There are loads of books on how to survive a disaster scenario – how to stockpile food, build your bug-out bag, purify water, start a fire, and more. But what about a year or more down the road after an apocalypse scenario? Would you know how to recreate our current farming, medical, technical, and power generation techniques on order to rebuild civilization?
That’s where Lewis Dartnell’s book “The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch” comes in. Dartnell is a UK Space Agency research fellow (I guess that makes him an actual rocket scientist!) at the University of Leicester, specializing in astrobiology. In The Knowledge, Darnell gives us a how-to guide for starting over from scratch.
We think of “technology” as meaning modern-day gadgets, machines and electronic devices, but there is also the technologies of chemistry, agriculture, material usage, and more. For example, just making soap is a chemical process – many homesteaders may already be making their own soap by using lye, coconut or olive oil, and various herbs or essential oils. But what do you do if lye and essential oils are no longer readily available? Dartnell describes how you can use the ash left behind by a wood fire to produce potash, which is high in potassium carbonate, an alkali. If you mix that into a vat of boiling oil or animal fat, you end up with soap. You can also make lye, a stronger alkaline solution, by processing limestone and water into slaked lime, then mixing it with the potash to make caustic potash (or potassium hydroxide, or lye). In an end-of-the-world scenario, soap would not just be a luxury, but an essential substance to avoid a massive resurgence of preventable diseases.
Dartnell’s book is full of many “So that’s how it works…” moments. For instance, in a section on substances, he goes into detail about how wood can offer so much more than just building material and heat. Wood can be turned into charcoal, which provides an even more efficient source of fuel, and the waste from this process can be turned into acetic acid, acetone, turpentine and methanol. You can even turn the escaping gases from a wood fire into fuel capable of running a car!
Another area of knowledge that would be needed is agriculture. Even if you’re already a gardener, at the beginning of the season you probably make a run to Home Depot for bags of nutrients and compost. What if those supplies were no longer available? With proper treatment you can use human and animal waste to enrich the soil with nitrogen. Phosphorous can be added by making bone meal from crushed and boiled animal skeletons. Potassium can be made by burning wood, as previously described.
A later chapter describes power generation – you may have a great state-of-the-art solar array to provide power to your home, but how will the rest of your town function? It’s likely we’ll be building wind generators, water wheels connected to turbines, and steam-powered generators.
Dartnell also encourages us to look for areas where rebooting a civilization can “leapfrog” historical technological developments:
For example, many remote communities unconnected to power grids are receiving solar-power infrastructure, hopping over centuries of the Western progression dependent on fossil fuels. Villagers living in mud huts in many rural parts of Africa are leapfrogging straight to mobile phone communications, bypassing intermediate technologies such as semaphore towers, telegraphs, or land-line telephones.
However, some technologies just wouldn’t be practical to re-invent, according to Dartnell. For example, internal combustion engines are powered by fossil fuels that can only be extracted using our current elaborate technologies, so a rebooted civilization would likely have very few gasoline-powered engines for quite some time.
Probably some of the hardest achievements to re-create would be those of modern medicine. While surgery would be out of the question for most people, it would still be possible to produce painkillers from poppy plants, anti-malaria drugs from tree bark, and even DIY antibiotics:
Fill Petri dishes with a beef-extract nutrient bed … smear across Staphylococcus bacteria picked out of your nose… After a week or two, look carefully for molds that have inhibited the growth of bacteria…
In other sections, Dartnell describes techniques for producing food such as cereals, yogurt and butter, weaving clothing, producing concrete, metals and glass, creating ink, paper and printing tools, and even navigating and telling time by the sky and stars. “The Knowledge” is not a complete how-to book; with only 327 pages there’s no way it could tell you absolutely everything you needed to know about the dozens of technologies it covers, but it’s a great start and should entice you to learn more about at least a few of the topics covered.
I found this book to be a very interesting read – it makes me want to try my hand at making my own charcoal, soap and concrete. It would be nice to be able to say “I know how to do this!”, even if I never actually need to do so.
The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch is available at Amazon.com.