A Conversation for Ask h2g2

Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 1

Hoovooloo

Here's a book I'd like to read. I'd ideally like to write it myself, but I lack the skills and knowledge. The idea, however, I think would make for an interesting volume. Offered here for free, if you've the skills and knowledge to get it done, and you do it because you read it here, I'd appreciate an acknowledgement.

I was pondering the end of the world. Some apocalyptic event, doesn't matter what - meteor impact, global pandemic, zombie uprising, whatever. The base assumption is that you're down to some tiny proportion of the previous world population - maybe 0.1%. Assume further that it's 0.1% everywhere - so the population of the UK is about 70,000. Assume that who you've lost and who you've kept is entirely random - good and bad, rich and poor, old and young, clever and stupid, weak and strong. Assume all the infrastructure - power stations, railways, factories, farms etc. are still there and largely intact... but almost nobody is left to run them, indeed almost nobody is left who even understands who they worked in the first place.

Now... write me a manual for rebuilding the world. Give me a guide for how to get from basic subsistence farming to iPhones.

Assume that there are NO other books available - the entire internet and every library is not available for some reason. You have just one book. It needs to teach the people left everything they need to know. Start with agriculture, mining, smithing, politics, economics, navigation... everything you need to know to build civilisation back up.

I'm curious how fast a tiny population could get back to iPhone levels of tech from a standing start, if they had a cheat sheet that meant they didn't waste their time with religion or Lysenkoism or similar. How much quicker could you work up from subsistence farming if you already knew about genetics?

One obvious thing that would limit them is the fact that almost all the easily accessible non-renewable forms of stored energy - coal, oil, gas etc. - have already been extracted, and there are already anti-biotic resistant bacteria.

I'd really like to see this book. Anyone up for writing it? Or come to that, anyone got better ideas about what I've missed?


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 2

The Left Reverend Doktor Baron Grim

Wow!

That sounds like a project for a committee, over decades, rather than an individual. It sounds like a damn good idea though.

I don't think you need to go as far as the iPhone (and the level of technology that suggests) though. I think you get the remaining populace to some point where they can research and innovate on their own and they'll find their own cutting edge tech. We definitely might consider not giving them explicit directions on rebuilding our models of economics and politics.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 3

paulh. the world is a circus, but why d I have to work without a net?

Some of my favorite novels have a similar theme -- "Station 11" and "Marooned in real time," for instance.

I feel somewhat reassured by the idea that when the Internet and other electronic infrastructure have been lost, printed books might still be available.

As one among many on the committee that might write this manual, I would suggest the use of a circle of mirrors in a sunny place, with a central container of water as the focal point. As the water boils, it could be channeled so as to turn turbines. The turbines could generate electricity (if electric technology has been rebuilt), or run grist mills for grinding grain.

Windmills wold also do some good things. If there's an aquifer below the surface, wells could be dug. The windmills could run the machinery that pulls water up from the wells. Annie Proulx's book "That ol' ace in the hole" mentions such wind-driven wells in northern Texas.

A mid-19th century level of technology might be rebuilt within a few decades after the apocalypse.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 4

Hoovooloo

What are the things we need to skip? What would accelerate progress, compared to what we've had? What specific bits of ignorance held us back?

Also - be ruthless. What specific horrible things moved us forward? I'm going to stick my neck out and say we would not have the tech level we have today without imperialism and slavery. Knowing that, if you wanted to get back to this tech level, how would you do so WITHOUT slavery? Can you avoid it, and if so, how? SHOULD you avoid it? There's an argument that however bloody horrible slavery was, every single person alive today in any halfway advanced economy is materially MUCH better off because of it. Access to things like clean water and antibiotics and inside toilets are only where they are because of the industrial base created by slave trading and labour.

Then again, my premise assumes that there is NOT a basically inexhaustible supply of labour - mankind after the apocalypse would of necessity have to be much more equitable and efficient, because there just wouldn't be the people available to do the work. Nice idea.

Give me a list of things you'd make a priority. Mine would start with:
Germ theory of disease. Vaccination. Antibiotics. Clean water. Safe cookery. Basic principles of agriculture. Clue about how to find, mine and process metals. Atomic theory. Thermodynamics. Ways to make pregnancy safer. Ways to reduce infant mortality.

Any more?


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 5

SiliconDioxide

Have you read "A Canticle for Leibowitz"? It's a 3-part story of a civilisation recovering from a nuclear apocalypse through the preservation of engineering texts by religious communities.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 6

You can call me TC

Looks like not many people have taken up the challenge.

Would you expect cultural developments as well? Humans will surely always look for beauty and pleasant ways of passing the time. In fact, interpreting and possibly even writing the manual would fall under this category.

Presumably we would not need to go as far back as discovering fire and re-inventing the wheel.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 7

Hoovooloo

I think even the most technologically illiterate amongst us could, with some encouragement (e.g. you'll die if you don't), manage to make a wheel and start a fire.

What prompted this was reading the blog of an acquaintance who has a forge. He makes knives and other bladed implements, and blogs about it. I also have a friend who has a forge and does blacksmithing for a living, rather than just a hobby.

It struck me, hard, that I am pretty close to the tip of a pyramid. I'm a 21st century chemical engineer. I can design you a chemical plant to process chocolate, or polymers, or paints, or pharmaceuticals. I can write you the software to control the plants that do this. Pretty clever stuff.

Except...

My value to society is predicated on the existence of supply chains of raw materials - cocoa beans from west Africa, refrigerant gases, metal oxides, fine chemicals. It is predicated on the ready availability of a variety of specifications of stainless steel, fabricated into vessels and pipes that I can specify, but have no idea how to actually make. It is predicated on the availability of tools like Excel, and smart boards, and computer aided design software.

While those things all exist, I'm really, really useful to YOU, whoever you are, wherever you are, because some of your medicines are the product of plant I commissioned, some of the chocolate you eat passed through a process I designed and installed, some of the cars you drive have components I produced the raw materials for from a waste recovery process I invented.

BUT... take away the people who supply those things, and what use am I? Actually probably still pretty useful - I've a wide background general knowledge and could probably turn my hand to quite a few things that would be necessary after The Fall.

What I couldn't do is tell you where to mine for iron, or how to recognise it when you found it, or how to turn iron ore into steel, or how to turn a bar of steel into a blade or hammer, or how to plough a field, how to shoe a horse (or even CATCH a horse). I've no practical idea how to make glass or grind a lens - I know the theory, but I've no idea where to actually start.

I'd be interested to know what people think are the priorities in terms of knowledge to preserve and pass on. I think I've listed most of the obvious ones.

Call me a philistine, but I do NOT think there's any value in preserving or passing on art or the means of its production. Not because I don't see value in it, but because I believe part of the value in it lies in the discovery. I don't think anyone would be inconvenienced terribly if the knowledge of how to mix oil paints or paint with perspective was lost. It would be rediscovered in due course, and there's no urgency. Compare that to losing the knowledge that clean water really, really matters, and how to get it, or how to do vaccination.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 8

paulh. the world is a circus, but why d I have to work without a net?

I'm too busy to do it lately. I also have a philosophical discomfort with the idea of planning far ahead when you don't know many of the particulars of the times to come. Predictions are hard to nail.

Yes, it looks as if the seas will rise. By the time they get high enough to do real damage, will the human race have found cost-effective ways of upgrading their dikes and levees?

That's just one of many factors. I also imagine that there will be a competition of ideas. I won't just be Hoo or me or any single person deciding what's the right or best way to do things. Maybe I won't be around to have any effect at all.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 9

The Left Reverend Doktor Baron Grim

I remember pondering, as I'm sure many others and likely some of you may have, how well I personally would do if I were suddenly transported back in time, ala _A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court_, (Or _Army of Darkness- smiley - evilgrin ). Would I be able to survive. Would I be able to teach the contemporaries something of value? I've never made a fire without the aid of modern conveniences. Often in such stories of a modern human encountering primitive peoples, they demonstrate their mastery of fire by flicking a lighter. I thought about what it takes to make and use something like a simple Zippo lighter. The lighter itself requires some knowledge and skill at metallurgy and metal working. Creating a wheeled flint striker and the spring that that presses the flint against the wheel would likely be quite beyond any technology you might access or create in the past. The "flint" itself is actually something called "ferrocerium", which consists of approx. 50% cerium, 25% lanthanum and 20% iron; the remaining 5% is magnesium, neodymium and praseodymium. (according to a quick websearch). What would I use as fuel? Do I know how to transform crude oil or tar into naphtha fuel? Even the cotton wadding and wick is probably not something you could craft in the wild. There are HUGE supply chains involved in the simplest of our modern conveniences. I'd surely die a quick death if removed from my modern environment.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 10

Otto Fisch ("Stop analysing Strava.... and cut your hedge")


I'm sure I heard a podcast interview with the author of a book along those lines....

*googles*

I think it's this:


The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm
by Lewis Dartnell

-------
How would you go about rebuilding a technological society from scratch?

If our technological society collapsed tomorrow what would be the one book you would want to press into the hands of the postapocalyptic survivors? What crucial knowledge would they need to survive in the immediate aftermath and to rebuild civilization as quickly as possible?

Human knowledge is collective, distributed across the population. It has built on itself for centuries, becoming vast and increasingly specialized. Most of us are ignorant about the fundamental principles of the civilization that supports us, happily utilizing the latest--or even the most basic--technology without having the slightest idea of why it works or how it came to be. If you had to go back to absolute basics, like some sort of postcataclysmic Robinson Crusoe, would you know how to re-create an internal combustion engine, put together a microscope, get metals out of rock, or even how to produce food for yourself?


Lewis Dartnell proposes that the key to preserving civilization in an apocalyptic scenario is to provide a quickstart guide, adapted to cataclysmic circumstances. The Knowledge describes many of the modern technologies we employ, but first it explains the fundamentals upon which they are built. Every piece of technology rests on an enormous support network of other technologies, all interlinked and mutually dependent. You can't hope to build a radio, for example, without understanding how to acquire the raw materials it requires, as well as generate the electricity needed to run it. But Dartnell doesn't just provide specific information for starting over; he also reveals the greatest invention of them all--the phenomenal knowledge-generating machine that is the scientific method itself.
------


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 11

The Left Reverend Doktor Baron Grim

smiley - ok

That saves us from doing it. Probably for the best considering I can't even start a fire. smiley - laugh


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 12

Hoovooloo

Wonderful. That's that book bought, then! smiley - smiley

It did occur to me that my idea couldn't possibly be original. I was sort of hoping someone might already have written it. Thanks!


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 13

The Left Reverend Doktor Baron Grim

From the customer reviews on Amazon, while it seems like an interesting book, a common complaint is that it's not really an instruction manual, it's more of a "think-piece". With that in mind, I may consider purchasing the $5 Kindle version since the illustrations aren't necessarily vital as step by step instruction. My Paperwhite kindle doesn't handle illustrations well.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 14

Orcus

The trouble with mining minerals of course is also... even if you *do* know how to recognise where they can be found and how to extract whatever you want out of them* - you also need to be near where it is unless you have some sort of very rapid and large scale method of scouting them out.

Personally, although I'm a very practically competent chemist I don't think that would be too handy in the post-apocalyptic scenario due to lack of fine chemicals available, plus equipment.**
But... really I just have science skills and practical abilities to do quite a lot of useful things.

I think we would find that we end up somewhere in the post-Roman empire Western Europe type scenario. Where large numbers of people die as we are - in vast majority - completely unaware of how anything works. I include myself in that to a large extent. But there would be preserves of knowledge - not sure where - not monasteries this time I guess - where books and such would be preserved and a kernel of a beginning again would start.

It's an interesting point that this very scenario has happened many times already in human history - and is actually quite normal - we are in a very abnormal situation currently.... or are we? The uprisings of Old Kingdom Egypt and Minoan civilisations were very high points in human technology only to be destroyed in the mysterious Bronze Age collapse, the Assyrian Empire was the first 'globalising' empire - destroyed in a lighting War after nearly 3000 years of supremacy - leading to hundreds of years of much smaller city states (Ancient Greece for example) following this. The Roman Republic/Empire, Parthian Empires and Carthaginian Empires had astonishing technology for their time. How else would Rome lose the largest number of sailors EVER in a single naval battle (1st Punic war) and recover to win? Ancient Carthage had multi-storey buildings. Rome built the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople in the 5th century AD when Western Europeans were back to living in mud huts practically. When the Western Empire collapsed, the people living in Rome a couple of hundred years later wondered what gods built all those ruined marble palaces and arenas. Only in about the 15th century did we even get near Greco-Roman technology again.... if Rome had sorted out its political corruption and fended off the nomad-horse archers (Huns) - would we have landed on the moon in 1069?

We are perhaps not as far away from this scenario as we like to think. Did the residents of Rome in 300 AD think their amazing civilisation would ever end? Did the Pharaoh's of the Middle Kingdom?

One of the main things that I would worry about - and this is something that makes history a VERY valuable subject for this sort of thing - is our potentially lost ability to make use of our nearest and very valuable resources. In the Middle Ages, we had a 1001 uses for urine and faeces... every resource was extracted to the maximum... THIS sort of knowledge that is largely lost to the vast majority of us would really be needed for small communities to survive. I'm pretty sure we would learn to hunt again, make a bow. But would we throw the bones away afterwards... would we remember we can extract renin from sheep stomachs to make cheese? That we can use our own urine to tan leather? We would need to be alive, sheltered and not starving before we start worrying about how to make penicillin again...
Rendering fat to make soap... that would be useful...

Interesting question, we have been there several times in our history. I did not even mention the up and down civilsational swings of our eastern peoples in China and thereabouts... it all happened there too.


*Forget something like aluminium - that requires a *huge* amount of electricity... hmmm
** Pretty sure I could make some sort of flame thrower weapon from crude oil though - or some sort of flammable ballistic device. I might get rich fashioning weaponry for my liege-lord smiley - winkeye


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 15

Hoovooloo

"We would need to be alive, sheltered and not starving before we start worrying about how to make penicillin again"

Indeed. But penicillin is an interesting one for several reasons.

Firstly, you'd not need to be much past the "alive, sheltered, not starving" phase before it would be reasonable to be trying to cultivate it. It's a natural product after all, and mould poultices were used even if people didn't know why they worked.

But again, in a modern day post-apocalyptic scenario, you're not starting from where our ancestors did. Just as the easily-mined coal is all gone, so are the bugs that are susceptible to simple anti-biotics. At least we'd stop stuffing cows and chickens full of the stuff.

Another thing to consider is "places to avoid". I can think of a few places around the country where people who know no better would be able to find some bars of metal they could bring in the house to keep themselves warm... for a while. Uranium and plutonium hanging around from before whatever Happened would be an attractive resource to those who didn't know what they were dealing with.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 16

Orcus

Certainly it's true that you could use penicillium moulds - if you knew which was penicillium and not something else which is pathogenic... one for your book of knowledge.

Antibiotics have very much NOT got rid of all the bugs susceptible to simple antibiotics. We only intervene in killing them when they're in our bodies doing nasty stuff - or use them pre-emptively in scenarios where they might be a problem (post-operatively and in animals - they're actually used in animal feed to kill the bugs that generate the methane when they fart - little factoid there - or at least so my colleague who is a fair old expert in gut flora bugs - also the reason they're often not grass-feeding in factory farms - as I understand things at least).

Drug resistant bugs will - and do - lose their drug resistance capabilities pretty fast if they're not under a selective pressure to retain them. They don't need them when not-exposed to antibiotics all the time and they use so much of their resources generating their enzymes or pumps or whatever to rid themselves of these toxins that in the wild they are slow growing compared to their competitors that do not have these. In the wild they stop expressing drug resistance or get out-competed. Drug resistant bacteria dominate in places where there are lots of drugs - farms/hospitals. If you pick up and infection in the normal outside world it's very likely to still be perfectly treatable with penicillin V.

Microbial life forms by mass FAR outweigh all other life on earth. We haven't even got close to wiping out any bacterial species.

I'm not so sure all the easily available coal is gone. Plenty left - it's just not necessarily economic to mine it here these days versus open cast mines with almost-slave-labour in South America...

Anyway, I digress smiley - smiley




Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 17

Hoovooloo

"I'm not so sure all the easily available coal is gone"

Depends on your definition of "easy".

I grew up in Wigan. There were places there where people could literally "mine" coal out of their back yards - just dig down a bit and there it was. Deposits like that are stripped away pretty quickly. There may still be places where that's possible and you can get enough fuel for a lifetime's supply for a single smith's forge... but enough to run an industrial revolution?

Implicit in recovering "civilisation" as we know it is making the transition from most people working in agriculture and living in the country to most people working in cities in some form of industry making products. You can't build an iPhone in a farmhouse.

It was a good point someone made upthread about there also being necessarily some form of globalisation necessary, because you simply can't get all the resources you need in one country. The more you think about it, the more amazing it is how interconnected we all are in our dependencies.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 18

paulh. the world is a circus, but why d I have to work without a net?

Those are good points.

Globalization of a sort was once possible thanks to the wind. Sailing ships traveled great distances, carrying cargo. Before people thought about using fossil fuels, they cut down trees and burned them to heat their homes and heat forges. Getting around on land was helped by using horses. The downside to that was the large amounts of arable land necessary to grow oats and fodder for the horses. Once the fossil fuals came into greater use, large areas that had been deforested were able to grow back their tree covers.

Now, will people want to excavate for fossil fuels after the apocalypse, or will they return to the optiions (burning trees, using horses, etc.) that were used before the Industrial revolution? Or will they mix these with passive solar heat for their homes, wind power through sails and windmills, water'driven millworks, low-tech solar apparati (mirrors in a circle in a sunny place),focused on a central water container, to make the water boil and run machinery)?

One for opfn transportation not available to pre-industrials is the bicycle. I'm wondering whether a simple bicycle design could be managed.


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 19

paulh. the world is a circus, but why d I have to work without a net?

Sorry, "One option for transportation".


Book idea: recovering from the apocalypse

Post 20

Orcus

>Globalization of a sort was once possible thanks to the wind. Sailing ships traveled great distances, carrying cargo. Before people thought about using fossil fuels, they cut down trees and burned them to heat their homes and heat forges. Getting around on land was helped by using horses. The downside to that was the large amounts of arable land necessary to grow oats and fodder for the horses. Once the fossil fuals came into greater use, large areas that had been deforested were able to grow back their tree covers.

Now, will people want to excavate for fossil fuels after the apocalypse, or will they return to the optiions (burning trees, using horses, etc.) that were used before the Industrial revolution? Or will they mix these with passive solar heat for their homes, wind power through sails and windmills, water'driven millworks, low-tech solar apparati (mirrors in a circle in a sunny place),focused on a central water container, to make the water boil and run machinery)?<

Sorry, no offence but you are missing one really crucial thing - total human population.

Large amounts of arable land are needed NOW, not then, the human population when I was a kid was about 4 billion. Now it is nearly 8 billion, in 1800 it was not much more than 1 billion - if that. Here in the UK, the population has jumped from about 6 million in the Middle Ages to 60 million now. Deforestation has never been worse... it has never 'grown back' - where did you get this?


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