Book Review

The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell

In the introduction to The Knowledge, Lewis Dartnell lays out what the book is, and what it isn’t.  This isn’t a book about survival tactics i.e. how to survive in the immediate aftermath of the apocalypse, whatever form that may take.  Rather, this is a look at how we avoid, longer term, falling back into the dark ages and losing the technology and science that we’ve developed that enable us to live as we do today.

People living in developed nations have become disconnected from the processes of the civilisation that supports them.

Knowledge is dispersed throughout civilisation, and it’s likely that in the event of a catastrophic event that some of this knowledge would be lost.  For example, having a doctor who is able to diagnose an illness and to administer the appropriate drug is only part of it – should the supply of medicines run out or expire, would they know how to recreate that medicine from scratch?  In the aftermath of the apocalypse, this loss of knowledge could be to mankind’s detriment.  Without each link of the chain, the gaps in our knowledge may mean that many things are lost to us, and that, even with the best of intentions, we begin to revert back to a more rudimentary lifestyle out of necessity, if not choice.

So, The Knowledge is presented as a thought experiment to explain how to “reboot” society, based upon certain assumptions:

  • Directly following the apocalypse, there is a period of grace, whereby survivors can scavenge for food and clothes etc., and where shelter is available – but this period of time is limited
  • That much that we currently have is left available – cars still work, even if the upkeep becomes more difficult, in the possible absence of trained mechanics and effective road maintenance

It seeks to impart the knowledge that we’d need to get civilisation back on track, albeit with some changes to how we live today.  There is a section on how to start farming, for example, and how to scale the production of food to feed a community.  How to make the material necessary for clothing manufacture.  Science, telecommunications, the motor engine – all are covered here.  In this way, it’s actually a really useful guide to how “stuff” works, when you get down to the bare bones of it.  I learnt much that I didn’t know previously about how the things I use on a daily basis are created.  It also outlines the priorities – the ideal order in which you’d focus on things, clean drinking water and food being the obvious priorities to enable our survival.

Over the past few hundred years, significant scientific discoveries have been made.  If we have to backtrack, there is no guarantee that we’d end up in the same place.  Scientific developments are based upon years of hard work – work that we wouldn’t necessarily be able to replicate immediately, losing valuable time and knowledge.  There are red herrings and false leads that are followed.  There’s also a degree of serendipity associated with some findings – penicillin, for example – things that are stumbled upon by accident.  The Knowledge shows us how to skip some of the years of hard work, by imparting the knowledge that was gained without us having to repeat it.

The Knowledge is a treasure trove of information – not just for ensuring that civilisation as we know it can continue in the aftermath of a cataclysmic event, but also for understanding how things work at a more general level.  It contains a great deal of information, yet is a relatively slim volume, for all that.

That said, understanding the theory is, I think, quite different to putting this knowledge into practice.  Anyone fancy a series of workshops to actually have a go at some of this stuff?  Just in case…

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