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Book Review: The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm (Lewis Dartnell)

“The Knowledge” is meant as an assist to the human race. But to properly aid the human race, in a post-apocalypse future, two things are required. One is technical knowledge. The other is an understanding of the human race. Lewis Dartnell here offers technical knowledge, but he limits it to knowledge useful for “peaceful coexistence.” Given that violence is an inherent part of humans, which Dartnell seems to not understand, that limitation sharply diminishes the usefulness of his book.

Dartnell covers every relevant general category of knowledge: agriculture, food/clothing; substances (lime, soap, etc.); materials (clay, glass, etc.); medicine; power; transport; communication; chemistry; and reckoning of time and place. Most of these are well covered, if necessarily only briefly. But Dartnell studiously ignores what’s first necessary to make any of these possible to obtain and maintain: weaponry. If history teaches us anything, it’s that substantial numbers of survivors would choose to prey on other survivors. How the non-prey would defend themselves would be the very first order of business—certainly long before, say, photography, a subject Dartnell covers in detail.

Dartnell has thought a great deal about the technical aspects of how humans might “reboot” society. Dartnell limits his apocalypse to catastrophic events that kill most people while leaving infrastructure intact, leaving a “grace period” in which survivors can loot the bones of the former civilization, and for a time even use dying technology like cars and solar panels. He explicitly believes that survivors will leave the cities and form wholly peaceful communities striving to recapture past knowledge, perhaps with an assist from his book. But again, the problem is that other than in technical application of scientific principles, Dartnell seems to be ignorant of how humans act in real life—how they’ve acted in history and how they will inevitably act in the future. Which is, by killing each other.

Why Dartnell does not cover weapons is fairly obvious. He omits any discussion of weapons, for any purpose at all, for ideological reasons—either because he thinks they’re icky or he believes we should give peace a chance. He even goes into great detail about crops as a food source, and omits any mention of hunting for food, except for an oblique mention of butchering (no details on that, of course). No guns, no spears, no bows and arrows, no traps. No stockades, no tiger pits, no abbatis. When the predators swarm into your camp, that’s the “Knowledge” that you’ll want, not how to use Barnard’s Star to calculate what year it is.

And it’s not like Dartnell ran out of space. He even discusses how to create gunpowder, but mandates it only be used for peaceful uses, and naturally declines any instructions on how to create new cartridges for the hundreds of millions of firearms that would survive his type of posited collapse. Dartnell admits, that “You might think that explosives are exactly the sort of technology you would want to leave out of a manual for rebooting civilization, to prolong peaceful coexistence as long as possible.” This is ludicrous. Peaceful coexistence will last in the apocalypse exactly zero seconds. When people aren’t busy trying to make explosives, they’re going to be busy making mustard gas.

But let’s say that Dartnell doesn’t want to turn this into a firearms manual like so much “prepper” literature. That’s understandable, and in any case Dartnell clearly envisions a time when former technology, whether cars or guns, no longer works. Or maybe this was a disarmed society lacking guns (though the UK, where Dartnell writes, has enormous amounts of guns, both illegal ones and ones in military hands, that would be immediately “redistributed” post-apocalypse). In that case, the use of basic metallurgy (which Dartnell covers) to create spears, arrowheads, daggers and swords would be critical to enable any community to defend itself. But Dartnell envisions peaceful souls all living in egalitarian harmony as they rebuild the world, so no mention of such unpleasant things sullies his book.

Also, these peaceful souls will spend their time loving animals, not hunting and eating them. In one place, Dartnell grudgingly admits that rebuilding medicine “may also call for disagreeable practices like animal testing.” I’m pretty sure the inhabitants of post-apocalyptic Earth won’t be much concerned with animal welfare, other than preparatory to their consumption.

Perhaps, one thinks, this is all a brain freeze by Dartnell, and he has subsequently realized that lack of discussion about weaponry creates a huge gap in his book. Nope. Since 2014, when this book was published, Dartnell has maintained a website, which has extensive discussion organized by month. Searching that entire website leads to exactly two results for “weapons”—one in a reference to “Doomsday Preppers,” without actual discussion of weapons, and the other in the famous (and dumb) quote by Einstein about World War IV. Searching for “firearm,” “gun,” “sword” or “spear”? Result: “Nothing Found.” I find it very hard to believe I am the first to point this omission out to Dartnell, so it must be a deliberate choice.

“The Knowledge” aims at an interesting goal—being a seed for a post-apocalyptic rebirth of society, containing key knowledge to restart society. By itself, it’s not much of a seed, since the actual how-to knowledge it contains is limited, and it assumes the ability to perform various scientific techniques that in reality might not be simple to perform. I don’t fault Dartnell for that. This book is certainly better than nothing as a manual for rebooting our society. However, Dartnell’s own criterion for inclusion of knowledge in this book is “I’ve tried to include as much as I think would be absolutely indispensable knowledge for rebooting.” Anyone who thinks weapons and defensive tools aren’t the most indispensable knowledge of all is a simpleton. Failure to include such knowledge, given Dartnell’s declared goals, is criminal negligence.

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