Thursday, February 13, 2020

A Library for the End of Civilization

With all the fears of an EMP taking out the electrical grid, or a super-flare/micro-nova from the Sun, and the coronavirus scare, my mind has recently turned to the questions of what if civilization collapsed? And, how would we rebuild civilization?

     To be honest, it is mostly a theoretical question. I would note that the Black Death of the 14th Century killed between 30% and 50% of Europeans over the course of a few years, with slightly higher death rates in China and the Near and Middle-East, without causing a collapse of civilization. Well, more correctly, it didn't cause the collapse of a technical society; it does seem to have been significant in ending Medieval society, and everyone was became obsessed with death for a couple centuries. But the point is that despite the massive numbers of dead, governments didn't fall, the courts continued working, businesses carried on their businesses, hospitals were set up and staffed, and so on. The reason there was not a collapse was, in my mind, because of the random nature of the deaths: it affected everyone nearly equally whether they were peasants in the fields, the merchants and craftsmen of the cities, the clergy in their churches and monasteries, or the nobles in their castles. Now, if there was a disease that targeted STEM professionals and skilled craftsmen and tradesmen, it might be a different story, but that isn't how epidemics work.

     An EMP might be a different matter since the experts that have looked at the issue believe that more than half of the population would die after such an event. But even in the worse case, with 90% of the population dying over the 12 months following such an event, that would still leave 33 million alive in the United States which is more than enough to support a technological civilization once people began to organize and trade (although we could expect everyone and their dog from other parts of the world to immediately set out to reach the now mostly empty land). Likewise, a world-wide catastrophe that killed off 90% of the world population would still leave 750 million people alive.

     But as a theoretical matter, it raises an interesting point of how to rebuild civilization; an issue that is generally not raised outside of works of fiction. In fact, the only book I know of that directly addresses the issue of how to rebuild a technological civilization is Lewis Dartnell's The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch. It is not a long book, but it lays out a road map of how to get back up to at least an industrial age civilization, and points out steps that can be skipped or alternate paths forward. No reason to reinvent the wheel, and we have the benefit of knowing about germs, electricity and so on. But while Dartnell discusses what to do, his book, obviously, is a little light on how to do it. What is needed is a way to preserve, teach and pass on knowledge necessary to develop the skills and technology.

     Most post-apocalypse literature simply assumes that whatever disaster that is enough to crush civilization will knock us back several centuries in technology, scavenging what little technology is left, and otherwise living in a Medieval world, at best, and a "Mad Max" world at worst.

     One of the exceptions is the novel Lucifer's Hammer which ends with the survivors having secured a working nuclear power plant with its machinery shops, thus preventing a complete fall into darkness. One of the characters in the book is a scientist who has prepared a library just for the purpose of rebuilding civilization, and one of the books specifically mentioned as part of the library was How Things Work which, as the title suggests, is an encyclopedia of how different machines, processes (such as distillation or pumping oil) and devices actually work. This was not a book made up by the authors of the novel, but an actual set of two volumes originally published in then-West Germany in 1963, and subsequently translated into English. It was published in the United States in 1972 by a publisher named Paladin under the full title of How Things Work: The Universal Encyclopedia of Machines. Simon & Schuster published a book called The Way Things Work based on the same German book, but it only reproduces the first of the two volumes. The book are replete with diagrams showing, as appropriate, either the processes or actual mechanisms. Obviously the material is dated, but I would rather have a car with an automatic transmission at a 1950's and 60's level of technology than to be riding in a Medieval dog cart. I've had a copy of the Simon & Schuster book for quite a while, but recently acquired a copy of the Paladin 2-volume work for a reasonable price. (By the way, although there are several newer books with similar titles, these are books intended for kids and not serious reference works).

     These two books are only a beginning. Texts and treatises on other subjects would be needed. Building plans and instructions would be useful. And if we want to retain our culture (and sanity) we would need to include topics such as games and entertainment. I have been spending some time of the last couple of weeks trying to track down and locate these materials in an electronic format. I have neither the money nor the space to purchase and store physical copies of all of the books. So my goal is to compile a decent library from free resources on the Internet. While I am concentrating on more recent books, I have also been including books and references from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Part of the reason for this is it would be easier to replicate the older technology using hand tools and alternate sources of power, but also because the older books are more likely to actually explain how to make many of the items. For instance, chemistry texts from around 1900 are more likely to explain how to prepare chemicals than a chemistry text from 2000.

      It is an interesting project because I've had to think about how to organize the information. My original thought was to try and replicate the sequence in Dartnell's book, The Knowledge, but I realized it was impracticable: some subjects would have to be split into two or more sections, and many useful subjects would fall outside his outline. So, I have resorted to using the subject areas. My hope is to get a selection I can store on a single thumb drive (which can then, in turn, be stored in a protected container with an inexpensive tablet computer and solar recharging unit). 


  1. Use a kindle, or similar, e-reader. they use much less power. The graphics ability is compromised somewhat. I bought several refurbished kindles for about $13 each. Very early models, but they work fine. Each individual one has it's own email address, so you can mail a PDF to it. Very happy with them.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I have a Kindle and will try some of the PDFs on it to see how well they display. The color illustrations and display size are what I'm worried about, particularly with some of the medical texts, but I will give it shot. By the way, where do you find the refurbished Kindles? That's a great deal for $13!

  2. Those kindles are a very old style,(keyboard) that my wife loves. So I bought spares. I found them on WOOT. woot(dot)com. Owned by Amazon i believe. They are great for older tech items. We get most of our phones from them as well.