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to stoneage or not

This might be an interesting read for those considering an apocalyptic world and is a revised memory log of a discussion on an discord channel, content is 60% by me, 30% by Chili the Sheep and 10% other people.

What is the minimum requirement to put a civilization like ours back into stone age?

To fully analyze the minimum requirements to push a civilization like our current one back into the stone age, it is helpful to first consider what scenarios would likely not achieve that outcome. Scientific analysis indicates that the following events, though catastrophic, would likely still leave remnants of our modern knowledge and technologies intact.

A limited nuclear war, even with 1000 to 2000 nuclear bombs detonating and killing approximately 10% of the human population while destroying major cities, would probably not be sufficient. Isolated small towns with populations of around 10,000 people would likely still retain early 20th century technology. They possess libraries, manufacturing tools, metalworkers, mechanics and teachers.

Asteroids impacting the Earth below the level needed to devastate the entire planet, the Yellowstone supervolcano erupting, and other potential natural catastrophes would also fail to reduce human civilization to stone age levels. While the local effects would be disastrous, an estimated 90% of the world's population and infrastructure would likely remain mostly untouched.

Region-wide famines, though kill many people until food supplies become less scarce, generally do not cause the loss of an entire civilization. With appropriate measures, modern civilization could likely recover within one to five years. Even if famines killed 90% of the population, there would still exist millions of educated people such as mechanics, teachers, etc who could help rebuild.

My personal estimate indicates that to completely reset human civilization to stone age conditions would require the death of at least 99.9% of the human population, the total elimination of all evidence of our past knowledge, and ensuring that nobody reinvents basic technologies for at least 4 generations. Such an extremely brutal break in civilization approaching 100% mortality would be a miracle if any humans survived at all. I call this the "99.9% dilemma": if an event can kill 99.9% of humans, it could feasibly kill 100%. In that case, we would all be dead and no stone age would exist.

So there isn’t a way to reset our civilization back to stone age?

Yes, there are combinations of events which could theoretically remove knowledge from past ages and push human civilization back into the stone or early bronze age.

A catastrophic event followed by a primitivistic-luddite religion could achieve this. For example, if a global nuclear war occurred where only 20% of humanity survived, and afterward a primitivistic-luddite religion spread around the world eliminating traces of past knowledge. If integrated deeply into society, that luddite religion could simply suppress the delivery of past achievements.

However, even then it would be extremely implausible. If even a single small nation or mediocre-sized city somewhere survived with knowledge of the old civilization, they would quickly surpass the luddite nations. Remnants of modern technology would dominate a world of "cavemen" with ease, likely without needing nuclear weapons. A few assault rifles and aerial reconnaissance would be enough. The European conquest of the Americas would pale in comparison

In conclusion, the requirements for a "decline to stone age" are very stringent. You would need an extreme event leaving no town of 10,000 people alive. But it cannot be so extreme that it kills 100% of humans instead of 99.9%. This scenario walks a razor's edge.

A decline to more modern civilizations though is easier, but still difficult. Even if only a small African village survived, they likely possess the knowledge to restart an early industrial civilization with farming, mining, and manufacturing on medieval levels if they utilize their entire labor force. A larger community, for example New Zealand or Island, could theoretically even sustain an mid-to-late 20th century civilization without help.

Given division of labor and education, humans are remarkably adaptable.

The most common counter-argument is that humans are "too stupid" to survive without modern civilization. However, most humans are not stupid. We are remarkably adaptable. If after an apocalypse power is down and farming machines do not work, most people are not "too stupid" to plant or pick potatoes under supervision of an experienced farmer. After harvest, engineers among them could build a wood-fueled generator and fix farming engines so next year labor is not by hand. Humans would improve rapidly where it matters and progress faster than before.

The only thing which could slow rebuilding civilization is not utilizing every able worker. For example, what still holds back Arab civilization? Not fully using females in the workforce. Maximum resource utilization, though sounding cold, provides huge gains. In a typical civilization without females working, income per worker may equalize a fully integrated workforce. However, only half of possible workers labor. And expenses depend on total citizens, not workforce.

A nation of 1 million people not utilizing women (or men) might produce 33 million wealth units per year, while a nation utilizing all workers might produce 65 million. Sounds twice as rich? No, it is much worse. Expenses remain around 25 million wealth units. The patriarchal nation retains 8 million wealth units, while the equal nation retains 57 million. The equal nation is seven times more productive. Oh, I just solved the third world problem.

  • In past civilization collapses, it hasn't been the death toll that's done it; it's been a breakdown of security that causes trade to collapse. For example, people didn't forget how to make Roman concrete when the Western Roman Empire collapsed. It just became impossible to get the necessary ingredients from scattered locations all over the former empire, so people gave up the technology. Likewise, people aren't going to forget how to make modern firearms after an apocalypse, but without access to industrial chemicals, they'll soon be reduced to black powder, and after modern metal alloys rust away, they may decide that swords and spears are safer and more practical.

    If security and infrastructure stay intact, we'll probably bounce back from just about any level of population loss, just like Europe did after the various plagues. If security and infrastructure fail, the society crumbles, like the South American Empires did after the arrival of the Spanish.

    • Well, for Bavaria this is only partly true. From 1500 B.C. until today the Celts and later the Bavarians were always the weapon smiths for their current allies and always build the very best weapons for mass armies. Yes, I am serious. If you were a Roman Soldier you surely carried a Celtic sword or Spear. If you are an US soldier your sidearm was designed and maybe manufactured only a short walk way from the same ancient factories. Sure, there were better weapons, e.g. damascener steel blades, but those were for show. You didn't gave those to armies.

      Besides concrete only very little knowledge was lost.

      • I would need to see sources for that. As far as I am aware the Roman legions primarily manufactured their own weapons and numerous weapons making factory sites have been unearthed in Italy. And the M17 is made by Sig Sauer, Inc, a US spin off company headquartered New Hampshire and manufacturing in the US

    • On Reddit someone also mentioned that the Little Ice Age resulted in the engineering of the bicycle and the steam engine. So a collapse could also accelerate science.

  • I don't delve much into post apocalypse settings, but a good write up nonetheless. Might cut that last part out about gender utilization though, as it seems vaguely unnecessary for the topic and a bit reductionist. That socioeconomic sphere has a lot of historical and religious factors that don't fit what you're posting, at least in my opinion.

    The rest is certainly a solid framework of thought, thanks for posting!

    The closest thing to this topic in my setting is the remnants of an empire that was killed off by a necromantic ritual, killing everyone within any built settlement (the necromancer "poisoned" the stones of the empire, so anyone living in a city built with masonry was affected).

    The rutlral populations left now have to contend with roving hordes of the undead, limiting their ability to band together and rebuild. A religious movement (as you mentioned) also stalled the progress of redevelopment. They are now being overtaken by an industrial republic from across the ocean, and though put up quite the fight in pockets, are unable to stall the republic's progress.

    • Thanks for the insight, yes, in hindsight that part should have been separated. At first it was a LOT longer and I had the tongue in cheek joke "Maximum Exploitation... sorry... Utilisation of all work force" to show that it also means to give up a lot of freedom for the individual for the better of society but while I considered them valid point of surviving a collapse it went far to offtopic. And when I cut it down it was so short it didn't make much sense as a stand alone post anyway so I just left it there. Should have used some "---" to separate it from the other part.

      • Makes more sense with some context, very "In Soviet Russia..." style joke, right up my alley! Besides, as a white guy in the US, I suppose I'm no arbiter of what is and isn't PC anyway.

        An interesting perspective for worldbuilding though, could think more on that for my cultures that have pretty set gender norms.