April 17, 2014


The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. By Lewis Dartnell. Penguin. $27.95.

     It is hard to imagine a book more ambitious than this one – Lewis Dartnell’s protestations of simply being engaged in an intellectual exercise notwithstanding. Dartnell, a 32-year-old astrobiologist and research fellow at the University of Leicester in England, here offers a road map for the relatively rapid restoration of human civilization after a massive worldwide disaster that wipes out virtually all human beings but not – this is a crucial assumption – all existing technology. This could be anything from an asteroid impact to a pandemic to bombardment with neutron bombs, but not all-out nuclear war, which, Dartnell correctly notes, would destroy too much of everything to make his prescriptions for technology rebuilding practicable.

     Before considering those prescriptions, it can be instructive to do a small thought experiment of one’s own – a mundane, everyday one relating to a form of disaster that thousands of people face every day. Think for a moment about computer-data backup and restoration. Assume you have carefully arranged offsite backup either on standalone hard drives or in the much-hyped “cloud.” Since constant backup is an onerous task, you have automated the procedure – every available form of backup allows this, and virtually everyone does it. Assume the backup has done its job perfectly well day after day for a number of years; thankfully, you have never needed to call on it. Now assume that your computer is destroyed – utterly wrecked by whatever calamity you choose. How adept will you be at using the backup to restore your precious data?

     This is not a trivial question. Do you know how to access the backup? Do you remember the passwords and other protections associated with it? Do you have a disk image, and if so, how old is it? How do you use it? Do you have data but not program backups – as most people do? How do you restore the programs? The initialization settings? How will you get your data back in a timely manner so you can use them? And if you are under understandable post-disaster stress, whether personal or work-related, or are in a significant time bind, how will you get everything you need restored quickly?

     You see the problem. Even in a mundane situation, our meticulous preparations for disaster can come unglued after an actual disaster strikes, because we set things up to protect us on an ongoing basis and we do not constantly rehearse the post-disaster steps we would need in case of calamity. Yes, in the case of data restoration, anyone who wishes can practice restoring data and/or programs and/or configuration settings and/or anything else – in his or her spare time – but how many do? And how many have the spare time? How much spare time is needed? With what frequency?

     And this is a simple issue by comparison with the one Dartnell presupposes. Yet he, like the legions of dismal scientists who believe that Homo economicus invariably makes rational decisions, assumes that in a post-apocalyptic world fraught with division, dismay, despair, desperation and deep depression, copies of The Knowledge will survive – or will have been committed to memory by intelligent, rational people who are prepared to begin at once the task of rebuilding technological society. And said people will not only be among the survivors of the worldwide disaster but will also be sufficiently focused on re-creation and remaking so that they will stand above the ruins of the world and begin the gigantic task of making it anew over a comparatively short time span – some hundreds of years, say, rather than some thousands or tens of thousands. A further underlying, if unstated, assumption is that when the initial Homo postapocalypticus generation passes on to its dubious reward, it will smoothly hand over the Dartnell wisdom to an equally committed and dedicated later generation – and The Knowledge will flow thence to another, another and another. Dartnell may be a fine scientist, but he would benefit from reading some good science fiction – the type that accepts the impossibility of faster-than-light travel and therefore posits the necessity of building multi-generational spaceships for interstellar transport, and focuses on the likely human scenarios as generation follows generation, getting farther and farther from “Earthhome” but having little sense of coming closer to a destination that no one in any intermediate generation will ever see. Heck, he could get some of the flavor of this by watching the Pixar movie WALL-E.

     So with all these primarily psychological caveats aside – psychology not being Dartnell’s field – what do readers get in The Knowledge? They receive a remarkably thoughtful and often fascinating glimpse of the underpinnings of our current technological civilization, an explanation of the way we got where we are and of the fact that we did not have to take that specific route to get here, and a set of suggestions regarding the basics of “civilization recovery” that would allow a new form of technology-savvy humanity to arise on the remains of the old, without necessarily getting there via the same route. Dartnell is well aware that the paths we actually took to get where we are would be foreclosed for future rebuilding – the Industrial Revolution, for example, depended on the availability of cheap and readily reachable fossil fuels, but those are long gone, and there is no way a post-apocalyptic world could get at most remaining stores of coal or oil. So again and again, when discussing the items that he deems crucial to remaking civilization, Dartnell mentions ways of obtaining them that would be easier in a post-apocalyptic future than the ways in which we actually did get them in the past. Just one example: “The trick [of making sulfuric acid] is to employ a chemical pathway that was never used industrially in our development.  Sulfur dioxide gas can be baked out of common pyrite rocks (iron pyrite is notorious as fool’s gold, and pyrites also form common ores of lead and tin) and reacted with chlorine gas, which you get from the electrolysis of brine…using activated carbon (a highly porous form of charcoal) as a catalyst. …Once you’ve reacquired sulfuric acid, it serves as a gateway to the production of other acids.”

     This short excerpt is a fair sampling of Dartnell’s incisive thinking, willingness to make broad statements about the foundational needs of technological society, and thoroughly unreasonable expectations regarding survivors’ ability to put into practice what he recommends. To Dartnell, the single most valuable thing that humanity has produced is the scientific method – that is, the process of forming a hypothesis, testing it by observing what happens in nature or can be made to happen through experimentation, then modifying the hypothesis accordingly or granting it the stature of a theory that can then be extrapolated to other circumstances. This is a highly intriguing perspective, and scarcely a surprising one from an intellectually gifted scientist. But how many of them will likely survive an apocalypse? How many Dartnells are in the world today, compared with, say, creationists and other religious determinists, fanatical fans of professional sports, and people far more familiar with the couplings of reality-show celebrities than with any scientific theorem whatsoever? Dartnell’s handbook for a bleak future is fascinating and in many ways brilliant, and if the survivors of the putative apocalypse were a set of Dartnells or people willing to listen to and be led by Dartnells, The Knowledge – if the book itself survived – could indeed be a reasonable blueprint for starting over. But what are the odds that The Knowledge – again, if it survived – would end up in the hands of people equipped and inclined to use it? What are the chances of a future so radically different from the present day that Dartnell’s blueprint would have even a minuscule chance of adoption and implementation? These questions, which Dartnell does not address, are every bit as germane to a potential after-a-disaster future as the ones Dartnell does bring up. And, unfortunately for all of humanity, the answers to those unasked questions point toward a time when The Knowledge and all the knowledge within it is far more likely to disappear than to be used.

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