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REVIEW: The Knowledge, by Lewis Dartnell
The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, Lewis Dartnell (Penguin, 2014).
This is not the book I wanted to read.
The book I wanted to read was a detailed guide to bootstrapping your way to industrial civilization (or at least antibiotics) if you should happen to be dumped back in, say, the late Bronze Age.1 After all, there are plenty of technologies that didn’t make it big for centuries or millennia after their material preconditions were met, and with our 20/20 hindsight we could skip a lot of the dead ends that accompanied real-world technological progress.
Off the top of my head, for example, there’s no reason you couldn’t do double-entry bookkeeping with Arabic numerals as soon as you have something to write on, and it would probably have been useful at any point in history — just not useful enough that anyone got really motivated to invent it. Or, here, another one: the wheelbarrow is just two simple machines stuck together, is substantially more efficient than carrying things yourself, and yet somehow didn’t make it to Europe until the twelfth or thirteenth century AD. Or switching to women’s work, I’ve always taken comfort in the fact that with my arcane knowledge of purling I could revolutionize any medieval market.2 And while the full Green Revolution package depends on tremendous quantities of fertilizer to fuel the grains’ high yields, you could get some way along that path with just knowledge of plant genetics, painstaking record-keeping, and a lot of hand pollination. In fact, with a couple latifundia at your disposal in 100 BC, you could probably do it faster than Norman Borlaug did. But speaking of fertilizer, the Italian peninsula is full of niter deposits, and while your revolutio viridis is running through those you could be figuring out whether it’s faster to spin up a chemical industry to the point you could do the Haber-Bosch process at scale or to get to the Peruvian guano islands. (After about thirty seconds of consideration my money’s on Peru, though it’s a shame we’re trying to do this with the Romans since they were never a notably nautical bunch and 100 BC was a low point even for them; you’ll have to wipe out the Mediterranean pirates early and find Greek or Egyptian shipwrights.) And another question: can you go straight from the Antikythera mechanism to the Jacquard machine, and if not what do you need in between? Inquiring minds want to know.3
But I’ll forgive Dartnell for not writing “Lest Darkness Fall” For Dummies, which I’ll admit is a pretty niche pitch, because The Knowledge is doing something almost as cool.4 Like my imaginary book, it employs a familiar fictional conceit to explain how practical things work. Instead of time travel, though, Dartnell takes as his premise the sudden disappearance (probably plague, definitely not zombies) of almost all of humanity, leaving behind a few survivors but all the incredible complexity of our technological civilization. How would you survive? And more importantly, how would you rebuild?
Short-term it wouldn’t be so bad: there are empty houses to sleep in, shopping malls full of high-performance clothes, and grocery store shelves packed with enough canned goods to last the average person 55 years — 63, if you eat the pet food too. You can siphon the gasoline out of abandoned vehicles or jury-rig a pump to drain the massive underground lake of fuel at any gas station. But you’d better do all this fast, because the fuel will degrade, the houses will weather, and the medical supplies you track down won’t stay good for long. You’ll want to get out of the cities, too — without plumbing, electricity, and climate control, they’re going to turn into deathtraps.
I’m going to quote Dartnell’s description of a decaying city at length, largely because I find it so incredibly evocative; if you’re not already imagining this as the opening scene of a film or the setting for an RPG campaign, I don’t know what’s wrong with you.
Immediately after the termination of routine maintenance, nature will seize its opportunity to reclaim our urban spaces. … Vines will snake their way up traffic lights and street signs, treating them like metallic tree trunks, and lush coatings of creepers will grow up the cliff-like faces of buildings and spread down from the rooftops.
Over a number of years, accumulating leaf litter and other vegetative matter from this pioneering burst of growth will decay to an organic humus and will mix with the windblown dust and grit of deteriorating concrete and bricks to create a genuine urban soil. Papers and other detritus billowing out of broken office windows will collect in the streets below and add to this composting layer. A thickening carpet of dirt will smother the roads, sidewalks, parking lots, and open plazas of towns and cities, allowing a succession of larger trees to take root. … Within just a decade or two, elder thickets and birch trees will have become firmly established, maturing into dense woods of spruce, arc, and beech trees by the end of the first century after the apocalypse.
And while nature is busy reclaiming the environment, our buildings will crumble and decay among the growing forests. As vegetation returns and fills the streets with wood and drifts of windblown leaves, mingling with the trash strewn out of broken windows, piles of perfect kindling will collect in the streets, and the chances of raging urban forest fires increase. Tinder accumulated against the side of a building and ignited by a summer lightning storm, or perhaps by sunlight focused through broken glass, is all that’s needed to unleash devastating wildfires that would spread along the streets and burn up the insides of high-rises. … Gas lingering in underground pipes and throughout any buildings would explode, any fuel left in the tanks of vehicles abandoned in the streets only adding to the intensity of the inferno. Dotted throughout populated areas are bombs waiting to go off when a blaze sweeps through: gas stations, chemical depots, and the vats of highly volatile and flammable solvents in dry-cleaning stores. Perhaps one of the most poignant sights for post-apocalyptic survivors would be watching the burning of the old cities, sprouting thick columns of choking black smoke towering above the landscape and flushing the sky bloodred at night.
… The greatest threat to high-rises, though, is waterlogged foundations from unmaintained drainage, blocked sewers, or recurring floods, particularly among cities built along the banks of a river. The supports will corrode and degrade or subside into the ground to create listing skyscrapers far more ominous than the leaning tower of Pisa, before inevitably collapsing. The raining debris will further damage surrounding edifices, or the buildings will perhaps even topple over into neighboring monoliths like giant dominoes, until only a few remain spiking above a skyline of trees. Few of our great high-rise buildings would be expected to still be standing after a few centuries.
So within just a generation or two after the Fall, the urban geography will have become unrecognizable. Opportunistic seedlings have become saplings have become full-blown trees. City streets and boulevards have been replaced by dense corridors of forest crammed into the man-made canyons between high-rise buildings, themselves now grossly dilapidated and trailing vegetation from gaping windows like vertical ecosystems. Nature has utterly reclaimed the urban jungle. …
Away from the cities, fleets of ghost ships will be adrift across the oceans, occasionally carried by the vagaries of wind and currents to ground themselves on a coastline, slicing open their bellies to bleed noxious slicks of fuel oil or releasing their load of containers into the ocean currents like dandelion seeds in the wind. But perhaps the most spectacular shipwreck, if anyone happens to be in the right place at the right time to watch it, will be the return of one of humanity’s most ambitious constructions.
The International Space Station is a giant 100-meter-wide edifice built over fourteen years in low Earth orbit: an impressive assemblage of pressurized modules, spindly struts, and dragonfly wings of solar panels. Although it soars 400 kilometers over our heads, the space station is not quite beyond the wispy upper reaches of the atmosphere, which exert an imperceptibly slight but unrelenting drag on the sprawling structure. This saps the space station’s orbital energy so that it spirals steadily toward the ground, and it needs to be repeatedly boosted back up with rocket thrusters. With the demise of the astronauts, or lack of fuel, the space station will relentlessly drop about 2 kilometers every month. Before too long, it would be hauled down into a fiery plunge through the air, ending in a streak of light and fireball like an artificial shooting star.
This isn’t the deeply anti-human fantasy of Earth’s “recovery” from our presence, as in The World Without Us, though the vision of the ruins bears some superficial resemblance. Dartnell’s focus throughout is on the complexity, wonder, and above all precarity of what humans have managed to build. So imagine your son, perhaps unborn now but by then grown, leading his children into the overgrown canyons of the major city you now call home. Imagine them scaling the charred brick and rebar skeleton of some building gutted by fire too recently to be yet choked by vegetation, and climbing high enough that when night comes they can watch a satellite fall. But then imagine what you would have to have already done to keep yourself alive for long enough to have that son, and to set those grandchildren up for success as our civilization’s leftovers run down or run out.
Like all good popular science (my favorite is David Reich’s magnificent Who We Are and How We Got Here), Dartnell shows a gift for explaining technical details without making the wordcel reader’s eyes glaze over. There are chapters on agriculture, food and textile preparation, material science, medicine, power generation, transportation, communication, maps and timekeeping, and two different chapters on practical chemistry: the first on basics like soap and lime, the second on more advanced industrial chemistry like electrolysis, explosives, and the Haber-Bosch process (though not, sadly, how to pull it off in the late Roman Republic). And then, unfortunately, he goes a bit off the rails. The final chapter is a paean to the scientific method, which he argues is the most important thing to keep around because it will allow the survivors to reinvent or rediscover anything their ancestors weren’t able to preserve. He repeats the familiar Popperian story of How Science Works: hypothesis, experiment, theory, self-correcting and self-healing, a continual process of questioning and improvement that forms the greatest knowledge-generating machine the world has ever known.
The only problem is that this isn’t how technological progress actually happens. It’s not even how science actually happens. It isn’t how the steam engine or the printing press came to be, or the double-hulled Polynesian canoe, or the heliocentric model of the solar system.5 It certainly wasn’t how our ancestors learned to make fire or grow food or make metal tools. Almost all the fundamental technological innovations on which our world rests were developed before the codification of the “scientific method.” Haber may have sorted out his process for nitrogen fixation in the laboratory, but farmers had recognized the role nitrates played in boosting crop yields long before that and created their own (albeit less efficient) methods for fertilizing the soil. Intensive tinkering and experimentation is the key to figuring out why something works, and to making it scale, but it’s slow. The metaknowledge of the scientific method isn’t going to get you far if you’ve lost countless generations of painstakingly accumulated actual knowledge.
Dartnell is afraid that our descendants, unable to recreate or maintain the technology they've inherited, will degenerate into superstition and magical thinking like something out of the grim darkness of the far future. And he’s not wrong to worry: sclerosis and decadence are common among the beneficiaries of complex systems not of their own making. We’re already well on our way. But the danger isn’t a loss of science and rational thinking, which if we judge by the number of peer-reviewed publications we still seem to have in abundance: it’s a loss of the process knowledge to actually put principles into practice. (What does it profit a man to know the iron carbon phase diagram if he can’t reliably shape the metal the way he wants?)6 But even more than that, it’s a loss of the belief that we can.
That, I think, is the real fascination at the heart of the book I imagined, or of The Knowledge. There are plenty of perfectly nice books exploring some of the more interesting aspects of our tremendously intricate industrial civilization;7 what makes this kind of book so much more fun is its fantasy of civilizational agency. Without institutional inertia, regulation, or zoning commissions with opinions about where you do your smelting, the only thing standing between you and indoor plumbing, antibiotics, and mild steel is hard work and determination. It’s homesteading on a grand scale — call it civilizationsteading.8 Of course it’s interesting to learn how things work, and it’s humbling to consider the scope of our ancestors’ achievements, but the really exhilarating part is imagining the speedrun.
Knitting came to Europe in the thirteenth century, but the complementary purl stitch, which is necessary to create stretchy ribbing, didn’t. If you’ve ever wondered why medieval hosen were made of woven fabric and fit the leg relatively poorly, that’s why. When purling came to England, Elizabeth I paid an exorbitant amount of money for her first pair of silk stockings and refused to go back to cloth.
Obviously you would also need to motivate people to actually do any of these things, which is its own set of complications — Jason Crawford at Roots of Progress has a great review of Robert Allen’s classic The British Industrial Revolution in Global Perspective that gets much deeper into why no one actually cared about automation and mechanization — but please allow me to imagine here.
Please do not recommend How To Invent Everything, which purports to do something like this. It doesn’t go nearly deep enough to be interesting, let alone useful. You know, in the hypothetical that I’m sent back in time.
Copernicus’s theory was substantially less accurately predictive than the Ptolemaic geocentric model that preceded it. A proper Popperian science should have rejected it out of hand; only steadfastly ignoring the data let it stick around long enough to be refined and generally adopted.
Blacksmithing is surprisingly unintuitive: hot steel behaves a little like wet clay, except that you can’t touch it with your hands so all that moving mass around has to be done by hitting it with a hammer in the right spot. That sort of three-dimensional thinking isn’t something most of us practice in everyday life, but this post from The Art of Manliness is as decent an introduction as I can find short of taking a weekend blacksmithing class. Do that if you can, it’s fun.
Consider Stuff Matters: Exploring the Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World or Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, both of which were fairly interesting.
I am reliably informed that this is still somewhat possible in the world of bits (as opposed to atoms), not all of which turns out to have been a zero interest rate phenomenon. This explains something of the Silicon Valley mindset (when not captured and tamed on the World’s Coolest Summer Camp FAANG campuses, which God willing will prove to be a zero interest rate phenomenon), but all efforts to the contrary the world of bits is still subordinate to the world of atoms, and this is a good thing.