In the world I'm building, an antagonist desires to cripple humankind down to simple-living status. To do this, the antagonist has to remove all modern infrastructure. This includes buildings, electrical and informational connections, down to the electronics which run on those connections. Orbital satellites will also be taken out, though the solution(s) do not have to account for this. The process can be multistep, or however complicated it needs to be. Hypothetical technologies can be used, for this all takes place in the realm of science fiction.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Nov 26, 2017 at 19:49

25 Answers 25



The body count is really going to depend on how long humanity has to prepare.

Hi, glad to meet you, the reverse not so much. We're the galaxy's big bad and you just got on our radar. Pro tip, don't be on our radar. Listen, we consider your technology a threat. We're going to, how do you say, bomb you back to the stone age.

However your society is so unagrarian this would kill almost all of you, especially with your nuclear reactors cooking off, so we're looking for alternatives.

Give us a plan to wind your society back to an agrarian cusp-of-steam era, sailing ships and canal mules, refrigeration and epoxies are ok and keep your medical miracles... We'll let you keep your infrastructure long enough to let the existing humans live out their lives as long as you drop breeding down to a sustainable level. Show us the plan and we'll let you work it for the next 80 years. Or else. Your call.

Maybe not to that extremes, but active management of the event will greatly reduce casualties vs. just randomly breaking stuff.

There is a real problem that if you sever technology too fast, the nuclear reactors will break. Even on the new Gen-3+ reactors, the "prevent meltdown" interval is only widened (refill the water tanks every 48hrs). Any reactor flat out neglected will full-on Chernobyl eventually*. Battle damage can greatly hasten this.

Chernobyl left trace contamination all over Europe, which didn't impact life too badly, but if 100 reactors all blew, the trace contaminations would stack. This would really screw up the planet.

If you don't want that to happen, you need to cajole the plant operators into cooperating with a plan to shut down, wait for the fuel to cool enough to handle, unload it, and place it into some sort of long-term storage regime, which the aliens may be better at. Once the spent fuel is gone, bomb away, the Israelis do all the time.

* It's widely believed "safer" Western reactors can't explode like Chornobyl. That applies to ordinary operation. That doesn't apply to a situation where the operators are killed or disappeared. It also misses the point: while the initial explosion was bad, that was only a local problem. What really messed up Europe was the fires that followed, and these were fires unlike Fukushima's H2 hydrogen explosions. The only good thing we can say is that a Western reactor won't have an initial explosion unless it's directly attacked. Other than that, Western defense-in-depth only puts more belts and suspenders in the hands of experienced, competent operators. If the operators are dead, then in 2-5 days, the safety systems run out of water, decay heat chews a hole in containment, oxygen gets in, and the fire begins. Unlike Chernobyl, where a superpower went all-in to contain the damage, in this scenario, nobody does anything. So our baked PWR will actually create a mess much worse than Chernobyl. So I stand by my statement.

Hopefully our aliens will appreciate this, having a few Exclusion Zone National Parks on their home planet, and take special care not to mess things up.

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    $\begingroup$ I can't see this working... Look at climate change: essentially the smartest 99.99% of climate scientists tell the entire world "guys, here is a 50 year plan we absolutely need to stick to in order to not screw everything up for the next hundreds generations". What does the international community do? Diddly f**** squat, that's what. B/c everybody thinks that maybe just they might get away with it... $\endgroup$
    – fgysin
    Nov 28, 2017 at 10:03
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    $\begingroup$ Agreeing with fgysin, if we got 80 years we'd spend the first 79 on squabbling on whose fault this is. Unless the aliens don't mind busting the first few heads to get the message across. $\endgroup$
    – Borgh
    Nov 28, 2017 at 12:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Borgh i presume such a show of strength. If I were the aliens I would show up in ships that were dead ringers for the ones in Independence Day, and the L.A. ship would launch one fighter who would shoot Will Smith. $\endgroup$ Nov 28, 2017 at 14:45

an antagonist desires to cripple humankind down to simple-living status [without killing people]

This is impossible.

Modern society is a highly integrated web of sophisticated transport and production systems, most notably in terms of agriculture, water, sewage and waste, and materials distribution (roads, rail, air, sea). One you remove these people will start starving - you'd have a widespread famine in days. Diseases like cholera and dysentery would become rampant. This is what happens in areas affected by large natural disasters like earthquakes and extreme weather events.

On top of that the health system would collapse. I'm sure doctors and nurses would work themselves ragged to try and cope, but without modern medicines, antibiotics, antiseptics, power (!), diagnostic tools and modern treatment systems they'd be back in the days of mother's dying in childbirth as a common event, people with minor wounds dying of infected wounds (sepsis) and back to pain and suffering on a huge scale. No kidney dialysis ? No transplants ? No cataract operations ? No anti-flu jabs. No vaccination for childhood diseases - a disaster is too small a word for it.

You're going to ask how little of the sophisticated infrastructure can we survive with, I think. The answer is more than we have now - people die now needlessly of diseases we can eradicate, die of starvation and hunger, lack of water. We don't even feed and clothe everyone of this planet properly now. Less is not an option - more is what we need.

Hypothetical technologies can be used, for this all takes place in the realm of science fiction.

This is meaningless. You've removed basic infrastructure required to operate a technological society and essential just to maintain lives. What hypothetical technologies could exist that don't require basics like electrical power and transport logistics to be effective ?

And who would develop, maintain and operate this technology ? Certainly not the starving, dying population suffering without any modern medical aids.

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    $\begingroup$ Nanoviruses that self-replicate and eat microchips. That'd be effective, wouldn't destroy all transport logistics before they've spread everywhere, and still be in "hypothetical technologies." Bonus: old engines would still work, so not all transport is destroyed. edit: never mind, OP's edit rules this out. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 6:13
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    $\begingroup$ In fact destroying microchips (and hence computers of all sorts) would cripple all modern transport infrastructure and particularly transport logistics on the scale required to maintain our lives. As a trivial example, consider what happens to city traffic when even a small part of the traffic light system fails and now make that country wide. Complete gridlock. The effect on hospitals, police, ambulance and fire departments would be catastrophic and kill many people. Microchips keep us alive in a very real sense. You would also destroy the financial system and online data. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 6:32
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Do forward that info to The Red Cross next time there's a major disaster, it will be a huge benefit knowing that while they're burying the dead. Or to put it less bluntly - experience does not bare out your claim. Also note that without all the infrastructure and industry to support this, there's no soap, no clean water (for 7 billion people !). Not even basic antibiotics or bleach - it all has to be made and transported - even the water ! Knowledge will not generate the resources required to enable your "simple" tasks to be carried out on the scale required. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 7:20
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf, StephenG: knowledge without infrastructure may still help a lot, compared to not having the knowledge — what your examples illustrate, though, is that it still doesn’t come close to as good as knowledge + infrastructure. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 11:01
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf Calling these problems "urban" is a very moderate climate, 1st world view. Where you live, this might be an urban problem. But getting enough water to hydrate your whole family, livestock and farmland can be a very different problem if you live near a desert. The lack of fuel or electricity to power pumps will not be an urban problem, neither might plenty of water be available within a days walk (or you be able to carry enough of it back in that time). $\endgroup$
    – skymningen
    Nov 23, 2017 at 13:02

Removing the infrastructure with a minimum of human loss isn't that hard, but the consequences will kill hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, within a year. But, first things first.

  • Electrical: Power stations are not quickly built. Knock out the hydroelectric dams, the nuclear power stations, and the coal stations, and you've eliminated about 75% of the world's electrical power. The nature of primary electrical distribution is such that far more than 75% of the planet will be blacked out (undersupplying a load disconnects or burns out the supply).

  • Water: Quick research did not reveal what percentage of the planetary potable water supply is contained in the dams we just blew up. I'm going to guess at least a third. However, since potable water distribution in urban areas requires pumping stations, killing the power killed the water right along with it.

  • Gasoline: No one really knows who said "civilization is three meals away from anarchy" (or anything similar), but the quote is basically right nonetheless. Destroy the world's refineries and you've stopped the world's transportation. The amount of food consumed in a city each day is AWE INSPIRING. No trucks, no food, no civilization.

  • Heating Oil & Natural Gass: This is easier than it sounds. Almost no cities have redundant oil and gas distribution networks. Many rely on trucking for distribution. We've already stopped the trucks, so all that's left is to bomb the gas trunks in the cities that pipe natural gas and there's no heat.

Just with those four issues alone I've (very simplistically) technologically reduced the world to the early 1800s. The problem is what happens next.

23% of the world's population lives in cities of 1 million inhabitants or more. They're all dead in three months. This is because the nearby countryside cannot absorb anywhere near that many people.

55% of the world's population live in urban areas. Nearly all of them are dead in three months for the same reason stated above. That's basically half the world's population.

While more than half the world lives in areas that don't see snow (or much snow), the colder it gets in the winter, the more likely you're dead.

At a guess, within one year of this humane destruction, at least 2/3 of the world's population is dead... and probably a lot more.

You can't remove infrastructure without a price. It's more humane to just kill everyone. (Assuming "humaneness" (is that a word?) is the reason the aliens didn't want to kill the people.)

  • $\begingroup$ With water (in the UK), the water reservoir which may or may not include damns (if they do, they might be quiet small), and those damns that do exist, do not necessarily include generators: they can predate electricity in a lot of cases. However the pumping mechanisms of the water almost certainly are electrified (even if they do have backup generators etc). I also understand that the 'north' of the uk has more reservoirs then the south, which is an interesting dynamic when it comes to droughts, especially as the population is inverse of that. $\endgroup$
    – Jmons
    Nov 22, 2017 at 11:13
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    $\begingroup$ This answer is suspiciously useful to alien Invaders... $\endgroup$
    – GnP
    Nov 22, 2017 at 11:18
  • $\begingroup$ If you knock-out the nuclear plants (or the grid and fuel for generators), expect lots of meltdown problems too. The cores are too hot with lots of short-term radioactive products to survive without active cooling. I.e., this is what happened at Fukushima, no grid, no diesel generators, meltdown happens soon. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ @GnP This site as a whole is full of things that could be exploited by a mad government or alien invaders to wipe out entire civilizations. Maybe we should rename ourselves as EvilMasterminds.SE... $\endgroup$
    – Mermaker
    Nov 22, 2017 at 15:46
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    $\begingroup$ @T.Sar That was the original suggestion. The more practical members of the council decided we'd get more responses if we presented ourselves as creators instead. Funny thing, PR campaigns. They work! $\endgroup$
    – corsiKa
    Nov 22, 2017 at 16:46

Keep it "simple" - escaped nanobots that munch on metal and concrete and they multiply at some insane rate. They feed and breed. They don't care for organic material (humans, or our food..), but construction material and metal? Yummy!

EDIT: @PCSgtL suggestion is a great one! The nanobots may not just need to provide antibiotics, they could be the antibiotics. Working inside the humans to keep them healthy. Somewhere along the line, the nanobots determine they can share small amounts of their energy with the humans to keep them alive as well.

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    $\begingroup$ Nano bots are the way to go. Update your answer to have them also provide food/standard antibiotics ala manna from heaven and you've got everything wrapped up in a nice little bow. $\endgroup$
    – PCSgtL
    Nov 22, 2017 at 14:45
  • $\begingroup$ The antagonist offers the nanobots as a means of improving the well-being of humanity (eternal life?). Everyone jumps at this chance and within months nearly everyone is infested with these things. Then the antagonist flips the switch and suddenly the nanobots start to destroy the modern world. And the now eternal humans can only sit and watch civilisation collapse. $\endgroup$
    – James
    Nov 22, 2017 at 23:52

'In the world I'm building, an antagonist desires to cripple humankind down to simple-living status. ' While preserving life as much as possible.

If you leave this as your goal, and leave the actual knowledge intact, then the answer is much simplified. If you forget about the destruction of physical property, buildings and such, and limiting it to reducing humans down to simple living standards, then it is pertinent to remember that up until 50 years or so ago, this pretty much described 70% to 80% of the human population. Most answers here suggest that the standard of living of the entire world is equal to that of the Western nations, and that we can't possibly live like, well, 80% of the population used to live (and now, perhaps, 40% still does). Just ask someone in rural China if survival is possible under such conditions.

So, we are just reverting back to 150 years or so ago. The physical structures that people live in are inconsequential. What matters is the technology.

The simplest and surest way to revert humans to a simple living status is through massively intensive and repeated EMP attacks covering every meter of earth. Say every hour for a week, then daily. Totally fry all electrical and electronic systems. Totally melt all motors, generators, and transformers. Every car and vehicle electrical system fried. All electrical lighting systems permanently darkened. And do it repeatedly, for a year, so no repairs could be made. Wave after wave of total electrical system destruction. Even copper plumbing in houses, valves and such, would be melted and the solder joints broken. Massive water leaks in every building. Anything magnetic that conducts would have huge electrical surge currents induced in them, raising their temperatures. The entire earth would be one huge magnetic induction cook top.

So, apart from fires that would be started, not much damage to buildings. Except for burns and electrocution, humans would remain unscathed. People would still have shelter. Food would still be grown.Climate would remain undisturbed (except for global warming, because all heat and energy would come from burning fossil fuels). Transportation would return back to horse and buggy. Houses would be heated by coal. Lighting would be by oil lamps. Your biggest problem would be manure, smoke, and pollution.

But certainly the slums of Calcutta prove that humans could survive such conditions. Just not pleasantly. But I take it that is your goal.

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    $\begingroup$ "Just ask someone in rural China if survival is possible under such conditions" But such a person doesn't already depend on infrastructure, which is the main problem in highly populated areas. You can't treat suddenly losing 10 pounds as equivalent to slowly gaining 390 and then suddenly losing 400. $\endgroup$
    – Jack
    Nov 22, 2017 at 8:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Jack That's the point. probably 70% of the current earth's population DOESN'T depend on the technology infrastructure. Only the West would suffer. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme can we get a source for that 70%? And the claim that only the west would suffer? $\endgroup$
    – user41674
    Nov 22, 2017 at 16:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme I don't see how killing "only" 30% of all humans counts as destroying infrastructure without killing many people. And given that Asia contains several cities far more dense and populous than any Western city, I don't see how this would only affect the West. Distribution of wealth is not a good proxy for distribution of people reliant on infrastructure. $\endgroup$
    – Jack
    Nov 23, 2017 at 2:03
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThyme Did you really just say "Anyone who knows anything about [subject] would [view of state of subject]"? Sources please! :-) $\endgroup$
    – wizzwizz4
    Nov 23, 2017 at 21:15

Hmm ... something's got to give. You can't have both simple living status and not many deaths. The world is so interconnected, and we depend so much on this, that I fear that many would not survive without this infrastructure. So for the sake of the story -- and how many hypothetical people has WB.SE slain anyway? -- I'll assume that we'll err on the side of breaking modern civilization.

Now since we are kinder, gentler, passive-aggressive antagonists, we shall try very hard not to directly kill anyone, and let the ripple effect do the dirty work.

Here's the plan: we will destroy long-range transport!

First -- wipe out all ocean-going ships with our orbital lasers/missiles/etc. Can't have specialization of manufacture, that is not simple living. And airplanes too. This'll cause direct casualties, and we are evilly sorry. But it has to be done, to force all manufacturing to be done from local resources.

Second -- attack rail junctions from the air. Also target any moving train engine. Motive power is our enemy.

Third -- to the extent budget allows, attack all bridges, highway interchanges, and above all repair trucks.

Fourth -- don't forget to snap those undersea internet cables!

Fifth -- let's see if we can locate electrical infrastructure. Power plants, transmission grid take priority.

Sixth -- any leftover large engineering works. Dams (drill them, don't blow them, so the flooding is slower). Canals; especially Suez, Panama, and Erie.

Seventh -- target all fertilizer plants, and ag machinery factories with a blazing fury.

Eighth -- this is what we call "maintenance mode". Guard against rebuilding of #1-#7, and as opportunity permits, slag any active smokestacks.

The goal here is to eliminate all long-range transport, making each region dependent on its own resources. There will be less specialization, so fewer goods and services will be available. As high-yield agriculture fails, more and more people will be forced to become farmers. (Oh, there will be a mass die-off from the cities, but we the squeamish antagonists cannot be blamed!) iPhones will not be available at any price.

Side-note: this plan depends of course on neutralizing the armed forces of Earth. If this is not practical, we'll have to shrug into our lab coats and re-plan.

Side-note: I really, really wanted The Plan to include damming up the Straits of Gibraltar, but in the end decided that that would be too expensive and difficult.

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    $\begingroup$ The loss of high-yield agriculture won't mean that more people need to become farmers, it will mean starvation. If we return to low-intensity agriculture, the current worldwide arable land cannot feed 7 billion people, billions of people must starve in such a scenario. $\endgroup$
    – Peteris
    Nov 22, 2017 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Peteris I daresay both effects would happen. People would return to the land to try to make up for the hyper-efficient ag we have now, but it wouldn't be enough... $\endgroup$
    – akaioi
    Nov 22, 2017 at 17:37

There are already natural and hypothetical disasters which can a similar effect. You don't need to specially target everything, and you could perfectly well leave small computers and mobile phones alone. After all, how useful are they to the average person without internet? You don't have to take 100% of technology away, just take away such a critical mass that they are nearly useless.


The solution requires some futuristic technology or experience, but you said that was fine, so why not create extreme shifts inside the Earth? If it's strong enough, it can result in massive earthquakes all around the glove. Even if mobile phones are OK, there will be no network, no power, no transportation, no electricity, no water supply... This happens on small scales periodically, and it destroys the area quite utterly, with close to no recourse. People are left to fend on their own until a nearby well-resourced area is able to assist them with rebuilding.

So I guess it depends on whether or not you consider the sudden failure of a large supporting structure like a building or large natural gas fires to be "direct killing" or not. If you do, then a gradual increase in magnitude over the course of a few days would quickly get people to evacuate buildings, before it gets to the inevitable power required to take them down.


A strong enough shift in the Earth's climate can result in very powerful winds across the globe. The speeds required to cause massive flooding and topple all large objects (buildings, cell towers, etc) is far under the amount required to kill an individual directly.


Create a small magnetar near Earth? Detonate a hundred thousand pure-fusion (zero fallout) nuclear bombs in the upper atmosphere? Weaken the Earth's magnetosphere and let it get hit by a powerful coronal ejection? These will take out all but the best shielded electronics. A powerful enough one will even bypass EMI shielding for sensitive equipment (airplanes, military and medical devices, etc). This may or may not be acceptable, as it will leave roads intact, but there will certainly be a shortage of vehicles old enough to be trivial to repair after such damage.

For bonus points, keep providing EMP bursts once a day, indefinitely. Can you imagine trying to maintain a megalopolis without computers? There will still be people who can maintain a large building, but it will not scale without computer assistance.

Environmental destabilization

What are insects good for? If you killed all the insects in the world, you wouldn't be living the bug bite-free life. You'd be covered in carrion, dead animals, poorly decaying plant matter. People could still eat plants, but there would be virtually no agriculture anymore. More species, not even counting insects, would go extinct than in any of the great mass extinctions of old. While this won't directly interfere with technology, it will create a situation that technology is not at all capable of dealing with. What good are airplanes if the global panic is preventing the airlines from functioning?

Microorganism that feeds on plastic

Some species of bacteria have been discovered that can metabolize polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most common plastics. If you were to create an extremely hardy, fast-reproducing and fast-adapting microorganism that can metabolize a wide-range of artificial substances such as rubbers and plastics, humans themselves would not be directly affected, but nearly all infrastructure would quickly be damaged to the point of being unusable. A large building cannot be built without plastic, even if the structure itself does not contain much.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding guest! Nice first answer. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Also Why should I register my account? might be interesting for you. By registering you can easily keep track of your contributions and collect privileges, so that you for example can vote on stuff or comment everywhere. Have fun on the site! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Nov 22, 2017 at 10:30

Others have covered the means of destruction.

I'd like to point out that you can actually avoid a massive die-off, if you provide - and keep providing - the food - and water - yourself.

For that, you need the means to produce and distribute it, which requires massive infrastructure you'll need to keep, and keep people from commandeering. A robot army comes to mind. The irony and hypocrisy will be quite dramatic.

This will look more like a standard tyrannical dystopia than to a post-apocalypse, but it solves the die-off issue.

If you also provide essential medicines (think vaccines and antibiotics), the deaths will be really low. Another alternative is to cure all infectious disease with applied nanotech just as you destroy the infrastructure, or to start with a world that already cured them.


Genetically modified Insects that have a short life span and contain no procreation drivers;

  • Crazy Ant (Nylanderia fulva) so that it now eats electrical equipment rather then just be attracted to it.
  • Termites and Sand Bees that can eat wood and concrete respectively could destroy buildings at a fast pace.
  • Aphids that eat plastics.

That takes out electrics and all dependent equipment and all forms of shelter including tents. Food and water that is persevered in plastic wraps and modern forms of transport (Planes, Trains and Automobiles all require plastic somewhere even if only for insulation between electrical components)

The actual attack won't kill many people, a few in the electrical fires and the collapsing buildings, a few in the train, plane and automobile wreaks that would litter the world but the numbers even though in the millions would fit in to the not many category as a percentage of the total population.

However as mentioned in all other comments and answers the death toll would reach about 80% within a few days to weeks, quickly rising as people dependent on the technology died off quickly, mostly those with medical conditions that have also been mentioned but I'd like to add insulin dependent diabetics and also those who choice suicide either because they no longer have there medication or just because it's less painful then starving to death.
Then more with the starvation, riots and fights over the last tin of Baked Beans in Benfleet that would occur, parents killing the Jones from number 74 for there supply of water and stale biscuits to feed their staving children.

Also probably would also be a bad time to be a family pet, not a lot of meat on a cat and it's stringy but after three days of nothing poor old "PussyWussy" is going to start looking mighty fine in the starving mans minds eye, with or without fried onions.

Farming would collapse, it all needs modern tech to work. Most of the animals would also die, milk cows would probably go first as they need milking twice a day by the machines that no longer work. Small holdings and organic farms would fair better, at least until the starving masses from the city descend upon them like two legged locust.

Then your have all those bodies slowly rotting and the diseases that spring from a large pile of rotting meat.

Within the year your be looking at 90% to 95% fatality rate at a rough guess.

  • $\begingroup$ If you suddenly dry off (stop milking) a cow, it does not kill them, they will die soon enough from lack of food and water on many dairy farms though. Those they are pasture fed with natural water source will be an attractive target for their food (both milk and meat). Cows can be milked without machines, but the distribution chains will be totally broken. A large herd produces multiple semi-truck loads of milk per day. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ Sudden dry off can kill a cow though via infections from a broken milk bladder. A modern dairy farm is more likely to experience this due to high production milk rates. At any given time, a reasonable fraction of the milk cows would survive -- production drops off as the cows are later in their lactation cycle. Restarting milk production after dryoff requires bearing another calf too. Smart ranchers will realize what a valuable asset they control and milk some cows by hand to preserve it. Dumb ranchers already went out of business. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 15:56

Referendum Antagonist creates a party that campaigns for referendum to destroy all infrastructure and promises great gains if people vote for it. Government initially is against but then eventually decides to support the idea. Campaign against is underfunded and misrepresented. People vote and 52% choose yes, so they demolish all the infrastructure by themselves.

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    $\begingroup$ Is this a jab at the Brexit campaign? $\endgroup$
    – Nzall
    Nov 22, 2017 at 15:36
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    $\begingroup$ @nxall what campaign? UK was never part of EU. We were always at war with Eurasia. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 19:28

Alternate option - rather than removing the tech from the people; remove the people from the tech; force a planetary mass evacuation; then you have leeway to define what was available to the evacuees (and it doesn't have to be the same for each set of evacuees; cue class wars)


Trick us into doing it

If we don't cooperate, we'll just rebuild.

A truly advanced species that manifested as beings from a particular religion could trigger a revival. Make the new gospel's payload some kind of anti-intellectualist or survivalist screed.

Ken Liu's The Three-Body Problem describes a hostile civilization's sabotaging of Earth's science for the sake of stopping it. Making tech unreliable/dangerous could drive us away from it.


Choose the solution of the Dan Brown novel Inferno.

Reduce the population of the Earth by reducing its fertility rate significantly via a virus. As the population declines, the level of technology that it can support will fade too over a few generations, but instead of having people die from having the tech taken away from them, people won't be born and the harm from the loss of tech will be offset by the reserves accumulated by a once much larger population.

To prevent urban centers of high technology, you could engineer the virus such that it mutates at a fairly high rate but only at the moment it is transferred to a new host. The more versions of the virus you had in you, the lower your fertility would be. In a dense urban area, most people would be exposed to many strains of the virus and have very low fertility. In rural areas, you would be exposed to fewer people and so you could have slightly higher fertility. Thus, the population density that is necessary for urban areas that is necessary to maintain high technology would cease to exist in just a few generations.

Abandoned infrastructure could be demolished by a variety of means from natural disasters to robot bulldozers.

Once the human population was widely dispersed, had adapted its culture to dispersed low tech living that shunned concentrated populations, and the world hit some floor of population, a cure could be distributed via another virus or via a vaccine program.


It is an interesting concept.

As you noted, it must be a multi-step process.

And was commented, people will die. They do anyway. And based on the only workable theory of Darwin, environmental change will allow some species to prosper while others cannot.

You need to reduce technology in stages. First the super computer virus that takes out the internet. Isolate people. Second, mini-electronic virus, eleminte computer technology without destryong things like actual car engines or electric motors for heaters.

Over some years, the people will be forced to burn wood for cooking.

As you do this, people will be forced to spread out for food and will be forced to become more independent. Farming will become a central endeavor.

As people become more independent and able to self sustain, the next wave of terror would need to be to take out other machines. Maybe an alien mechanized robot force that seeks out metals and either destroys them or takes them away. That would reduce society into a world without metal machines. No engines save water wheels.

People would be forced to live further apart and to depend more on the land than each other. The ultimate goal will be a planetary agrarian society with no metal for machines or weapons.

Remove metal and remove electronics and you have effectively made humans as all farmers.

Unintended consequences are that armies of bullies arise and the farmers are just making food for the conquerors. Dictators will create kingdoms and slavery will be re-instated. Women will become slaves to the kings. This will force people to spread out even more to get away from the war-lords and people in isolation will be prey for bandits.

This will eliminate any prosperity as there is nothing that creates markets. Unless you make furniture or carriages, pottery, maybe clothes…..

Interestingly, you are asking how to take a prospering open trade open market society into a communistic, dictatorial one. This is very close to the new antifa movement in the USA. Create two classes, the serfs and the aristocrats.

Funny how you have to think logically to see the root of things.

Thank you for the question.

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    $\begingroup$ Anti-fascism and communism are not the same thing, but I suppose that's only tangential to the question. Still a fairly well thought-out, detailed answer. $\endgroup$
    – F1Krazy
    Nov 23, 2017 at 17:36
  • $\begingroup$ law of un-intended consequences. the 'facism' we see is usually from the party that wants to alter the statis Quo. the USA has been on a 500 year prosperous curve and only in the last few decades has chosen to move from an open market society to a totalitarian-communistic one. with book burning and elimination of facts in the media and silencing both truth as well as opposing points of view. $\endgroup$ Nov 27, 2017 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ "the USA has been on a 500 year prosperous curve"... except that the USA has only existed for 241 years. I don't think there were even any permanent colonies there 500 years ago (Native Americans aside, of course). $\endgroup$
    – F1Krazy
    Nov 27, 2017 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ Columbus = 1492, USA today = 2018, sorry if my math was off. the nearly constant and persistent European involvement on North America in that time has altered the extant way of life that went before. as for the name of the land that is now North America, I have no reference for the area that pre-existed the term North America or USA. $\endgroup$ Jan 21, 2018 at 18:53

The problem is that unless you do it over a generation destroying infrastructure will in itself kill a lot of people.

This is especially true of urban populations which are totally dependant on imports of food, medicine, raw materials and manufactured goods to sustain themselves.

Also the sheer volume of population on earth at the moment is highly dependant on industrialised agriculture and a global trade in both food itself and all the technology required to produce and distribute it.

There are also a lot of people with chronic illnesses who are only alive because they have access to modern medicine and even more so because of basic infrastructure like vaccination, basic primary healthcare and sanitation. So it's not just really high tech medicine but quite basic medical commodities like antibiotics which are made available by industrial infrastructure both for their production and distribution.

There is perhaps and argument that if you want to do this in a fairly benign way you might as well roll all the way back to a hunter-gatherer type culture as there is a fair argument that this is a better lifestyle than subsistence farming or proto-industrial societies, especially if you want to put a hard cap on technological development. A modified Victorian Britain level might be acceptable but this would need modification to improve overall living standards and constant tinkering to keep the technology at an 'acceptable' level.

So with this in mind you would want to :

  • Reduce the population to a sustainable level eg by a compulsory on child policy or similar. This would take many generations to bring the population down at a rate which isn't too traumatic plus you would need economic support for a population which a disproportional number of older people.
  • Regenerate true wild habitats with sustainable ecosystems to provide sufficient food for the human population. In particular this would involve returning agricultural land to forest and restoring populations of top predators.
  • There would also need to be a major education and training programme to give people the skills they needed to survive in their new lifestyle, many of which would need to be redeveloped from scratch. You might even want to establish a few selected pioneer populations to fully develop the needed skills. Equally you might have to gradually 'un-learn' knowledge of the modern world.

In fact as what you really need to do is change the behaviours of whole populations and discourage technological development the best bet might be to establish a religion which encourages the behaviours you want. In fact there is a real world example of this in the shape of Amish communities, although this might not be a god model for a global population as even the Amish still exist in the context of a modern industrialised society.


Electromagnetic hypersensitivity

This means of reverting the population back to simple living status also very strongly suggests a motivation for the antagonist. Imagine being subjected to constant pain due to the people around you using their electronic devices. They don't understand, and won't stop using their devices. What if the antagonist could make them understand?

A person with electromagnetic hypersensitivity would feel extreme discomfort in the presence of the very common EM radiation given off by nearly all modern conveniences that use AC power or generate RF signals. When everyone on earth becomes afflicted, modern technology isn't destroyed, just made very uncomfortable to use. Critical systems will be heroically maintained until they can be safely shutdown or non electric replacements found. Satellites remain in the sky, but with no one willing to man the consoles on earth, they fall out of use.

This eliminates all modern vehicles except very simple pre2007 mechanical diesels like tractors which could still maintain crops,(including biodiesel fuel crops) though they would still be uncomfortable during the starting process. Older diesel trains(not diesel electric), tractor trailers, oil and coal burning ships, could have electronics removed to maintain delivery infrastructure at reduced capacity. Steam power remains unaffected.

Air travel would still be possible on specially modified small craft, including blimps, diesel gyrocopters, hot air baloons. Large aircraft and air traffic control would be useless.

Modern dwellings can be maintained, but disconnected from power. Steam powered air conditioning and refrigeration could be feasible. Natural gas delivery could be maintained.

Aluminum refining and any manufacturing process that uses electrical induction (steel forging) goes right out the window.

Wind power for mechanical pumping and solar concentrators for heating are well known worldwide and would continue to operate. But photovoltaics, what most people think of when they hear "solar panel", generate low voltage DC electricity. That is less likely to generate an extreme reaction in someone with EM hypersensitivity. It would be up to the author to decide if that type of power is acceptable or not and could have critical consequences.

If solar electricity is OK, then so are batteries, DC electric lights, LEDs, and potentially a wide variety of small electronics without motors or high frequencies. Low voltage DC electronic control (slew rate limited) means that at least some automated processes can continue. Life is basic, but still pleasant. And you risk confusing the reader if they can't understand the difference.

If solar electricity is not OK, the rules are simpler to understand, but life takes a big hit. The world is plunged into darkness at night which will drive people to burn up precious fuel for light. This, and the loss of every electronic control system makes for a much bleaker outlook.

The sudden loss of electronic communications would have a dramatic effect. Local networks of pneumatic voice tubes would spring up as replacements. Long distance and non voice local communication handled by existing fiber optic cables. They can be tied to the local pneumatic networks with remote relay stations that require small amounts of electricity used away from people.

Suppose the antagonist(or someone known to the antagonist) discovers the cause of his electromagnetic hypersensitivity is genetic mutation caused by some specific combination of environmental factors which can be replicated worldwide. eg. doped fallout, combined with global warming, and solar wind.

This condition has actually been reported to exist today with seriously debilitating effects, but the mechanism at work is very vague. This lends some degree of credibility, while allowing great artistic license.

Wikipedia Hypersensitivity
YouTube BBC
YouTube National Geographic
YouTube The Feed
YouTube Fear of Smart Meters
YouTUbe FOX News

  • $\begingroup$ Second sentence of the article you link to, clearly states that there is no scentific evidence suggest that this is a real thing. Adding to that, it's not a bad idea. $\endgroup$
    – Clearer
    Nov 26, 2017 at 14:49
  • $\begingroup$ People believe it is real enough to relocate across an ocean to get away from it and start movements to ban smart meters because of it. It may not be provable, but it does make a good story. Which is why I suspect the linked outlets picked up the story. $\endgroup$
    – slomobile
    Nov 26, 2017 at 17:47
  • $\begingroup$ There is a book where humanity is given an enhanced sense of smell, and suddenly can't stand the odor of petroleum, chemicals, oil, etc. Similar idea. $\endgroup$
    – DWKraus
    Apr 18, 2020 at 21:31

Since modern civilization (and presumably science-fiction civilizations) all need electricity to run, an antagonist must destroy the electrical grid. Other answers state multiple methods of how the antagonist could do this. Unfortunately, (from the antagonist's perspective) the world also runs on gasoline. People would have generators to make their own electricity. For the antagonist to get around this problem he could somehow sap all of the gasoline out of the ground. The other solution would mean that the antagonist wouldn't even have to worry about this problem: there is no gasoline left, and automobiles run on an alternate fuel (such as electricity or hydrogen). There is evidence that all fossil fuels will be used before A.D. 2100, and it is predicted that all coal will be used before 2088.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Tiskolin! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Nov 27, 2017 at 9:14

For the immediate, you can't destroy infrastructure without killing a lot of people. Look in your own refrigerator and cabinet: how long could what's in there last? A few days, at best.

The average city has maybe one to two weeks of food on hand, and is dependent upon rapid transport of food into the city to keep that food supply replenished. That transport is dependent upon both the provision of fuel, the availability of food produced in high volume, and safeguarding the transportation paths, all of which will fail without interlaced infrastructure. Modern society requires the efficiency of the current infrastructure to keep people fed and housed. Without that infrastructure, a lot of people would have to die before the population stabilized at a level that could be sustained with simple, crude agricultural methods.

If you destroy the infrastructure, you probably destroy the authority of the government, so large cities would quickly devolve into gang rule and food hoarding, hastening the death count. Look up episode 1 of the original James Burke Connections series... he begins with a power failure in NYC and follows a hypothetical scenario of a person trying to survive if the power was not restored. Bottom line: most urban dwellers would probably not survive for very long.

However, there is another aspect to consider - how long would humanity take to restore that infrastructure? You see, one big difference between today and the dark ages is the knowledge base. Back in the dark ages, the knowledge base was not extensive. They didn't know that spinning a coil of wire next to a magnet produces electricity, or all the things that can be done with that electricity. They didn't know that you could heat iron to very hot levels, facilitating the economical production of steel, if you used a reverberating furnace. Nor did they know that you could take that steel, build a pressure vessel and cylinder and piston, and create a steam engine that could propel your ship or trolley faster and more reliably than a horse or a sail. They weren't aware of how a fertilizer like ammonium nitrate increased food production.

In modern society, enough people know this, that a society with wrecked infrastructure would inevitably rebuild that infrastructure... because they know how to do it. If they're near an oil well, or even a tar pit, it wouldn't be that hard to set up a crude refinery to produce gasoline, using scrap metal lying around. Any surviving chemists would know how to make nitric acid from minerals, which is the basis for all modern explosives and gunpowder.

So that would be an interesting twist to the story - how the antagonist tries to keep humanity at a crude state, while the survivors set about rebuilding technology from their knowledge base, to fight back against the antagonist.


There is a fantastic book that covers this scenario called "Dies the Fire". A global event permanently changes the way energy works. Essentially any form of energy (on the Earth's surface) that goes above a certain, very low level, dissipates immediately. Guns don't work, cars don't work, electricity.

Within 3 months ~%80 of the world's population die from starvation, more die from the anarchy that ensues.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WB:SE! We appreciate your participation and I'd like to help you learn how to be great contributor. This answer would benefit from more detail. That can come from the book, but generally, answers that simply reference something else are considered low quality. Add a link to the book summary. Include more detail about how the energy dampner works. Add more insight into how the dampner affects people's lives. These kinds of things make for great answers. We look forward to your continued participation! $\endgroup$
    – JBH
    Nov 24, 2017 at 4:49
  • $\begingroup$ Adding to JBH's comment above, see also Are answers solely referencing novels/movies/etc. okay? for a more in-depth discussion than the limited space in comments allows for. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Nov 24, 2017 at 10:09

This is very simple. You don't remove any of it. You turn the satellites into psychological disrupting machines. Put the cities just out of reach. Let them see tons of food and give them what they need to live. There is not need to remove anything. Just cause them tons of mental pain by putting everything they desire out of reach but visible.


I would use bacteria that dissolves metal! If an attack on metal infrastructures occurs then everything will fall apart! People will see the, not so fast, destruction and will take precautions. In that way you will not have so many casualties. Imagine then a small earthquake or a strong wind without the metal sustaining the buildings everything will fall apart. furthermore microchips cables devices (non plastic or organic) will be affected also. In order not to totally destroy your world you can modify your bacteria to combine its attack with oxygen. So the minerals in the ground will not be affected. The virus is living in the and scientist try to find the antidote. Every new attempt to build something with minerals will fail because the bacteria will be triggered. I thing that is a possible sci - fi scenario. Hope i help

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to worldbuilding! I am confused about one thing here - viruses are generally things that go after living beings, not inorganic materials, so do you generally mean something that dissolves metal but nothing else, or is there some specific virus that behaves completely differently to the norm? $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 11:44
  • $\begingroup$ Viruses are living "things". They can only live by affecting a biological entity. So viruses are out of the discussion. BUT bacteria is a different thing. Bacteria are individual organisms whit a extreme life spam. Google water bear (it is not a bacteria it is a Tardigrade a normal organism). If you see some of its statistics it can live with no water no gravity no air and no oxygen for mounts even years. Imagine your "crazy scientist" modify those little fellas in a bioweapon. and add them in your story. $\endgroup$ Nov 22, 2017 at 12:09
  • $\begingroup$ @AnagnostouJohn but you said "nanovirus" which is not bacteria. If you are changing what you mean, and saying viruses are out of the discussion, you should edit the answer to reflect that. $\endgroup$
    – user41674
    Nov 22, 2017 at 17:15
  • $\begingroup$ Ok i correct it $\endgroup$ Nov 23, 2017 at 7:55

Use a two-punch strategy:

1. EMP Bombing

A few big nukes above the atmosphere work wonders to quickly turn all our electric toys into useless metal. Any insufficiently shielded electric devices will die. Including all the power switching technology in the electrical infrastructure as those are connected to long antenna-like lines by definition.

2. Concrete eating bacteria

Evenly distribute these across the entire atmosphere to infect all concrete based buildings. Then wait for the infrastructure to come down.

This won't kill our roads as most of these are not made from concrete, but it will kill all big buildings and bridges. Among the buildings are pretty much all factories.

What would survive?

Well, first of all humans unless they starve from the long-term impact. Also, any non-electrical luxury in existence would survive the first impact, but since the factories are crumbling, there will be replacement problems very quickly. Thus, in the first years, you will still have functional cars, ships, and airplanes.

However, a car without gas is worthless, and how do you operate the pumps at the gas station? Of course, people will try to make the best of it, and likely pump gas by hand for a while. However, they' quickly run out of gas anyway as the refineries are crumbling due to the concrete eating bacteria.

I guess, the longest running machines would be ships, as their engines use the most evil wastes from the oil refineries as fuel - they'll run fine on crude oil. And you can get at crude oil without use of concrete via offshore drilling platforms.

With this strategy, you won't have any direct deaths, "just" many indirect ones. The grade of devastation would be most visible in the cities (Which city? I only see a big pile of dust!). Farming will continue to work just fine for the most part, however, storage of grain and livestock production will experience problems due to crumbling silos and buildings.

Infrastructure will come to a slow, grinding halt:

  • First, EMP bombing will disrupt all electricity based transportation. This includes most trains in developed countries, and all pipeline based transportation (Pumps!).

  • Failing bridges will heavily disrupt land-based transportation, failing (air)ports will disrupt transportation by ship and aircraft shortly after that.

  • All other transportation except ships will eventually fail due to gas shortage.

In the end, the surviving humans will have to rely on what they can grow in their immediate area.


I don't have everything that you ask for, but maybe this can help you on the process of destroying the technology.

If I'm not mistaken, a strong enough solar flare can destroy all the electrical connections on earth. This would essentially kill human development. All that will be left are the buildings thenselves, because none of then will work for nothing but shelter.

there is an article about it here: https://gizmodo.com/a-nightmarish-timeline-of-what-would-happen-to-the-eart-1767042787

I don't know if pure sci-fi is acceptable, but a machine that reproduces a super flare, or that can cause our sun to produce one, might do it.


There's a swedish book called "Stjärnklart" where all electronic devices slowly and one by one stops working. When the devices are opened there's a bright dust within the curcuits.

You could go the same route of having a foreign material being introduced to earth that "sticks" to electronics and makes them unusable. This effect could be slow to mitigate the direct loss of life. Maybe even some humans try to keep their electronics alive by having to move around all the time? :-)

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WorldBuilding Gustav! As the question asks for Science-Fiction with hypothetical technologies I think this is a good answer. Is there any sci-fi explanation in the book about this dust? That might enhance your answer a bit. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Nov 27, 2017 at 8:56
  • $\begingroup$ "foreign material being introduced to earth" - is it an elaborate handwave, or there is some technical explanation? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Nov 27, 2017 at 9:21

At present civilization is high dependent on electricity and electronics. A series of EMP bombs would take out most of the electronics.

We are also critically dependent on the electrical distribution system. A transmission line is hard to guard easy to take down. (Imagine dropping what amounts to chain shot writ large: A couple of cannon balls connected with transmission line dropped so that they wrap the wires. This could be done with 2 people and a Cessna. A large 5th column with a supply of dynamite could keep taking out towers. Or thermite. Or wrenches. Or enough 30.06 bullets shattering insulators.

Take out all non-military grade electronics, and the electrical supply network: You don't need to remove the buildings. Most of them become useless. What good is a house in suburbia if the nearest creek for water is 5 miles away? How much joy in living on the 15th floor of a city high rise? No water. No electricity.

  • Most cars don't work. None with an electronic ignition.
  • Lights don't work. Any room without windows becomes much less useful.
  • Elevators don't work. Everything above the 6th floor is a major trek.
  • Water pumps quit. If your city uses reservoirs on top of a hill, the water will last until the reservoir empties. If you get your water from the river, or a well, you have at most an hour or so.
  • Gas station pumps won't work.
  • All furnaces more complicated than a wood stove quit. No electricity.
  • All diagnostic machinery beyond an old style blood pressure cuff and a stethescope stop working. Some of the indicator tests that create, destroy a dye will work (e.g. blood sugar test strips) but won't be replaceable.

What will keep working: * Firearms. But no laser dots. * Some tractors. There are LOTS of 30-60 year old diesel tractors. * Older cars.
* Not quite as old diesel trucks. * Most small engines. * Some motorbikes. * Some small generaters. * Cordless tools. * Off grid islands. E.g. Camps that use PV or wind to charge batteries with old style generators (no electronics) * Vacuum tube electronics. * Railroads may still work -- don't know how much electronics are in a modern locomotive. But the lights and control system will not. Mind you: That used to work. * Relay based telephone switching systems. * Bicycles, skateboards, wheelbarrows. * Sewers -- but most depend on a certain ratio of water to solids.

In some cases you could put together bandaid solutions: Bring a generator to a gas station to power the pumps. Or drop a jet pump into the underground tank and suck it up.

Modify Greenhouses for operating theatres. Bright light, continuous UV sterilization.

But overall most people wouldn't be able to get out of the city before they died of thirst or hunger.

Smaller towns would fare better. A typical town of 10,000 is about 2 miles in diameter. It's a short walk to the country side. Farmers would want workers with their equipment largely inoperative. Refugees will do anything for a meal and a roof. Even farms are going to scramble. Most are dependent on a well. Few have horses. However rigging a hand pump to a well is certainly feasible, then later setting up a windmill.


Pol Pot evacuated the cities to the country side in one of the most massive anti-elitist moves ever. Millions died.

In Stirling's Emberverse electricity, rapid combustion, and high pressure stopped working. No explanation. 90% died the first year.

In Niven's Ring World series, the Puppeteers introduce a bacteria that ate supercondutor wire. Everything stopped.


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