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

Friday, April 25, 2014

(ollyy/Shutterstock)

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

Introduction

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.

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Comments [50]

This is all good to hear! I don't think this would be the end of the world, and not to depress people... but did anyone else come across all those recent nuke articles in Time Magazine, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, other newspapers? Apparently there's a 28% chance in ten years that terrorists use a nuclear bomb to destroy a city, according to Professor Bunn from Harvard who did a long study/analysis of the chances. Separately a giant survey of 300 terrorism experts across the globe (diplomats, professors, analysts) conducted by Senator Lugar / the US Senate coincidentally had a mean likelihood of 29% that terrorists use a nuke to destroy a city in ten years. NYC is considered to be the primary target. Time Magazine (March 26, 2014) cites a higher chance: "Experts have recently estimated the probability of such an [nuclear] attack in the near future at between 30% and 50%." Gawker (March 27, 2014) puts the chances higher at 68%. Chance of a dirty/radiological bomb was greater than 50%. And the Cambridge University Center for Existential Risk said in 2013 that this risk is currently increasing over time not decreasing. Fun stuff!

Apr. 27 2014 05:44 PM
Renee from Montclair, N.J.

Perhaps in lieu or Armageddon, what these people really want is a utopian society. Maybe they should work on that instead.

Apr. 25 2014 12:00 PM
Tom Crisp from UWS

So, 3/4 of people are saying they're leaders? I'm not sure a society made of chiefs can hold its own against one made of a couple of chiefs and a range of skilled indians.

Apr. 25 2014 11:59 AM
oscar from ny

Nothing will be available at that particular time but if you do what's right now than that would be the only weapon at your disposal and might just save your ass

Apr. 25 2014 11:51 AM
jm

On a serious note, several of my "marketable" skills for this type of world were obtained as part of my liberal/fine arts education. While certain STEM degrees would be ideal for a zombie world, some such as finance would be far less valuable than those from fine arts programs.

Apr. 25 2014 11:47 AM
jm

Fun exercise! I have a bit of experience with foraging, rifles and archery, beekeeping, metalsmithing, maple syrup production, farming, foreign languages, hospice care, sewing, darkroom film development/printing, and other skills I've forgotten at the moment, so I'd be an excellent assistant. My best post-apocalyptic talents would be baking, cooking, and troubleshooting.

However, I'd definitely handcuff myself to a dentist. :) I never see dental issues covered in apocalyptic fiction, but this would be a top concern in real life.

Apr. 25 2014 11:29 AM

PS. I also know many ways to sterilize water

PPS. "John from office"

I have been training in MMA. In addition to being able to kick, punch, knee and elbow well enough to never feel threatened on a subway train, I am now learning choke holds, arm bars, and triangles in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. I'm being trained by a several very short fifth degree black belts. So even though you may be bigger than me - I would not allow you to rule over me unless you have more MMA training than I have had.

If you do have more MMA training than I do, I would probably resort to my little sister's strategies when we were little. No one could bully her because she bit and scratched so fiercely that it wasn't worth it.

Apr. 25 2014 11:25 AM
Sarah from Brooklyn

@genejoke from Brooklyn - Winemaking not important? Yeah, we need food and what not, but I like my post-apocalyptic world with alcohol. And honey for that matter.

Apr. 25 2014 11:23 AM
Rachel King from NYC

Ever play the "the subway game"? (could also work on a bus or waiting room or any place enclosed place with a semi-fixed group). Look around and imagine everyone is dead except the people on that subway car. Size 'em up (silently of course) and make guesses about who can/would contribute what to re-populating re-creating civilization. It's a trip.

Apr. 25 2014 11:22 AM
Rachel King from NYC

Ever play the "the subway game"? (could also work on a bus or waiting room or any place enclosed place with a semi-fixed group). Look around and imagine everyone is dead except the people on that subway car. Size 'em up (silently of course) and make guesses about who can/would contribute what to re-populating re-creating civilization. It's a trip.

Apr. 25 2014 11:22 AM
Sdl

I know how to purify water, hunt, fish, and forage. I can dig a ditch, and plant for a harvest. I can build a house, and pretty much make something out of found objects.I am also a nurse practitioner. It was funny, back in 1999, when I lived in Colorado many people were planning for the collapse of society in anticipation of Y2K. I was asked to be part of a group who had stockpiles of supplies in anticipation.

Apr. 25 2014 11:18 AM
Truth & Beauty from Brooklyn

@ Ed from Larchmont: As usual, you are off topic again. You need to work on your reading and listening skills.

As for me, I can knit, which means making clothing and blankets for warmth; I can cook, which means food prep; I am trained in first aid, so I can assist injured and ill persons; I am trained in carpentry, so I can help construct shelters, etc.

I bet there's a lot each of us can do that we don't realize.

Apr. 25 2014 11:18 AM
Alex Marshall from Roosevelt Island

Look for the poor people -- they already know how to survive in very hard times, because for them the times are always hard. If you're poor you have to be inventive, resourceful, optimistic, just to survive.

Apr. 25 2014 11:18 AM
genejoke from Brooklyn

Beekeeping and wine making? Willfully naive, and utterly worthless in an apocalypse. More useful skills include medical, fighting, communications, farming/food production, etc. (For those who deem humanity worth fighting for)

Apr. 25 2014 11:18 AM
Michael D. D. White from Brooklyn Heights

Mr. Dartnell says that cities wouldn't be key to rebuilding? He hasn't read Jane Jacobs theories about the importance of human communities and early cities in creating civilization and all our advances. He sounds like the so-called thinkers that Jane Jacobs ridiculed soundly, and I think effectively.

Apr. 25 2014 11:17 AM
Caroline Schimmel from Greenwich, CT

I have a colleciton of 19,000 narratives of women in the American wilderness, including camp craft, girl scouts, etc. which I could loan all the stranded clueless urbanites.

Apr. 25 2014 11:17 AM
RJ from PROSPECT HTS

I'd be cautious about putting aside "the arts" so quickly. There are significant stories about people in early times communicating by voice across long periods who are able to call, and that different calls have different meanings, so how people communicate--especially by "song"--call/response--would be significant for the basic technological/scientific skills the author's discussing. Also, we will have a Babylon of languages and creating a new, common language to convey these skills would be critical to community survival.

Apr. 25 2014 11:17 AM
Tom Crisp from UWS

So, 3/4 of people are saying they're leaders? I'm not sure a society made of chiefs can hold its own against one made of a couple of chiefs and a range of skilled indians.

Apr. 25 2014 11:16 AM
MC from Manhattan

The NYC water supply will function for hundreds of years bringing fresh water in from upstate .. the system is powered by gravity

Apr. 25 2014 11:16 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I hope that AI computers and robots will rule after the apocalypse because humans have proved woefully inadequate in ruling themselves peacefully. We need rule by machines because the flesh is willing but weak.

Apr. 25 2014 11:16 AM
jf

The laws of this country are the sure way to make another self destructive dystopia. yes lawyers will be obsolete. parasites who's only purpose is to translate legalese. purify water with sand! make a refrigerator with a pipe that is hot at one end and thus cold at the other.. pine branches can filter bacteria from water. bamboo is the fastest growing strongest material that can be made into everything.

Apr. 25 2014 11:16 AM
SKV from NYC

I can build a fire and cook!

Apr. 25 2014 11:15 AM
gregory in the Bronx from The Bronx

With respect to the piano player, I vote that he be the first one we eat.

Apr. 25 2014 11:15 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

I hope that AI computers and robots will rule after the apocalypse because humans have proved woefully inadequate in ruling themselves peacefully. We need rule by machines because the flesh is willing but weak.

Apr. 25 2014 11:14 AM
Amy from Manhattan

Even if a small population is left & the structures & infrastructure is intact, it wouldn't function long without enough people who know how to maintain it & without a supply of fuel. Unless a lot more equipment is run on solar or wind power, which don't need to be physically brought in from elsewhere, survivors would have to do without electricity on any scale larger than batteries.

Historical reenactors might be some of the best-prepared people--from spinning fibers for cloth to blacksmithing. And this whole thing seems to be focused too much on the "developed" world--there are still a few places where people subsist without all the technology that people who sit & listen to things like this on the radio take for granted.

Apr. 25 2014 11:14 AM
Peg

I offer - farming, gardening, seed saving, food preserving, hunting, butchering, beer and wine making, sewing, antique sewing machine repair, furniture making, forestry skills, primative pursuits ...and good company

Apr. 25 2014 11:14 AM
Nick from New Jersey

I am a soldier, hunter, Police Officer...I can shoot and teach marksmanship for hunting and defense.

Apr. 25 2014 11:14 AM
Coogan from NYC


Those who will survive best, in my mind, would be Farmers, folks who know the land and how to live independently, and the tough empaths who seek others and band together- similar to the main characters in 28 Days Later. Would have to update that to the tech generation though, who should know how to hack on the fly, as well as have real skills that are grounded/nature based.

Empathy and sanity matters perhaps more than anything because without mental strength and stability, a healthy society cannot grow. Having a sense of humor in included i that definition, storytelling will grow from there so no need to start with that. When real challenges arise, one must also have the inner integrity and humanity to know when to kill if and when needed. Its all about balance I guess.

Apr. 25 2014 11:13 AM
Sarah from Brooklyn

I can make wine and my husband can build things (carpenter/mason). I'm a lawyer too but I think I would keep that quiet.

Apr. 25 2014 11:12 AM
Tom from UWS

I'm reminded of this:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

Apr. 25 2014 11:12 AM
John A

One could argue that 'everyone for themselves' is a sort of apocalypse of civility, of society. Give up working against your fellow man and work for their success. That is a sort of free energy we seem to have forgotten.

Apr. 25 2014 11:12 AM
Tom from Brooklyn

I'm a sailor, and amateur boat builder. Transportation of people and goods will be necessary in a post apocalyptic world.

Apr. 25 2014 11:11 AM
john from office

Size will count again and the jocks will rule the world. Men will fight over women, metro sexuals will die out.

Apr. 25 2014 11:11 AM
Max from Brooklyn

Ok, get this, I am not only a METALSMITH, but also a HORSE TRAINER - I can bring you both weapons and mobility! I am your number one post-apocalyptic ally!

Apr. 25 2014 11:11 AM
Michael D. D. White from Brooklyn Heights

If we are going to tease our brains with this kind of stuff the first thing to remember not to allow ourselves to be too Parthenogenically arrogant. Creation of life involves complex balanced ecosystems of which human beings are only a relatively small factional part, where we coexist and need the interrelationship of other species that produce vitamins for us we can't ourselves produce and even a balance with our own microbiomes within us.

We are talking about a series of evolving balanced ecosystems. Mass extinctions of the past have often involved crashes where those ecosystems got out of balances. . . .

. . . I am hearing a caller say that bees might help us . . . but we are driving bees extinct right now. These problems of balance are not so hypothetical.

Apr. 25 2014 11:10 AM
Dee from NJ

I've crossed the ocean on a sailboat. On a long voyage, you need to be everything, engineer, seamstress, cook, fisherman, doctor....I think I'd do well.

Apr. 25 2014 11:10 AM
genejoke from Brooklyn

An apocalypse could be viewed as an opportunity for humankind to hit the reset button and create a peaceful world. However, we are an inherently violent and selfish species, so even if we rebuilt, we would likely eventually fall back into our old destructive ways. So perhaps just call it a day?

Apr. 25 2014 11:10 AM
Sal Gonzalez from Long Island

To prepare for the zombie apocalypse (just to have fun) or any other apocalypse me and some of my friends have taken up farming and bow hunting as hobbies to be ready should we ever really need them. Bow hunting because a bow and arrow are a lot easier to maintain over firearms.

Apr. 25 2014 11:09 AM

Hahaha - Peace Corps taught me to be able to eat termites, caterpillars and palm grubs. I can also pluck a chicken, light a fire from scratch and cook overcampfires. I learned to open bottles with my back teeth. I can open a can without a can opener - but I would need a knife. I suppose I could learn to improvise with jagged pieces of leftover metal. When I returned from Peace Corps, it took me a year to remember that can openers were much easier to use than a knife to open a can.

Apr. 25 2014 11:09 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

My robots will forage for food and water and will protect me from the zombies.

Apr. 25 2014 11:08 AM
Linda from Ewing, NJ

I'm a Lutheran pastor. At a bare minimum, I figure in the immediate aftermath I can help bury the dead. After that, I can knit.

Apr. 25 2014 11:08 AM
Sheldon from Brooklyn

Hmm, but will my WNYC app & my Netflix subscription still work?

Apr. 25 2014 11:08 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

All nonsense for the movies and video games. In my case my robot will be programmed to protect me.

Apr. 25 2014 11:05 AM
John A

I'm no prepper, nut I do dream of a sort of French revolution sweeping over congress at present.
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Onair: solar distilleries, dude. Large clear plastic leaf bags.
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I'm pretty good with electricity, and can operate for long periods without ConEd, for example.

Apr. 25 2014 11:05 AM
jf from brooklyn

I have been collecting 27,500 posts on this topic at my Utopian Encyclopedia on tumblr. "rollership.tumblr.com" in the folder "useful" should be all the necessities. print it out. also the "inventions", "diy", and "architecture" tags.

Apr. 25 2014 11:04 AM
Laura from Nyack

I'm a psychotherapist. I can ask people how they feel about the apocalypse and whether their relationship with their mother has any impact on their feelings about the zombie hordes.

Apr. 25 2014 11:02 AM
genejoke from Brooklyn

I always think about the choice some of the characters made in that episode of "The Walking Dead" - to blow up with the CDC. You won't live to see the rebirth of society, so why struggle to live in an apocalypse?
It's a sad, sad notion, but we gave it a shot, so what else can you do?

Apr. 25 2014 10:39 AM
Joe from nearby

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father."

-Matthew 24:36

Apr. 25 2014 10:36 AM
Robert from NYC

I'll be standing there LMAO while all these poor "faithful" get blown away to absolutely nowhere. It will be a nuclear apocalypse started by humans who invented the whole story for self-profecy.

Apr. 25 2014 09:19 AM
Ed from Larchmont

The important thing is to be ready by being free from serious sin and at being at peace with God. Then one is prepared.

As we know from Revelation, after the last disaster God returns, and brings with him a 'new heavens and a new earth', so we don't have to worry about rebuilding it ourselves ... just try to avoid bringing on the disaster.

Saint Malachy (11th century Ireland) listed the popes who would follow from his time, giving a title and phrase to each. The last phrase he left matches up in number to Pope Francis, so if his prophesy is true Pope Francis is the first pope who could be the last pope in history. Be prepared.

Apr. 25 2014 09:06 AM

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