuclear war, hundreds of millions of lives could be instantly lost. Only, the real death and destruction would occur in the years following. Nuclear winter would cause wide-scale crop failure and countries with any excess would struggle to transport goods due to supply chain constraints and fuel costs.
A global famine would likely kill billions more than the initial attacks, suggesting that any reliable energy source would probably be used to obtain more food and potable water.
The value proposition
Another point of conjecture is the value of bitcoin after a nuclear war. Martin Pfeiffer, a PhD candidate at the University of New Mexico, researches nuclear weapon imaginaries such as these.
“Under the conditions set [in this hypothetical],” says Pfeiffer, “the claim that Bitcoin would survive and be useful in any meaningful sense strikes me as ludicrous.”
Much like the money in our pockets, big, dumb gold bars, or stocks in brokerage accounts, bitcoin will find little utility in a world defined by trade-and-barter, a world where food, water, medicine, and weapons are the currencies of choice. This doesn’t mean that the thousands of individuals and companies mining bitcoin would instantly shut down their ASICs and kill their servers the moment a nuclear war commenced, but odds are that such luxury expenditures wouldn’t last too long.
It’s confusing why cryptographers suggest Bitcoin would survive a nuclear apocalypse, and why some advocates suggest buying bitcoin to prepare — mostly because it’s hard to decide whether they’re being ignorant or looking to test another wide-eyed theory.
At the end of the day, banking on Bitcoin for the nuclear apocalypse seems like a mistake, but we’d rather not test the hypothesis at all. Meanwhile, Martin Pfeiffer agrees with Ralph Merkle on at least one aspect: “The only way to kill Bitcoin is to make it obsolete… like via a nuclear war!”