Author Lewis Dartnell poses an interesting question in his new book, The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch:
If our technological society collapsed tomorrow, perhaps from a viral pandemic or catastrophic asteroid impact, what book would you want to press into the hands of the survivors?
Just over a decade ago, I was living in Texas and taking occasional trips out to the hill country for camping, hiking, and climbing. There’s a whole-lot-of-nothing out there, if you’ve never been. It’s beautiful, but you can go days without seeing another human being if you’re in the right spot. Bringing in your own water and food are an obvious necessity, and you’ve got to be very careful with every activity as medical help isn’t easily available… and neither is mobile phone coverage. My friends and I would frequently sit around the campfire and talk about just how society sat so precariously on that razor’s edge and question whether we were truly prepared if we lost the corner grocery store, indoor plumbing, and every other modern necessity that we take for granted.
I’m not a sky-is-falling kind of guy. I don’t have a bunker behind my house and a decade’s worth of food stocked away for my family (although I do sometimes think about it). Every generation has had its concerns about the world ending, but I’m one of those optimists that hopes we’ll be able to solve our problems — water shortages, global warming, pandemics — and not be despised by our great-great-grandkids.
But who really knows? Asteroids are flying around our universe with sufficient mass and speed. New and scarier viruses seem to pop up every few years. So many countries seem to want their own nuclear bombs these days. Experts seem to think a major financial collapse lurks around the corner. Just how prepared are we if the world we know it stopped functioning normally for an extended period of time? How long would we last without the modern conveniences of electricity, medicine, clothing, food, and clean water?
There are plenty of books out there that offer up advice for short term and long term survival — you can learn how to find and purify water, how to build a shelter, how to start a fire, and so much more. But so many survival books focus on the short term — three days to three months. What happens if a collapse of society is more permanent? What kinds of problems are we looking at and how might we get around them? And, ultimately, how might we more quickly recover from a collapse? These and more are the questions posed and given answers in Dartnell’s The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch.
The first three chapters introduce readers to the situation — a complete and utter collapse of civilization. Whatever the reason, Dartnell explains that what will be needed if humans are to survive is a reboot-manual. He offers up some examples of collapses that humans could most likely survive… and types of collapses where things don’t look too good for humans. For those types of collapse where we have a fighting chance, Dartnell argues that there are certain skills that we simply cannot lose… to lose them would mean extinction or additional dark ages where everything humans knew pre-collapse would have to be rediscovered through trial and error… and trial and error in this situation means more lives lost.
Dartnell briefly offers up a discussion on what he calls the Grace Period… where your chance of survival means figuring out how best to set yourself up to be part of the survivor group that will need to survive and preserve as much knowledge as possible. He tells you why you’ll need to get out of the city. Immediately. You’ll get a crash course in food and water prep and some discussions on what to expect when the power grid goes down. And then the book takes a solid turn…
For the remainder of the book, each chapter takes on a single category with Dartnell offering up a brief history on the category (such as clothing) and how that category developed over time… and finally with what information would need to be kept secure in order to make certain humans didn’t have to make the same development discovery and errors. Chapter categories include Agriculture, Food & Clothing, Materials, Medicine, Power, Transport, Communication, and many more.
Each chapter will open your eyes to just how much information and innovation have been collected over thousands of years. Dartnell shares breakthroughs and unique details related to each category; what’s shocking is just specialized our society has become and how many skills have been lost as manufacturing technologies have replaced the human element. Sure, there are plenty of people in the world who might still know how to create spun yarn, but how many of them might still be around after the collapse of society? How many people these days know how to properly can their food and use simple chemical processes to slow down food spoil? Do you know how to properly find and prepare a field for planting crops? And if you do, do you know the best way to keep the soil’s nutrients replaced over time?
Dartnell’s book is an eye-opener. Glass. Aspirin. Soap. These and dozens more are just the simplest of items that humans are at risk of losing because we lack the knowledge to recreate them. And I said simplest of items… the book offers plenty more subjects that are going to be even more difficult to make, but all are required for modern society — sulphuric acid, for example, used to produce fertilizer, bleach cotton, making detergents, prepping iron, creating lubricants, and much more.
Over 300 pages in length, The Knowledge is an amazing checklist of human discovery. It could also be an extremely depressing checklist for human survivors as they inventory everything they’ve lost.
One big caveat — Dartnell’s book is NOT a How-To guide. He does cover dozens and dozens of topics in a summary-type manner, but you’re not going to finish reading this book and immediately know how to create your own soap or aspirin, for example. Dartnell does explain the basic idea behind most every concept, but it’s going to be up to you to reach further if you wish to develop any or all of these skills.
One obvious point you’ll pick up on quickly as you read through the book is just how valuable it will be for humans to gather together again. We’ve all seen the movies and TV shows that show how society degrades into us-vs-them, but Dartnell makes a solid point that there’s simply no way for any one person to have all of the skills necessary to reboot society. With that thought in mind, the book can provide you a jumping off point for picking one or two specialties that you might be able to add to a small group of survivors. I’m pretty good at making little wind generators that could light a single lightbulb, and I’ve actually made soap in my younger years and could probably figure it out again with minimal effort.
Whether you’re a prepper or not, The Knowledge is one of those books that could be invaluable to anyone wanting a better understanding of just how dependent we’ve become on technology to do our work for us… and how many skills have been lost over the years. For me, I’m crossing my fingers that the book never moves beyond a simple thought experiment. But in a worst case scenario, The Knowledge is one book that you’ll want to seek out (if you don’t own a copy) and preserve with extreme prejudice along with any other books that can provide what society will need to survive, reboot, and rebuild.
Note: I’d like to thank Samantha for providing a review copy.