Loosely based on real life, what single event either man-made or natural can cause communication either to or within governments on a global scale to fail?

Can be fictitious, just not totally unrealistic e.g. zombies, aliens, we all turn to dust for no reason at all and so on.

My main focus is on cities that become lawless or left to civilians to survive since the official governments are no longer in control or are unable to be of any help. But I need to understand the quickest way to collapse a government, and from the answers thus far, since governments are systems, and information is critical - that would provide a key hint on how to make governments fail. Hopefully that clarifies the question so it's taken off hold. Thanks in advance! :-)

  • $\begingroup$ I once read a book called "The death of grass" in which a virus killed all the species of grass in the world. All the food crops failed, and all the grazing animals died. Food riots, anarchy, petty fiefdoms and mass starvation. $\endgroup$ Oct 29 '14 at 21:54
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    $\begingroup$ talking about a city here, or planetary scale? $\endgroup$
    – guido
    Oct 30 '14 at 1:12
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    $\begingroup$ I think this question is too broad at the moment, you'll need to add some constraints as to what sort of world it is set in, what should be left after the collapse is done and exactly how realistic it has to be. $\endgroup$
    – overactor
    Oct 30 '14 at 7:13
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    $\begingroup$ This question is being discussed on meta: meta.worldbuilding.stackexchange.com/q/462/28 $\endgroup$ Oct 30 '14 at 12:49
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    $\begingroup$ I don't post this as answer as I don't know what, apart from divine intervention, could cause this, but my first thought was: Confusion of Languages (think Tower of Babel). I don't know, maybe some global freak accident or virus that attacks the speech center? $\endgroup$
    – kutschkem
    Oct 31 '14 at 12:48

There are a lot of options here.

Natural Disasters

Biological Disasters

  • Out of control pathogens, bacterial or viral, doesn't matter. These can be sourced from all sorts
    • Government Program: anthrax maybe
    • Naturally occurring: ...Ebola anyone, imagine if it were airborne.
    • Supernatural: A deity of death and disease got bored or angry perhaps.
    • Space: Aliens bombing us with bad...stuff
    • Food shortages

Man Made Disasters

  • War: I hope this doesn't require elaboration.
  • Nuclear conflict or accidents
  • Climate changes: Yep...
    • I put this in because it has the potential to cause large shortages of food and water etc in time.
  • Ran out of fuel, natural resources
  • Economics
  • Food shortages

The Point

The point of this isn't the lists it's the ideas behind it.

  • Governments generally don't collapse overnight, generally it is a drawn out process that takes time. Admittedly the end can culminate very very quickly (military coups, mass protests for example). These types of situations are usually a long time coming and the snowball gets faster so to speak.
  • It is a system. You have to overload a system for it fall. Governments can be good at stretching but not breaking. Taking into account what the system depends on is usually the best route to define what could cause it to collapse.

Governments rely on a few things to function

  • Communication networks. Ironically our system is far less flexible in this regard than it used to be as we are totally reliant on powered communication. If you eliminate electricity a government will shudder to a halt.
  • Information, this goes hand in hand with communication but you can also think of very oppressive governments not getting good information because they are hated and/or feared.
  • People. You kill off the people you kill off the government's ability to function. This would tend to be more localized. Its tough for emergency management to function when the emergency manager and his staff got wiped out by a storm.
  • Supplies, be they natural resources or food or fuel or raw materials, a shortage or embargo can bring a state down.

You can talk about food shortages/riots, or any other combination of stressors. Take into account the strength of a nation/government, find weaknesses and hit them with a disaster they can't handle things snowball, government gone.

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    $\begingroup$ One of my favorite ideas that came from a video game is a pathogen that makes people paranoid and uncooperative. You don't have to kill anyone for gov't to fall if people flat out don't want to work together. $\endgroup$
    – Myles
    Oct 29 '14 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ Children of Men proposes another scenario: no more kids. The only (supposedly) remaining society in the world is the UK and it's not doing too well. I get the impression that the governments of the world, as such, still exists, they just aren't functioning. $\endgroup$
    – Clearer
    Oct 29 '14 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ @Myles was that pathogen called "Cable News"? :) $\endgroup$
    – DA.
    Oct 29 '14 at 22:36
  • $\begingroup$ @James Not all of these would render global government shutdown though - perhaps the plague/war options. Or if the meteor strike is powerful enough to wipe a chunk of civilization, I'd imagine in the surviving parts of the world, there would still be government functioning, even if not at first. But you also summarized what makes a government work very simply in your answer, which helps me narrow down further what method I might go for. Although I said no aliens. ;-) $\endgroup$
    – KaguraRap
    Oct 30 '14 at 0:18
  • $\begingroup$ A great example of the meteor strike scenario (actually, a comet) is in Niven's and Pournelle's Lucifer's Hammer. $\endgroup$
    – Luaan
    Oct 30 '14 at 9:36

Any situation which could instantly render the bulk of out technology useless. Personally I prefer the scenario of a massive solar flare, but targeted nuclear strikes designed to massive Electro-Magnetic pulses could fit the bill as well. Individuals could even simply seek to take out key parts of the electical grid in major countries, idealy destroying power plants first. Our current society is extremely reliant on electrical devices, and more importantly most of our communications would be destroyed.

In many places the most basic utilities would be disrupted, and in many places clean water would not be available after a few hours to several days. Individuals with wells or towns fed off a well system may be better off as long as a non-electrical method could be used to retrieve the water, however there would be many areas where food stocks would be depleted in a matter of weeks.

If power could not be restored quickly, and especially in the case of a solar flare; where most vehicles would cease to function, Many areas would fall to basic anarchy in a matter of days.

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    $\begingroup$ +1 A massive solar flare/coronal mass ejection/geomagnetic storm is the way to go. We can't predict them. We only get a few days warning for mild events if we are paying attention. But if it is a big enough storm, it'll take only a few hours to get here and destroy any electronics which are functioning at the time of the impact and are larger than a penny. The perturbed ionosphere full of all that energy at all frequencies will make radio absolutely worthless even if one tried an RLC circuit. Our satellites will be knocked out of the sky and transcontinental pipelines will ignite. Done! $\endgroup$ Aug 4 '16 at 23:52

Lawless and collapsed government are not quite the same thing. Government also operates on several levels (municipal, state/provincial, and national)...I'd assume you are going to want something that drops all three levels.

Viva La Revolucion! First method of dropping a government to its knees is the people themselves. Let's say the powers that be behind the Anonymous movement get what they want (anarchy)...you'd see coordinated anarchy on all levels (the idea here is that lack of government does not equal lawlessness). Not so sure if this will fit the bill for what you want though, committed anarchists believe in no government and not committed to lawlessness.

I'm assuming you are looking for more of a disaster that makes the government incapable of functioning. For this to work, you need something to affect the populace heavy enough that there is no longer enough people to maintain the current government (which is actually a pretty large number of people, the bureaucracy will expand to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy after all).

Plague / sickness is my first choice here...a government cannot operate if the employees of the government are too sick (or dead) to keep it functioning.

Radiation / nuclear war. If you want to empty major cities fast, put the threat of a nuclear strike on it. A global event that causes a catastrophe that damages nuclear reactors and causes them to meltdown worldwide (Fukushima for all!). Even a super villain that managed to detonate the majority of nuclear arms in their silos would work here.

Entirely irradiating a nations food source would probably work to the same extent, cities need large amount of food to survive, a mass shortage of food can empty them and reduce it to lawlessness as we compete for the remaining food supply. Even a worldwide food shortage/disaster could have this effect.

Neutron war. Maybe I'm off in this theory, but there is a 'neutron bomb' idea that has a bomb that is relatively 'weak' when it comes to causing damage to buildings, but absolutely devastating to the population in those buildings. This would be a far more instant version of a ghost town. Drop enough of them and you'll have your anarchy.

The options above allow for a ghost city where the city is relatively unharmed (radiated maybe?) but the population has mostly disappeared. I've got some other options, but they don't really leave cities behind.

  • $\begingroup$ Upvote for lawless and collapse not being the same tip. Also mention of anarchy - no one has mentioned that yet here. :-) $\endgroup$
    – KaguraRap
    Oct 30 '14 at 0:15

One most physically possible and under-reported would be massive solar flare. Like Solar storm of 1859, whith auroras as far south as Caribbean and so bright you can read newspaper.

Depending on intensity of such flare:

  • power grid would collapse for weeks,
  • GPS satellites would be destroyed (it could take years to restore satellite network to guide planes and ocean transports)
  • huge transformers would be destroyed - and would be hard to manufacture replacement without available electricity
  • computers would be destroyed, obliterating everything from banking (how much money I have in my account?) to car computers (how to resupply after food got spoiled with no refrigeration)
  • diseases spread by unclean water would become common (typhus, cholera) and hard to deal with without modern transportation and healthcare
  • food factories and farms would collapse without electricity. They can run on generators for few hours, but without electricity you cannot make fuel to power generators. Refineries cannot refine without electricity. Mad Max world.
  • global unrest of hungry and desperate people all over.
  • and so it goes.

We spend more than hundred years to build infrastructure for managing power. If it was destroyed, it will take years to rebuild it even if we have some remnants of manufacturing not destroyed. The country which avoided complete disaster (if any) would be next superpower.

I am not afraid of plagues or other natural disasters - we survived so far so it is good chance our own nature can deal with it. Solar flare is different - we cannot depend on nature to help us, and our own technology is inadequate to deal with the scope of disaster.

Nuclear war, green or grey goo - we can avoid that if we are smart enough. We cannot avoid next coming flare, it is out of our control - only thing we can do is to prepare to deal with it. Which we don't do, too much to bother. Let's make a movie about it!

  • $\begingroup$ In the US, government and utilities are working on creating a stockpile of transformers as a way to mitigate the effects of a CME. I would imagine most large companies have backups / redundancies that can survive this kind of event. CME is not an EMP so the damage will be much less. Still a good candidate to disrupt communications for a while and create chaos though. $\endgroup$
    – ventsyv
    Jan 17 '17 at 21:28

One example to answer for a single city as the last part wants:

Nuclear threat - I am currently using this but I will likely never get published or finished. If 3rd party publicly announces that the city will be attacked by a nuclear warhead and it seem believable for some reason, said city will be agressively evacuated. Limited military forces will likely remain within the area. Those who know better, are unwilling to leave home in the required time frame so hide, or break through defenses would find a largely uninhabited city with plenty to loot. This fits better as a "no mans land" as few people would be there.


A fast spreading virus that renders its victims blind and deaf at the same time for several months should do the trick.

Let say travelling diplomats and diplomatic agents or couriers spread the virus among their social circles (which consist of other government people mostly). Also that virus is genetically engineered to spread but stay silent for a while then attacks your specialised neural circuitry (visual and aural). The virus is not lethal, much like a like cold sore virus (herpes simplex). It infects you, renders you deaf and blind (for a while) then vanishes.

  • $\begingroup$ Hey, generally you need to explain exactly how it would work. This example wouldn't just destroy governments, it would destroy most of human life. $\endgroup$
    – DonyorM
    Nov 3 '14 at 2:56
  • $\begingroup$ Let say travelling diplomats and diplomatic agents or couriers spread the virus among their social circles (which consist of other goverment poeple mostly). Also that virüs genetically engineered for spread but stay silent for a while than atacks your specialised neural circuitry (visiual and aural). And the virüs not lethal, like cold soar virüs (herpes simlex). Infects you, render you deaf and blind (for a while) than vanishes. $\endgroup$
    – underscore
    Nov 3 '14 at 3:12

An extremely powerful solar flare. As said many times before, enough energy in an electromagnetic pulse will generate a very high strength electromagnetic field, causing Eddy currents, and heat, burning up wires. Satellite control via radio will also be destroyed as the waves can deflect radio signals. The onboard electronics controlling the thrusters of the satellite are also melted, leading them to slowly spiral into earth, one day creating disaster. All communications are reduced in a day, when every side of Earth has had time to be exposed, though the Poles may be spared.

  • $\begingroup$ Why would Poland be spared? :) $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Jan 18 '17 at 4:24

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