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I am trying to generate broad ideas as to how to create a society with a refresh start. Where most signs of an advanced society (slightly more advanced then today's society) are gone but without causing complete ecological disaster which would result in the elimination of most species or humanity itself?

While attempting to satisfy the following:

  • A maximum of 3000 years over which it can occur
  • Remaining civilizations have regressed significantly
  • Remaining civilizations have no true understanding of their ancestors
  • Artifacts may still be found but are uncommon
  • Almost all structures are gone
  • Magic is present in this world (but I would like to avoid heavy reliance as an explanation)
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marked as duplicate by sphennings, Azuaron, James, dot_Sp0T, Bellerophon Jun 2 '17 at 21:45

This question has been asked before and already has an answer. If those answers do not fully address your question, please ask a new question.

  • $\begingroup$ I would disagree with calling this a duplicate questions, the question is not how long but how with a clear stipulation. $\endgroup$ – Firelight Jun 3 '17 at 19:08
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Anything that gets rid of the people would do it. Modern structures aren't meant to survive more than a couple hundred years. Without maintenance, most structures in areas with moisture will be gone or unrecognizable mounds in 300 years.

Ironically, the oldest existing structures are likely to be the ones that are still around. Stone buildings that haven't fallen over yet are sturdy.

Cement is not a good substitute for stone. Most modern concrete contains enough salt from the sand that the salt crystals will expand and weaken the structure. Concrete with steel reinforcing will actually fall before non-reinforced concrete since any crack that allows moisture to get at the steel will cause the steel to rust and expand. Glass will not rot but will likely be ground into sand or pebbles in 3000 years.

Any plastic will become brittle from UV from the sun and as the plasticizer leaks out. It will still be around chemically but will probably be in pieces too small to recognize.

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  • $\begingroup$ Paper and plastics and concrete will be all gone (or almost all gone) ni three millennia. But... In many parts of the world we still build houses of actual fired bricks. But glass is eternal -- we have glass objects about 3000 years old. There is so much glass and ceramics and stainless steel and aluminium and copper in this world that our traces are pretty much garanteed to be blindingly obvious after three millennia. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Jun 2 '17 at 18:27
  • $\begingroup$ Cities with sky scrapers would take longer than other structures, true, but if the central support structure weakens and the building comes down then the glass is going to be gravel-ized and absorbed under any plant growth. So I wouldn't call the glass a problem. $\endgroup$ – Draco18s Jun 2 '17 at 18:40
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP, I'm in California so I might be a bit biased about brick structures (they tend to fall down when the ground moves). However, the cement between the bricks is the weak point. I don't think brick structures will last too long anywhere that has a lot of moisture. Especially anywhere that reaches freezing temperatures. Most of the glass and ceramic what we've dug up was purposely buried (usually with a body). We don't do that any more. Copper corrodes. Aluminum may still be around but will probably be bent out of recognizable shape. Stainless steel is only rust resistant. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 2 '17 at 18:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Draco18s, that's exactly what I'm thinking. Even without any disaster, eventually a sky scraper will sag enough to pull the center of gravity off of the supports and it will fall (likely taking out other buildings as well). $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 2 '17 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP, we don't build like that any more. That was kind of my point. Ancient structures will outlast modern ones. Look at how thick the walls are (look around the windows in the interior and exterior shots). I'm not saying that occasional buildings may not last but that most will be gone without intervention. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 2 '17 at 19:08
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How about having people, over time, simply remove the buildings. I work on a campus and they recently tore down 2 buildings and it's like they were never there. Plants growing, weeds, you name it. No signs. Ok, maybe underground. Anyway, maybe people started dismantling them over time because they needed the resources for some reason. Just a thought.

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    $\begingroup$ As a result of the Amish takeover of the world, all the cities are taken down and turned into farmland. So that's what they plotting in those so-called prayer meetings. $\endgroup$ – ShadoCat Jun 2 '17 at 19:10
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    $\begingroup$ @ShadoCat, well I guess it makes as much sense as all of the buildings being gone I guess. Those cunning Amish people! Haha. $\endgroup$ – ozone Jun 2 '17 at 19:52
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A Plague with a very high mortality rate (99%) will do the bulk of the work for you. If it also renders the population centers into No Go zones, even better.

Here is why: For our stuff to last, especially in the modern day, it needs maintenance. Without people, maintenance will not happen. Glass will break, Rubber seals will break down allowing moisture in, iron will rust and concrete will crumble. Freeze/Thaw cycles will accelerate the process more and more each winter, and no weed spray will allow all kinds of plants to wreak havoc on roads and sidewalks.

So the Plague wipes out 99% of the population. Start with 7 Billion, you end up with maybe 70 million scattered across the globe. That should be enough to maintain species viability. The shift in focus will go from what's on TV to what the hell am I going to eat. Starvation will do in a very high number of the remaining population because we are so divorced from food production. A couple of harsh winters will whittle this down even further.

After 10 years or so, things will settle down. By that time the remaining people will have dispersed from cities into smaller farm communities. The cities that were aren't going to have much left in the way of valuables but the land there is not going to be arable yet. Add the horror stories and no one is going to even want to go there.

If people avoid the cities for a few generations, once you get past the point of "living memory" the dangers will become legendary. This takes you to around 80 years after the plague. By this time, the rot of buildings from lack of maintenance will keep the Urban environment dangerous. The city will no longer be easily recognizable anymore.

Add to this a drop in literacy due to the rigors of survival. The drop in literacy is kind of important in this scenario. If you can't read, you are less likely to figure out what the ancients were up to.

By around 200 years, the cities that were will have very little left that wasn't destroyed, they may even be safe to go into again. There will be artifacts from the ancients, but a lot of the knowledge will be gone.

By the time you get 3000 years out. We will become the mystic ancients who dabbled with forces beyond our control. No Magic is required.

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Have the people themselves actively removing traces of past technological society.

Some of the materials and structures we construct are amazingly resilient to the elements and will easily last thousands of years in some recognizable form without active means being taken to remove them.

So to get rid of all traces of our current culture and technological society, the best way is if everyone decides it has to go and actively removes and destroys any items found.

There could easily be a number of motivations for this:

Religious: the past society was wicked and worshiped their own creations as God, all of their creations must be destroyed.

Environmental: those plastics containers everywhere cause cancer, and a lot of that debris is radioactive and makes people sick when it is around.

An Existential Threat: The alien federation destroys all high tech civilizations they find, so get rid of all high technology or be wiped out.

Whatever the initial motivation if it is pervasive and persists long enough it will be codified into tradition and the people will forget why they started doing it. Eventually there won't be much left to remove and all that will remain of the past society are myths.

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The first obvious step is to kill (almost) all humans, and from then on nature will wipe out most traces of our societies, as other answers have shown. For large, ancient structures that will last for thousands more years, such as the Egyptian pyramids, I'd imagine you could blow it up with either simple explosives or magic and then it would be unnoticeable withing a few hundred years just like most other structures.

However, this would only make civilization invisible from the surface alone, yet other traces of us would remain for millions of years. For instance, all the road systems will be buried, but they would mostly still be there, and would be detectable with just underground scanning technology (even with just a shovel in some places). This would be very, very obvious, and would be a clear sign of a highly organized society. You would definitely need to grind up all the roads somehow.

Another big issue would be plastics. Contrary to popular belief, plastic does decompose, but it doesn't biodecompose. After a few million years, most plastic in the world will be in the form of microplastics, plastic particles that are less than five millimeters in diameter. The majority of these microplastics would literally never go away, because they can't be reduced into their elementary parts without some chemical reaction. Fortunately, these would only ever be noticed via the technology that we have today, and by the time the new civilization discovers them, they would probably mistake it for their own.

The thing you would have the hardest time getting rid of would be space debris. Currently there are millions of small (and a few very large) man-made objects orbiting the Earth, and more are added every day. You would almost certainly have to resort to magic in order to get all that junk down to the surface.

On a side note, I'd like to add something here: most people are under the assumption that only a few thousand or million years after humans disappear, there will be no trace of human civilization left. In reality, assuming you don't involve alien technology or magic, there will always be traces of our civilization, all the way until it's consumed by the sun billions of years from now.

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I can't comment on magic's existence. But, everyone's on the right track with how traces of the past would be wiped out over time.

If this is a civilization on par with out own, which built in the same basic ways and with the same basic materials we ourselves use, simple neglect would see to most of it being completely gone within a thousand years or less, actually.

Add to that, people surviving whatever caused the collapse would, after a few generations, lose any reverence for the ruins that at the time endured, and would strip the materials for practical uses. This sort of thing can be seen in poorer areas hit by disaster in our own world, in our own time.

The sudden disappearance of a technological, global society like ours would cause a lot of ecological and climate bounce back too (which in truth would happen with it still present as well, but possibly less destructively). Weather running amok would definitely hasten, significantly, the decay of stuff simply not built to last eons. Neolithic structures endure because they were meant to. The pyramids and so forth. Even they would actually be gone in another 3000 years, if neglected though.

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