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Science Book Club – Episode 13


So I’m no doom sayer, I obviously hope that the apocalypse doesn’t happen in my lifetime.

I think that all of us in society, and certainly myself, we feel this kind of disconnect between what I know and what I can do myself with my own hands and the kind of life support system that civilisation provides for itself, like, where does my food come from: it just magically appears on the shelves, where do my clothes come from when they just magically appear on the hangers, where do the materials, the metals and the substances that I use on a day to day basis, I don’t really…when you think about it I don’t really have the foggiest where they come from. 

 And so I’ve been thinking about this for a while and eventually got goaded into researching and writing a book on the topic about it; you had to…and this is the idea of the kind of post-apocalyptic scenario, this kind of a narrative conceit, but for whatever reason, if you had to go right back to first principles, right back to the basics, how could you support yourself.   How could we do all of the things that we take for granted and how could you reboot a civilisation from scratch, just working from the ground up, from things you can do with your own hands and then building up this complexity over time and kind of accelerating that historical process that took us thousands and thousands of years to go from 10,000 BC and the first adobe city of Mesopotamia to radios and cars and antibiotics today.  

Could you compress and accelerate that process of recovery and redevelopment, could you not only avert another Dark Ages after the apocalypse but also accelerate the recovery by hindsight, by kind of knowing what we know now and storing the crucial kernels of knowledge in a book to pass on to the apocalyptic survivors.  The book is about how to rebuild after the apocalypse but, in a way, not really, it’s about how our modern world works and how we built it, how we got from there to where we are now.

So we feel this disconnect today, and I suspect my parents’ generation would’ve felt that as well, but go back 100 years, perhaps 200 years, or if you go back to the last time that something like this hypothetical scenario actually happened in our history with the Black Death, in the 1340s and 1350s in Medieval Europe people had a much closer connection to the ways that things were done, to the means of production, to growing their own food back then and in a way they were all survivalists – or preppers as you might call them nowadays – back in that time, and at some point there was that transition from basically everyone being peasants and being able to sort things out for themselves and look after themselves to us today where in a way we’re kind of parasites on our own civilisation, we don’t have these survival skills any more.  And I don’t know, but I guess there wouldn’t have been a particular year when that happened, but even during the Second World War there was a lot of people growing their own food in allotments on the home front during the war, and we’ve kind of lost that now and I think that’s a shame.  I mean, I don’t want to have to grow my own food, I mean, I like my lifestyle and being supported by this civilization, but I think we just don’t so much appreciate anymore how it works and that’s what I wanted to explore.

So there are some things I deliberately steered clear of in the book, and it’s a popular science book so it’s about the scientific discoveries and the technological information you need to go through again, and the kinds of things I steered well clear of were things like religion: why would you not mention about a god in the book, maybe that would be useful information to pass on, but then you’ve got to decide which god you write about, I suppose.  So, I avoid religion, I avoid political systems, I don’t make any  kind of prescription about what is the ideal political system to tell the post-apocalyptic community to start heading towards, and obviously some kind of liberal democracy has worked well in our history to freeing the population to be able to think for themselves and have the academic and intellectual freedom to research what they want to research.

And things like economics and a monetary system…one of the key prerequisites for the industrial revolution wasn’t just having the knowledge to use the force and the power of steam, or the metallurgical knowhow to cast and forge these massive cylinders and pistons to make these machines, you’ve got to have a solid economy, you’ve got to be able to afford the investment and the finances to take these grand scale projects that no one person could reach into their back pocket and pay…you’ve got to have a solid economy in place. So there is far more than you can ever contain in one book and far more than you can contain in the knowledge.

So, Martin Rees has done a lot of work on this, about how we’re living in basically our final century, maybe the best years of humanity have been the recent years, they’ve kind of been and gone, and certainly I acknowledge I’ve lived a very kind of charmed existence and I’ve had all these opportunities and resources, energy and food, they’re basically in surplus and you don’t really have to think about where they come from.  But we certainly do face an enormous number of deep problems nowadays, with climate change and with peak oil and with the natural resources of our  planet being  over exploited and degrading and starting to run out.

So, I’m no doom sayer, I obviously hope that the apocalypse doesn’t happen in my lifetime, I hope the book doesn’t have the opportunity to be proved right and, like I say, its more a vehicle for explaining how the world was created, but I do worry sometimes that things are going to take a serious downturn in my own lifetime, probably within my children’s lifetime.  There’s something on the horizon that we need to start working very hard to try to solve, I think.

Lewis Dartnell’s discussion of humankind’s potential collapse continues next month.  His book, The Knowledge: How To Rebuild the Universe From Scratch is released April 3 and you can get it here or on iBooks here