When the Apocalypse Comes, What Will You Have to Offer?

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Lewis Dartnell, astrobiologist, UK Space Agency research fellow at the University of Leicester, and the author of The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch (Penguin Press 2014), explores all the knowledge we've accumulated over the millennia in the form of a guide to restarting civilization post-catastrophe.

Excerpt: The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch


The world as we know it has ended.

A particularly virulent strain of avian flu finally breached the species barrier and hopped successfully to human hosts. The contagion spread astonishingly quickly in the modern age of high-density cities and intercontinental air travel, and killed a large portion of the global population before any effective immunization or even quarantine orders could be implemented.

Or tensions between India and Pakistan reached a breaking point and a border dispute escalated beyond all rational limits, culminating in the use of nuclear weapons. The warheads’ distinctive electromagnetic pulses were detected by defense surveillance in China, and triggered a round of preemptive launches against the United States, which in turn spurred retaliatory strikes by America and its allies in Europe and Israel. Major cities worldwide were reduced to jagged plains of radioactive glass. The enormous volumes of dust injected into the atmosphere lessened the amount of sunlight reaching the ground, causing a decades-long nuclear winter, the collapse of agriculture, and global famine.

Or the event was entirely beyond human control. A rocky asteroid, only a few hundred meters across slammed into the Earth and fatally changed atmospheric conditions. People within a few hundred kilometers of the impact were dispatched in an instant by the blast wave of intense heat and pressure, and the rest of humanity from that point on was living on borrowed time. It didn’t really matter which nation it struck; the rock and dust hurled up high into the atmosphere–as well as the smoke produced by widespread fires ignited by the heat blast–dispersed on the winds to smother the entire planet. As in a nuclear winter, global temperatures dropped enough to cause worldwide crop failures and massive starvation.

This is the stuff of so many novels and films set in post-apocalyptic worlds. The immediate aftermath is often – as in Mad Max or Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road – portrayed as barren and violent. Roving bands of scavengers hoard the remaining food and prey ruthlessly on those less well-organized or armed. I suspect that, at least for a period after the initial shock of collapse, this scene might not be too far from the truth. I’m an optimist, though: I think morality and rationalism would ultimately prevail, and settlement and rebuilding begin.

The world as we know it has ended. The crucial question is: now what?

Once the survivors have come to terms with their predicament—the collapse of the entire infrastructure that previously supported their lives—what can they do to ensure they not only stay alive in the short term, but thrive in the long term? What crucial knowledge would they need to recover as rapidly as possible?

This is a survivors’ guidebook. Not one just concerned with keeping people alive in the weeks after the Fall–plenty of handbooks have been written on that subject–but one that teaches how to orchestrate the rebuilding of a technologically-advanced civilization. If you suddenly found yourself without a working example, could you explain the mechanics of an internal combustion engine or microscope? Or, even more basic, how to successfully plant crops and make clothes? The apocalyptic scenarios I’m presenting here are the starting point for a thought experiment: they are a vehicle for examining the fundamentals of science and technology which, as knowledge becomes ever more specialized, feel very remote to most of us.

People living in developed nations have become disconnected from the processes of the civilization that supports them. Individually, we are astoundingly ignorant of even the fundamentals of the production of food, shelter, clothes, and medicine. Our survival skills have atrophied to the point that much of humanity would be incapable of sustaining itself if the life-support system of modern civilization failed and food no longer magically appeared on store shelves, or clothes on hangers. Of course, there was a time when everyone was a survivalist, with a far more intimate connection to the land and methods of production, and to survive in a post-apocalyptic world you’d need to turn back the clock and relearn these core skills.

What’s more, each piece of modern technology requires an enormous support network of other technologies, all interlinked and mutually dependent. There's much more to making an iPhone than knowing the design and materials of each of its components. The device sits as the capstone on the very tip of a vast pyramid of enabling technologies: the mining and refining of the rare element indium for the touchscreen, high-precision photolithographic manufacturing of microscopic circuitry in the computer processing chips, and the incredibly miniaturized components in the microphone, tilt sensors and magnetometers in the handset, not to mention the network of cell phone towers and other infrastructure necessary to maintain telecommunications and the functioning of the phone. The first generation born after the Fall would find the internal mechanisms of a modern phone absolutely inscrutable, the pathways of its microchip circuits invisibly small to the human eye and their purpose utterly mysterious. The sci-fi author Arthur C. Clarke said in 1961 that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In the aftermath of the Fall, the rub is in that this miraculous technology would have belonged not to some star-faring alien species, but to people just a generation in our own past.

Even quotidian artifacts of our civilization that aren’t particularly high-tech still require a diversity of raw materials that must be mined or otherwise gathered, processed in specialized plants, and the distinct components assembled in a manufacturing facility. And all of this in turn relies on electrical power stations and transport often over great distances. This point is made very eloquently in Leonard Read’s 1958 essay written from the perspective of one of our most basic objects, ‘I, Pencil’. The astounding conclusion states that because the sourcing of raw materials and production methods are so dispersed there is not a single person on the face of the Earth who knows how to make even this simplest of implements.

A potent demonstration of the gulf that now separates our individual capabilities and the production of even the simplest of gizmos in our everyday life were offered by Thomas Thwaites when, in 2008, he attempted to make a toaster from scratch while studying for his MA at the Royal College of Art. He reverse-engineered a cheap toaster down to its barest essentials, and then sourced all the raw materials himself, digging them out of the ground in quarries and mines. He also looked up more traditional, and therefore achievable, metallurgical techniques, referring to a sixteenth-century text to build a rudimentary iron-smelting furnace, and using a metal dustbin, barbeque coals, and a leaf blower for bellows. The finished model is satisfyingly primitive, but also grotesquely beautiful in its own right, and neatly underscores the core of our problem.

Of course, even in one of the extreme doomsday scenarios, groups of survivors would not need to become self-sufficient immediately. If the great majority of the population succumbed to an aggressive virus, there would still be vast resources left behind. The supermarkets would remain stocked with food, and you could pick up a new set of designer clothes from the deserted department stores, or liberate from the showroom the sports car you’ve always dreamed about. Find an abandoned mansion, and with a little foraging it wouldn't be too hard to salvage some mobile diesel generators to provide power and keep the lighting, heating and appliances running. Underground lakes of fuel would still exist beneath gas stations, sufficient to keep your new home and car going for a significant period. In fact, small groups of survivors could probably live pretty comfortably in the immediate aftermath of the Fall. For a while, civilization could coast on its own momentum. The survivors would find themselves surrounded by a wealth of resources there for the taking; a bountiful Garden of Eden.

But the Garden is rotting.

Food, clothes, medicines, machinery, and other technology inexorably decompose, decay, deteriorate, and degrade over time. The survivors are provided with nothing more than a grace period. With the collapse of civilization and the sudden arrest of key processes—gathering raw materials, refining and manufacturing, transportation and distribution—the hourglass is inverted and the sand steadily drains away. The remnants provide nothing more than a safety buffer to ease the transition to the moment when harvesting and manufacturing must begin anew.

From the bookThe Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. Reprinted by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. Copyright © Lewis Dartnell, 2014.