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Toward an Encyclopedia Apocalyptica

To a post-apocalyptic population, merely explaining scientific and technological facts about our situation won't help. We'll need a guidebook.

I read an article in the New Yorker last summer that scared the bejesus out of me. Titled “The Really Big One”, it’s about the Cascadia subduction zone, a 700-mile long fault line beneath the Pacific Northwest. The subhead for the article read, ominously enough, “An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest. The question is when.”

Facts, especially the complicated ones, become stable not because of their capacity to predict future outcomes, to delineate the flow of effect from cause, but due to the degree of our confidence in the authority propounding them.

According to experts the author of the article, Kathryn Schulz, spoke with, the answer to that question is soon. The subduction, one tectonic plate buckling up onto another, resettles every 300 years or so. The last time an earthquake caused by this resettling process occurred was in 1699.

I live in Portland, Oregon with my family. Portland sits smack dab in the middle of the Cascadia subduction zone. My homework from the article, something I’ve been putting off for a year now, is to go shopping for a disaster survival kit. This kit would include the gear and supplies needed to hunker down for a few days after a city-services-leveling earthquake: essentials like potable water, non-perishable food, a camping stove, a crank radio and flashlight, a first aid kit. A catastrophe of this order of magnitude would ruin a lot of lives. But the region would eventually recover.

Yet the article, which won a Pulitzer Prize in April, traffics in a fear that radiates beyond earthquakes and other natural disasters, events that never fail to remind us of the awesome power of the Earth and our frailty in the face of it. I’m talking about millenarianism, or fantasies about the end of the world. Since sedentary civilizations like ours have been aware of a world, that all-encompassing abstraction, we’ve been imagining its end, if not longing for it.

In recent years, to name a few examples, some more plausible than others, we’ve fretted over nuclear holocausts, Y2K, global pandemics, careening asteroids, zombie apocalypses, and AI going postal. Lately, we find ourselves hand-wringing over an even more nefarious End Times, one precipitated by the creep of global warming. The analogy that comes to the mind comforted by cliché is that of the frog in a pot of water, cooked to death as the water filling the pot is imperceptibly brought up to a boil. Apparently, though, this parable par excellence of our consumer-capitalist times, is no more than an urban myth. Unlike people, frogs are sensible enough to jump out of the pot when the water temperature rises beyond tepid.

A cottage industry of movies, books, and online media fan the fire of millenarian anxiety. Running parallel with this buffet of apocalyptic fare is a less-consumed genre that aims to be practical. These works attempt to, if not preempt, at least prepare us for a post-apocalyptic world. An Encyclopedia of the History of Technology, published by Routledge in 1990, catalogs the important technological advances of what those who tend to think linearly and monolithically would call “civilization”. But this tome, despite its scope, is more public library curiosity than survivalist guide. A compelling pragmatism would require something more purposeful. In his 2006 book, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate in Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, James Lovelock envisions just such a book:

One thing we can do to lessen the consequences of catastrophe is to write a guidebook for our survivors to help them rebuild civilization without repeating too many of our mistakes. I have long thought that a proper gift for our children and grandchildren is an accurate record of all we know about the present and past environment. […] It would help to have a guidebook written in clear and simple words that any intelligent person can understand. No such book exists.

Perhaps inspired by Lovelock, in 2014, astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell published a book called The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World From Scratch. It’s a remarkably ambitious effort. In The Knowledge, Dartnell attempts to explain the scientific and technological knowledge that a post-apocalyptic community would need to leverage to recreate our industrialized civilization. One of the book’s strengths is its recognition of the profound entanglement of science with technology, what he calls a “symbiotic relationship”. Technological advances lead to scientific discoveries, which, in turn, lead to further technological advances, in a virtuous spiral of progress. The implication is that, in effect, there is no such thing as “pure” science. Tools go hand-in-hand with insight.

The main flaw with the book is the medium itself. It’s a hardcover, ink on non-acid-free paper bound with cheap glue or, in subsequent editions, a mass-market paperback. The assumptions made by the author and publisher to accommodate the marketplace undermine the book as a thought experiment, or at the very least, threaten to render it inconsequential.

Lovelock anticipated the problem:

It is no use even thinking of presenting such a book using magnetic or optical media, or indeed any kind of medium that needs a computer and electricity to read it. Words stored in such a form are as fleeting as the chatter of the internet and would never survive a catastrophe. Not only is the storage media itself short-lived but its reading depends upon specific hardware and software. In this technology, rapid obsolescence is usual. Modern media is less reliable for long-term storage than is the spoken word. It needs the support of a high technology that we cannot take for granted. What we need is a book written on durable paper with long-lasting print. It must be clear, unbiased, accurate and up to date. Most of all, we need to accept and to believe in it at least as much as we did, and perhaps still do, the World Service of the BBC.

You can see how Wikipedia just won’t do. Later, Lovelock imagines this book warranting a respect that, in a more innocent age, was granted to Tyndale’s Bible. He describes it as “a book of knowledge written with authority” to be a “splendid read” that “would earn the respect needed to place it in every home, school, library, and place of worship”. Such a comparison, though, prompts the question of how such a book would go about earning that respect.

Surely, this knowledge, published in a medium — a sturdy book resistant to the vagaries of day-to-day use in a rugged environment — could not rely, as the Bible does, on ecclesiastical authority. To push this line of thinking even further, the book couldn’t even be expository. To a post-apocalyptic audience, merely explaining scientific and technological facts wouldn’t be all that convincing.

After all, part of what makes us so vulnerable in this post-industrial day and age is our utter reliance on knowledge that is second-hand. Progress depends on specialization. We need experts to focus on isolated domains in order to glean insights in a world we’ve come to recognize as ever more complex. As a consequence, the rest of us, the non-experts, must take the truth claims of the experts in their respective domains on faith. There are simply too many facts nestled into too many thickets of complexity for each and every one of us to go about verifying them all on our own. The further we as a society advance scientifically and technologically, the more we must submit to the authority of experts, the more we must accept their truth claims as received knowledge. This is one of the great paradoxes of progress.

This explains, in part, why, in our public discourse, we struggle with what many are now calling a “post-factual” political world. It’s not simply that we, in America especially, struggle with a failure of education. What we face is a failure of exposition. In our educational system and our public discourse, there is far too much explanation and not enough self-discovery. In a conversation where the explanatory trumps the heuristic, tribal deference to authority will prevail. Facts, especially the complicated ones, become stable not because of their capacity to predict future outcomes, to delineate the flow of effect from cause, but due to the degree of our confidence in the authority propounding them.

A seemingly trivial example: that the earth is round. Most of us know that the earth is round. We’ve seen pictures of the earth taken from space. We’ve had proofs of the planet’s sphericity explained to us by authority figures like middle school science teachers and textbooks. We may have even pondered why boats sink below the horizon or why constellations shift in the sky from one region to another. But who among us has taken the trouble to set up an experiment — or better yet, a series of methodologically diverse experiments — to prove that the earth is, in fact, round? We don’t need to. We trust the sources that tell us it is so. Consensus about the fact leads to an authority taken on faith.

On the other hand, being stubborn and perhaps a bit anti-social, we could follow the instructions of Jeff Franco — who was a high school student in Lakewood, Washington at the time — when he wrote:

Another method is simultaneously measuring the length of the shadows cast by identical poles perpendicular to a flat surface that is tangential to the earth’s radius at various, distant locations. If indeed the earth is round, then the shadows should all vary in length from one distant location to another, which means that the angle at which the parallel rays of sunlight struck each pole varied from one location to another. […] If the earth is flat, then the lengths of all the shadows should be identical when measured simultaneously, since all rays of sunlight that strike the earth are parallel. However, they are not identical, but in fact, vary in such a way that the angles indicate a spherical surface.

Franco provides the recipe, using a special stick called a gnomon, for a proof the Greeks worked out a couple thousand years ago. Now, thinking in terms of recipes and not explanations, in order to rebuild civilization, we need to get from obsidian arrowheads, clay pots, leather smocks, wheat mills, etc. to, jumping ahead a few millennia, electricity, combustion engines, radio, computers, vaccines, anesthesia, lasers, nuclear fission, etc. One recipe must build on previous recipes. One scientific insight must build on earlier insights — and the tools used to arrive at those insights. Furthermore, this book must show enough respect for its audience to not spell it out for them. It must guide them in such a way that they may discover these insights on their own. It becomes, in effect, a manual for building a workshop.

Even if the apocalypse never arrives (here’s hoping), it’s easy enough to anticipate the learning opportunities such a book would open up. St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico is famous for its “Great Books” curriculum. The students there attend a series of seminars where they read, discuss, and write about the Western canon, from the ancient Greeks onward.

Along these lines, imagine a curriculum that leads students, in a sequence of heuristic workshops, from gardening to rocketry, from the Pythagorean theorem to general relativity, from papyrus scrolls to the internet, from second- to first-hand knowledge of just about all that makes us who we are as a “civilization”. Such a work would make the Great Books reading list seem positively dilettantish.

Following along with Lovelock, imagine an Encyclopedia Apocalyptica gracing every home, school, and library. Not only would it harness our millenarian anxieties to a productive end, it would serve as an insurance policy against the very outcome we seem perversely determined to bring about.