Maybe the world ends with a mushroom cloud, or a liquid cough, or even a zombie apocalypse. Whatever the case, to judge by the reports that are filtering out of august places such as the United Nations and NASA, we humans, having befouled our nests for far too long, have just about played out our time as the lords of all we survey.
Think end of the world as we know it. Think extremely bad vibes. Think, as Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome instructs us, of a dying time that’s well and truly here.
In his new book The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch, a title that wouldn’t be at all out of place in Bartertown’s public library, British scientist and science writer Lewis Dartnell imagines that civilization has come grinding to a halt—not necessarily because of an apocalypse as such, but perhaps just because we’ve run out of smarts, ideas, and will. Or dollars. Or electricity.
In a scenario of ruin and collapse, you’ll want to be among the few survivors who have mad skills for rebooting civilization. Your first task won’t be rebuilding the library or getting public TV back on the air, but instead, as Dartnell says, taking care of the basics: “to ensure you can scavenge adequate food and clean water for yourself, and without a healthcare system, to try and avoid injury or infections as best as possible.”
Scavenging food and clean water will be no easy matter when purification systems and refrigeration fail, of course, and avoiding injury may require practice in evasive action, given the likelihood of roving gangs of competitors and the need to do some exploring in dark places, inasmuch as the lights have gone off all over the world. The next job, then, is to get the lights burning again—and there’s the rub, for who among us knows how to run a power plant?
“Over the years,” says Dartnell, “as remnant resources inevitably begin to run out or deteriorate, you'll need to relearn how to grow your own food, produce your own clothes from natural materials, and begin rebuilding civilization from scratch.” All that requires a knowledge of basic science, to say nothing of a green thumb and the ability to drive a nail—all things that The Knowledge covers by way of a syllabus, and all things that adherents to the prepper way of life might want to be working on, even as they keep their guns oiled and their bags packed.
The world of the future may well look like something out of Thunderdome—or even Blade Runner or Elysium, if the one percenters manage to get offworld before the hard rain starts to fall. On that score, Dartnell, who lives near London, just happens to be a research fellow at the UK Space Agency. Asked whether he took the job in order to secure a bunk on a skedaddling space shuttle, Dartnell says it’s a happy accident. “My research is in a field of science called astrobiology,” he notes. “I focus on the possibility of microbial life on Mars and how best to search for signs of it. Astrobiology is all about the planetary conditions required by life, and I've also been thinking a lot about what fundamentals are required for supporting civilization.”
Those fundamentals are as simple as keeping your supply of drinking water fresh and clean and as complex as performing surgery—again, all points covered in The Knowledge, but demanding preparation and forethought, and demanding that we think about things that must of us would rather not contemplate.
On that score, Dartnell assures Kirkus that his aim isn’t really to scare us into changing course to avoid apocalypse, although he allows that it might be nice if we could all forestall catastrophe for at least a little while longer. Instead, The Knowledge is kin to the “way things work” books of the artist-writer David Macauley, showing how complex the makings of civilization—the engines, the infrastructure, all the things we take for granted—really are.
Given the choice, and given the monumental hassle involved, none of us should really clamor for the chance to rebuild civilization from scratch, as Dartnell puts it. But in the end we may not have a choice, in which case The Knowledge will prove a valuable owner’s guide for a difficult but not impossible future.
Gregory McNamee is a contributing editor at Kirkus Reviews.