Lewis Dartnell is an unlikely end-times prophet. The author, astrobiologist, and polite British man—a self-described optimist when it comes to humanity’s imminent doom—has written a book containing the knowledge we would need to kickstart civilization in the shortest amount of time should the worst (ahem, zombie-alien-morlocks) come to pass. His book, aptly titled The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch, is less a doomsayer’s screed than a thoughtful consideration of the basic skills and science people should know. It’s really just a distillation of how the world works. We asked him about the looming apocalypse, end-of-days fashion, and saving beer from extinction.
It occurred to me while I was reading your book on my iPad that having the book in that format isn’t going to do me any good once the end of the world hits.
[Laughs] Well, something like an iPad—or, I guess, like a Kindle or something—isn’t all that crazy. It’s not really that vulnerable a medium. You could keep recharging it using a solar panel or something. One of my fantasies is to get in touch with the maker community and have someone build me an apocalypse-proof Kindle. And have it kind made waterproof and have a solar panel integrated into the back so you could definitely recharge it once the grid goes down. So I reckon that would work.
We have all of these things, but no one has any idea how they’re made or really how they work at all. Is my iPad run by black magic? I have no idea.
What I try to get across in The Knowledge is that civilization isn’t just about the gadgets and devices it can build. It’s about the industry and mechanisms and chemistry behind it. You need to provide the raw materials.
Which of your friends would be on your dream team—your post-apocalyptic survival team?
Have you yourself given that much thought, or was the apocalypse just a handy springboard to talk about scientific concepts that interest you?
I have put a lot of thought into the book, and mapping out how you could reboot civilization from scratch, if you ever needed to. It’s something that we’ve all talked about, that we’ve all thought about, and had a chat with our mates down at the bar in the evening about what you would do if civilization were to collapse and you found yourself in this post-apocalyptic world. And which of your friends would be on your dream team—your post-apocalyptic survival team—you know, what kind of skills do people have that would actually be useful. There aren’t things like web design or this kind of stuff that would evaporate.
But what I’ve tried to do with The Knowledge is peg it, this idea of surviving the apocalypse, but really it’s not about that at all. It’s not about the end of the world. It’s about our world, and how our world works, and the fundamentals needed to keep civilization going. And how it has developed and progressed over time, over centuries if not millennia of history. And how you could be clever and accelerate that process if you had to do it all over again. What kind of shortcuts could you take through the network of science and technology to recover as quick as possible.
So I kind of hang it on the hook of the post-apocalyptic world, but it isn’t really about that. That’s just the narrative conceit. The other idea I had to frame the book was a sort of time-traveler’s manual. If you fall through a time warp to 10,000 BC, how do you make yourself king? How do you know everything that would be really useful to know so that people follow you and you can build a technological advanced civilization as quickly as you can.
Exactly. So that’s one of the books I reference in the bibliography of The Knowledge. There’s a couple of great books from history—such as Connecticut Yankee—and Mary Shelley wrote one of the very first post-apocalyptic novels shortly after she wrote Frankenstein. So there’s a good history of these kinds of ideas.
If civilization were to collapse, and you did have to start from scratch, it’s not going to be like living in Middle Earth and sort of Hobbitsville in Lord of the Rings.
At one point early on in the book, you reckon that someone like a doctor—with their training and sought-after skills—would in many situations become highly specialized slaves. Are you a little worried that because you wrote this survival manual, you yourself will become the most highly specialized slave of all?
Well, to be honest, I put that in as more of a throwaway line. As I say, this isn’t really written as a handbook for post-apocalyptic survivors. It is just a thought experiment. It’s a way of holding up a mirror to our society, so we can get an external perspective and get a look at how our world works. And what I hope people take away is just a little more appreciation for all the stuff that is being done for us by the life support system of civilization, and kind of understand a bit more about the science and technology that runs our everyday lives. But it was quite fun running with these themes. I think it’s a quite appealing scenario to play with.
You study astrobiology?
Yes. My Ph.D and my current research fellowship is in the field of astrobiology at the University of Leicester.
How is that going to help when the shit hits the fan? Unless it’s an alien invasion, what skills have you learned that will help out?
I suppose that the two are largely disjointed. My first book was on astrobiology and the cutting edge of the science and research for life beyond Earth. This is my third book, and it’s on a completely different topic, of course. But there are some lessons you can apply between the two. Part of the point behind The Knowledge is this realization that our society isn’t invulnerable, and that civilizations have collapsed in the past.
And life itself has faced some very large hazards, mass extinctions in history of life on our planet. So understanding the conditions that life needs to get started in the first place, and to persist on a planet, and therefore where you would look for life on other worlds, does have some deep ties to this idea of mass extinction events. An asteroid impact, for example, could collapse civilization if it were to hit us tomorrow. So there are some links between my research fellowship and this book.
One of the possible futures, if we don’t start addressing this big issue, is that we start driving ourselves to extinction.
I was reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s book, The Sixth Extinction. Things don’t look to good, it turns out.
If civilization were to collapse, and you did have to start from scratch, it’s not going to be some kind of idyllic rural existence. It’s not going to be like living in Middle Earth and sort of Hobbitsville in Lord of the Rings. It’s going to be a brutal, tough, hard existence. You’re going to have to work hard to get enough food from the fields to avoid starvation and to keep things running and to provide all the things you need to survive.
One of the possible futures, if we don’t start addressing this big issue, is that we start driving ourselves to extinction. Or at least, having a large population fall of the human race, basically because of ecological damage. Because we stop being able to support ourselves because the productivity of agriculture and things starts dropping off because we’ve overfarmed and we haven’t looked after the soil, and droughts arise and the climate has changed.
So it is a concern. But I’m not really a doomsayer. I’m not saying the end is nigh. We have got some things we need to sort out. But I’m an optimist. I have confidence in the ingenuity and problem-solving abilities of the human race. Because that’s what got us from 10,000 BC and mud huts to today’s world of airplanes, radio, electricity, and antibiotics. So I have faith that we’ll solve the big issues that face us, if we take them seriously. I suppose that’s the concern.
One of the first sections I wrote was about growing barley and oats for yourself, and the useful things you make from it, including beer. Because it’s very important.
I think we can all agree on that. Another thing I think we can all agree on is that if we need a ready supply of slaves, we have Wall Street. We can shackle the bankers and send them to the salt mines.
[Laughs] Well, my wife is a doctor. She clearly has got pragmatic, hands-on skills that would be useful. I’m a scientist. I’ve got a bit of background knowledge, but what I do on a day-to-day basis is kind of niche and specialized. In the modern economy, when you have these tiers of hierarchy, you get up to the kind of advertising executives, the management consultants, the economists—you know, very intelligent, very capable people—but their skills wouldn’t be applicable to the post-apocalyptic world.
What would your post-apocalyptic outfit look like? Thunderdome-chic?
[Laughs] You can spend wonderful hours rambling around on Google and looking at all these kind of cosplay and post-apocalyptic outfits. There’s deep links between this and steampunk. I love the steampunk aesthetic. But the boring answer is the outfit would be basically what you wearing on a hiking or camping trip. You want some sturdy, rugged hiking books. You want layers to keep yourself warm but dry. You want a nice waterproof coat. It’s not going to be the kind of brass and swords crossed slung across your back, and goggles and all these accessories that people dress up in. It’s a great aesthetic, but maybe not entirely practical.
Well this is where you and I disagree, friend. Practicality aside, I’m going to dress as a cross between the Ultimate Warrior and spikes out of my shoulders and…
But just think, you’ll get called Nipples, though, if you walk around bare chested.
I hadn’t considered that. Also, I’m a lot smaller than the Warrior, so I’d probably last about 20 minutes in any case. But I’d look damn scary for those 20 minutes.
How long until we get the bars back up and running again?
Oh, well one of the first sections I wrote was about agriculture and growing barley and oats for yourself, and the useful things you make from it, including beer. So I talk about brewing and fermentation very early in the book. Because it’s very important.
That it is. What’s in your apocalypse go bag?
Your get-out-of-Dodge bag? Simple stuff, you know, a bottle of water. Maybe some antibiotics. Fire-starting kit. And obviously a copy of The Knowledge in there, to tell you how to scavenge for yourself what you need once it runs out, and to start growing it yourself.
Awesome. I look forward to joining a gang with you after the fall of man.
[Laughs] A survival team.
I’ll see you on the other side.
Buy The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch on Amazon.com