Our world of fiction is filled with books, movies, and games suggesting a Mad-Max-style apocalypse can last hundreds of years. This, despite the fact that nuclear fallout would decay within a decade and it only took us about 150 years to develop all our cool tech in the first place. (This strongly suggests our world would be right back to the brink of nuclear war in less than 150 years after the apocalypse, but roll with me on this one....)

Now, I know this question is likely to be closed as too opinion-based, and I'll be completely forgiving if it is, but...

Given an apocalyptic event that reduces the world to a very stereotypical Mad-Max condition, what world-wide conditions could justify humanity's inability to rebuild its world for 500+ years?

As an incentive to leave this question open, I will blatantly misuse this block quote to announce my commitment to place a 250-point bounty on this question. I'm looking for people's best creativity!

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    Do "Mad Max conditions" include loss of knowledge or just the loss of industry? The novel 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' actually does a good job discussing this. – Samuel Mar 15 at 0:45
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    @Samuel, I LOVE "A Canticle for Leibowitz"! As to your comment, Mad-Max conditions allowed for mechanics, milling, distilling, refining, etc. In other words, the potential for an industrialized society exists, but the industrialization and supporting social structure is missing. Does this mean knowledge was lost? Some would be. I leave it as an exercise for the reader to watch the Mad-Max films to study the details - for purely research purposes, of course! – JBH Mar 15 at 0:50
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    @CortAmmon, I love the Foundation series, too. But, if I recall correctly, the 10,000 year dark ages was galactic, not necessarily planetary. Though planets were severely affected due to their interdependence (especially the larger planets like Trantor dependent on farming planets), your average planet wouldn't have been reduced to Mad-Max status - I think. It might be simpler to disrupt interstellar travel and take a long time to recover it than it is planetary developmentn and recover from that. Interesting idea, though. – JBH Mar 15 at 1:40
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    @RonJohn, I understand completely. However, the Mad-Max mythos is a very common background for apocalypse questions on this site, which is why I consider the question valuable. I'm not interested in whether or not the scenario is realistic, only if it is possible to sustain the scenario for 500+ years through some kind of developmental suppression. It's the suppression I'm interested in. – JBH Mar 15 at 3:59
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    @RonJohn, why? The tag refers to my question, not its basis. Given the basis, is it realistic for the consequence to take place? If that doesn't make sense then you're over thinking this something awful. The job of the answerer isn't to evaulate the basis of my question, but to answer it. Were that not true, there would be no fiction in the "science fiction" of this site at all. – JBH Mar 15 at 4:12

22 Answers 22

up vote 46 down vote accepted
+250

While you're right that industrialisation occurred within 150 years for our modern society, it is important to note that the conditions which allowed for that do not necessarily exist in an apocalyptic environment. I personally think that the dark ages that would be brought on by an apocalypse would last much longer, possibly the 500 or 1000 year counts, not because society can't reinvent its technology faster, but because it can't reinvent its society faster.

Non-Survivalist Thinking
During the industrial revolution, the vast majority of people in Europe and America could go about their business and travel through their country of origin in relative security. They didn't have to worry about their survival, so didn't need massive bands of mercenaries or soldiers to protect them as they moved about. This is important, because it means that travel costs a LOT less in terms of food energy, logistics, and the like. That means less farmers having to support people moving about.

Cities were even safer. Sure, there's the odd mugger about, but in 1729 Robert Peel creates the Metropolitan Police in London. This means that most citizens who spent a significant proportion of their day protecting their properties and lodgings with checking locks, etc. Now also have time to focus on other things, making them more productive. That means for the same amount of food energy, more gets done.

Village life and farming in general is safe, and the fact that countries have standing armies (dedicated military forces) means that people can devote their entire lives (even entire generations) to farming output, and the only limitations are land fertility, the climate and their farming practices, which if focused upon, can only improve. They don't have to worry about being called up at short notice to fight in a local battle at the order of the Manor lord, which not only distracts them but could also cut short their ability to produce more and share their knowledge and experience with others.

Finally, Gutenberg (2 centuries previously) has invented a simple method for mass-producing knowledge that can be shared cheaply with as many people who actually want it, provided you have paper manufacturing facilities, ink production and teams working on creating the typefaced text that is needed to print this knowledge out.

The benefit of non-survivalist thinking? A much smaller percentage of your population can be devoted to essentials like food production and military readiness, and the rest of your population are free to push knowledge forward through research and technological development. They can also do so MUCH more effectively because of the printed word.

Your apocalyptic society is a survivalist society. They have to produce food to survive, making food a critical resource in your society. Given that food must be produced on farms and land generally, food production is probably being done in a set region, which has to be protected at all costs. FAR more of your society as a percentage is now focused on food production or its defence, meaning that you lose the ability to conduct research to make your life better. Sure, one can argue that in the long term the research is beneficial, but Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs dictates that food production will have priority in a survivalist society, hence the research will not take place.

Political Order
Clan based fiefdoms are a very useful political structure for low-tech environments as they don't require many of the advances (like writing) that we take for granted in the modern world. It's easy to know what the law is in a fiefdom; it's whatever the boss says it is. That boss can extend his reach as far as his enforcers can reach, but eventually scale destroys this model. Even Elizabeth I faced insurrection at least once from within her nobility. Believe it or not, the one thing that allows a country to unite on a large scale under a single banner that can manage said country effectively is Journalism.

Journalists are people whose sole function is reporting on the events of the nation (in this context). A heavy part of that is the political happenings. This works both ways; journalists inform the public of what a parliament decides, and it also informs the politicians on what the public thinks about that.

Rulers and managers require your obedience; great leaders inspire your obedience. To do that, they need to engage you in the narrative and explain to you why you need to pay so much tax and what its going to pay for that will make your life (or the life of your kids) better. These large scale systems of political (and by extension industrial) order are served by journalists who get those narratives to the people.

Your apocalyptic society that has devolved into fiefdoms not only doesn't need journalists, but actively doesn't want them. Anyone who challenges the chief is a liability and why are we feeding this person to be a gossip and sow insurrection anyway? It just won't happen.

Even then; let's assume that your fiefdom of (say) 50,000 people DOES have a fairly secure environment, food is plentiful and they are sufficiently remote that their army doesn't have to be that big. You might be able to engage in some form of research and development, and you may even have books that have survived the apocalypse to short cut the learning process. But to build a car from scratch you need a source of fuel (even coal if you're going for steam), an engineer, a blacksmith (preferably a boilermaker), and sundry other skills and ingenuity that are unlikely to form in a small environment, where breadth of skill is far more valuable than depth of skill.

Safe Travel
Ultimately, what you really want to progress your science and technology again is safe travel of experts between domains, and a way for their knowledge to be shared between themselves quickly. This means organised printing presses, and a trans-domain market for books and knowledge. The afore-mentioned survivalist thinking will make this more difficult, but it can be achieved from a technical perspective.

From a perspective of society however, if all these fiefdoms are in competition with each other, why on earth would they just give away their most prized asset (information), especially when one considers how much of a percentage of their production it cost to generate it in the first place? This puts us right up against large scale political structures, or the lack thereof. In a world where resources are much more scarce than they are now, competition for them is much more intense and that means that the fiefdoms are not going to share readily. While it's possible that they may find a way to cooperate, they would only do so if their mutual survival was enhanced through such cooperation and transitioning from a survivalist culture to one that is less so isn't an easy transition as it involves the establishment of trust that things aren't going to go pear shaped again in a hurry.

Ideas MUST propagate easily for technology to advance, even in an artefact driven culture like Mad Max, where cars and fuel may exist, but the ability to repair / refuel / rebuild them has been lost. It is that 'cheap' transmission of ideas between parties and generations that allowed us such rapid advancement in the first place over the last 150 years.

Critical Mass
During the middle ages, society didn't advance anywhere nearly as quickly as it did during the last 150 years. Part of the reason for that is tied to the conditions described above, but there is also a need for a foundation of knowledge to build upon in order to make great strides. For us, the Maxwell Equations (created by James Maxwell in the early 1860s) led to incredible strides forward in our theoretical knowledge and the ability to apply that knowledge practically in ways that were not possible without that particular knowledge.

In other words, there are certain pieces of knowledge that if we lose, will hinder our progress until we find them again.

The chances of the Maxwell Equations being lost is not very high, and our artefact rich apocalyptic society will probably figure most of it out on their own, but it's important to note that theoretical research is the bow wave of technological advancement; without certain theoretical knowledge, engineering advances simply are not possible along the lines that knowledge supports.

Summary
Your limiting factor in progressing from an apocalyptic society back to modern technology is not technological; it's social. It's clear that in all but the very worst apocalyptic scenarios, the environment for most survivors will be artefact rich, meaning that when one can focus on it, rebuilding knowledge and technology can occur at an accelerated rate by comparison to the original speed of development. It's the focus that will be the limiting factor. People will focus on their own survival first, then the survival of their group, then the protection of their group, then (as some technology re-emerges) on the advantages of working together at some form of 'national' level, and it's only THEN that the social constructs will be in place that will allow the survivors to leverage what they already have and know (as one) to develop more advanced industries and recreate the modern tools and information sharing abilities we currently enjoy.

Another way of putting this is that your society will begin to advance at the rate we have in the last 150 years when the people enjoy;

1) safe domestic lives
2) regular and consistent access to food and shelter
3) organised large scale government and industry
4) a culture of free knowledge sharing
5) an environment that encourages research and development, including the populace seeing regular benefits from such advances.

If we take the middle ages as an indicator, that could take a significant number of centuries to re-achieve. Until then, will alone does not an MRI make.

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    One question, though - since some of the 'artifacts' will still function, and may give a tremendous advantage to a clan utilizing them, there will be a special motivating force to preserve them, keep them running (fueled, powered, armed etc.) or replicate them - this differs from historical middle ages, though may be similar to tales with a "royal wizard" providing "magical" (cf. Arthur C. Clark's 3rd law) assistance. Won't this drive progress and a return to modern technology? – G0BLiN Mar 21 at 8:56
  • @G0BLiN Your observation is entirely valid and of course the practical benefits of investing in a specific technology will encourage investment (time, resources etc.) in that technology better than the vague promises that arise when the artefact isn't there. BUT, while the will may be increased, the available resources are still decreased. Put differently, intent will be higher, capacity will be lower. What it does mean is that when society gets back on track, development will be on an accelerated track until the previous technological levels are reached but then research has to increase. – Tim B II Mar 21 at 9:27
  • Anything I was going to say has already been discussed in your answer. +1 for referencing maxwell, who is, indeed, the "spiritual father" of most of our tech – Jayro Boy Neto Mar 22 at 8:28
  • I think the answer could be slightly more comprehensive if it addressed the fact that many of our current technologies and industries are "of scale" and depend on a certain minimum population density and level of urbanization. Even if pockets of civilization began manufacturing automobiles and automatic weapons in computerized factories again, the internet (for example) won't come back up until those pockets are cooperating rather than competing. And that sets a lot of other things back. – Asher Mar 29 at 18:55

Not in the mad max sense.

Because mad max had cars and gas, the remnants of civilization. If you have the total breakdown of civilization. You have 15 maybe 20 years at most before all that stuff it gone, broken down rusted junk. Who is going to produce gas, who is going to produce the iron to make the car. You cant take a lump of iron and forge it into an engine.

It could last 500 years, but you will wind up losing a lot of what we have. You might be able to develop something like muskets and maybe even steam engines, but gas and cars and smokeless powder in brass shell casings. I don't think so.

These things require civilization on a large scale. They require very specialized trades and knowledge. I think to have them, you must have civilization. And most importantly they require a ton of power.

Now you could let these things go, go back to hunter gatherer or even feudal kingdoms and I could see that persist for some time. Most of human history has been that way, in fact.

The easiest reason, is quite simple, it's one word.

Energy.

Right now we have oil and gas and coal. We are trying to transition to something more sustainable. What if we don't make it.

Most of the sustainable stuff takes a large amount of energy to create to get any useful power out of it.

You cant just created a nuclear reactor out of nothing, it takes a ton of energy. In building it and in the materials. Even solar power, if you have no power how do you make solar panels? How can you build a dam for hydro electric, how can you make windmills with no easy to access metal.

But with fossil fuels they have a ton of energy that is accessible with little more then a spark. Granted you have to drill for oil, but if you include things like coal, coke (a refined form of coal) etc. Anyway, from that we have built everything you see today. You can't magic in a sustainable source of power on the level that fossil fuel provide.

Can we get to the point that we don't need them anymore with things like solar, wind, nuclear (both types). Well I sure hope so, but it takes power to get there. Once we deplete the power we have from fossil fuel it's going to be really hard to produce solar panels using wood fires.

So what is the easiest way to get rid of oil. I once had this idea for a story, basically someone (doesn't matter who) developed a microbe that ate hydrocarbons. This could have been developed as a way to clean up oil spills. Then this bug mutates and becomes airborne, starts feeding on smog and basically any hydrocarbons it can find.... etc etc.

I'm not a biologist so I don't know if such a bug is possible.

I'm also not a chemist but I think a lot of plastics are made from petroleum byproducts, including some wire insulation. Without any of this stuff, enter energy Armageddon.

  • There are many naturally occurring microbes that eat oil, and there is research going on in creating others that are even more efficient. – Fermi paradox Mar 18 at 20:10
  • @Fermiparadox - that was what I thought I remembered, but I was too lazy to google it, truth be told. ... lol – ArtisticPhoenix Mar 18 at 22:18
  • There was a series of novellas in Analog last decade about 'the oil bug' a plague of bacteria that ate oil and fuel. – Sherwood Botsford Mar 20 at 20:14
  • Really, never heard of them(books or Analog, which is a publication I take it, like a magazine), I may have to look them up... Thanks! I got the idea from a history channel show (I think is was them) that basically looked at what would happen if the oil just vanished, but they didn't have a reason why it would. So I came up with that idea as an answer to that question. I'm a professional programmer so it's not in my nature to have unaswered questions, lol – ArtisticPhoenix Mar 21 at 13:00
  • Most functional technologies are simple to make once you have a general idea of how they function, especially knowing what was already done. Invention was the key issue for most of it, not finding a blacksmith who can make a basic cylinder and piston (yes you do make an engine from lumps of iron, but it is better to just reuse what already exists). While advanced electronics are beyond the reach of anything but an already advanced civilization, getting back to an early 20th century level of development will be easy (not reinventing the wheel de novo - we've already seen one working). – pluckedkiwi Mar 28 at 12:57

The single best indicator of how quickly humanity could rebound from an apocalypse is how quickly the human population density rebounds.

While this may change in the next decade or so, our modern infrastructure - cars, water, waste removal, etc. - is still currently dependent on having a lot of humans around to run the show. If the population crashed, or if the robots who might take over were wiped out in combination with a population crash, we wouldn't be able to recover very quickly.

In a first scenario, let's assume the world's population is knocked back to 50 million people and the survivors are scattered and living in groups of no more than 150. Our technology level would be reset to the beginning of the Iron Age, not because the immediate survivors have forgotten what technology is, but because 50 million people scattered over the Earth cannot maintain an infrastructure more advanced than that without AI.

https://na.unep.net/geas/newsletter/images/Jun_11/Figure1.png

In a second scenario, let's say all 50 million people were somehow gathered in one place that had the physical and medical infrastructure to keep them all alive for at least 50 - 100 years. (Without that infrastructure, a plague hits and wipes out the remainder of humanity. Scattered and living in the Iron Age may not be great, but it does reduce the chances of that happening.) Let's also assume that the extraction sector of the global economy has been completely automated by AI and that the AI was not wiped out. Now, assuming the government of these people is coordinated enough, you have a chance of maintaining some level of modern infrastructure and technology. The post-apocalyptic city state would assess what resources it needs - energy from fossil fuels or renewables, metals, food, water, etc. - and, having government records from before the apocalypse, would know where to send groups of survivors to colonize an area, gather its resources with the AI left behind, and ship them to the forming megacity.

But that's still dependent on having AI to do many tasks. If you remove AI from this scenario, the megacity won't have enough people to manage both the resource colonies and the transportation networks it would need. You're talking about trying to maintain the modern output of mines and wheat plantations with manual labor (and there's a reason people in the Iron Age used slave labor for that) and maintain modern shipping routes and ports on top of that. There's a chance that the megacity would slowly fade away as more people left it, and you'd have populations centered on a resource that traded with each other over increasingly hard-to-maintain trade routes, but as the machinery that makes those routes possible breaks down, you end up devolving back to the Iron Age scenario. That might be the closest to a Mad Max scenario.

All of these above scenarios are heavily dependent on what kind of apocalypse happened. If it's a World War style one, most of the AI and population and resource centers will have been destroyed, making the scattered scenario more likely. If it's an asteroid, then it's just dumb luck where it hits.

Finally, there's the Steampunk fantasy. This scenario tries to develop a steam-powered - meaning coal-mining and oil-drilling - infrastructure to increase economic output. This might be doable with 50 million in a megacity, if it's close enough to its resource centers. Great Britain started the steam revolution, and, with Ireland (which, from a geopolitical point of view, it was using as an agricultural plantation) had a net population of about 18.7 million in 1800. But Great Britain also had coal mines within its borders, Ireland's farming industry right across the narrow Irish Sea, an already well-developed naval force and shipping infrastructure, and access to more exotic resources from her colonies. In order to survive this scenario, the mega city would have to be placed juuuuust right.

To make it last 500 years:

  • Heavily decimate the population. Current technology was achieved by the incredible amount of time we can collectively spend on one task. Killing off the population means you lose the manpower to spend on research, as well as free up time for the researchers by letting others collect food, build houses, maintain infrastructure etc.

  • keep population low. In line with the previous point, something like radiation causing decreased lifespans and bad genetic mutations can keep the population low, stalling the recovery. Additionally, the collapse of medical care will increase Child death, lethal complications at childbirth and decrease life expectancy.

  • Destroy all infrastructure. When we "started" 150 years ago, we already had a massive infrastructure of roads, trade routes, mining, cities and farmland. Without that infrastructure it takes a lot more time to get technologies across the globe, even something as simple as how to write may take 50 years before it's spread across the globe, and another 50 years before more than half the population is literate.

  • Kill off all the smart people and their records. If you are too busy surviving because your local farmer kicked the bucket and you suddenly have to re-learn all there is about farming yourself, not a lot of time is left to tinker with things. If all the smart people and their collected knowledge is gone too, you are also forced to re-do all that work while tending to your crops and pigs. Good luck!

  • The environment sucks now. If things like radiation sickness, global genetic defects and high mortality dont sound like fun, have a post-nuclear winter! Or perhaps the large-scale warfare has destroyed almost all the forests and nature is still finding a new equilibrium after mass-extinction events of more than half the (large) species and such a massive deforestation has also altered climates. This in turn forces humanity ro focus on survival with little time for research other than the research specifically designed for trying to get to the next day without starving or freezing.

  • While all this is true, I'm afraid it's a chain-of-effects that precludes the random nature of destruction. Accomodating the random nature of destruction to meet all your points would reduce the world even beyond Mad Max. It might destroy it all. I couldn't give you my bounty, but it got an upvote for its comprehensive nature. – JBH Mar 26 at 15:09
  • @JBH I think you misunderstand. Each individual point as well as a combination thereoff can be used to make it last more than 500 years. Also consider that history as we know it consists out of a constant string of unbelievable coincidences. For example, had the dinosaurs not died out for the most part a certain bipedal creature wouldnt have had the space to evolve its brains and have weird conversations on internet fora. – Demigan Mar 26 at 18:04

A simple huge loss of population If 95% of the population is gone and the rest is scattered around the world and can't get along (raiders, different factions,...), I doubt the world will progress much, especially if past technology is hard to recover and resources are scarce.

Concerning the potential causes of such events, a virus is a good candidate. It can kill a lot of people and have a huge effect of area denial (quarantined areas) that can prevent people from accessing fertile lands for crops, lakes and rivers for water or any kind of resource. This virus could potentially affect plants and kill a lot of common crops. This would keep the struggle for survival constant and a lot of rivalries would occur, especially around viable land.

  • I don't see how this addresses the longevity of the apocalypse? – Burki Mar 20 at 19:14
  • If there are not enough resources for everyone, people will fight over them. This would create a very long state of war or tyranny. – Hawker65 Mar 21 at 8:23
  • With 95% of humanity wiped out, there will be no shortages for a LONG time. Consider how much canned and dried food gets produced to feed ~7 billion people. Once your plague or asteroid impact kills 95% of them, you now only need to feed ~350 million. Enough food to feed the world pre-apocalypse would last ~20 years post-apocalypse, and thats assuming no one produces anything to supplement it. – Ryan_L Sep 9 at 22:04
  • Indeed, but that's omitting the area denial effect. As I said, if the areas where the resources are are contaminated, you effectively make these resources almost unavailable. – Hawker65 Sep 10 at 8:03

It depends on the scale of the disaster. After the Late Bronze Age Collapse, some countries had not rediscovered writing after 500 years.

You would need a disaster of equal magnitude. Nuclear war could do it, some isotopes are very long-lived and the Trinity site was shut down when it was found too dangerous for visitors. Imagine much larger yields bursting near ground level.

Coal would be hard to rediscover as so little is near-surface. Same with oil. There may not be the reserves left to get to the deep stuff, which means they'd have to leapfrog that epoch. It might not be possible to recover from that.

With a move to e-books and a loss of libraries, a virus that took out the Internet and critical systems connected to it (there are actually search engines that list the nuclear reactors whose SCADA systems are on the public Internet!) is possible. The loss of knowledge, compounded with the fact that schools no longer teach people how to write manually making distribution of information a formidable task, would essentially shut down civilization in salvageable way - but it might easily take 500 years.

The panic alone, not to mention mass starvation from a total loss of high-tech farming and high-tech distribution, would result in the loss of most of your intellectual class, a "lost generation" from loss of schools, and therefore a total absence of anyone who could provide insights or shortcuts.

It would require rare minds to reverse engineer examples, particularly as technophobia would be rampant.

Someone wants it to stay this way

Where you find disaster you'll find opportunists, some people who rise to a position of power because they had access to resources no one else does - water, tech, electricity. They can then try to break up any signs of others trying to work together and make sure they retain their power.

My suggestion, to retain the setting world-wide, would be to go with tech. One group was either prepared for the apocalyptic event or had the expertise to get up and running well before anyone else did. They have access to electricity and tech that allows them to travel all over the planet easily and perhaps even satellites pictures to allow them to notice any settlements that start to grow quickly - suggesting groups working together. They can then drop in, sew mistrust between them, and undo whatever had been done to bring those groups together.

This then allows them to trade tech for food and other resources - letting you retain cars and other complex machines you might see in Mad Max - but doesn't mean you have to give everyone access to car assembly lines or the technology that comes with that.

Human beings may never rebuild. At least not in any way that we imagine, and not in any timeline that we imagine.

Here is the problem, doing the industrial revolution we grabbed up all the low hanging fruit when it comes to fossil fuels. Oil used to be right at the surface in some spots, you just had to dig a few feet. These days we need offshore rigs and fracking. The renaissanceman can't do this. The technology gap simply becomes too large to cross between horses and access to oil. The same problem must exist with coal as well. Without fossil fuels there is no industrialization. You can't go renewal emery because you need industry to build these things. Without industrialization there is no rebuilt world.

Even if it was to happen it would not happen all at once. Maybe somewhere like the middle east society would slowly grow. Still it would take it hundreds of years to expand to any specific place. We still don't have huge parts of the world developed.

  • Oil was used because it was cheap and plentifully available, not because it was the one and only way to advance technologically. Using charcoal and wood gas (not as energy-dense but functional for most purposes) we can reproduce most things, and waterwheels were a major source of power for a lot of industrialization until steam engines became fairly advanced. The technological innovation of engines were the pertinent issue, not so much the particular fuel of choice (the higher energy density did help but now that we know such engines function we can redevelop far more easily on any fuel). – pluckedkiwi Mar 28 at 13:09

I think it's believable. I'm not convinced that such a scenario is probable or even likely, but it is possible and therefore believable.

I think much will depend on how quickly some semblance of "normal social functioning" can be reestablished after the pockyclypse.

Clearly, in the Mad Max world Australia failed to reestablish (which, of course, would defeat the purpose of the movies in the first place, which largely was to place Tina Turner in outlandishly revealing costumes (for the time) on juryrigged war waggons). With society itself a failure, the remaining technology can not be renewed, only patched until at last it fails. Knowledge will eventually be lost as those who once Knew die off and new generations are ill educated and ill equipped to handle the job of picking up the pieces. So yeah, I can see (and believe) a 500 year Mad Max type scenario. With the exception, of course, that now I've learned that petrol is not stable over long periods of time, so chances are good none of those war waggons would even be functional more than two or three years after the petroleum industry collapses.

On the contrastive hand, we have the Star Trek scenario. Here, we have some kind of pockyclypse that people are able to not only survive (with terribly loud "music") but a drunk scientist-engineer is able to build a working warp drive capable space ship inside an unused ICBM. The rest is deBorged history.

I think some guy coming up with a warp drive in his garage is less likely & less believable than the Mad Max scenario. But I think more likely (and perhaps more believable) will be reasonably untouched regions will be able to recover and rebuild something akin to the Old World, if on a smaller scale than before. Chances are good DC, NYC, London, Paris, Moscow, Peking, LA and so forth will be nuclear wastelands for ever: utterly destroyed fields of ruins. Smaller cities like perhaps Edinburgh, Seattle, Montreal, Miami, those might be spared the utter destruction of the principal targets. Smaller cities with universities, medical research centers, small pharmaceutical facilities, those might be in prime locations to form the nucleus of new technologically recovered states.

Most believable of all will be a combination of regions where technologically recovered states coexist with regions of Mad Max wilderness.

The current civilization is mining the more accessible supplies of resources such as oil and metals. If an apocalypse scenario wiped out the ability to maintain modern technology and infrastructure, and our current quarries and whatnot become inaccessible, future generations will have a harder time gathering material needed to fuel a high-tech civilization.

We can look at historical examples of such a societal collapse, the Bronze Age Collapse, lasting from about 1200 BCE to 900 BCE, a period of about 300 years. Presumably, it would take longer to recover to a higher tech level. However, the causes for the collapse are not known but such widespread collapse and the lack of recovery for a long time suggests a general systems collapse. I'll just copy some lines from Wikipedia.

The growing complexity and specialization of the Late Bronze Age political, economic, and social organization in Carol Thomas and Craig Conant's phrase together made the organization of civilization too intricate to reestablish piecewise when disrupted. That could explain why the collapse was so widespread and able to render the Bronze Age civilizations incapable of recovery.

-Late Bronze Age Collapse, Wikipedia

"The growing complexity and specialization of the ... political, economic, and social organization"

I don't mean to be a doomsday preacher but sounds kind of familiar doesn't it considering our very specialized sciences and technology being used in everyday life? This analogy applies to a total collapse of modern civilization.

On the other hand, if we look at the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Middle Age organized social structures were able to set themselves up fair quickly. The cities simply shrank in size but were not completely abandoned and some social structures remained such as the Church and the Eastern Roman Empire as well as new nations filling in the power void. This situation could apply to a more limited apocalypse situation such as a US/Russia nuclear exchange with southern hemisphere nations such as Argentina, South Africa, and Austrailia coming out mostly intact(until the economy and the supplies starts to collapse but hopefully they will figure that out before things go even more south).

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    "future generations will have a harder time gathering material needed to fuel a high-tech civilization" - You mean the materials like metals that the pre-apocalypse world has just left lying around, ready to be reused and repurposed? Petroleum would be the biggest problem, since most of the easiest to get has been exploited, but right now we're moving to a world where electricity is becoming the prime mode of energy, and it's difficult to think of a scenario where people can't produce electricity. – Keith Morrison Mar 15 at 23:00
  • @KeithMorrison, I believe that's a bit short sighted. The idea of harder-to-access resources is excellent. Oil and natural gas would be all but impossible to access. Coal would be so deep that it would be very dangerous to access. Wind and solar farms would die quickly post-apocalypse, hydroelectric is geographically limited, and nuclear is technologically limited (you can't just figure out how to run them). This idea was not comprehensive enough to win my bounty, but it is an excellent insight into the apocalyptic problem. Well done, 0something0. – JBH Mar 26 at 15:04
  • @JBH Most materials are readily available in your local landfill, with the difficult part of refining already done for you. Fossil fuels are about the only thing which people would want for, but that is not necessary as there are many fuel sources even if not quite as energy-dense. Solar would die over long periods of time as cells fail, but wind isn't going to stop blowing (repairing small windmills is easy - even if they are not going to be quite as efficient or on such a large scale), and water is still going to flow (even if more geographically limited). – pluckedkiwi Mar 28 at 13:22

I'd say religion.

"God smote the world for our arrogance and we must live like God has told us and beg his forgiveness"

The leaders of a powerful religion have a vested interest in keeping the status quo and if people are too busy surviving, they aren't questioning the religion.

Anyone not towing the line gets the chop. "Burn the heretic"

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    this is a very simplistic answer that plays to bigotry and negative stereotypes of religion. please include reasoning based on historical or sociological evidence if you are going to argue this point. there are many instances in human history where religion was actually a force for progress and preservation of knowledge – taylor swift Mar 19 at 15:52
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    And plenty more where religion has hindered mankind. Just look around you. It's still doing it today. As for an example, look at the Amish. We're sending probes to the far reaches of the solar system and they're using horse drawn plows. – Thorne Mar 19 at 22:30
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    Sure religion can insist people act a certain way but it often brings about an order. Whether the order acts towards advancement or not it doesn't keep them in an apocalyptic setting. It often does quite the opposite, thou shalt not kill, steal and all that lets us start to build civilisation again. – Lio Elbammalf Mar 20 at 11:23
  • Order isn't advancement. Religion isn't about logic, it's about control. If religion believes technology is moving society away from it, it will denounce it. – Thorne Mar 21 at 0:03

After an apocalyptic event, one of the first things to go would be the internet, right? I mean, it requires electricity at the client end, electricity at the servers ends (multiple servers), electricity all along the way, connectivity, maintenance, routing - it's a complex system.

Without internet, how many people would know how to start a fire without matches, let alone constructing complicated tools? A lot of information we need is "at our fingertips" - online. Books, scientific articles, enciclopedias - everything is online. One might enjoy curling up with a fiction book, but when it comes to science and engineering, we want to Ctrl+f, right?

So, in the absence of internet, a lot of information would be lost. The more advanced we get before the apocalyptic event, the less actual printed material we'll have, and the more information would get lost.

Some professionals would of course have this information in their heads, rather than "at their fingertips" - it might be professional knowledge, hobby, whatever. However, the first concern after a post-apocalyptic event would be survival. How would that go?

Our money is an imaginary token. Something that exists on servers, backed by countries. We transfer imaginary tokens by swiping a card. Coins and paper money are also nothing but convention - only worth anything because we agree that it does. Without the system to back money, we're down to barter trade, and what's gonna have most worth is what's essential for survival: food, fuel, medicaments.

Big cities are going to be in big trouble: they rely on products flowing in every day, and that's not gonna be happening. There will be people starving to death, people freezing to death, and infections spreading due to inadequate access to medication. Look at Moscow the year of the Revolution - it was smaller a hundred years ago than it is now, less reliant on technology, and still that's what was happening big time.

After the initial collapse, after whatever toll death would take, how much knowledge will have survived? From what point would technology need to be reinvented?

Do not forget that reinventing lost technology would not be fast. To do anything beyond surviving here and now, people need leisure and security. So, some sort of structured society would need to re-establish itself, and then have extra resources that can be invested into research (giving people the knowledge base from which they may advance, feeding the one doing the research, whatever materials would be needed for research, including failed attempts at stuff). That doesn't happen all at once.

My favourite example is the Roman Empire. It had plumbing. There was water coming into the cities. There were pipes in buildings, bringing water to high floors. There were nine-floor buildings. There were public baths, and a sewage system. At its peak, there were a million people living in Rome. Then, Rome collapsed, and it took until the 19th century for the same amenities to come back. You could say that in this regard, a post-apocalyptic state lasted not 500 years, but 1500 years. And the apocalypse had been a lesser one.

  • Interesting idea. But: Have you heard about libraries and book stores? ;-) – Burki Mar 20 at 19:13
  • @Burki sure: there's Project Gutenberg, there's Kindle, there's Google Books... ;-) My experience doing my B.Sc and my M.Sc has been that online sources (both books and articles) are easier to find and easier to navigate. Many scientific journals no longer publish printed copies at all, so all the new finds published in them stay online. Fiction fares much better in the printed market, but fiction won't help us restore lost technology. (It might help preserve philosophical and social ideas, which is important in itself, though.) – Galastel Mar 20 at 19:35
  • Of course online ressources are easier. But as long as we talk about availability of knowledge, books kan do this job quite nicely. Slower, but it works. – Burki Mar 21 at 7:19
  • @Burki Books can do the job nicely, absolutely. If they are being printed. Which we're moving away from in the science and engineering fields. Nor do we carefully preserve old encyclopaedias, the way we keep old fiction books. That's the kind of books I see lying lonely on library give-aways, nobody so much as looking in their direction. I project this trend into the future, and... – Galastel Mar 21 at 10:48
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    While alone it was not enough to earn my bounty (people have knowledge in thier heads, that knowledge could be preserved post apocalypse), this answer is fascinating in its implications for near-future scenarios. Each generation here-on-out will be less and less dependent on books and more and more dependent on the "at our fingertips" Internet. Well done, Galastel, for bringing this trend in our society to light. It would make an awesome facet to a story's overall structure. – JBH Mar 26 at 15:01

There could be such a setting only if the thing that caused it is still around. You could write about a war with robot-zombies that do not decay. The main hive-mind has been destroyed in the war but the units still remain a threat. They do not pursue the extermination of humans but they prevent them from expanding to far, trading between distant places or scavenging big cities because there would be more of the robots.

You have to keep your population occupied with something so they don't have time to think about rebuilding or invent shit. The mentality that technology is evil will also help the prolonging of your scenario.

Perpetual war... That would be a great story.

I can't speak for other countries, but the United States has very detailed preparedness plans for all sorts of predicaments, from the IRS's post-nuclear tax-collection plan to ConPlan 8888, a zombie survival plan.

The base assumption supporting Mad Max-esque scenarios is that individuals would easily rebel against and overthrow governments weakened by massive droughts or nuclear fallout, but the average citizen would most likely be more heavily affected, and such a situation could cause countries to impose martial law out of fear for their own safety. It's probable that a post-apocalyptic scenario would look like modern-day North Korea, instead of an anarcho-primitivist wonderland.

In the cases of most zombie apocalypses or epidemics, strong governments would quickly quarantine heavily-hit areas and eventually find a cure, unless they were infectious enough to destroy humanity entirely, which would kind of ruin our chances of a post-apocalypse, wouldn't it?

I know that's not a very creative answer, so I came up with a couple of (questionably sci-fi) scenarios:

  1. Rogue clone takeover. They are impossible to distinguish from the originals, as they are physically identical to them, and they act completely normal to gain the trust of those around them. However, due to their flawed development, they become confused and act violently around the originals. Society would fall apart almost immediately, because the only way to be sure you aren't going to be killed by one is to be as far away from other humanoids as possible. I know this is far-fetched, but it's at least better than zombies, right?

  2. An advanced alien race targets large-scale human development, making political structures impossible to maintain. An example of this might be the population cap from the anime, Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, in which (SPOILERS) the moon would crash into the Earth if more than 1 million humans were living on Earth at the same time. This effectively ceased all social and technological progress in the anime.

  • A quick query. is 'anprim" an actual word or abbreviation? When I edited your post I left it alone. If it needs fixing, please do so. If it is something, a bit of explanation would help. – a4android Mar 29 at 4:22
  • "Anprim" is the colloquial abbreviation for the word anarcho-primitivist. Should I clarify this in the answer? – Simon H. Mar 29 at 4:42
  • It would help. Anprim maybe colloquial, but it is not part of any colloquium I frequent. Thus I was puzzled. I didn't know anarcho-primitivism was a thing too. I appreciate your clarification. – a4android Mar 29 at 4:48
  • I about died laughing about ConPlan 8888, so I looked it up. Check out this article at Forbes.com. This level of quality might actually convince me the U.S. government really can cover up UFOs. – JBH Mar 29 at 5:11

...nuclear fallout would decay within a decade and it only took us about 150 years to develop all our cool tech in the first place.

An apocalyptic scenario would certainly throw us back further than the mid 19th century. It was already mentioned in another comment, we would lose so much knowledge with a devastating apocalyptic event it would take much longer to get back to where we left off.

Think about how society (or what is left of it) will have to adapt to a new way of life? They will have to re-learn EVERYTHING. We may have cool technology, but we are extremely dependent on it. Taking that away will throw us even further back than the dark ages. Most people NOW, probably don't know how to hunt, to skin an animal, farm, build shelter, find medicine naturally. We would have to figure this stuff out, again.

Desperate times require desperate measures. People may be eating each other and burning their books to stay warm during the winter when the proverbial caca hits the fan. Knowing how to build a steam engine, for example, would be last on their list.

  • Some people are extremely dependent upon it - some of the world would do just fine. Even in developed nations there are plenty of people whose living conditions are not so fragile, but even if most individuals haven't developed the skills, people know such things are possible and can figure out roughly how it is done - that puts them far better off than our ancestors were in the first place. That desperation will hit, especially those in fragile circumstances, but that will be over very quickly (won't take long for the cities to starve but some rural communities will not suffer as much). – pluckedkiwi Mar 28 at 13:35

A: Big population crash. Takes a certain number of people to make society work. If you cut off the electricity, most cities would have people starving and dying of thirst before you could get them out.

B: If the crash killed the cities, it may kill the libraries too. So much of the knowledge is gone.

C: If the crash was caused by global warming, then we may have hundreds of years of unreliable weather. Unreliable weather means frequent famines. Lots of small scale wars between groups fighting for food or water.

D: Loss of the tools to make the tools to make the tools. A vacuum tube triode is within reach with 1800 tech of glass blowing and vacuum pumps. A transistor is not. Bell Labs set out to turn theory into devices they figured 5 years just to learn how to get germanium pure enough. Only took them two.

E: Lack of easy resources. The age of steel in America was based on large deposits of high purity iron ores. Some better than 80-90% iron oxide. Now we're working deposits of 10%

F: Continued disintegration of infrastructure. Concrete in particular: water moves through concrete, but not very fast. rebar rusts. Rust takes up more room. Concrete breaks. Bridges fall.

G: Rising ocean levels put more pressure on remaining coastal populations. Piers have to be salvaged, moved, abandoned. Depending on how fast Antarctica melts oceans could rise a foot a year for a couple centuries.

H: 3 generations of the use of vaccines leave a world ripe for plagues. A few of these, and the old standard of "stranger equals enemy" comes back. Makes cooperation much more difficult. Depending on how hard the crunch is, people may need to relearn the germ theory of disease.

I: General lack of written records. Printed books are much lower tech than iPads.

Some of this depends on the speed of the crunch. In "Dies the Fire" Stirling's first Emberverse novel, electricity and anything requiring a pressure of more than about 5 atmospheres stops working, click! Cities eat consume themselves. World population drops to a billion in a few weeks, and to a hundred million in a couple years.

A big enough electromagnetic pulse could destroy anything with a transistor.

A slower crunch -- say complete failure of the world monetary system -- leaves room for smart people to print manuals, and get set up. A slow crunch will likely be one that doesn't take centuries.

I apologize if this answer has already been supplied but a nuclear winter may give you your answer if the conditions persist long enough. Such an idea has been proposed in science fiction and in the real world such conditions would limit the options for survival to the creatures including humans that could subsist in such a place. There are papers written about this very idea in real life that may supply real world framework for your world.

I think it depends on the scale of the collapse and state of the civilization. Then that takes into account information from previous generations being lost when power is no longer able to allow digital technology to work, and so much information is digital now.

Energy would have to be part of the conversation as well, as the only form would be combustion. And considering the state of the environment today or 500+ years into the future, we would run out of fuel eventually.

If this future was bombed back to a pre-industrial era, then it's completely plausible for post-apocalyptic situations to last for centuries.

So Mad Max Future: State of the environment and dwindling fuel = extinction in maybe 50 years. Fallout = a bit more plausible with the nuke-scrubbing tech and years for radiation to become inert.

Well it would be similar to the dark ages in europe except it would be worldwide. It would take hundreds of years for society to recover, and eventually there will be a renissance where we will leap back to where we were.

There Are Historic Examples of Societies Springing Back from Apocalypse

As you indicated in the question, human society has bounced back mostly intact from some pretty severe setbacks.

  • Europe after Black Plague wiped out 30% to 60% of the population in 1337.
  • The Diaspora of Israel in 722 BC, 597 BC, 586 BC, 70 AD, and 132 AD
  • The burning of the Library of Alexandria in 48 BC
  • Serbia after losing nearly 30% of it's population to World War 1
  • Russia, Poland, and Germany after each losing around 17% of their population in World War 2, plus their losses from World Was 1, plus (for Russia) another 10% population loss only fifty years earlier to plague.

And Their Are Examples of Societies Language, Culture, and Customs Being Lost

And there are times when a society has crumbled so completely that, even though monuments remain, we can no longer read the language. Culture is completely lost. And the monuments may stand for centuries before researchers unlock the language with the help of Rosetta Stones, and we are left to re-invent sciences in the meantime.

  • Thera, after the complete destruction of the island and all citizens by natural disaster
  • The Babylonians, after a few years' war for the capital between Alexander's heirs
  • The Egyptians after a peaceful annexation by Rome
  • The Mayan after a drought

A Special Set of Circumstances Required for a Civilization to Be Lost

With the exception of Thera, an unrecoverable set-back for a society does not require many (or any) casualties. In the case of Egypt, the empire had been under generations of pressure to westernize by it's own government prior to Roman annexation. Similarly, Babylon had been under eight years of pressure to westernize under Alexander, which continued under his heirs. And although experts disagree on the specifics, they seems to all agree that there was a widespread loss of faith in everything Mayan when their culture and written language was largely abandoned.

But pressure to abandon culture does not seem to be enough.

Israel has been disbanded as a civilization at least five times. They had their writings taken from them, their young indoctrinated in foreign cultures, families split up, and were enslaved. Nevertheless, a group of people within that culture saw it worth while to keep the language (written and spoken) alive. They kept their stories alive. They even wrote texts (the Talmud) expounding and studying their culture, and teaching it to their children (if they were kept together) and neighbors. Their period is Babylon marked the language strongly, but people remained faithful in keeping literate in their old writings and put effort, even at risk of prejudice and imprisonment to maintain and continue developing their culture.

By contrast the Mayan culture seems to have been a widespread and spontaneous choice to opt-out.

How To Create a Long Lasting Apocalypse

Given the historical examples, there seems to be a recipe to creating a collapse.

  • A loss of widespread literacy in the culture's native language
  • A loss of faith in keeping the culture alive

So, for a modern apocalypse we could imagine a world not much more modern than today where voice-activated machines makes it possible to be high functioning and illiterate. With people only getting their education from YouTube or internet videos, literacy may be almost extinct before the apocalypse starts. Also imagine a civilization maybe a little more cynical than our own - where people have become so sick of society that they are not even marching in protest anymore, the leaders aren't rebelling, and no one is motivated to heroics in order to keep a flame they detest alive.

Then the apocalypse happens.

In very short order no one will be left alive who can read from surviving libraries or digital text. There might be fakers arise who pretend. Or the writing of the ancestors might be considered purely religious (this was our belief about Egyptian text until the language was re-discovered). All of society's knowledge might be within reach, but it's inaccessible because no one understands it.

No one cared to keep the culture alive, so all of the social advancements that were encoded in it - rights, policing, trade, sanitation - are also forgotten.

This would give you a Max Max like apocalyptic setting. And it would still be on the decline.

Although people might understand how to operate machines, and though some may have saved internet video (or an oral tradition) of how to repair certain things (given parts), there is still further to fall.

The Maya, we believe abandoned their culture in 900 AD and by the time the Spanish arrived six hundred years later in the 1500's, other than a few cities that never totally collapsed, the society had still not bounced back.

Other answers have covered this in detail, but what it actually comes down to is this:

Population. Numbers. This is key.

Black Plague levels of devastation aren't enough.

It took 200 years for the numbers to recover after the Black Plague, and that lead us into the Renaissance.

If you up the number of deaths to, say 99% or even 99.999% or even higher , there won't be enough population to create the infrastructure for a long, long time. Get your population down to 50 million over the whole earth and...well, it's going to be tough, because that's below even Roman levels...

While we can bounce back, and there have been times in human prehistory when we've only had 10,000 humans on earth.

Look at this population chart and progression through the ages. If you took the population down considerably and then added to that plagues (which there would be)--500 years of Mad.Max style living could happen. There might be isolated communities that don't have any contact with others, but, in pockets it could be like this, if in fact there is some industry. I am going to say that planet-wide it's not realistic that nobody has formed a society different from this. But if you keep it local, it certainly is. It's not beyond the pale that it would be that way in one particular corner of the world. I would posit that many places would abandon gasoline and cars entirely in favor of livestock.

But people just keep dying and there aren't enough of them.

Consider that technologically, not much happened for 500 years in our own history from Rome's rise through Medieval times.

It's not going to be the only way of life for sure.

This theory feels somewhat flawed, but for the sake of discussion, here it is: nobody would create anything, because whatever they could create would be vastly inferior to what they already have.

Let's take weapons as an example: after all, human history is, to a large degree, history of war, and, therefore, is history of arms race. Mostly, all parties were more or less equal: our tribe makes wooden clubs and sharpened sticks, their tribe makes wooden clubs and sharpened sticks. We make stone axes, they make stone axes. We start forging steel swords, they start forging steel swords. Etc., etc.

Now, let's imagine ourselves some decades after the "apocalypse". We still have plenty of modern weaponry. We can't make more of it, though: the knowledge and technologies aren't exactly "lost", but, with all the production and supply chains broken, became rather unusable. So, we can't make ourselves another assault rifle, but we can make a bow. But why make a bow if we already have an assault rifle? Why make a ballista if we still have some cannons we can use? If the technology gap was smaller (let's say, before the apocalypse we only had muzzle-loaders), then maybe, but it's just too big...

If there's a serious conflict, we would still rely on assault rifles and cannons, because it gives us better chances of winning, and, knowing that, our enemies would also certainly rely on assault rifles and cannons, because it gives them better chances of winning. At the same time, understanding that we have limited and unreplenishable supply of guns and ammo, we would try to avoid using them. Thus, we are stuck forever in a stalemate of an armed truce between innumerable warring gangs, their power based exclusively on otherworldly magic contraptions they don't even understand. No economical growth, no society rebuilding would be possible under such conditions. Until, eventually, the last guns fall apart and we're back at what - stone age? bronze? How long would an AK-47 last if taken really good care of and is almost never fired?

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