We’ve all seen post-apocalyptic movies or TV shows that feature heroic survivors scrounging for food and, more likely than not, fighting off some sort of un-dead enemy. It all looks so…achievable, doesn’t it? In the movies, someone always manages to build a fire and find drinking water; no one ever dies of dehydration or from an infected wound. The question is, if civilization were to collapse, could we rebuild life as we know it?
According to The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch by Dr. Lewis Dartnell, the answer is no. In this eye-opening survivalist guide, the author argues that if civilization should fall and necessities such as food and clothing no longer ‘magically’ appear for us on store shelves, then humanity would crumble. With all the advances and conveniences we’ve created, we’ve forgotten how to meet our basic needs if this crutch was taken away. In order to survive in a post-civilized scenario, we would need to relearn many of the core skills our ancestors used to advance civilization in the first place.
Why It Needs to be on Your Nightstand
The book is written from the perspective that if the world were to suffer a major catastrophe, it would be next to impossible for the ‘survivors’ of whatever calamity befell our civilization to retrace the steps of recent generations. Readers will learn the skills essential to rebuild our world in the immediate aftermath beyond just basic survival. By growing and mastering these skills, readers can move on to more complex tasks and learn how to improve their lives should the unthinkable happen.
Can’t we just use all the same stuff we enjoy today?
Consider this: many of the advances we enjoy today were created during the Industrial Revolution, fueled primarily by fossil fuels. At that time, these fuels were easily accessible and abundant, but now can only be mined or drilled using energy intensive and increasingly advanced methods. Oil, for instance, is currently fracked out of the ground using cutting-edge technology; a group of post-apocalyptic survivors wouldn’t stand a chance of pumping oil from a fracking well, let alone distilling it into fuel or plastic.
Given that we won’t be able to exactly replicate what our ancestors did, we need to devise ways of leapfrogging many of the steps they took as well as alternative solutions to problems solved during a different time.
A Quickstart Guide To Rebooting Civilization
In The Knowledge, Dartnell argues that “the aim for an accelerated reboot of civilization is to jump directly to a level that saves centuries of incremental development, but that can still be achieved with rudimentary materials and techniques – the sweet spot intermediate technology.” The book will teach you the skills needed to reimagine and recreate many vital technologies, including the following:
- Melting down and reshaping plastics to make containers and other durable, reusable materials
- Making steel via the Bessemer Process, instead of forging the way medieval blacksmiths did
- Damming up a stream to create a millpond for a waterwheel – a technique not used until 600 AD, nearly 1,000 years after the widespread adoption of waterwheels
- Leveraging chemistry to create a great deal of materials for building and creating, including basic chemistry to more efficiently make paper, soap, and fuels
How do I know this sort of thing is even possible?
Sound incredible? The Knowledge provides plenty of examples of times throughout history when civilizations successfully redeveloped technologies to survive. For instance, the City of Gorazde repurposed a roman-era waterwheel technology to generate electricity in the 1990s. This was during the Bosnian War when the city was cut off from the grid during a three-year siege by the Serbian army. A few years earlier, Europeans were able to repurposed more than 1 million cars to run on wood, coal and methane gas during WWII.
What You’ll Learn About Rebuilding Civilization
The Knowledge provides an in-depth review on the key tenets of civilization and the skills needed to rebuild from scratch. If you were in a post-apocalyptic situation right now, would you be able to weave cloth from plant material? Preserve your food? Put wind and water energy to work? Find your way using only the stars as a guide?
If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you need to read this book. In addition to learning the skills needed for those key tasks, you’ll also learn the following:
- What makes soil rich, the best fertilizers to use, and the best crops to cultivate based on ease of growing and nutritional value
- How to turn crops such as cereals into consumables like bread and beer
- How to preserve your food using traditional methods
- How to spin yarn and thread from plant and animal materials to weave cloth
- How to harvest the raw materials for more complex necessities such as soap, fuel and preservatives
- How to scavenge for basic materials to build tools (such as a blacksmith’s) that will allow you to build more complex tools (such as a lathe or drill press)
- How to create medicines needed for infectious diseases, childbirth, and more
- How to perform basic medical exams and diagnosis without MRIs, X-rays, etc.
- How to manage transportation in a post-fossil fuel world, e.g. wood-powered cars, animal power, wind for sailing
- How to develop basic communication tools such as quills, inks and paper, as well as more complex medias such as the printing press, telegraph and radio
- How to use basic chemistry to make explosives for mining and salvage work
- How to use the stars for navigations as well as primitive tools such as sundials and astrolabes
The Ultimate Prepper Book?
If you’re looking to develop your self-sufficiency toolset, this book is a must-have. When disaster strikes, the greatest resources you can have is knowledge. The Knowledge gives you a holistic view of what skills you’ll need so you can prioritize your learning and development. There are also practical examples of how to use those skills to build the necessities of life from readily available materials.
The essential knowledge provided in this book will give survivors the tools to build a strong foundation for the future generations that come after, so that they can do more than survive – they can thrive. If you are interested in vastly increasing your own preparedness or learning more about The Knowledge, you can read what other people are saying here.
About The Author, Dr. Lewis Dartnell
Dr. Lewis Dartnell is a professor of astrobiology at the University of Leicester in the UK. He is a UK Space Agency Research Fellow, STFC Science in Society Fellow, and the Senior Editor of the journal Astrobiology. He has committed countless hours to his exhaustive research of the technologies and skills needed to rebuild our world, and the detailed thoroughness of his book demonstrates this. In addition to all this Lewis has somehow has time to keep up a preparedness related blog at The-Knowledge.org.
I recently reached out to Dr. Dartnell to speak with him about his book and ask the questions both myself and readers of The Bug Out Bag Guide had after reading The Knowledge. His rationale for writing the book in his own words is as follows:
What I tried to do with the book is push much farther beyond what most prepper books deal with – not focusing on the run-up to a disaster or the immediate aftermath, but looking years or generations down the line as to how you would actually need to know to reconstruct a new civilization (not necessarily rebuilding our world) from the ground up and ensure it remains vibrant and progresses. The idea behind the book is what would be the crucial knowledge you’d want to be able to hand to a group of post-apocalyptic survivors if society were ever to collapse (be it from pandemic outbreak, asteroid impact, or whatever) to help them rebuild as quickly as possible – a quick-start guide for civilization itself.
Q&A with Dr. Dartnell
There are so many prepper books available, why should this one be on your must-read list?
I have very deliberately written The Knowledge to pick up where other prepper books leave off. You can certainly stock-pile canned food, bottled water, and other consumables, and this would fare you and your family well for riding out a disaster. But then what? What do you do once your reserves have run out? What would you actually need to know to produce everything you need for yourself, and to start recovering a society from the bottom-up? The Knowledge is a thought experiment on how you could orchestrate the reconstruction of a technologically-capable society in the aftermath of a global catastrophe. I take a post-apocalyptic world as the starting point, and ask what is the critical scientific and technological knowledge you’d need in order to reboot civilisation after an apocalypse, how to avert another Dark Ages, and how you might even accelerate that reboot second time around… The one thing I hope people take away after reading The Knowledge is to understand a little more about the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how the life-support system of our modern civilisation works, and appreciate the everyday things we just take for granted today.
Question #2 – Note This was the winner for best question!
Given a small amount of time and money, what five skills would you recommend a person learn to be ready for any eventuality? In order of importance, please.
Well, at the end of the day, developing any new skill to a meaningful level of proficiency takes time – there are no short-cuts, particularly if you want to be prepared for any eventuality. But as long as your community of survivors has a diverse set of skills represented amongst them, and can work together effectively, you’ll have a much better chance of thriving. Throughout the chapters of the book I talk about the most crucial domains of knowledge and capability, why they were crucial in our own historical development and therefore why they will be needed if we ever have to reboot civilisation from scratch. This, of course, includes areas like agriculture and knowing how to grow enough food to sustain your community, and to keep your land productive and fertile over the generations. Knowing which natural fibres you can harvest and spin into thread, and then weave into clothes on a loom is also important. But history teaches us that building a capable society needs much more than just basic survival skills like these. The knowledge of how to extract crucial raw ingredients from the world around you and transform them into the most useful substances and materials. How to you create soda, needed for everything from soap to glass and paper? How do you get metals out of their rocky ores, to make all the tools and building materials that you need? And being able to use tools is also critical, as well as knowing how to maintain and repair them. I explain in The Knowledge why the lathe is so fundamental, and how it has the astounding ability to reproduce itself. All you need to make all of the components of a new lathe is a lathe, and if you know how, you can even use a half-finished lathe to complete its own construction. All of these crucial capabilities were developed slowly over time, and what I’ve tried to achieve in The Knowledge is provide enough of an outline that these could be redeveloped rapidly during a post-apocalyptic recovery. Well, as far as is possible in one single book, of course!
What do you think the hardest thing to master or salvage would be?
If our civilisation ever did collapse and a community of survivors had to start again, rebuilding a progressive and technologically capable society, I think one of the most difficult fields to recover will be medicine. Although there are some herbal remedies that can be extracted relatively simply from natural sources, the vast majority of pharmaceuticals in use today are purified or modified by advanced organic chemistry, and that is going to take a lot of time for a society to redevelop. For centuries of history, doctors found themselves in the frustrating position of being able to diagnose the ailment or injury inflicting a patient but being essentially powerless to do anything about it; without antibiotics to treat infection or without anaesthetics and analgesics to allow surgery. I explain in The Knowledge the fundamentals of these things – how to chemically synthesise nitrous oxide or how you could re-isolate penicillium mold,for example. But in the aftermath of a global catastrophe the survivors would find their health-care capabilities knocked back to basics for quite a while once all the pre-existing drugs and medicines have degraded away (which I also discuss in The Knowledge)
What key skillsets would you want to teach the next generation so they could build on whatever knowledge or technology you yourself were able to salvage or re-learn?
Of course there’s only so much information you could fit into a single book, or indeed a whole library of tomes. So the key skill for a society rebuilding after an apocalypse would be knowing how to fill-in the gaps – how to rediscover all of the other knowledge that you weren’t able to explicitly preserve or salvage. And so just with the last two or three centuries of our history, by far the most successful system for generating understanding will be science. The scientific method is essentially knowledge-generation machinery – a process you go through to understand the world around you and be confident that your explanation is the best one. As long as the survivors can maintain an inquisitive and rational mind-set then civilisation has a chance of recovering rapidly and not getting caught in another Dark Ages of superstition and ignorance.
What is the single most important issue with regards to hygiene? They are so many things to consider, from hand washing to location of a latrine, and how to do these things with very limited resources (like water).
I would argue that one of the most important nuggets of modern understanding that should be preserved if all else is lost, is the notion of germ theory. This is the idea that the reason people fall sick and pass their disease on to other people is not because of bad odours or the whims of fractious gods, but that there are things so tiny they are invisible to our eyes, but which get inside our bodies and make us ill. The most easily prevented diseases are spread by what doctors delightfully term ‘fecal-oral transfer’. Health education studies in the developing world have found that nearly half of all gastro-intestinal and respiratory infections can be avoided simply by regularly washing your hands. Although the importance of germs and hygiene seem obvious today, in our own history this wasn’t appreciated until surprisingly recently. As late as the 1850s, people in London, the capital city of the greatest empire on the planet at the time, were pouring their waste into the river Thames, and 20 yards downstream someone else was dipping in a bucket and drinking it. So if you did have to reboot civilisation, imagine the centuries of pestilence that you could leap-frog over with the fundamentals of germ theory. With this understanding, it is immediately obvious why you need to keeping washing your hands, treat carefully your sewage in large settlements, and use antiseptics and aseptic techniques to stop infection of an injury or after surgery. So in The Knowledge, I explain how to make your own soap for personal hygiene, how to produce ethanol as a disinfectant, why privy pits should always be dug at least 20 metres downhill from your source of drinking water, and how to construct a rudimentary microscope to demonstrate for yourself the existence of these invisibly small bacteria and protozoa.
Thanks again to Dr Lewis Dartnell for taking the time to answer our questions, if you want to find out more about the book, you can check out The Knowledge here:
One comment on “The Knowledge: Prepper Book Review”
I’ve never heard of a car running on wood. Very interesting. I’ll check out the book at some point.