After the Apocalypse – Rebuilding the World

Commentary on The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm by Lewis Dartnell

The following is a quote from a subsection in Chapter 2 of the book, An Earthly Chance[1], entitled “Understanding Stuff.” 

“Take a moment to look around you.  Everything you see that is man-made[2] was originally derived from those who work in one or more of these four occupations:

  1. Fishers – provide us with seafood.
  2. Farmers – basically three kinds; agricultural farmers, animal farmers and tree farmers.  The first two provide the stuff that we eat, and the latter provides lumber that we build stuff with.
  3. Drillers – provide us with oil and gas for energy and petrochemicals for plastics, pharmaceuticals, and lots of other stuff.
  4. Miners – provide us with fossil fuels (coal), but also steel, concrete, aluminum and all the stuff made from minerals.

Everything we have which is man-made, other than living things and the earth itself, is stuff that humans made, either directly or indirectly through our machines, and it all comes from the stuff that those who work in these four occupations provide to us.  Everything.  No exceptions.  The next time that we celebrate Labor Day, perhaps we should gratefully celebrate these four occupations and put them somewhere near the top of our gratitude list.  These jobs can be laborious, dangerous, and tough occupations. We would have no prosperity whatsoever without the fruits of their efforts. 

Those who have a lot of this stuff which is manufactured by those who work in these four occupations are said to be prosperous.  They either have lots of that stuff, they have extra money to purchase stuff, or they have invested their money into the mining, drilling, farming or fishing companies or companies that convert that stuff into other “manufactured” stuff.  We who have lots of stuff are called the “haves” because we have a lot of stuff. Those who do not have much stuff are referred to as the “have nots.”  A wide disparity between the so-called “haves” and “have nots” exists in our world.  Why?”

The fact that so few people even know the actual origins of where all our stuff comes from, that we all take for granted, supports one of the points that Dr. Lewis Dartnell makes in the book The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm.   We take technology for granted and most of us would be lost if we were forced to start over and build civilization from scratch.  Even he, in my initial perusal of this book, fails to emphasize the four basic occupations, fishers, farmers, drillers and miners that all manufactured items and food in our modern world actually comes from.  So, obviously, we must preserve and support these four occupations if we ever had to begin anew to re-establish prosperity or an economy.  Quoting a bleak article published in the New Yorker[3] by Jonathan Franzen entitled What If We Stopped Pretending? The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it.

“If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.”

Of course, An Earthly Chance stands as a beacon of hope, providing a clear path that allows us to avoid a Climate Apocalypse and to not murder 8 billion human beings, forcing humanity to start over again.  We do not have to rely on the 500 million survivors to apply Dartnell’s suggestions and begin civilization anew, but this alternative is waiting for us in several decades if we fail to apply some simple measures to save ourselves.  First, we must recognize that the course we are on can’t and won’t work, that 90% of the world is rushing towards western prosperity in the only way possible, by using the only cheap, reliable, portable, plentiful, scalable and thus indispensable energy source – fossil fuels.[4]  Because of the use of fossil fuels for over 150 years, western so-called “powers” have prosperity (the “haves”), and the rest of the world is burning fossil fuels at an accelerating pace to catch up and achieve prosperity in the only way possible so that they can become “haves” as well.  There is nothing we can about this, so we have to find a better way to lower carbon dioxide, cool the earth, and that game plan is discussed in detail in An Earthly Chance.

Dartnell emphasizes “cataclysms,” which are sudden and relatively unlikely to occur, such as a large meteor strike, a nuclear war and a sudden severe epidemic of a bio-engineered germ like the COVID virus. He fails to emphasize, as far as my initial reading has revealed, what is instead far more likely to happen if the technologies emphasized in An Earthly Chance are not widely adopted – Climate Change – which is not defined as a cataclysm per se because it is more gradual and has already begun.  Climate Change is better defined as a gradual apocalyptic event.[5]  A classic metaphor of a cataclysm for a frog, is being placed in boiling water which will cause the frog to jump out.  However, a gradual imposition of an apocalyptic event for a frog, would be placing it in water at room temperature and slowly heating it up to boiling, which relies on the frog’s ability to slowly adapt to increasing temperatures.  The frog never jumps out and is boiled alive.  Climate Change is a gradual event that is just as deadly as a major cataclysm, but it is spread out over time and gives us time to adjust to the apocalypse of being boiled alive.  Current policies regarding Climate Change are preparing us to be boiled alive – literally.

During and after a Climate Change apocalypse, human survivors must start over and at the very least rely on miners, drillers, farmers and fishers to provide the basic food, energy, and raw materials needed for survival.  Increases in atmospheric CO2 will eventually normalize as many of billions of human beings perish and the burning of fossil fuels is markedly lessened.  The heating of the earth will eventually reverse as well and return to pre-1880 population levels before the industrial revolution.  Of course, we must do everything we can to avoid this unfathomable suffering and rely on the four main technologies outlined in An Earthly Chance, but Human civilization has a poor track record when it comes to planning for intelligent options like this.

Dartnell explains what our technology-dependent world must do if society were to suddenly collapse tomorrow, which is sudden and relatively unlikely to happen.  Nevertheless, his book, How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm, would be the one book you would want to press into the hands of the survivors of a several-decades-long Climate Change apocalypse.  It defines the crucial knowledge that we would need to survive and to rebuild civilization as quickly as possible.  He suggests that human knowledge is distributed across the population, and it has built on itself for centuries, becoming vast and increasingly specialized. Most of us are utterly ignorant about the fundamental principles of the civilization that supports us, mindlessly utilizing the latest—or even the most basic—technologies, without having the slightest idea of why it works or how it came to be.  Our advantage is that such basic technologies have already been discovered and successfully applied, and we do not have to reinvent them.  Our disadvantage is that a great deal of the easily accessible fossil fuels – our only ticket to re-establishing prosperity – have already been burned up.

If we had to go back to absolute basics, like some sort of “post-cataclysmic Robinson Crusoe,” would we know how to re-create an internal combustion engine, put together a microscope, get metals out of rock, or even how to produce food for ourselves.  Few of us would know how to farm, fish, mine or drill, let alone go on to perform more advanced basic survival skills.  Like survivalists, those of us lucky enough to even survive, we would have to return to these basic technologies, and Dartnell explains this is some detail.  He proposes that the key to preserving civilization in an apocalyptic scenario is to provide a “quickstart guide,” adapted to cataclysmic circumstances. “The Knowledge” describes many of the modern technologies we employ, but first it explains the fundamentals upon which they are built. Every piece of technology rests on an enormous support network of other technologies, all interlinked and mutually dependent. And again, these all rest on the four basic technologies listed above, farming, fishing, mining and foresting, so as time goes on, if it appears that the salvation proposed in An Earthly Chance is not going to be utilized, we must at least be skilled at those technologies which allow us to start over again.  You can’t hope to build a radio, for example, without understanding how to acquire the raw materials it requires, as well as to generate the electricity needed to run it.

Hopefully we will never need Dartnell’s book.  There is An Earthly Chance we will adopt regenerative agriculture and sequester billions of tons of atmospheric carbon into our topsoils and global warming will reverse itself.  There is An Earthly Chance we will switch away from polluting and unsustainable steel, concrete and aluminum for construction to warm and eco-friendly wood.[6]  There is An Earthly Chance we will eventually switch to non-polluting nuclear power and hopefully soon build vast numbers of extremely eco-friendly fission instead of fusion nuclear generating facilities.  There is An Earthly Chance we will utilize extremely inexpensive sun-shade, solar geoengineering technologies to cool the earth, and buy ourselves decades to get our act together by reflecting sunlight harmlessly back into space.  However, if all of this fails, if humans are selfish and stupid enough to not apply these technologies, and we walk into a post-cataclysmic apocalypse where 8 billion humans are outright murdered, we have one more fall back plan to at least save 5-10% of the remaining survivors of our species; The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Civilization in the Aftermath of a Cataclysm.

This is the link to Dartnell’s book sample on Amazon:

After reading An Earthly Chance, pick up a copy of Dartnell’s book to at least reassure yourself that some humans, perhaps your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, will survive no matter how stupid and selfish our collective choices were.

[1] Gant C (2021) An Earthly Chance.

[2] Does not include living creatures, the people, animals, insects, plants, and the environment (the land, atmosphere, bodies of water or stars), as we did not manufacture them.


[4] Alex Epstein (2014) The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, Penguin.

[5] a·poc·a·lypse – noun

  1. the complete final destruction of the world, as described in the biblical book of Revelation.
  2. an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.

[6] In Tokyo, a 70-story monolithic, 90% wood building is being bult, so please drop the absurd arguments about how large structures must be constructed with very polluting steel, concrete and aluminum.