If our technological society collapsed tomorrow, what crucial knowledge would we need to survive in the immediate aftermath and to rebuild civilization as quickly as possible?
Ask yourself this: If you had to go back to absolute basics like some sort of post-cataclysmic Robinson Caruso, would you know how to recreate an internal combustion engine? Put together a microscope? Get metals out of rock? Or produce food for yourself?
This week’s podcast guest is Lewis Dartnell, author, presenter, and professor of science communication at the University of Westminster. He’s best known to the public as a popular science writer, especially for his book The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch. In that book and in his related TED Talk, Lewis explains how every piece of our modern technology rests on an enormous support network of other technologies, all interlinked and mutually dependent:
There’s the fundamental fact that the economic system the developed world has based itself on capitalism which has this core assumption that you can forever continue generating wealth by growing your economy, by making more things, by extracting more raw materials and ingredients and environment. And in a sense, that’s served us very well since even before the Industrial Revolution when, in a sense, the planet, the Earth, was very, very big compared to the demands of the human population living on it. But that assumption is no longer true anymore. With over 7 billion people on the planet all wanting to have a decent and comfortable standard of living, that puts an enormous amount of demand on the natural systems on our planet for producing those raw materials. That’s everything from agriculture and the degradation of the kind of soil and the growing environment through to how many minerals and metals there might be that we’re trying to dig up. So there is this limitation.
And even if there never is an apocalypse, and I certainly hope that there isn’t one, over the next couple of decades, we really are going to have to root deeply and reassess how we go about things. Not just try to grow as quickly as possible and not extract as much energy and raw materials as we possibly can. We need to act in a much, much more sustained and careful manner, otherwise we’re going to degrade the environment around us to such an extent that it will no longer support us, and there could then be some kind of crash or collapse.
And what a lot of people talk about is a post-oil world in that we are rapidly sucking up all of the easily suck-up-able crude oil around the world. And it’s very much a finite resource. It is going to run out. There are signs that it’s already starting to run out. They’ve already passed peak oil. And so we need to be thinking very carefully about what we’re going to next system. How could we fuel our cars and our transport network without using diesel or gasoline, using petrol? And how can we do a lot of industrial processes? And how can we create things like artificial pesticides and herbicides and plastics and pharmaceuticals which all come from oil as their base stock?
In writing The Knowledge, I wanted to engage in a thought experiment that asks: What’s going on behind the scenes to support our everyday lives and all the stuff that we just take for granted nowadays?
In the long term, if you’re not just talking about wilderness survival skills but how to go about rebooting the whole of civilization, the key issue is all that we use today is inextricably linked to everything else. There’s this vast iceberg of understanding; much of it is under the surface. You don’t really interact with it or are aware that it’s there. Even the simplest things like how to make a toaster requires this entire infrastructure of capability and knowhow to create things, and where to go to get particular things from the natural world and the environment around you. So I try to explore all of that, as well as how to start reconstructing this network of scientific understanding and technological inventions.
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Lewis Dartnell (39m:45s).