BY: Lewis Dartnell
A scientific approach to prepare for a catastrophic collapse of civilisation.
I’m an astrobiologist — I study the essential building blocks of life, on this planet and others. But I don’t know how to fix a dripping tap, or what to do when the washing machine goes on the blink. I don’t know how to bake bread, let alone grow wheat. My father-in-law used to joke that I had three degrees, but didn’t know anything about anything, whereas he graduated summa cum laude from the University of Life.
It’s not just me. Over the past generation or two we’ve gone from being producers and tinkerers to consumers. What would we do if, in some science-fiction scenario, a global catastrophe collapsed civilisation and we were members of a small society of survivors? What key principles of science and technology would be necessary to rebuild our world from scratch?
You would need to start with germ theory — the notion that contagious diseases are not caused by whimsical gods but by invisibly small organisms invading your body. Drinking water can be disinfected with diluted household bleach or even swimming pool chlorine. Soap for washing hands can be made from any animal fat or plant oil stirred with lye, which is soda from the ashes of burned seaweed combined with quicklime from roasted chalk or limestone. When settling down, ensure that your excrement isn’t allowed to contaminate your water source — this may sound obvious, but wasn’t understood even as late as the mid-19th century.
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In the longer term, you’ll need to remaster the principles of agriculture and the ability to stockpile a food reserve and support dense cities away from the fields. Then there are the many materials society requires: How do you transform base substances like clay and iron into brick or concrete or steel, and then shape that material into a useful tool? To learn a small piece of this, I spent a day in a traditional, 18th-century iron forge, learning the essentials of the craft of the blacksmith.
Of course, it needn’t take a catastrophic collapse of civilisation to make you appreciate the importance of understanding the basics of how devices around you work. Localised disasters can disrupt normal services, making a reasonable reserve of clean water, canned food and backup technologies like kerosene lamps a prudent precaution. Thought experiments like these can help us to explore how our modern world actually came to be, and to appreciate all that we take for granted.
Dartnell, an astrobiology research fellow at the University of Leicester, is author of the forthcoming book ‘The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch’
The New York Times