Lewis Dartnell: How To Rebuild The World From Scratch

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).

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://peakprosperity.com/lewis-dartnell-how-to-rebuild-the-world-from-scratch/

The Knowledge has been on my Amazon wish list for a while now. I’ve hesitated because the pages visible through the book preview imply that the descriptions of each item are rather thin. Though they might get you thinking about a technology they don’t seem detailed enough to enable duplication without a large amount of experimentation.

I purchased Lewis’s book some years ago. As a thought provoking book it is good, as an actual manual on how to rebuild civilization after collapse it is not that good.
Let me propose a thought experiment, imagine a total collapse, but that over the world there are 1000 remote sites that all have a copy of ‘the knowledge’ to rebuild civilization. What happens if there is a flaw in the book, what if the logic is wrong, or a key fact is wrong. Would it not then follow that all of those 1000 sites would rebuild their civilization with that bad information or flaws?
I would suggest that difference in approaches and everyone writing a similar but different manual of ‘the knowledge’ is probably better in the long run than everyone having the same manual.
Let me phrase it this way, the scientific principle doesn’t explain things that are emotional or appealing to us. I can’t imagine a scientific experiment where the outcome is a piano concerto, or a miley cyrus song, but each can be considered just as valuable as the scientific method to some. He is a green blooded vulcan arguing against human emotion espousing logic. How do you decide what is more valuable. If I had only one book to reboot civilization would it be ‘the knowledge’, ‘the bible’ or ‘a songbook about love.’ What kind of civilization has science but not love, or science without faith. Given that science has given us weapons of mass destruction my choice would be the songbook. I’d prefer to live in a civilization where we love and respect each other than one where we can launch missiles at each other.
There is an unstated assumption that science can answer all questions, and satisfy all needs and wants, I think that assumption should be challenged.

nigel wrote:
Let me phrase it this way, the scientific principle doesn't explain things that are emotional or appealing to us. I can't imagine a scientific experiment where the outcome is a piano concerto, or a miley cyrus song, but each can be considered just as valuable as the scientific method to some. He is a green blooded vulcan arguing against human emotion espousing logic. How do you decide what is more valuable. If I had only one book to reboot civilization would it be 'the knowledge', 'the bible' or 'a songbook about love.' What kind of civilization has science but not love, or science without faith. Given that science has given us weapons of mass destruction my choice would be the songbook. I'd prefer to live in a civilization where we love and respect each other than one where we can launch missiles at each other. There is an unstated assumption that science can answer all questions, and satisfy all needs and wants, I think that assumption should be challenged.
I poked at this idea in a question at Lewis when I played devil's advocate for a moment. The idea is that if our downfall was caused by our inability to culturally manage our technology, that is the hardware outstripped the abilities of the software (think of a ram jet engine whose software lacked the ability to also turn it back off again), then simply rebuilding that technology as fast as possible wouldn't be a good idea.

Chris: Indeed. And I was just really advocating, maybe devil's advocating, for this idea that if there is a fall and it's in any way precipitated by our own activities that we might want to use that as a moment of reflection to ask more carefully what we're going to build and rebuild.

My assessment, or maybe a judgment that I'm holding, is that we're so enamored with technology that we often look only at the positive attributes of it, but fail to understand that sometimes there's another edge on that sword.

Quick case in point might be we're now discovering that children that are raised exclusively on screen time are being changed in very fundamental ways at the brain chemistry level, and the wiring and social interaction skills are all being altered. And we might say, oh, they're being altered in great ways or other ways, but we're also discovering there's some down side to this as well. So one of the things is to come with this humility that says simply because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should.

And my own particular moment of concern is I'm really enamored with what CRISPR technology, which is a gene editing technology, what it can do. And I'm also concerned that a person like the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, and two years of training and 100 grand and one of these machines could really use that inappropriately, as well.

So it has both aspects wrapped in there, and unless we have the cultural understanding of how we're going to manage the technology, it takes a long time to discover what the negative aspects were if we're not willing to confront those openly on the front end, which just means being curious and open and really holding that scientific method which is here's this new technology; how is it being used; what’s happening; and what can we learn about it? Both sides, pro and con.

Said another way, our current drive towards reductionism has left out the other side of it all which is the mystery and sacredness of things we do not and may never comprehend fully.

Technology is a really often a blind alley of egoic domination which is alluring and seems to offer a form of final control which is really not possible. The universe is constantly changing, and evolving, and we're just a part of that impulse, wherever it is headed.

The belief that we can ultimately understand and control anything, let alone everything has proven, over and over again, to be an illusion.

With humility comes awe, and wonder, and connection. Or perhaps reconnection to the grand mystery of life.

And what happens when we dare to actually ask what all of our technology has actually given us? What happens when we are brave enough to peek at the statistics of our age with an open mind?

We get answers like this:

Our descent into the Age of Depression seems unstoppable. Three decades ago, the average age for the first onset of depression was 30. Today it is 14. Researchers such as Stephen Izard at Duke University point out that the rate of depression in Western industrialized societies is doubling with each successive generational cohort. At this pace, over 50 per cent of our younger generation, aged 18-29, will succumb to it by middle age. Extrapolating one generation further, we arrive at the dire conclusion that virtually everyone will fall prey to depression. By contrast to many traditional cultures that lack depression entirely, or even a word for it, Western consumer culture is certainly depression-prone. But depression is so much a part of our vocabulary that the word itself has come to describe mental states that should be understood differently. In fact, when people with a diagnosis of depression are examined more closely, the majority do not actually fit that diagnosis. In the largest study of its kind, Ramin Mojtabai of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health sampled over 5,600 cases and found that only 38 per cent of them met the criteria for depression. Contributing to the confusion is the equally insidious epidemic of demoralization that also afflicts modern culture. Since it shares some symptoms with depression, demoralization tends to be mislabelled and treated as if it were depression. A major reason for the poor 28-per-cent success rate of anti-depressant drugs is that a high percentage of ‘depression’ cases are actually demoralization, a condition unresponsive to drugs. In the past, our understanding of demoralization was limited to specific extreme situations, such as debilitating physical injury, terminal illness, prisoner-of-war camps, or anti-morale military tactics. But there is also a cultural variety that can express itself more subtly and develop behind the scenes of normal everyday life under pathological cultural conditions such as we have today. This culturally generated demoralization is nearly impossible to avoid for the modern ‘consumer’. Rather than a depressive disorder, demoralization is a type of existential disorder associated with the breakdown of a person’s ‘cognitive map’. It is an overarching psycho-spiritual crisis in which victims feel generally disoriented and unable to locate meaning, purpose or sources of need fulfilment. The world loses its credibility, and former beliefs and convictions dissolve into doubt, uncertainty and loss of direction. Frustration, anger and bitterness are usual accompaniments, as well as an underlying sense of being part of a lost cause or losing battle. The label ‘existential depression’ is not appropriate since, unlike most forms of depression, demoralization is a realistic response to the circumstances impinging on the person’s life. (Source)
Demoralization is the flip-side of the smart phone. It is what happens when you trade meaning for baubles. It is also a perfectly normal, expected and probably healthy response to being asked (or forced) to participate in a completely meaningless existence. It's the reason that the #1 complaint we hear at our seminars is from people who feel like they are living two lives; the one they are actually leading, and a different one they should be leading. The above article lays out the case that people's discomfort and depression are more accurately labeled as demoralization. It says that there's room for improvement in our cultural map and practices. It says that technology alone is not only insufficient for bringing happiness, but actually counterproductive. All of which means that simply rebuilding our technological achievements as rapidly as possible is perhaps not a worthy goal. It may be simply fueling the fatal flaw that lies at the heart of the human ego; the conceit that we can operate from a place of pure intellect, and no heart, and somehow navigate ourselves to some promised but never achieved land of happiness.

So I suspect the act of rebuilding civilization would be fantastically interesting, at least for me.
That’s because I really enjoy the path, as well as enjoying the destination. I enjoy the act of creation substantially more than the having of any item I have created.
I forget who said it - we spend 99% of our time on the path, and only 1% at the destination, so its probably a good idea to enjoy the process as much as possible.

At the present time technology is adopted if it is seen as being profitable or, if enough people can be convinced, buying the technology with borrowed money and hoping like hell it will pay for itself before it is obsolete. No other aspects or repurcussions are considered. We worship new tech instead of carefully examining it.
This is way out there but my prediction for the future is quite bleak: I believe that robots and AI will become dominant and the Predator Class will sell the rest of us out to conserve dwindling resources. In other words, AI will determine that humans are a pox on the Earth and their numbers will have to be drastically reduced.
Sorry to be so fatalistic this morning.

A theologian defines Sacred Myths as

the stories that tell us who we are, where we come from, and what we must do.
These are what we have lost. Yet many of our ancient sacred stories have been dismantled as a result of evolving scientific understanding and moral thinking. Consider one:
And God said: 'Let there be light.' And there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness. And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.
The modern view of light as electromagnetic radiation and darkness as shadows from that radiation really undoes this story. And the psycho-social construct of the equality of all peoples undoes other ancient Sacred Myths--caste systems, unequal powers of monarchs and priestly classes, slavery, chosen people myths, the right to dominate, etc.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [humans] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights...
With these evolutionary advancements in thinking, we lose the Ancient Sacred Myths that tells us who we are, where we come from and what we must do. I see in myself a hungering for a Sacred Myth that holds up.

World renowned Stephen Hawking on many occasions has warned us about robotic AI and the dangers of them taking over. Hawking’s both foresees and predicts that AI advancements will be such that robots will be able to manufacture themselves and eventually will turn against humans.
Elon Musk predicts that AI technological advancements will result one day in humans being hunted down by robots i.e. Planet of the Robots.He cites some of the disturbing AI advancements by Boston Dynamics who have created a Militarized Dog that can NOW do “backflips”. This is the same company who designed Petman the Robot. At first Petman could not avoid obstacles while attached by cables on a moving treadmill. That was until the AI logic in Petman taught him to “learn how to avoid those obstacles”. Petman is crude technology. Now there are robots who can run, jump and open doors. Now imagine being tracked down by an angry robot who can do backflips, has machine guns strapped to it’s side who can run, jump and open the doors you frantically closed to avoid it’s gunfire?
And Boston Dynamics and the other robotic AI companies won’t stop advancements in AI development until it’s too late because guess what? They are part of the power structure, i.e. the military industrial complex. Something tells me that Robotic AI advancements are even more advanced that what Boston Dynamics is showing on YouTube.
Sweet Dreams !

As long as we allow the youth of the world to look to their peers for identity, knowledge and direction, we will reap the results of disconnectedness and disorientation. The recent article in the Atlantic, The Coddling of the American Mind, highlights this trend and demonstrates how we are tribal-izing our relationships and losing any civility that once was the cornerstone of democracy. Logic is rarely taught in the major universities anymore and most of the discourse today is on Facebook. Youtube, Podcasts and MSM are the go to sources of most of today’s information. Rational discussion has given way to rants and perceived victimization. Traditionally, wisdom was gained through experience and passed down through familial connections. Many of the “myths” were sound allegories of the human condition and imparted a guiding influence with a wary outlook.Whether a “Kunstler-esque” result is in store for us or we manage to come to our senses, remains to be seen.

I really don’t think it should be rebuilt.

Maybe the next species will do better, but we’ve had our chance and we appear to have blown it.

As it happens I first heard about what I assume is CRISPR technology this morning. I caught the end of Explorations in Science on a local radio channel. The guest was someone singing the praises of a gene technology. He indicated that it could raise IQ by maybe 20 points. My thought was that maybe this is something that we in our current state of development can’t handle. I had the same thought later when reading an article online about the imminence of fusion energy. Just imagine the mess that we can make with “unlimited energy.”
As Chris and others in this thread express, we have to have wisdom/heart in order to achieve happiness. And…in a two thumbs down to the idea of residential assisted living as described by Gene Guarino, we need to have those with wisdom integrated into the broader community – not hanging together in isolated homes. Granted, there is little wisdom in a baby boomer cohort who have been indoctrinated by the boob tube and aren’t critical enough to process the reality of a building in free fall. We have to create institutions that are structured in ways that help develop wisdom. Although I have never been accused of being hopey, I think that there is enough firepower in the PP community to get it done.

At the risk of sounding medieval, I think the most challenging thing about technology is that it is NOT nature. And while we built it out of nature, we did so because we were scared of nature. And as it grew, it did more than makes us warm. It changed us. Technology reached a point where we think it has actually replaced NATURE. It not only confuses us about WHERE we are but WHO and WHAT we are. It makes us think GMOs, Carbon Deposits, AI and Nuclear Weapons keep us fed and safe.
Now where’s my mead?
Sorry sir, the bees are all dead.
On a tip to Snyderman, here’s one of my dumb office cartoons.

Hate to be a bummer, but - be careful what you wish for…

Hate to be a bummer, but - be careful what you wish for…

Thank you for the reply, and thank you for getting Lewis on, his book was thought provoking and interesting.

The problems with gene splicing being less precise than advertised has been known for quite a while but suppressed. I first encountered this in “The World According to Monsanto” by Marie-Monique Robin. It’s a great book for examining the ugly underbelly of the GMO world, cancer causing pesticides, etc. It was first published in 2010.

Many of the discoveries we have made over the years provide immense benefit when used as originally intended but their subsequent unlimited use creates new problems or ultimately negates their value. Most often the profit motive is at the root of the hijacking.
Take as an example the discovery of antibiotics. When used to treat disease in humans they had a profound impact on medicine. Eventually someone decided that we could use them in vast quantities to prevent disease, in livestock. After feeding literally tons of them to pigs, cows, etc. so we could pack them in unsanitary conditions and not worry as much about the otherwise inevitable spread of disease. The result has been development of antibiotic resistant strains of microbes.
I think any societal reboot that does not learn from our mistakes in the economic and social spheres will ultimately be doomed. The technology isn’t the issue, it’s the moral structure of society.
Many native American tribes had that part of things well under control before Europeans came and disrupted their social structure.

You mentioned Lewis’s Ted Talk, which got me thinking… have you (Chris) considered doing a Ted Talk?
If angled well, it might be a good venue to share some “new” mind-expanding PP ideas with more people…

Entertaining interview. Especially appreciated Chris’s gratitude mind-set. Guy McPherson has the same effect. I guess Love has nothing to do with it [sic]
The environment changes our brains which change the environment which changes our brains…
Before the light bulb we had to go to sleep, but only for four hours:
Sadly, if such a collapse did occur, so many nuclear reactors would go critical that most of the arable land would be radioactive for a very long time. Unless or until all nukes are places with technology that can completely and safely shut-down without any outside source of electricity or human intervention. [snicker]

Singing all alone on his island?