I am envisioning an Earth that has been stripped of natural resources. Clean water, food, and wood/trees are rare and costly enough to be used as units of exchange. Whole swaths of land once fertile are desert or perpetual dust bowls (i.e. the great plains,etc.) Wind power is very common and coal is still available. Oil and Natural gas are used up or so rare they are novelty. Dust, sand, and grit are so airborne that sunlight is reduced in most areas, making crops hard to grow and harvests very reduced. Solar power is not very effective I would think but maybe wrong. Ocean levels would they be higher or lower? Land line phones and telegraphs are available, some radio transmissions are available as well but limited by the atmospheric conditions. I would like to envision a types of dirigibles or zeppelins with some type of rudimentary motor running props to propel them as they only real air travel. steamboats and trains I would assume to be available also. I am assuming that food and water shortages decimated much of the apocalypse surviving population as well.

Other then Eco disasters and nuclear winters what other scenarios could set society back like this.I could see possibly nuclear power plants still being around but I would love to see them removed or greatly reduced in effectiveness by the scenario.

  • $\begingroup$ Are you wanting a single reason? Many answers will cause another. Ex. depleting resources causes shortage, shortage causes conflict, conflicts triggers nuclear exchange, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Razmode
    May 7, 2022 at 2:07
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    $\begingroup$ "dirigibles or zeppelins" not without clear air, high-energy-density fuel, industrial-scale aluminum production, long-distance communication, and a host of supporting technologies and organizations. Keep in mind that the Hindenberg's cargo lifting capacity was miniscule - about 10,000kg (about half of a single fully-loaded TEU). $\endgroup$
    – user535733
    May 7, 2022 at 11:40
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    $\begingroup$ Stripped of resources? Wood and trees, oil and gas are so rare they're a novelty but coal is not? There's a plausibility issue there I feel .. many older coal mines are already decommissioned because extraction of what's left is no longer commercially viable .. hard to square that with what you want. $\endgroup$
    – Pelinore
    May 7, 2022 at 12:29

6 Answers 6


Solar Flares:

The sun goes through an extended period of massive solar flares. Massive EMP dumps from the sun cause even telegraph lines to catch on fire. Computers are simply irrelevant as they are destroyed soon after being taken out of Faraday cages. Power generation in general becomes extremely problematic and power grids all collapse.

Further, the levels of direct radiation skyrocket. Organisms are damaged and killed, and the increased output may cause global warming to spike.

Communication stops. Shipping stops. without a supply chain or computers, factories stop. Finance stops.

There should still be some natural gas production, since you'll want to supply your dirigibles with helium (a by-product of natural gas production). Otherwise, electrical discharges could cause hydrogen tanks on dirigibles to explode as they come and go. Many lighter than air gasses are explosive or highly toxic.

But airplanes would be problematic to fly as the electrical systems short out. Engine efficiency plummets due to the lack of electrical systems, and only a few military aircraft can afford to fly with the non-electrical systems and EMP shielding they need. Cars would need to be very old-fashioned if you could even get the fuel to keep them running since nothing is being shipped.

  • $\begingroup$ Even computers in Faraday cages are still valuable. Main frame computers used to be a thing and had enormous impact. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2022 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ @TheDyingOfLight We aren't eliminating any tech, but it's getting pushed so far back by the difficulty of building, maintaining and preserving as to make it a rare thing. What are your computers going to run on with no chips, processors, and circuits being manufactured? They can be run on batteries in Faraday cages, but they won't work well, There won't be an internet, and the parts to run them will be near-impossible to find and make. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 7, 2022 at 13:16
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    $\begingroup$ Solar flares only affect half the earth - the side pointing towards the sun, $\endgroup$ May 7, 2022 at 13:20
  • $\begingroup$ There is no actual documentation of those 'telegraph wires bursting into flames' as a widespread thing., It is substantially a hoax, just as the supposed widespread panic from the broadcast of 'The War of the Worlds' is a hoax, Both are urban myth media hype, Same as 'Columbus set sail to prove the Earth was flat' garbage, No peoples ever thought the wold was flat, except conspiracy theorists, $\endgroup$ May 7, 2022 at 13:30
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond As for the telegraph fires, I didn't say they did, only that the new event would cause them. But the Wikipedia reference for the original Carrington has at least 4 citations of weird stuff and telegraphs, including sparking. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 7, 2022 at 13:48

Since you are still talking about an electrical society with the possibility of solar power (just diminished, in your description), phone lines and telegraph still work, wind power works, "steam" power seems highly unlikely.

So does coal. In such a hazy environment, respiratory health would be at a premium, and greater pollution by coal would be outlawed, either by the government or by vigilante destruction.

Solar power might be diminished, but not useless; just make the collectors larger, there is presumably enough sunlight reaching the surface to keep it warm, and I doubt particulate haze will rise above the mountains.

After asteroid strike 65 million years ago that killed off the dinosaurs,the world was only in darkness for about two years, all the particles settled out of the atmosphere and the skies became clear. Heck, give it three more years, and the air is crystal clear. Wind pushes air against obstacles and knocks particles out of the sky. And Wind can carry particles from deserts thousands of miles, but eventually the wind stops and the particles fall down. And the biggest factor in air cleaning is rain, even tiny particles are struck by raindrops, absorbed and fall to the ground. Rainy places have clean air, it is literally getting washed frequently. And those places are usually good places to grow crops. Or rainforests, nature's spontaneous "farmlands".

As long as there is heat, there is evaporation and wind, and the more of those there is, the more rain and air cleaning there will be, somewhere. But then wind again, causing air mixing, so the clean air blows out, dirty air blows in, and gets washed by more rain. Save a few special dead spots caused by mountains creating weird circulatory patterns, most places in the world end up with clean air.

This is why the skies after the asteroid cleared in just two years. Two more after that and the effect is amplified.

The only way your world is possible is if the particulate pollution is constantly being replenished on a massive scale. Since it is constantly being washed, you must invent a scenario in which it is constantly being dirtied.

I don't know what that is, perhaps a chain of volcanoes that is constantly spewing particulates into the atmosphere, for decades on end.

Here is a map of the world's major fault lines. If some of these fractured, say by some sort of nuclear terrorism, volcanoes might erupt along the fault line and pollute the atmosphere. The Stromboli Volcano off the coast of Italy has been erupting more or less continuously for over 2000 years; so that shows it is possible; if you suddenly have strings of thousands of volcanoes, and at any given time hundreds of them are actively erupting and spewing particles, that might be enough to make your scenario reasonably plausible.

But that can't be just one nuclear bomb going off; the size of a nuclear crater is an invisible pinprick on the scale of a fault line. It would take hundreds or thousands of nuclear bombs intentionally planted at weak points to cause this. So a terrorist act to reset the world order, perhaps. A kind of vengeance for injustices.

This would also cause a nuclear winter, by the way, dropping global temperature significantly.

Then all things Nuclear might be considered the culprit in this global disaster, and the nuclear power plants destroyed in the riots, by the people. All it takes is a well-placed truckload of dynamite, some missiles or something.

Along with the collapse of governments and economies: As Covid has recently proven, just like many disasters before it, our governments are severely impaired in the midst of even small catastrophes. As the aphorism says, most countries are just three meals away from anarchy. And we can see for ourselves economies are fragile babies, easily destroyed.

Anyway, because nuclear power plants require billions of dollars to build and a functioning orderly economy to deliver the necessary materials, they just have not returned.

Yet I still fail to understand how this is the "age of steam". That age was extremely polluting, with coal and wood and fires in general generating the heat. I doubt in a world heavily polluted already, causing all sorts of respiratory illness, water pollution and general health distress caused by constant volcanic particulate pollution, that people would put up with polluting fires and industries at all. That crap would be shut down, by vigilantism if nothing else. As we have seen in industrial cities that already have high particulate pollution, compared to rural towns and farmland, the particulate pollution severely elevates all sorts of maladies, including autism, skin disease, lung disease, organ failures, and heavy metal absorption.

I believe clean energy would rule the roost; including thermal solar (easy) and wind power (easy) for electrical energy. In that sense, "steam engines" with tanks heated by focused solar energy for the purpose of generating electricity would be quite prevalent; but it would be the age of electricity nevertheless.

Photovoltaic panels would still work, all that is reduced is their efficiency.

Good luck, I hope there is some food for thought in there.

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    $\begingroup$ Maybe one good nuclear bomb triggering a super-volcano? Some evil geologist figures out they can re-activate Toba en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toba_catastrophe_theory with a bomb in just the right spot... $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    May 7, 2022 at 16:17
  • $\begingroup$ @DWKraus Possible. Trigger the Yellowstone Super Volcano in the USA, perhaps. If you could do one, your genius geologist might do several of them. I mean, if a villain is going to destroy civilization out of spite or hatred, they should put their back into it! $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    May 7, 2022 at 16:21

Population crash and decentralization.

Good old Road Warrior. That kind of world. People could build things but that would mean assembling a workforce and there are just not that many people in any one place anymore. But coal still burns and water still boils, and you do not need to find a copper coil or a magnet to make a steam engine do work for you.

Steam powered vehicles burn whatever is burnable; coal where available, plastic from dumps, asphalt pulled from old roads, relics from the world that was. What mills exist are small and steam engines can serve their needs too. There are windmills to extract water from the ground to water the crops. There is not oil or nuclear power because there are no refineries and no mines. There is not solar power because there are no factories to build solar panels. There is still music, because people make it themselves.

In this world there are flying things that use solar power. They can sometimes be seen high in the sky. They are left over from the war. They do not come down. People are glad they don't come down.

But how do you crash the population? Infection could do it. We just had (are having?) a master class in that. I think the best account I have ever read of that scenario is Stephen King's The Stand. Almost everyone dies. War could do it.

You can have that event be in the past. There is a different world now; the one you want for your story. I like the idea that the haze and grit is not well understood by your characters but is thought to be related to events on the other side of the world where something very bad happened. People talk about what it might have been and whether it is still going on.


Likely, technology can't go backward. Imagine for a moment that there is a doomsday that pushes us back to the steam age.

Is there then a lesser doomsday event that pushes us back to the 1970s? We'd all be using Apple computers and playing pong? Nope. Because if we still had any electronics at all, we'd still have the 22nm process... and modern chips. Any event that knocks out that technology, knocks out all of it.

What kind of doomsday would allow us to maintain the rubber seals and the rather sophisticated metallurgy that allows for steam engines? It's an implausible premise.

It might even be true that any doomsday that topples our current technological civilization makes it impossible to rebuild. In the 1800s oil was so close to the surface there were places you could use a shovel to extract it... and today they have to put a platform out in the sea, go through 3 miles of water, and another mile or two below the ocean bottom to get to it.

The first time, it was possible to use the 1800s technology to get the oil necessary to make it to the 1900s technology (just a shovel). If we ever have to go through that again, 1800s-like technology (the shovel) will not be able to go through 3 miles of ocean water, and another 2 miles of ocean bottom to get to whatever oil is left.

And it's like that for all sorts of essential materials. We already used up all the easy-to-get stuff. No second chances.


In one word, 'religion'.

A 'new religion' develops and becomes widespread among the poor and illiterate. The prosletyzations and ideology are basically 'knowledge and science did this to us - destroyed our civilization - our only hope of survival is to return to ignorance and destroy all knowledge and technology'.

Thus, the masses all rise up and completely destroy anything that even remotely looks like science or scientific thought. All intellectuals are killed, all educational institutions destroyed, all progress is forbidden.

All of human history is a successive series of 'catastrophe theory' and cusps. Sudden changes in thinking and ideology. Religious vacillations suddenly change the entire course of history. Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, all changed society in a period of a century.

With the pressures of climate change, and the human suffering that will follow, it is inevitable that a new religious ideology will arise. Even today, we have the 'populist movement' vying to overthrow decades of moral and ethical progress, and their means of enforcement is ruthless capital punishment and complete annihilation of truth, facts, and knowledge.

Fundamentalist zeal and mob power, driven by religious fervor, are brutally effective.

However, the question is imprecise. By 'society', do you mean the entire Earth, or just pockets of human society? Throughout all of human history, 'human society' has never been a homogenous one. There has ever been a 'universal constant' of technology over all of the Earth, and to posit such is an entirely different question.

There has never been a 'universal religion' on Earth, and it is very unlikely that there ever will be one.

  • $\begingroup$ How would we have steam? Wouldn't the luddites deny that too? $\endgroup$
    – LWS SWL
    May 7, 2022 at 17:53
  • $\begingroup$ The Luddites were never anti-technology. Their beef was that the new technology replaced very highly paid skilled jobs with unskilled labor. They were not after a ban on the new machines, they wanted the companies to pay the workers the same wages as skilled workers were before. $\endgroup$ May 7, 2022 at 19:30

Technology can't go backwards

Honestly, from our current state of development there's no feasible way of reverting back to the age of steam, or any obsolete technology at that in general, without getting ourselves wiped out in the process.

Massive resource shortages on a planetary scale simply do not occur overnight, they are gradual and provide humanity with more than enough time to adapt.

Worst case scenario, come the apocalypse and the resources are dwindling, meaning they are increasingly harder to come by, factions will inevitably form and each one will try to create and exploit every single advantage it can over the rest. Another World War era will occur and large leaps in technology will be forced just for the sake of getting an edge over the enemy. In other words, there's no going backwards technology-wise, any faction that isn't able to keep up is eventually going to be wiped out.

The only way to restrict technology would be to exterminate the generations currently using it and deny the knowledge of it to future generations, and there's simply no way to pinpoint where one technology ends and another begins. The only way to revert is to hit a hard reset button and the only way that happens is by a fantasy scenario eliminates 99.99% of the human population, leaving only the ones with the very basic knowledge. For your particular case, this would be definitive overkill.

If you want to write a story that occurs in the age of steam, simply place it in the age of steam and build your world onward from there, don't bother with the apocalyptic technology reversal because you'll end up being tangled in it.


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