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The Knowledge:

How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch

by Lewis Dartnell

(London Times)

Choose your apocalypse with care. A global nuclear war would finish us off completely. A coronal mass ejection from the sun - a solar burp - would destroy our infrastructure and leave us incapable of recovery. But what about a pandemic, a viral storm that wipes out billions? Now that we can work with.

There would be survivors, perhaps 10,000, enough to rekindle our species, and, most important, the technological infrastructure would be left intact. Of course, we couldn’t actually restart most of it because we would be so few; never mind, it could be adapted, cannibalised, to keep us going for long enough to build up our numbers.

That is the starting point for this book by Lewis Dartnell, a UK Space Agency research fellow and science writer. What follows is a breezy how-to guide to the rebuilding of civilisation. The breeziness comes from his optimism:“I think morality and rationality would ultimately prevail, and settlement and rebuilding begin.”

Judging by what follows, this optimism is based on the assumption that, in the aftermath, we will all work unbelievably hard. You would have to move quickly from day one. Unmaintained cities will start collapsing at once and will, pretty soon, burn as accumulated debris ignites and gas and petrol tanks explode. So get out there and loot.

Dartnell recommends pragmatic clothing - plenty of layers, tough trousers, stout boots etc - and fire. Loot matches and lighters or, in the absence of those, polish the base of a drink can with toothpaste and use it to focus sunlight - really! Pure water will rapidly become scarce, so loot the bottled stuff and, if necessary, disinfect tap water using a few drops of liquid bleach.

Most fun will be looting the supermarkets, but, again, you have to be quick. Eat the perishables first because they, er, perish. After that it is cans and stuff. On the assumption that you need 2,000-3,000 calories a day, an average supermarket could keep one person going for 55 years, or 63 years if you eat the canned pet food as well. After clinging on for 55 years I am betting you will.

Following this frenetic phase - Dartnell calls it 'the grace period' - the work gets even harder. Agriculture has to be restarted so you will need to learn about ploughs, harrows, the vagaries of crop varieties and the Norfolk four-course rotation, which is not something you get in a gastro-pub. Food production is not all grim, however, because we are strongly recommended to brew beer (which is safer than water), preferably using a yeast culture from one of those supermarket bottles you looted.

When you are drunk enough, you can handle the sewage issues. These are urgent because human solid waste can cause nasty infections and, in this aftermath, infection will probably be the biggest killer. Faecal-oral contact could be fatal, but so could a cut finger, so loot antibiotics. Also soap: grab every bar you can and wash your hands all the time.

As time progresses you will need to make charcoal — good for water filtration and providing intense heat for smelting and so on. Then clay pots and glass, which is tricky but not impossible. As your confidence mounts you will want to make batteries — pretty easy, it seems, as the earliest batteries may have been made 2,000 years ago in Baghdad.

Transport will be a big issue. Slicing cars in half and using the rear end to make a horse-drawn buggy sounds like postapocalyptic Top Gear. But you must remember to use the collar harness that, remarkably, triples the power of the horse when compared to the throat and girth harness used in antiquity. Later, aided by Dartnell's admirable exposition, you will be able to power your car by gassifying wood — three kilos is equal to one litre of petrol.

This book, as Dartnell acknowledges, owes much to an idea of that great scientist James Lovelock, who proposed a kind of bible to be placed in every school that explained our technological civilisation, its follies and its triumphs. That book, A Book for All Seasons, is due to come out soon (I know because I wrote a chapter).

Both books are inspired by a clear sense that the human world has become more vulnerable than ever to catastrophic failure. Furthermore, we will be less able to cope than our ancestors precisely because our technology has become a giant black box obscuring our view of its own workings and our understanding of the fundamental processes of the world beyond.

Dartnell's book captures some of the difficulties involved. But it is poorly structured, coming across as an increasingly boring list of how things work. This is perhaps because he thinks how things work is the answer. It is not, it is how humans work that matters most. The biggest postapocalyptic problem of all - politics - is missing from this book. Warlords will, inevitably, rule over the ruins, stealing our loot, wrecking our rickety reinventions and enslaving us. Might will have become right. Again. The scientific method — Dartnell's greatest invention - will be powerless. Only the wise and the good can defeat them and, last time round, that took about 10,000 years.

Seeds of the future

When it comes to growing crops, Lewis Dartnell points out, humanity has already taken measures to protect itself against apocalypse, with hundreds of seed banks dotted all over the world. In case of emergency, suggests Dartnell, the best one to head to is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, built as it is 125m into a mountainside. He even includes latitude-longitude coordinates to help you get there — together with instructions for making a compass.

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