The Downfall of Civilization

another big mrxak discussion topic

Okay, so it's been a while since I made one of these. I'll remind you of my past topics:
Space Travel and Governments
Population Growth and Economic Evolution in a Space-Faring Civilization
Government Systems and Politics
On Relative Sizes of Spacecraft
Economic Systems and Space Corporations
(If I missed any, let me know and I'll add it to the list)

Feel free to gravedig any of them, by the way. New discussion is always fun to read on those topics. Also bear in mind that most of them went off topic and discussed a number of other fascinating topics not alluded to by their titles.

Anyway, new year, new topic. This one will be about when everything's over: The Downfall of Civilization.

There are a number of potential causes for civilizations to end. Disease, war, famine, internal collapse, natural causes and more. What steps are taken by government and citizens alike to stave off the end, and the effects of the end? What happens to everybody and all their stuff? I have some thoughts that might seed your own development ideas. Feel free to tear down my ideas as silly and wrong, so long as you propose some ideas of your own at the same time. No point in me posting a huge topic and not getting criticism, comments, and questions.

A planet is dying, with most of the population is infected, or will be soon. A civilization is cursed with a genetic disease and won't be able to reproduce anymore after a few more generations. A bioweapon has been used on a strategic world, and due to its importance in interstellar trade, infectees have already spread to several other nearby worlds before quarantine was enforced.

Whatever the cause, lots of people are sick or dying. Some may prove immune to the effects, and infection may not be complete. Nonetheless, economic damage is massive. If it's not already too late for quarantine, basic necessities may be unable to reach a planet due to fear of inadvertent spread, leading to famine, riots, even civil war or popular uprising.

If the infection is not widespread among a multi-planet civilization, merely wiping out a single planet, the overall effects may not be bad for that civilization, or they may be terrible. If the planet is of minor strategic importance, with a small population, the greater effects are likely minimal, but on that world itself things will be horrible, and potential for dramatic storytelling is certainly possible. A world of great importance, even if just to a single industry, might cripple a space-faring civilization, bringing about economic collapse throughout the galaxy. A well-populated doomed world will likely have people on it related to others all over, which means there will be grieving and desperate relatives.

What is the governmental reaction to such a disaster? If man-made, there is potential for war, or other conflict. A naturally caused infection doesn't preclude the possibility that somebody won't make political hay out of it. Even natural disasters have potential for finger-pointing and blame. Evidence of foreign involvement is likely to be fabricated if tensions are already high and the disaster is sufficiently shocking to one's people. To prevent the spread of an illness or to sterilize an otherwise useful world for recolonization, is somebody liable to use daisy cutters or nuclear weapons (including neutron bombs to leave infrastructure intact) to burn away any germs, or big honking particle cannons to melt the surface of a planet? If the infection has spread, how many worlds is a government likely to glass before there are widespread protests or just no more point? What kind of medical aid will other worlds offer? What of the people who are immune, or merely carriers? Are they exterminated all the same, moved off to some special medical station, or allowed back into society? Is quarantine self-imposed by a planet's local government, or imposed externally by the greater civilization? What if there is conflict between the two?

If the infection is widespread, not just a single planet threatened, and just about everybody everywhere is sick, or perhaps the sick and well are so intermingled over every world that quarantine is impossible, what then? Does government collapse under the strain of trying to do something for everyone? Do people just give up and anarchy reigns? Is there martial law? Are there organized attempts to separate the few uninfected and have them leave to start new colonies? Do the infected try to escape with them? Something so widespread would cripple most economies, unless it was not immediately fatal. If it's not immediately fatal, do people continue going to work in the fields to feed their civilization? Does interstellar commerce continue, or does every planet look after themselves for a while? How do religions react to and interpret plagues? Are the sick seen as sinful and deserving? Do some believers find solace in an afterlife and become fearless in helping the sick? What kinds of fake cure scams will spring up? Will the government do anything about them?

A planet is conquered by an enemy intent on enslaving the native population. A civilization begins to crumble as its last remaining fleets are destroyed by a massive invasion. Orbital bombardments begin against several strategic industrial worlds, crippling the war engine of a once-great civilization, with billions dead and dying below.

War defeat comes quickly, or slowly. If it comes quickly, survivors may be left in shock, beaten and decimated. If it comes slowly, it may be a long, depressing despair. Depending on the enemy's goals, whole populations may be wiped out, enslaved, or reeducated and integrated in the new culture. Either way, a defeated power's civilization is essentially over.

What happens to slave populations? Are they forced to work to death in phlebotinum mines under the ruins of their once great cities? Are they split from their families and shipped off-world to be harvested for organs, converted into cyborgs, and used to build hover tanks in the harsh climate of some normally-uninhabitable world? Are there slave revolts? Are they successful? Do they then turn on each other over how to rebuild? Are they later crushed with death from above? Once the war is over, what happens to them?

What does a government do when it's losing a war, and losing it bad? Propaganda is a good idea, usually. Do people realize it's all a lie? Do people build bunkers under their houses, and hoard food and weapons? Does a government organize a resistance force before its leaders are imprisoned or executed? Is there an attempt to hide or run away? Is it even possible, with the enemy closing in from all directions? What about the diplomatic front? Is peace an option, or is only total surrender acceptable to the enemy? Does the enemy even communicate? Does the enemy regard the people they're exterminating as creatures worthy of life? How far are government leaders willing to go to save themselves at the cost of their people, or save their people at the cost of their own lives?

What happens during an orbital bombardment? Is everyone on the surface killed, or are there many survivors who face a long demise starving or without adequate protection from the elements? Is an orbital bombardment followed by occupation, or do the ships in orbit simply fly away afterwards? What other atrocities might be visited upon a planet's population in war, once the defenses are gone? Is communication off-world possible? Do people there receive news of the war on other fronts?

A critical food shipment is lost or contaminated on its way to a highly populated world with little or no agriculture of its own. A biodome suffers a containment breach in a terrorist attack, and great stores of water and air are lost. A local supernova flooded an entire region of space with radiation that damaged ecosystems irreparably, leaving soil dead and trillions of people without crops.

The lack of any life-sustaining resource is a serious matter. If people cannot eat, drink, or breathe, not a lot is going to go on in terms of civilization. We know famines are often caused by droughts, but we can think more broadly than that. Lack of good infrastructure, poor nutrients in the soil, environmental sabotage, and economic collapse can cause food to either not grow, or not get to where it needs to be. Even with droughts there can be many causes, such as a malfunctioning weather control system, a star becoming more active or expanding, or a lost water shipment from an ice moon to a desert planet. Even these can be caused maliciously or naturally, adding to the possibilities.

This is much more likely to be a local problem, like disease, and the effects may be quite similar. How long it goes on will determine how likely riots or civil war is to occur. Larger central governmental structures may be slow to respond, even if the effects are immediate to the people living on a starving planet. Trying to help one planet may cause problems for all the others.

If a famine is widespread to many worlds, even an entire civilization, things can get much more dangerous. If a critical food-producing world is somehow unable to produce, it could have far-reaching effects. It would also be hard to cover up across a civilization, if such a thing occurred. Compare that to a systemic problem in transportation infrastructure, region-wide ecological damage, or corruption, and it's far easier for the government to hide a problem from the people.

Internal Collapse
A military coup occurs and the popular intergalactic president is executed publicly. A major political issue splits industrial and agricultural worlds apart into civil war. A feud between two sons of the recently-deceased emperor causes factions to form on the Throne World and Outer Worlds alike.

For whatever reason, events have finally led up to an interstellar society's collapse. Perhaps the leadership was living in decadence and ignored the needs of the people. Perhaps internal strife at the capital erupted into violence in the streets. A key assassination, a coup, or a simmering feud has triggered a series of events; words were said and deeds were done, and nothing will ever make things go back to how they used to be. Whether through complacency, personality conflicts, systemic corruption, or unbalanced power structures, a civilization is collapsing under its own weight.

I don't have a whole lot to say about this one, just that you should always consider that your great and powerful civilization could merely be a house of cards. When writing about your United Federation of Planets, or United Earth Governments, ask yourself what might cause it to fall apart. Whatever reasons you come up with, the effects can be devastating, causing all of the above Downfalls.

Natural Disasters
A sun's nova is making an important world unlivable. A broken weather control system on Risa is causing massive flooding in paradise. A black hole passing through the plane of the galaxy is causing stars, asteroids, and planets to careen unexpectedly with disastrous results all over the place.

Maybe fate is calling, and your civilization's time is up. For whatever reason, where you're living now, you can't live anymore. Whatever natural phenomena is causing you trouble, you could have negative effects to your food supply, your world could become bathed in radiation, you might be faced with extreme temperatures or weather, you might have asteroids striking your planet, or you might even have strange new diseases infect your population due to changes in climate, such as suddenly having a swamp in your backyard or native animals migrating suddenly.

If localized to just one planet or system, evacuation needs to happen if anyone is to survive. Is there enough time to get everyone off-world or far from the local star? How are evacuees selected? Is there a plan for those left behind? What about samples of the local floral and fauna? Cultural items like art and statues? What about governmental records, and people's prized possessions? What about critical resource stores? Will that planet's cultural identities be preserved in a new colony, or will refugees lose that forever?

If something really bad happens, like a supernova that's going to affect an entire region of a galaxy, and an entire civilization is threatened over the course of weeks, months, or years, priorities may change a bit. Unless a civilization has given up stationary bases and planetary colonies in exchange for mobile ships, the likelihood of everyone getting out of danger is slim. Again, who and what is saved and who and what is left behind? Can anyone be saved, or is it impossible due to a truly massive natural disaster? Will signs of a once-proud civilization remain for future civilizations to find many years later, or will whole planets be burned away or sucked into a black hole? What will a civilization do, when faced with total annihilation, to get some part of itself preserved for the rest of time? How will religions react, when faced with armageddon? Will the general populace even know, or will it all be a state secret? Will a government send in the military to reestablish order on a rioting planet when that planet and the civilization as a whole are doomed anyway?

It's not just a matter of how the world is ending for a particular civilization, but what people do about it. What do central and local governments, religions, community groups, the military, and free traders do? What about the average, doomed citizen? What about the average doomed citizen's cousin on another planet? What about those off-planet on business or pleasure, only to find out they can't go back? What about those other civilizations watching from afar?

It's said that in times of trouble, people turn to hope, more often than not. Religious services gain in attendance. Families spend more time on simpler activities. Communities come together. Businesses see opportunities to gain PR points by being generous and helpful in an emergency.

On the other hand, people can also turn to violence when they're desperate. The government and military may also become heavy-handed. The average soldier, under stress with the knowledge of how bad things are, may do things he or she wasn't trained to normally do. The average citizen, under the influence of mobs, may do things he or she would never do alone.

What happens when a world is depopulated? The ruins of civilization may take a long time to truly vanish. Fairly quickly, though, if nature still exists on a world, nature will reclaim those areas lost to civilization. Faced with no power sources or technology, survivors may find themselves remembering back to their history lessons, live in underground rapid transport tubes, build fires, and hunt animals with sharpened sticks. They won't forget how to pilot a shuttlecraft through hyperspace though, not for a couple generations, at least. It will take many, many generations before they forget they were once part of a great multi-planet civilization. Depending on the expertise of the survivors, they may even rebuild quite a bit, repairing damaged technology, finding salvageable space-faring vessels, and establishing communications with other survivors on and off their world.

Anyway, just some thoughts about the downfall of civilization. I hope you have a lot to think about and comment on, and I look forward to reading your responses and seeing these kinds of details described in your plug-ins.

I'll tackle these one by one.


The depth of descent into dark ages would depend greatly on a number of factors. You've already limited a few variables, which helps matters. Clearly, in your scenario, the disease is fatal in most cases. I'll just assume an 85% mortality rate, which would be high for most infectious diseases. The level of panic would probably depend on a few factors:

1. Infectious Agent Type. If the pathogen is bacterial or fungal, there is a stronger likelihood of some form of antibiotic being effective. In the case of a "superbug," different antibiotics in different courses have often shown promising effect, if treated carefully so as not to allow another drug-resistant strain to come about. If the pathogen is parasitic, antibiotics are again likely to make a good treatment, or at the very least, parasites tend to be less infectious (i.e. typically not airborne or spread through simple contact.)

If the pathogen is a virus, on the other hand, things could get seriously ugly seriously quickly. Viruses are rarely, if ever, simply "cured." While there are anti-viral treatments, they are by no means a quick fix, and of limited effectiveness. Vaccines generally must be administered before contraction of the virus (though not always.) On some occasions, an antivirus can be engineered that deactivates the infectious virus. We are getting more and more able to analyze the genetic structure of various pathogens today, and to create immunity "programmed" retroviruses that help the body to shut down infectious viruses that do not mutate quickly. Viruses, because they are much, much smaller than most other pathogens, can be airborne or spread through simple contact.

2. Incubation time and latency period. Some pathogens have a very short period between infection and manifestation of first symptoms. Most pathogens have this period between a few days to a week or so. The flu, for example, generally goes from infection to symptoms in less than a week, and runs its course within a few days to a week. The latency period of how long the illness goes from infection to contagious, and contagious to manifestation of symptoms is also important. If a disease can go from initial infection to contagious within a few days, but the latency between contagious and symptomatic is more than a day, a civilization could be almost entirely infected before the disease would even be known about.

3. Availability of medical care and speed of distribution of supplies. If the disease is treatable, the level of panic in an outbreak depends on how quickly people can be treated. As seen with the recent H1N1 flu virus scare, people's panic was not directly related to the spread or virulity of the disease so much as shortage of the vaccine initially. Several riots broke out at innoculation clinics, despite authorities' insistance on those who should receive priority of medical care. As the epidemic is winding down, we are now seeing that it was roughly 1/10 as deadly as the ordinary seasonal influenza, but the damage that it caused economically and socially simply through fear was much larger than the seasonal flu.

People in rural areas are obviously less likely to get infected, but are most likely to die from lack of treatment simply because it will take longer to get treated. In the case of interstellar travel, speed of care may be essential as interstellar travel may be shut down due to quarantine. How quickly appropriately equipped medical transportation can get from point A to infected point B depends on the first two factors.

4. Religious doctrine. As you so eloquently pointed out, will religious beliefs alter the availability of treatment? I don't know if it will have a serious impact on the overall civilization. In general, self-preservation has tended to win out over high-minded ideals with the exception of low-frequency cases. Recently, in Wisconsin, two parents were sentenced to prison over the death of their daughter to diabetes. Instead of allowing her to be treated for the illness, they chose to pray for her. She slipped into a diabetic coma and died. They were convicted of manslaughter charges. While I don't advocate either a secular goverment or a religious government one more than the other, secular governmental systems have tended to win out in history as the primary systems equal to all parties. I suspect as interstellar colonization becomes more a reality, this largely democratic policy will continue to be the case.

There will also always be those who will declare the plague as the will of some sort of deity, and those who will declare every form of disaster as God's judgement or the sign of the end of days. Who is to say whether they are right or wrong? Most people who believe differently will judge each other as the heathen. Just recently, the television personality Pat Robertson declared the Hurricane Katrina disaster God's judgement particularly on homosexuals. This extremist viewpoint was largely derided and scorned.

All of these factors will play a significant role in how disease could cripple a society. The economic repercussions could take decades to normalize, if ever. Possible responses to disease would largely depend on the prevailing viewpoint of the interstellar civilization. Here are a few possible reactions:

1. Imperialist State: an expansionist regime is most likely to disregard the lives of individuals in a society, and most likely to a. employ slave labor, and b. see individuals as expendable. These regimes are also most likely to value property and infrastructure more than people. Given this, an imperialist state would be the most likely to sterilize a planetary surface while leaving the infrastructure intact, probably using neutron ordinance or other irradiation forms. I suspect that an empire would immediately attempt to address the economic factors as quickly as possible to get the war machine moving again and continue their expansionist policies. Because of a lack of value on the life of individuals, imperialist states would probably be the most effective in quarantining various populations with simple brute force. Destroy ships trying to escape (infected or not.) Shoot unruly civilians. In this case, the iron fist may result in the quickest solution to and recovery from an infectious agent.

2. Religious State: a religiously controlled society would probably be the first to collapse and perish. Religiously controlled states historically have been scientifically slow to progress, and first to simply encourage their participants to make peace with their maker and simply die. If there is an afterlife awaiting, why bother to spend your last energy trying to avoid it? Historically, religious leaders have been the first to condemn populations and judge disasters as angry wrath from disobedience to the prevailing deity, and the last to call for scientific insight into the problem at hand.

However, these self-same leaders also tend to be self-preservationists, and may mobilize resources faster simply to save their own lives. Religious states tend to be remarkably well organized, and when it comes to getting something done in a hurry, the added motivation of pleasing an omniscient and omnipotent deity might spark a greater creativity towards solution.

Religious states could either see the lives of the individual as expendable or precious, depending on the belief structure. Some may see the good of the many as greater than the good of the few. Others may see each life as precious and avoid the destruction of it at all costs. Preservationists would be most likely to avoid destruction of life, and least likely to favor sterilization of a planetary body. While this might result in the greatest preservation of survivors, it could also lead to the greatest risk of spreading infection as infectees get offworld and escape. More hardline advocates might apply the imperialist philosophy that to save the rest, sacrifice must be made. Whether this results in sterilization without destruction, or simply turning the surface of a planet into molten slag would be a matter of debate.

3. Democratic State: most democratic states tend to value the rights of the individual. This would likely translate to a very preservationist tendancy. Like the religious state, this could lead to the greatest preservation of survivors, but also the greatest spread of disease. Bureaucratic red tape could tie up treatment options as governmental debate over cost effectiveness, ect. slow down progress. On the other hand, democratic states that stress the ability of the free market to develop creative solutions could have a private sector with tremendous resources that could be immediately mobilized.

Today, we are seeing these same questions in the United States. What level of regulation promotes free market and economic growth, while still protecting the smaller businesses and the rights of the individual over the rights of the corporation? What balance between individual freedom and corporate greed should be allowed? It is difficult to say if an unprecented medical crisis would crystallize a democratic body towards a singular course of action or splinter it into conflicting factions, slowing down options.


Interstellar war is likely to be a brutal affair, but a mercifully quick one. In space, kinetic kill weapons will most likely reign supreme. An invading force would likely divert an asteroid or launch a weapon from the outer solar system (avoiding detection most likely) that would accelerate to 70-80%C. At that velocity, a 250kg solid mass would have the potential force of several dozen hydrogen bombs, and virtually undetectable until by far too late.

If enslavement is the goal, things become slightly muddier. Occupation forces must be fed and supplied, and history has shown us that in virtually all cases, slave revolt is an inevitability. Slavery has historically only benefitted an economy in the short term, creating long-term chaos. The American South, for example, relied on slave labor instead of the industrialized and mechanized Northern states. Ultimately, this dependence on slavery led to the economic collapse of the South. Occupying forces generally eventually succomb to resistance forces, though not always the case. Again, in America, the native population simply was not sufficiently advanced to muster an ultimately effective resistance against the invading Europeans. The Roman Empire, on the other hand, simply was not able to withstand repeated rebellions and resistance. Nazi Germany would likely not have fallen if not for the efforts of resistance cells constantly aiding the Allied forces and sabotaging Nazi efforts.

Re-education of occupied populations is an option, but in general, heritages would get passed down and peace would never truly be a viable option. There would always be a cultural struggle against the occupiers. In fact, simply wiping out a population would probably be the most effective solution when attempting to conquer a world.

The ratio of technology would probably be the deciding factor. In the nuclear age, it does not matter how many nukes a nation has so much as it matters who has them, who does not, and what the ratios are. When the United States possessed the only nuclear weaponry, they were the unquestionable military might. Who could defend against such an attack? Then other nations developed nuclear arsenals, and it became a question of which one could destroy the other more utterly. Such an arms race would likely be the deciding factor between warring parties in interstellar conflict. A race capable of interstellar travel would have a decided advantage against an enemy that has not developed such technology. The fictional war between Earth (and ultimately the members of what would become the Federation,) versus the Romulan Star Empire was fictionally tipped in the balance of the Federation because of their FTL capability, which the Romulans did not have until reverse engineered from captured technology.

Superior weapons might also not mean much if superior defensive technology can be developed, or not developed. If a nation has great offensive capability, but no defensive ability, lesser nations can bring them down. The Roman Empire fell from exactly this problem. Offensively, they were a great war machine. But defensively, once an attacking force made it behind enemy lines, defensive capability was virtually nil. If a nation develops a peaceful attitude, they might wish to create solely defensive technology that surpasses any attacking force's offensive technology. If you have shields that nobody can breach, why bother to retaliate? An impermeable border might be one of the most effective deterrants to war.

Even if a nation at war wins, the ability to rebuild is always a question. The economic damage wrought by the second world war took decades to overcome, and some places are still suffering. The cost of reconstruction is enormous, both financially and emotionally. Anti-German sentiments still exist today, more than sixty years after the WWII. If a nation manages to repel an invasion, do they rebuild only to start a campaign of revenge against the invaders? Do the oppressed become the oppressers?

Perhaps a civil war breaks out in interstellar civilization. This might open the door for independence for some, or lead to crushing defeat. The sadly short-lived television show Firefly deals with this struggle. What rifts lead to the civil war? Is it a struggle for separatist independence? A war of political ideal? A revolution? Each of these lends itself to different scenarios and endings to the conflict. How to reconcile after the war, regardless of outcome, is a question of great importance. In the US vs. British conflict, the resolution of the Revolutionary War led to another bloody conflict about 30 years later. In the case of the US Civil War, the deep seeded philosophical differences were not resolved until nearly a century later, and even now the racial divides that ultimately led to that conflict have not fully healed.

War dehumanizes us all, unfortunately. Whether invading or defending, often moral high ground is abandoned quickly when it comes to destructive conflict. This has been explored in literally thousands of pieces of literature, both historical, fictional, and speculative. Once people start dying, high-minded ideals are the first to go in favor of practical solutions. Once we start down this road, corruption and graft are shortly to follow. Why do people turn to cannibalism in severe situations? Morality is a luxury, not an ingrained human law. Regardless of outcome, war destroys more than just property or life. It also destroys the fabric of civilizations.


Famine, whether brought about by disease, natural disaster, war, or any other means, is one of the more destructive harbingers of doom for a civilization. Like war, it often devastates the very fabric of a civilization. People tend to defer to self-preservation, resorting to drastic measures to survive. In a large civilization spanning multiple globes, I suspect that famine is less likely to be a civilization killer, just as on a global basis, famine tends to be localized. When someone is on hard times, generally someone else is producing bounty. If a civilization has effective aid internally, redistribution of resources shouldn't be a terrible problem. Today, the greatest barrier to effective aid of famine-struck countries tends to be corruption. Aid intended for many African nations often is redirected by governments into weapons or internal corruption, sadly.

Wherever there is a lack of resources, black markets will crop up almost immediately, and greed will find a way to make a profit. This concept was explored in the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. Anything rationed or in short supply will quickly become a priceless commodity. In a space-faring civilization, fresh foods such as produce or meat would become an absurdly expensive luxury.

Famine would probably result in a major political system shift into a near feudalist state, with the wealthy controlling the few resources, and the serfs maintaining a limited existence completely dependent on the wealthy. This will eventually equalize itself, history has shown, but it may take between decades and millenia. On an interstellar scale, this might result in luxury planets or luxury states. There will always be the haves and the have nots.

While famine might have the most far-reaching complications towards civilization, it would also be the least likely to result in total collapse, I suspect. Many would die off as resources equalized themselves to balance population vs. resource totals, but balance it would. Nature shows this routinely as years of bounty overpopulate animal populations, and years of less result in die-offs and population reductions. Balance is always achieved, and only rarely does it result in extinction of a species.

Internal Collapse

Since I somewhat covered this under War, I won't address it in as great a depth here as I have the other ideas. Idealogical differences will always be present, and whether or not they result in the splintering of a society will always be dependent on the ability of each faction to hear out the other and seek peaceful resolution of the conflict. When the ideological differences become too gross to be heard out, violent conflict is the result. In some cases, this takes the form of revolution or coup.

Internal collapse is only likely to result in the complete destruction of a civilization if other factors are present, such as an external conflict or destruction of a key vital technology. In the case of Nova, the demise of the Hypergate network isolated hundreds of populations and thrust the civilization into a dark age by virtue of lack of the vital technology. This was a secondary factor that internal collapse exploited to break the backbone of the civilization. If an internal collapse were to devastate manufacturing in the United States, for example, it would likely result in the downfall of the US. In the sci-fi series Dark Angel , this idea was expanded on with the idea of an EMP destroying the critical technological sector of society. We have become so technologically dependent that an EMP's effect on the collapse of a society is a very real threat.

Internal collapse on its own is more likely to lead to violent conflict and ultimately a restructuring of the governing body. What the resolution of this ends as is anyone's guess, though historically, democratic governing principles have seemed to evolve as the dominant form of goverment here on Earth.

Natural Disaster

As you so eloquently pointed out, scale is the deciding factor on the effect of civilization. In the movie 2012, governments had enough warning and understanding of scope as to plan a survival strategy. While the movie was absurdly long-winded, the point stands: survival of natural disaster is dependent on the preparation for said natural disaster, regardless of scale.

In the recent Star Trek: Destiny trilogy and resultant fallout novels, the scale of the conflict with the Borg was so unprecedented that adequate preparation was virtually impossible. While this was a rather unnatural disaster and deserves to be addressed under war rather than here, the same principle can be applied to natural disasters.

The recent Hurricane Katrina disaster is somewhat telling. Preparation was woefully inadequate, and the resultant destruction was much more the consequence of failure to think ahead than it was the fury of nature. The initial onslaught of the storm did far less damage than the failure of the protective systems.

Some natural disasters strike without any warning, such as the tsunami that claimed nearly a quarter-million lives in 2006. Some give great enough warning as to allow evacuation. Some have scale so great that no preparation would be sufficient. If our sun began the transition to its inevitable red giant phase within the next five years, even if we had warning, there would simply not be enough technological advancement to achieve evacuation to safety. It simply wouldn't be possible.

The ability to prepare, combined with scale, would dictate the survivability of a civilization. Luck would also play a great role. The re-imagined Battlestar Galactica shows this. It was fortunate that enough FTL capable ships managed to survive so as to keep the human race alive. It was luck that Galactica was captained by a stodgy old commander who refused to update the old software.


As stated, reaction to any civilization-altering event is going to dictate the direction of that civilization. Historically, reaction to disaster seems to be an unyielding resistance and committment to survival and reconstruction. Humans have been remarkably adaptive. The scale of rebirth may change, but I have no doubts that the human race will find a way to survive, somehow. Well, some doubts, but only in the gravest and most unlikely scenarios. I do not underestimate the human spirit, ingenuity, and creativity.

As corrupt as society can sometimes be, and as self-preservationist and cowardly as individuals and collectives may be, on the whole, humanity does have an altruistic streak that takes care of its own. This leads to survivability. We may take ten steps backwards, but somehow, we will eventually take eleven steps foward. I believe strongly that this will follow us out into the stars. The resourcefulness and adaptiveness of humanity will endure, and I believe that any reaction to disaster and collapse of society will be like the proverbial phoenix. We may burst into flames, but we will always rise from the ashes.

Holy Jesus jump up and down. Microsoft Word reports that this just took up 8 full single spaced pages. I commend anyone who takes the time to read all this.

Talking about the end, even a hypothetical one, is far too depressing for me. I wouldn't be surprised if a few others here feel the same. Do continue, though. 🙂 I'm just adding my opinion.


Oh well, I quickly suspected after I made it that it'd either be too depressing, too obvious, or too boring to get much discussion. Maybe I'll make a new topic soon about something more exciting...

Talk about cookies and why we never get them even when we give them to each other. 😉

QUOTE (mrxak @ Jan 17 2010, 06:14 AM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Oh well, I quickly suspected after I made it that it'd either be too depressing, too obvious, or too boring to get much discussion. Maybe I'll make a new topic soon about something more exciting...

**Quite the contrary with me. I love epic mrxak discussion threads; I just don't have the time currently to get my thoughts together on the subject. I will respond in length when I do as I find the subject fascinating.



I propose we narrow the focus of this thread to the specific case where a single planet, which is part of a larger alliance or federation, experiences a disaster. In particular, war and conquest deserve a separate big thread, so we should save them for later.

To break this down, we can say a given planet is either a relatively new colony, or it is an established world. A new colony might have only a handful of relatively small settlements, perhaps only one. An established world will have been inhabited for at least a generation, and will have major infrastructure at multiple locations.

Furthermore, a planet can be loosely categorized by its usefulness to the alliance or federation. A world can either produce something easily found elsewhere, such as growing food, mining common minerals, or manufacturing, or it can produce something irreplaceable.

The distaster may be transmissible to other worlds, such as a plague or deadly animal, or nontransmissible, such as drought, flooding, hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes, volcanos, meteor strikes, or indeed a star gone nova. There are probably a few other possibilities.

Taking each of these as a binary choice, we have eight possibilities to consider.

Are we sure Qaanol isn't a computer? Seriously, man, you're like a math wizard, and you explain most things in math. Not that I have a problem with it, it's just not something one normally sees.

End of hijacking, back to topic.

** Edit:** I had typed a bunch of stuff on the topic, but never finished simply because it's too hard for me to even think about a hypothetical situation like this. Anyone else have ideas one what they would do?

This post has been edited by darthkev : 25 January 2010 - 08:48 PM

I've had thoughts about individual bits and pieces of the topic, but refrained from posting them as they seemed shallow. However, I have noticed there seems to be something missing.

Most of mrxak's essay focuses on the end, and places precious little on the counterpart: Renewal. Its omission may have contributed to what mrxak described as the topic's "too depressing" tone.

Civilizations fall, yes.

Other civilizations rise in their place.

Disasters don't necessarily destroy a civilization by killing everyone. In many cases in history, a mass exodus is the response. Displaced persons or families look for someplace new to settle.

In a space setting, you would require some minimum industrial / technological base before it became feasible for a people to escape a planet; but in a way, we're already focusing on that.

Nova isn't conductive to stories set in a strictly planet-bound setting, so I'm assuming for the purposes of this argument that that's outside this discussion.

In stories set in a strict no-FTL universe, the only habitable spaces would be artificially constructed ones or Earth + terraformed planets of the Solar System, a setting which isn't conductive to suddenly absorbing mass numbers of refugees.

But in settings with FTL, and say FTL shipping, what's to stop a ship full of refugees fleeing a disaster from picking a direction and flying on until they find something habitable?

To take a page from American history, when peoples in the Old World felt that there were no opportunities to be had in their own countries, they looked make new lives in far away lands. In an FTL setting, how many "New World"'s there are to settle on would be limited only by how many habitable worlds you could find and get to / take over.

While this might not hold if the given civilization is, say, ensphered by Covenant, that's a rather specific set of circumstances (Namely, (1) Surrounded in all directions, 360 by 180, by enemies (2) Enemies that are intent on extermination (3) Enemies that are destroying ecosystems instead of taking them).

My thoughts on the subject are only slowly coming together, but as a general outline I'm thinking this:

Disaster > Downfall > Exodus > Diaspora > Renewal

There could actually be quite a bit stopping a civilization from packing up shop and heading to greener pastures. If disease is the big factor, quarantine procedures could seriously impact immigration.

In your example of the Old World to America, for all those who made a new life in the States, thousands were turned back and deported for various factors. Habitable worlds are not particularly abundant, in reality. We have yet to discover a truly Earth-like world. While they are pretty assured to exist, I doubt they're much in abundance.

In fact, in an FTL setting, a ship-bound nomadic existence living off of resources mined from space might be a more likely scenario than several planetary civilizations with colonies.

While it may turn out to be true that habitable worlds are few and far between, our current inability to find a "Truly Eath-like world" is a limit of our current detection methods.

The earliest detection methods most easily found Jovian or larger sized planets in tight orbits by watching the "pull" their gravity had on their suns. Such a star-system isn't conductive to a rocky, terrestrial-type world in the "Goldilocks-Zone."

More recent methods are actually using stars as gravitational lenses to looks at other stars and planetary systems beyond them. However, for this to find a habitable world, it would require that a star be near directly between a habitable planet in question, and Earth.

FTL, however, would represent the ultimate detection methodology, as you could go there, without the limitations lightspeed places on any telescopes we could currently build.

The issue of the number of habitable worlds in the galaxy is, however, an entirely separate discussion.

A setting you describe, with numerous isolated nomadic ship-bound environments, would actually be highly resistant to disease, as each individual ship could simply refuse direct contact with, or attack, any other ships they suspect may be carrying the disease in question.

It would probably be highly resistant to civilization-wide collapse in general, as a nomadic ship-colony could find the materials it needs basically anywhere in the universe, and could simply fly away from a war, a supernova or what-have-you. For a properly planned closed ship-board environment, everywhere in the universe is green pastures, and such a civilization could actually spread quite far.

In fact, if any of these ship-colonies were to be destroyed, others could scavenge its remains, and start foraging for materials in the destroyed ship's area of influence, and you're right back to my premise:

Civilizations die, and others rise to replace them.

This post has been edited by Eugene Chin : 26 January 2010 - 08:35 PM

QUOTE (Eugene Chin @ Jan 26 2010, 05:30 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>


Civilizations die, and others rise to replace them.

This is the deepest thing I've seen here in a long while. Seriously. It's almost sad when I think about it. 😞

QUOTE (krugeruwsp @ Jan 26 2010, 07:47 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>

There could actually be quite a bit stopping a civilization from packing up shop and heading to greener pastures. If disease is the big factor, quarantine procedures could seriously impact immigration.

In your example of the Old World to America, for all those who made a new life in the States, thousands were turned back and deported for various factors. Habitable worlds are not particularly abundant, in reality. We have yet to discover a truly Earth-like world. While they are pretty assured to exist, I doubt they're much in abundance.

In fact, in an FTL setting, a ship-bound nomadic existence living off of resources mined from space might be a more likely scenario than several planetary civilizations with colonies.

The earliest colonies won't be on worlds that are Earth-like, they'll be on the Moon, Mars, and at Lagrange points. How will that occur? Colony ships will land and basically become buildings. Stations will be constructed at L-points or on the ground, self-contained. The atmosphere outside (or lack of one) will be dealt with in various vehicles and spacesuits.

Terraforming will eventually come to pass, because people eventually grow tired of living in a dome. We're already talking about geoengineering our own planet now (to cool down Earth if it gets hot). If we were determined enough, we could do the same with other planets, like Mars, even the Moon.

In some ways, finding a planet that's already green and blue could be worse than taking a barren world and turning it into a new Earth. You've got native species there, which may have their proteins flipped, or they might be quite toxic, infectious, etc. There's also the whole "Prime Directive" moral argument about interfering on a world that already has life on it. If you start fresh, terraform it yourself, you know what's there, and know what's not there.

How long it will take, very hard to say. Perhaps worth having a separate discussion.

Terraforming planets is certainly one viable option, but even still, there are some requirements that will need to be met: correct orbit, proportions of critical elements, planet age and stability... you name it. Even if it's not blue-green yet, it will need to be in a certain range to become blue-green. Changing climate on Earth would be an absolutely monumental undertaking, though I understand some ideas have been floated. Determination isn't the issue for me, scope is. The resource commitments would be so massive as to make it nearly impossible unless the whole planet were to dedicate itself to the task. I just don't see it being the most economical or cost effective solution.

Habitable worlds would be the best bet if they are currently uninhabited. You're right, though, on the toxicity of alien life. We'd be looking at a whole host of new pathogens and genetic structures that may not even resemble our own.

@ Eugene: Please don't take this as me being snotty. Words on a page are not good at conveying tone sometimes. I started college as an astrophysics major. I actually spent some time on the WYNN .9 meter scope on Kitt Peak doing asteroid hunting and planet hunting via transit method. The two majors ways we look for planets are the gravitational "wobble" method and the transit method. I believe this is what you're thinking of when you mean gravitational lensing? I've never heard of using gravitational lensing in the sense of light magnification as a means of planet detection. In fact, the distortions created would probably hinder that method. The technology is getting better to the point where we are detecting planets 3x as massive as Earth and better. We actually detected the very first exoplanets as Earth-sized rocks around a pulsar. As telescopes like the Kepler space telescope, the soon-to-be-launched James Webb telescope, and larger Earth-based scopes become a reality, I don't doubt we will discover rocky terrestrial planets. However, I suspect they will be Mercuries, Venuses, and Mars-like planets, not Earths. Could we make those stopping points? Probably.

You are right: the easiest way to detect planets would be to visit star systems, look around, and go back. We could detect a planet from Earth, get there, and discover it was destroyed 25 years ago. Even still, habitable planets or planets that could be made into habitable planets would probably be quite scarce. There are just too many conditions for them to be Class-M.

The confined environments of a ship might make matters much worse, actually. People confined to enclosed spaces are much more susceptible to disease, and infection rates are much higher because proximity is limited and resources are recycled constantly. Cabin fever isn't just the desire to get out of enclosed spaces. Flu season generally starts because we start heading indoors. Pollution in indoor evironments can be substantially greater than outdoors. Ships are going to face this. Space-based existence is extremely fragile. Accidents are much more likely to be lethal, as will conflicts. That said, resources in space are fairly abundant. Metals are everywhere, as is water and fuel (interstellar hydrogen.)

In a more frontier space-civilization, packing up a planet and leaving could be an option, but logistically, unless substantial time for planning were allowed, it's not really as feasible as you think. There are six billion people to move here. Even if we master FTL technology, that's a lot of ships to build, and a lot of time to build them. If a disaster strikes with say, 35 years warning, maybe we could get a third of the planet off. If it's a disease, we don't have long. A hundredth of the population, optimistically, would be able to make it off if we were a robust space-faring society and six month's warning.

In a more settled civilization, you really have to look at all the factors and responses that I posted in my first response to mrxak's topic post.

I don't disagree on the point that some civilizations just pass away, and others are reborn from the ashes. I stated as such in my first response way back upstairs.

Man, these topics always make me want to start a TC again.

I really like the natural disaster route. I especially like the black hole idea, which could take years, threaten all of civilization, which could allow an entire TC to take place in the process of the disaster. Humanity (or the entire galaxy, if there are aliens) might band together to seek a technological solution, with enormous taxes, etc. Do they attempt exodus to another galaxy? When the crisis begins to affect the obligatory Pirate Harbor, it'd be cool to see the entire station join together, and provide assistance with the resolve of those who know how tough life can really get.

A galactic migration is probably out of the question unless the society is quite a bit more advanced than just FTL. Think about it: M31 is the nearest galaxy to us. (Okay, if you don't count the Magellanic clouds...) It's 2.5 million light years away. At one thousand times the speed of light, it is still 2,500 years away. Not bloody likely we're going to be making that trip anytime soon.

Besides, a rogue black hole, unless it were supermassive, would really only create havoc within about a half-LY radius, and that's assuming something like a slight nudge in an orbit of a habitable planet. For a stellar mass black hole to destroy the Earth, it would have to come within about twice the orbit of the moon to our fair planet. Now, a rogue pulsar would probably be more devastating, or a long gamma ray burst pointed directly in our path, simply because of the radiation effects. A supernova going off within a few dozen light years would be equally as effective. Black holes, by themselves, not so bad. Ironic, from such a sci-fi staple.

I think a scenario where generation/sleeper ships + FTL drive are used to carry a civilization to another galaxy would be kind of neat. Even with your magic sci-fi tachyon drive, you still have an epic scenario where thousands, or tens of thousands of years pass before your people arrive at their destination. Of course, the ship would be traveling through very empty space, so you wouldn't be able to write a 'destination of the week' type exploration story to go along with this scenario.


FTL setting, a ship-bound nomadic existence living off of resources mined from space might be a more likely scenario than several planetary civilizations with colonies.

This pretty much defines the quarian race from the Mass Effect series. The idea is that they exist in space in a fleet that moves from system to system, and that they were forced into this sort of existence through an accident/war which expelled them from their original planets.

In this sort of situation, the state of your civilization is defined by whether you can replace your losses or not. Losses come in the form of ships and parts wearing out, unrecyclable materials, accidents which cause losses of equipment or personnel, etc. Offsetting these losses are inputs from mining resources, buying new ships or equipment, scavenging, etc. In the case of the example, the dramatic tension comes from the fact that the fleet is not sustainable- that things are wearing out and breaking down faster than they can be purchased or found. This pushes them to propose altering their situation, whether by military means, finding another planet, or making peace with their ancient enemies. In all three cases, society has realized the need to revert to a planet-based lifestyle.

QUOTE (krugeruwsp @ Feb 13 2010, 02:58 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>

Besides, a rogue black hole, unless it were supermassive, would really only create havoc within about a half-LY radius, and that's assuming something like a slight nudge in an orbit of a habitable planet. For a stellar mass black hole to destroy the Earth, it would have to come within about twice the orbit of the moon to our fair planet. Now, a rogue pulsar would probably be more devastating, or a long gamma ray burst pointed directly in our path, simply because of the radiation effects. A supernova going off within a few dozen light years would be equally as effective. Black holes, by themselves, not so bad. Ironic, from such a sci-fi staple.

Yeah, a blackhole isn't much different than a star or any other object of equal mass.

QUOTE (UE_Research & Development @ Feb 13 2010, 06:49 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I think a scenario where generation/sleeper ships + FTL drive are used to carry a civilization to another galaxy would be kind of neat. Even with your magic sci-fi tachyon drive, you still have an epic scenario where thousands, or tens of thousands of years pass before your people arrive at their destination. Of course, the ship would be traveling through very empty space, so you wouldn't be able to write a 'destination of the week' type exploration story to go along with this scenario.

You could always just have a scenario of exiles/refugees who just woke up from longsleep a few years back and started to colonize a new galaxy. Perhaps they took some of their problems with them, and of course they have new challenges ahead of them.

I've always been somewhat amused by such long journeys. I've always had this idea that any trip that takes long enough runs the risk of being overtaken by technology back home. Some folks go to sleep expecting a several thousand year trip, only to wake up a couple hundred years later, having been picked up by another ship that can travel ten times as fast. Of even worse, waking up on schedule only to find your nice new colony is an already-populated world by folks who blew past you without even noticing you.

QUOTE (mrxak @ Feb 13 2010, 08:14 PM) <{POST_SNAPBACK}>

I've always been somewhat amused by such long journeys. I've always had this idea that any trip that takes long enough runs the risk of being overtaken by technology back home. Some folks go to sleep expecting a several thousand year trip, only to wake up a couple hundred years later, having been picked up by another ship that can travel ten times as fast. Of even worse, waking up on schedule only to find your nice new colony is an already-populated world by folks who blew past you without even noticing you.(/color)

On a note unrelated to this topic, these concerns would lead to a feedback loop as advances in technology were made; as soon as you get the technology to send people in longsleep vast distance on the order of lightyears, would you use it or not? A bigger, better advancement that would propel a colony to the same system 10 times faster could be years, months, maybe even weeks away, assuming this advancement making longsleep possible is part of a technological singularity.

Which brings up a whole new question for this topic; would be be conceivable that technology would advance so fast that colonies would be set up with technology centuries old in comparison to current tech, even if it took a decade to develop said technology? And how would you send information on such advances to colonies and other worlds? Sending a ship in a sort of pony-express system would take too long, and radio transmissions would be too slow as well, considering information sent via a radio wave would be as old as the distance it traveled in light years. This could also bring a self-collapse upon a civilization if individual worlds that were part of a federation/confederation/whatever advanced technologically faster than their neighbors and created a sort of monopoly on technology.

That could make an interesting TC, mrxak. The player could play as one of these people who wakes up to find their promised new home has already been taken by other Humans with more advanced technology. This group of 'old colonists' use their poorer ships and technology to get around afterwards and set up their own colonies, all the while hating the rest of Humanity and hoping to one day exact their revenge.

Log in to reply