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Specifically, I'm looking for an event or catastrophe which

  1. happens quickly (climate change is too slow, I mean a full on cataclysmic middle-of-the-night sort of deal)
  2. leads to a near-extinction of the human race but
  3. allows for quick social recovery (people living in small-scale communities)
  4. preferably drives people to leave cities (due to war or natural dangers or anything else)

Ideally people would have access to basic amenities, and could sort themselves out somehow for electricity, but not have contact to people in other parts of the world (radio and internet are gone).

I've considered gamma bursts, nuclear war and ecological/natural catastrophes, but I feel like they leave too much messy aftermath (radiation and such) or just feel a bit overdone (ooh massive tidal waves, shocking)

Science people, any ideas?

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closed as too broad by Mołot, sphennings, Josh King, anon, Azuaron Oct 26 '17 at 16:16

Please edit the question to limit it to a specific problem with enough detail to identify an adequate answer. Avoid asking multiple distinct questions at once. See the How to Ask page for help clarifying this question. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding. May i recommend taking the tour? Also, please have a look at the various other questions concerning apocalypses. I am pretty sure you may find some good stuff there. $\endgroup$ – Burki Oct 26 '17 at 7:03
  • $\begingroup$ Please define "set back few hundred years" - there hardly is a way humans will lose knowledge, for example. $\endgroup$ – Mołot Oct 26 '17 at 7:12
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    $\begingroup$ Which kind of civilization are you targeting? Few hundreds years back for a western like civilization are a lot, for a semi nomadic culture in Africa/Asia/America/Oceania they might mean nothing. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Oct 26 '17 at 7:58
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    $\begingroup$ Any disaster that results in the death of most humans, will also lead to the destruction of our industrial and transport infrastructure. There are just no people to maintain it, they will need their resources for basic requirements like growing food (which you can't do very well in cities), handling disease, etc. $\endgroup$ – Jan Doggen Oct 26 '17 at 11:23
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with Jan Doggen, basically every apocalyptic disaster meets these requirements. Cities need working economies to survive, why do you think Detroit has been falling apart. Every ELE is going to be messy because every ELE needs A LOT of people to die such that the bodies alone fuel further calamities. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 26 '17 at 14:53

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1-2 punch.

  1. Plague, to knock them down.
  2. Religion, to keep them down.

I was reading about the Plague of Justinian and the dark age that it produced around 600. Lots of people died. No-one worked the land. But what really brought it home to me was this map, which I have taken from By Steppe, Desert and Ocean.

maps of cities before and after plague
These maps show the sizes of cities before and after the plague. Look at Athens. Imagine living in that city - you and your family in one wing of a mansion near the old wall. You send your kids to pick fruit in the overgrown gardens of the other abandoned mansions on your street. The empty city stretches out, reminding you of past glory.

Plague is good for knocking down civilization. But why did Western Europe stay down for another 500 years while the Muslim world blossomed?

Religion. It is debatable whether the Catholic church slowed the advent of science in Western Europe. But it is plausible. For a story, religion is tailor made to slow down the advance of civilization as much as you need it to slow down. A plague would fracture society. One can see in our world today the seeds of the sorts of things that might follow - people who suspect evil motives on the part of vaccinators, persons who think AIDS is a plot to exterminate black people, people who blame epidemic disease like Ebola on witchcraft. Historically plague and epidemics led to an enthusiasm for self-flagellation which can be included in some incarnation in your post plague religion.

Ramp these things up in the context of fear, chaos, societal breakdown pre-existing suspicions and there is your religion to keep society down as long as you need it down.

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    $\begingroup$ Loved this answer. Religion is a very strong and has potential to be very dangerous and manipulative $\endgroup$ – Thai Oct 26 '17 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ There are few true senses in which Europe "stayed down" from 600-1100. Like its contemporary Muslim world, it had its ups and downs. And, if it hadn't been for monasteries copying manuscripts, then we would have little writing from classical antiquity except that that the Arabs found in the library of Alexandria (or what was left). On net, I'd have to say the Church is an important factor in why we didn't see a real dark age like the Dorian Dark Age. That said, however, I like your plague idea. $\endgroup$ – guenthmonstr Oct 26 '17 at 14:11
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    $\begingroup$ I can see this scenario: A plague created by a mad scientific (similar to Twelve monkeys virus) decimates humanity. Then, a new religion rises and blames science, so any kind of tecnology more advanced than light bulbs is forbidden $\endgroup$ – Pablo Lozano Oct 26 '17 at 14:51
  • $\begingroup$ The primitive backwards dark agree mythos was started during the enlightenment, when sanitation was worse, average health was worse, women had less rights, sets had less rights, as a way for the enlightened men to feel good about themselves. The dark ages saw women treated better then they had during the classical era (saxon, norse, Anglo), productivity per capita increased drastically, lower class had more rights, norse, saxon, Anglo, valtin. Finish, hungarians.... and while they lost knowledge for large scale construction, aqueducys, sewers. They improved in metelurgy, crop rotation... $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Oct 27 '17 at 14:56
  • $\begingroup$ I anyways think it funny that people believe the dark ages were backwards. With so many deaths labor was valuable, tidal mils, the heavy plow, blast furnaces, eyeglasses, spinning wheels, the list is endless. $\endgroup$ – Garret Gang Oct 27 '17 at 14:59
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The two requirements of "middle-of-the-night sort of deal" and "[don't] leave too much messy aftermath" are kind of contradictory, but they still leave a few possibilities:

  • handwaving (e.g.: aliens arrive and decide Earth is too crowded).
  • some serious sun flare able to kill whoever is found unprotected (something slightly less severe than Niven's "Inconstant Moon").
  • some military grade virus gone astray in the wild generating a 95% population death.
  • Nuclear winter due to some super-volcano continued eruption.

In any case anything stopping overseas commerce for longish (months) periods is going to be utterly destructive as almost no region of this planet is self-sufficient food-wise (surely no urban areas anywhere).

Re-booting civilization is not going to be easy as lots of different materials and tools are necessary to sustain our current production style. If reboot can happen quickly that's good, otherwise, if current infrastructure is allowed to "rot" we may not have the materials needed to rebuild as all "easily accessible" mine sites have been depleted long ago and what we are currently mining needs high technology. Some materials may be scavenged in scrapyards and similar (e.g.: copper), but others would be difficult to separate (e.g: some rare earths, tungsten, etc.)

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    $\begingroup$ +1 Just think of your standard Zombie apocalypse, without the zombies. The survivors will have to scavange, then start farming to survive. Power stations etc will shut down, and require deep technical operational knowledge to get going again, which people can't do if they're spending all their time growing food and gathering fuel to get through the next winter. $\endgroup$ – Binary Worrier Oct 26 '17 at 15:56
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Viruses are nasty things

We recently saw Ebola kill a vast number of people in West Africa. It spreads via direct contact and contact with body fluids and contaminated surfaces.

Norovirus is more aggressive when it comes to spreading, it can be spread by contact and by air and can hang around for days on surfaces on which it settles. Gestation in hours, it can scythe through schools and hospitals. It's merely nasty (I've had it, it's horrible), rather than fatal, the instruction to people with norovirus is to stay at home because it's so infectious.

Take something that's a mix of the two, ebola's fatality rate with norovirus' infectiousness. Do you tell people to go to hospital or stay away? Merely breathing the same air as an infected person can kill. Add a prolonged infectious period even after recovery (ebola remains active in semen) and the ability to survive for considerable time out of the body, and you'll kill a lot of people. Entire cities may be abandoned for fear of being too close to too many other people. People will die from disease, from loss of infrastructure, from curable and preventable conditions due to the risk of going to a hospital. The people who stay in the city will starve, those who leave will end up carrying the disease to new places and pick up even more diseases along the way.

As with any disease, how many you kill will depend on the response and how fast it spreads before it's noticed. Deep rural areas may be unaffected, there will be survivors, but entire major cities will be lost.

Knocking technology back

You've lost most medics and probably medical researchers, the people who are determined to find a cure and keep going back to work, it would only take one or two slips to kill off the staff of a hospital. Non-critical workers may be instructed to stay at home under quarantine regulations but that still leaves critical workers exposed.

Given how fast freshers' flu spreads through academia, you've probably lost an entire generation of students and academics. You may even have lost an entire generation of children, norovirus regularly shows how fast it can spread through a school. One of the kitchen staff ill in Parliament? There goes the government. The list goes on. Modern medicine gone, critical infrastructure gone, leadership gone, the people with the knowledge of how it all works gone, population drop to the point where there's no critical need to put it back together again.

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It looks like you are looking for a 'cosy catastrophe' scenario set up in a .

As others mentioned, a plague would be the least messy way to get rid of the majority of the world's population. How about it being an unforeseen side effect of a rejuvenating treatment? Those few who managed to survive fully benefitted from the treatment and their lifespans greatly increased. That would be very helpful for rebooting the civilisation and establishing a social order.

The cosiness would depend on a degree of automatization and robotization. The closer your world to ours the more devastating will be the aftermath of any catastrophe. Developed countries will be hit the most since the majority of their citizens lost touch with the land and are very much incapable of fending for themselves. In the worst case scenario, they will end up in a stone age.

I believe that 100 years from now the situation could be very different. If the majority of production is highly automated and relies on 'green' energy (solar, wind, or equivalent) the survivors can have very comfortable lives. It might be interesting to explore a world where machines take care of humans who lost the knowledge of building those machines.

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I'd say a suitable event would be a super volcano eruption, or a asteroid hit. both would create a huge amount of ash/dust, that would fill the atmosphere, making the air hardly breathable.

In order to continue their existence the remaining population would have to cut down on pollution heavily, power plants as we know them today would no longer be viable. solar power as well would not be sufficient, doe to the dirt in the atmosphere.

the only way to continue the survival would be to start from scratch. and start innovating in new directions.

In this scenario the population would still be able to generate some electricity mechanically, from maybe wind, or flowing water, but it would not be very efficient...(Water dams still do exist, but the infrastructures are all heavily damaged, people could perhaps build cities around those, to at the very least supply themselves with the required power).

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  • $\begingroup$ If the atmosphere is hardly breathable, it makes sense to run a coal power station downwind, and use air conditioning where you actually live. $\endgroup$ – Donald Hobson Oct 26 '17 at 15:09
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I would go even further than ZioByte. The Options he listed are good, but i think what is necessary for your situation is a combination of those for the scenario of being set back by hundreds of years to be realistic.

  • handwaving (e.g.: aliens arrive and decide Earth is too crowded).
  • some serious sun flare able to kill whoever is found unprotected (something slightly less severe than Niven's "Inconstant Moon").
  • some military grade virus gone astray in the wild generating a 95% population death.
  • Nuclear winter due to some super-volcano continued eruption.

Imagine a solar flare causing an EMP-like destruction of all unprotected technology while also causing natural disasters to destroy the cities humans build. The super volcano would work too, since it would drastically change the climate and the general situation so much people would have to reinvent the technology they had. The results should be:

  • the majority of technology is destroyed
  • people would flee the cities due to natural disasters, lack of supplies due to chaos preventing goods from being transported
  • most people would die, thus making it necessary for every area of the world to start anew with the few people and the knowledge they have

You could also combine the virus with the natural disasters or the solar flare, but that will probably be hard to build into a realistic scenario. Maybe virus + aliens would work.

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While some of the other answers touched on this in general, the subject has come up very recently, due to world events

Electromagnetic Pulse from Nuclear Weapons

Two electromagnetic pulse (EMP) experts warned Congress on Thursday that North Korea is capable of executing an EMP attack over the United States which would send the U.S. back to the stone age and would lead to the deaths of 90% of all Americans within one year.

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    $\begingroup$ Im not going to downvote this because I believe in the usefulness of this propaganda, but I do suggest to you to explore the controversy of the EMP attack theory. $\endgroup$ – anon Oct 26 '17 at 14:47
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Why not plague?

I think all the other answers are missing something important. Plagues kill people, but not societies. Whoever is left will be left with as much of the capital of the prior civilization as they can continue to maintain; all they will have lost really is:

  • labor
  • skills
  • mouths to feed

Make no mistake, this is bad, and certainly will cause a civilization to falter, but you really don't lose capital, let alone technology (by which I mean the knowledge of production processes). This is especially true today with the internet.

In zombie apocalypse scenarios, the real problem is that zombies pose an extreme security threat, requiring people to devote huge portions of their economy to counter-zombification, or what we today would call "defense".

Communism

As long as you have about 50 years: communism. Not wimpy, post-Stalin Soviet-style communism where you still allow black markets to thrive in the production of goods behind the Kremlin's back, but Khmer Rouge, DPRK, Great Leap Forward, Holodomor Communism. You need to destroy the social norms that say that wealth creation and capital accumulation are good. You need to destroy the price system that allows for an efficient allocation of goods, and control all production from the top. Encourage the sentiment that if your neighbor has a bigger house than you, you can just accuse him of "counter-revolutionary activity", and being a Kulak and then once his brains are spattered on the wall, you'll be free to move in.

The stronger your communism, the greater your degree of economic and technological retrogression (except in military technology of course). Just when you think things are getting really bad is not the time to go soft. It's probably those damn counter-revolutionaries sabotaging the Party anyway! Crack down harder than ever.

If you throw in an agrarian flair, you can really accelerate the technological retrogression, as you kill most of the artisans and engineers, and move whoever is left to the countryside at gunpoint.

I'm sorry if this doesn't quite fit your specified timeline, but look how much the Khmer Rouge accomplished in 4 years!

There are definitely other social manipulations that could work, but few are as effective as the abolition of private property, and the eradication of social norms necessary for commerce. So far, we've only had experiments this on a small scale, like China, but if you spread it over the whole planet, you'll get to crank all the bad parts up to 11.

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I can not answer your question about what apocalyptic event could cause this, but I can say what apocalyptic event would end it.

It's time to take the gloves off on this 'clean apocalyptic' thing.

There are 7,500,000,000 humans, give or take a few, on earth. You are talking about most of them suddenly dying. Not vanishing, not disappearing, but dropping dead. Leaving dead bodies behind. Imagine a stadium with 40,000 people, all dead in their seats. They just stay there, rotting. Imagine a shopping mall, where everyone has just dropped dead. No one removes the bodies. There are 25,000,000 people in Beijing alone. All dropping dead overnight. No one collects the bodies. Now, how about seven billion dead bodies, all at once?

Let's look at what happens to just one dead body. Maggots set in. Blowflies lay eggs. Roaches take up residence and lay eggs. Worms take up residence. Rats come to dine. All of those pet cats and dogs, now without owners who provide their food, seek out sustenance. This is happening to not just one body, but seven billion bodies all at once, all rotting and being consumed. And this is just the human bodies. Think about all of the domesticated animals - cows, pigs, chickens, in industrial food factory farms? No one takes care of them, they die. By the millions, if not billions. And they rot, or become food for predator animals, insects, bacteria, and such..

I have absolutely no idea of what apocalyptic event might cause it, but I can tell you what apocalyptic event would follow. Not just the plague, not just some bacterial or viral infection, not just some biological weapon, not just some health crisis, but every disease known would run rampant, unconstrained. No medicines, no medical facilities, no doctors to alleviate it. Malaria, diphtheria, dysentery, lyme disease, Necrotizing fasciitis, legionnaires disease, all of them all at once, would become epidemic. No sanitary facilities. No sewage treatment. No garbage collection. Rotting food, bodies, feces stay where it lies. No quarantine. Cats, dogs, coyotes, rats, would prowl every street, every home, every store. Every pet, now a feral predator. Unrestrained reproduction of those not neutered. Untold billions of tons of food would go rotting in stores, houses, warehouses. Bacteria, viruses, mold would cover everything that humans inhabited. The stench would be unimaginable. The worst of the slums of Calcutta, on a global scale, but without living humans to put up even a basic defense. No 'perimeter' to contain it. Every imaginable disease carrier - flies, mosquitoes, rats, mice, bats - unrestrained and uncontrolled.

We are not talking about a 'clean' event - there can be no clean apocalyptic events (unless these billions of bodies, their pets, and warehoused fresh and uncanned packaged food just disappear).

We are not talking about any surviving humans dealing with the few humans you posit would remain, we are talking about these very unlucky humans dealing with every imaginable onslaught of predatory animals and disease.

There would be no 'Ideally people would have access to..'. There would be no ideally at all. There would be rot, decay, and disease on an unimaginable continuing multiple apocalyptic scale, not just one apocalyptic event.

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  • $\begingroup$ Dead bodies, unless they are a result of an extremely contagious virus like Ebola, do not transmit or cause diseases. They look gross, they smell terrible, but that's about it. The only real concern is water contamination, but it is not applicable to modern cities with sewage and waterworks systems. Exposed to elements, the bodies will decompose very quickly, especially during warm weather (warm and wet is the best). In a year there will be nothing but skeletons everywhere but the coldest and the driest regions of the planet. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 26 '17 at 23:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Olga And exactly what do you think the chances are that, out of 7,000,000,000 dead bodies, enough have communicable diseases that all the life forms that are feeding on them will not spread it around to other dead bodies, and act as incubators? No quarantines? No travel restrictions? No isolation wards? And you don't get it - there ARE no working sewer systems, waterworks, flushing toilets, working taps. Everyone is DEAD., $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 27 '17 at 2:08
  • $\begingroup$ the chances of incubating infections deadly for humans in specifically corpses are very low because without active travel diseases like Ebola do not spread. As for sewage and waterworks, they will not work, indeed. However, they will keep waterways inaccessible for and thus protected from the harmful accumulation of decaying biomass. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 27 '17 at 23:30
  • $\begingroup$ Survivors will definitely have to deal with more diseases and infections. But those will be a result of poor sanitation, malnutrition, and lack of medical care, not rotting bodies. I am also quite positive that there will be very few foodstuffs left to rot. Modern cities have very low supplies of food, only for a couple of days. So, any serious delay in transportation will lead to stores being picked clean. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 27 '17 at 23:34
  • $\begingroup$ @ Olga When you are prepared to eat a medium-rare steak that has been cooked from a putrid piece of meat that has been left out in the sun for three days, I will reconsider your point about dead bodies. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Oct 28 '17 at 3:30
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Building on what @ArtificialSoul answered (too long for a comment):

As you say, @ArtificialSoul, the majority of technology would be destroyed, including the computers holding a vast store of easily accessed information. Left would be books stored in libraries (public, educational and private), but people would be focusing on knowledge needed to survive, like how to farm or build a cart or just basically stay alive. And since so much time will have to be dedicated to survival, there will be very little opportunity to somehow preserve knowledge that is not immediately useful.

People would have to disperse into smaller, rural, largely self-sufficient communities which are most importantly close to the greatest source of their survival - food.

I think a massive solar flare kicking off a myriad of smaller natural disasters and isolating people would be sufficient to reduce the population by 90 or 95 percent, as many people who survive the initial disaster would die from illness, starvation or even be killed off by one-another in the ensuing anarchic state. Thus releasing "the Virus" would literally be overkill.

People might be able to get some basic amenities like electricity going but only on a small scale, and only if they happen to be near readily available structure for generating such. Preppers would of course be entirely vindicated and would likely be wonderful resources of knowledge and what limited technology would be salvageable.

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    $\begingroup$ Unfortunately, many preppers uphold 'every man for himself' philosophy. I suspect that they might decide not to cooperate. $\endgroup$ – Olga Oct 26 '17 at 13:44
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Now, those ideas don't happen over night, but they are moderately quick.

  • Plastic-eating bacteria that is spreading uncontrollably in combination with something else. Or maybe the bacteria also makes humans die very quickly.

  • A simple new deadly virus with a 100% mortality rate that would only leave humans on a few remote islands alive.

  • Massive simultaneous flood basalt eruptions that not only lead to a volcanic winter but also poison the atmosphere, something like the Laki-eruption but on a much bigger scale.

Generally I would just use a combination of two different things. Like gamma ray burst and plastic-eating bacteria, or deadly virus plus volcanic eruption.

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