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Asking for a project that's floated in and out of my head for the past few years.

I'm desiring to create a scenario where human society is globally affected - not wiped out, not even Mad-Maxed, but crippled to the point of global depressions and warfare. However, a recent tweak I've considered is the instigation is a natural cause. The question is this -

Are there any known possibilities for a natural phenomenon that will result in extreme, though recoverable, damage to global society, while preserving the biosphere?

A final point - although not essential, it is desirable if the cause isn't an Earth-bound phenomenon, such as volcanic eruptions or landslides.

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  • $\begingroup$ How long do you want before recovery? Hours? Months? Centuries? What's the metric for effect/recovery? Wealth? Population? Technology? Politics? $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 19:57
  • $\begingroup$ @user535733 it's subject to change, but for now, the rule of thumb is economics - a generation, social - a lifetime. Long enough for it to irrevocably affect the mindset of those who grew up under it $\endgroup$
    – N Francis
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 20:28

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A few off the top of my head:

  1. Asteroid impact or megavolcano. Make it as big or as small as you want. Put it anywhere you want. Directly destroys whatever it lands on. Throws up huge dust clouds that affect crop production and biosphere for years (look up the proposed dinosaur-killing asteroid and scale it back by a factor of 2). If you land it in the ocean you make a megatsunami that floods every coast for thousands of miles. If you want you can throw in some exotic hazard as well- maybe the asteroid is radioactive, or contains hostile invasive microbes.

  2. Virulent pathogen that only kills people. See for example: every zombie story ever. Or see for example: 1918 Spanish Flu.

  3. Intense solar flares. Could in practice destroy 90% of our electric generation infrastructure. Continued solar flares from increased sun activity could prevent rebuilding. Though there are many government facilities designed to be resistant to nuclear weapons that would be unaffected, "nuclear EMP" or "nuclear electromagnetic pulse." Another effect of this scenario is that the aurora would be visible all over the world.

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  • $\begingroup$ A solar flare would "destroy 90% of our electric generation infrastructure" only if all the engineers on Earth were drunk blind. And even in such an extremely unlikely circumstance, most power plants have sufficient automation to disconnect from the grid and proceed to an orderly shutdown. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 18:54
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP Sorry, I was thinking of power lines and power transmission infrastructure. During such a solar storm essentially all of the power lines and data cables (any elevated conductor) becomes a giant worldwide antenna. Even if all terrestrial power plants were disconnected there would be significant currents induced in those wires. During the Carrington Event in 1859 telegraph operators were shocked, the telegraph poles threw sparks, and some telegraph equipment continued to operate even after being disconnected from power source. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_storm_of_1859 $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ Current flows only if the circuit is closed. In the event of a solar flare, all the high voltage transmission lines will most certainly be disconnected; they will most likely escape unaffected. On the other hand, the secondary power distribution lines and the communal low voltage power transmission lines may suffer. The most devastating carnage will be among the household appliances, such as refrigerators and so on, many of which are usually left unattended and connected to the grid. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 19:27
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP In the context of the world-building question I'm imagining a continuous, ongoing geomagnetic disturbance that would prevent the power grid from operating (or perhaps just prevent it from operating continuously) $\endgroup$
    – David
    Commented Feb 16, 2020 at 21:02
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Two ideas:

(1) Fossil Fuels Suddenly Run Out:

We know the fossil fuels will eventually run out. They just ran out much sooner than predicted. This cripples most industry but has no obvious effect on the biosphere. Eventually we can recover by converting to nuclear/solar/wind.

(1.5) Earthquakes make some major oil wells inaccessible.

Yes the fuel is still there but now we have to build an entirely new oil rig, and for that we need loads of fossil fuels and time to build it.

(2) Crop Failure:

The wheat crops are all genetically similar and so are wiped out by a single contagious disease. The same for the rice crops. This cripples people who need food but need not effect wildlife which is more genetically diverse. Eventually we just switch to less homogeneous crops.

Aftermath:

Both of these problems will eventually be solved but the immediate problem is major world powers kicking the shibble out of each other in the immediate aftermath in order to get enough of whatever it is to survive. Such a large global conflict might have longer-term effects than the original crisis.

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Perhaps it turns out that 5G networks actually are dangerous, but the danger only becomes apparent after about 10-15 years of exposure because the damage is concentrated in cells that grow slowly.

Animals don't stay in one place and don't usually use cell phones, so they survive, as does much of Africa and South America while the West is doomed.

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