Coming Back from Apocalypse

Rebuilding civilisation after the deluge will require more than just survival skills. And don’t think apocalypse can’t happen. The Earth is struck by large asteroids far more commonly than we are told. “The only thing preventing a catastrophe from a ‘city-killer’ sized asteroid is blind luck.” The same may be true for a “civilisation-killer” sized asteroid. More, Vladimir Putin and other dangerous authoritarians, from Iran to North Korea, are looking more and more like occult foci of apocalypse all the time.

A recent book from Lewis Dartnell, The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch,” is an attempt to provide a nutshell-sized set of instructions for re-building technological societies after the bottom has fallen out. Below are informative excerpts from a number of book reviews of Dartnell’s book.

Lewis Dartnell’s “The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch” is a strange and interesting thought experiment. If most of the modern industrial world were to suddenly disappear due to, say, an asteroid hit, an ultra-virulent disease or nuclear war, what information would the survivors need to rebuild our technology?

… Most of us, for example, are likely unaware of the importance that calcium carbonate has in daily life. Also known as lime, calcium carbonate is the compound that makes up limestone and is used in agriculture to adjust the acidity of fields and make them more fertile. Furthermore, Mr. Dartnell explains, it is the chemical feedstock for a myriad of industrial products. If one heats lime in a kiln, calcium oxide, or quicklime, is produced. Add water to quicklime and you’ll get slaked lime, useful for treating wastewater and, most important, making cement. Mix potash (made from wood ash) to the slaked lime and you’ll obtain sodium hydroxide, or lye, which can be used to make soap.

… Refined petroleum, for example, is unlikely to be available after “the Fall,” so Mr. Dartnell recommends wood gas instead. The gas produced by burning wood in the low-oxygen environment inside a sealed drum is rich in hydrogen and methane and can be used to power modified engines. In fact, Mr. Dartnell notes, wood-gas vehicles were used for civilian transport in Europe during World War II.

Perhaps the hardest achievements to re-create would be those of modern medicine. Still, some, such as antibiotics, could be re-established relatively quickly. Apparently, DIY penicillin is a snap. Just “fill Petri dishes with a beef-extract nutrient bed . . . , smear across Staphylococcus bacteria picked out of your nose,” and then wait a week for the dishes to get moldy. The ones with the smallest crusts of mold are the ones containing Penicillium fungus. _WSJ

More ideas from Dartnell’s book:

Survive the immediate aftermath

Aside from dodging raiding bandits, the single most important thing you can do to stay alive in a post-apocalyptic world without antibiotics is to stop yourself picking up infections in the first place. Ensure your drinking water is not contaminated — boil it if necessary, or even disinfect using diluted bleach scavenged from any abandoned household. Soap is enormously effective at protecting against gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, and can be made by treating animal fat or plant oil with quicklime (roasted chalk or limestone) and soda (see below).

Scavenge what you need

For a certain grace period you’ll be able to dine-out on the left-overs of our fallen civilization — stockpiles of canned food in the supermarkets — before you need to redevelop agriculture to stop yourself starving to death. You’ll need viable, preserved seeds, and the Global Seed Vault on the Norwegian island of Svalbard will be well-worth a post-apocalyptic recovery expedition. This is a doomsday-proof facility dug deep into the arctic permafrost and represents an ideal agricultural SAVE file.

Reconstruct the calendar

The bane of our working lives today, the calendar is in fact critical to reliable agriculture and survival as it allows you to track your passage through the cycle of the seasons and so predict the best time for planting and harvesting.

In the northern hemisphere, summer solstice is the day the sun rises from its northern most point on the horizon (which you can in turn determine with a magnetized needle) — this falls around 21st June and so you can use this observation to peg the rest of the calendar. As your agriculture becomes increasingly efficient it’ll demand a lower and lower fraction of your population, freeing people to specialize in other skills and for your society to grow in complexity and capability.

Restart a chemical industry

Advancing civilization is not just about ensuring food surplus or exploiting windmills or steam engines to ease human labor, but also about providing vital substances. One of the most crucial classes of chemicals throughout history has been alkalis like potash (potassium carbonate) and soda (sodium carbonate), as these are needed in making glass, paper and soap. Potash can be simply extracted from the ashes of a wood fire by soaking water through them. Discard the insoluble minerals that settle on the bottom, and then recover the dissolved potash by evaporating away the water. Soda is made in the same way, from burning seaweed.

Tree-powered cars

Once all the remaining gasoline and diesel is gone you’ll struggle to drill for your own oil: the easily-accessible reserves have already been pumped dry. But that doesn’t mean you’ll have to abandon automobiles and mechanization — astonishingly, the internal combustion engine can be run on flammable gases released by the thermal-breakdown of lumber. Wood gasifier cars were common during WWII, with a tall combustion chamber strapped on the back and a pipe delivering the flammable gases into the engine cylinders.

Reestablish contact with remote communities of other survivors

If there are no functioning radios left, you can create your own receiver with surprising simplicity from scavenged materials, as was demonstrated by POW ingenuity during WWII. The key component is the rectifier that strips the sound away from the carrier wave: the contact between a pencil and rusty razor blade functions for this. A crude transmitter can be built for Morse code broadcasts using a spark generator.

How to relearn all else

By far the most important thing to try and protect and preserve through the apocalypse is the technique you need to apply to relearn everything else for yourself, to rediscover how the world works and then exploit that knowledge for developing novel technology and improving your life. This tool is the scientific method. The core principle is that you can only reliably understand the world by observing it first-hand and by quizzing it with carefully constructed questions (“experiments”) to test which of your explanations works best.


The best repository of declarative knowledge may reside in books, libraries, the internet, and universities. But after TSHTF, practical hands-on skills and competencies will be more important for some time. For those necessary skills, you will require competent and resilient human beings — many of whom are now scorned and looked down upon by the modern “smart set.”

Here are some more ideas from Dartnell’s recently published recipe for re-starting a modern society:

You would need to start with germ theory — the notion that contagious diseases are not caused by whimsical gods but by invisibly small organisms invading your body. Drinking water can be disinfected with diluted household bleach or even swimming pool chlorine. Soap for washing hands can be made from any animal fat or plant oil stirred with lye, which is soda from the ashes of burned seaweed combined with quicklime from roasted chalk or limestone. When settling down, ensure that your excrement isn’t allowed to contaminate your water source — this may sound obvious, but wasn’t understood even as late as the mid-19th century.

In the longer term, you’ll need to remaster the principles of agriculture and the ability to stockpile a food reserve and support dense cities away from the fields. The cereal crops that have sustained civilizations throughout history — wheat, rice and maize — are fast growing, perfect as fodder for livestock or, after processing, for human sustenance.

The millstone grinding grain into flour is a technological extension of our molar teeth. And when we bake bread or boil rice or pasta, we wield the transformative power of heat to help break down the complex molecules and release more easily absorbed nourishment. So in a sense, the pots and pans we use in the kitchen today are a pre-digestive system, processing what we consume so that it doesn’t poison us and maximizing the nutrition our body can extract.

Then there are the many materials society requires: How do you transform base substances like clay and iron into brick or concrete or steel, and then shape that material into a useful tool? To learn a small piece of this, I spent a day in a traditional, 18th-century iron forge, learning the essentials of the craft of the blacksmith. Sweating over an open coke-fired hearth, I managed to beat a lump of steel into a knife. Once shaped, I got it cherry-red hot and then quenched it with a satisfying squeal into a water trough, before reheating the blade slightly to temper it for extra toughness.

… Take, for example, plain old glass — a wonder material that is somehow relatively strong and yet perfectly transparent. The recipe to create it is simple enough and uses some of the same ingredients as soap: a handful of silica (pure white sand, quartz or flint), some potash or soda ash (extracted by soaking wood or seaweed ash in water, straining the water and then boiling it down) and quicklime (roasted chalk or limestone); mix them together and bake in a kiln. Once the substance is fluid and bubble-free, you can form it into jars or bottles or window panes.

Glass also happens to be a crucial material for understanding the world, in the form of thermometers and test tubes, and even for manipulating light itself, when shaped into lenses for microscopes and telescopes — tools that are indispensable for science, including my own field of astrobiology. I may never have to practice the alchemy that transforms sand, soda and quicklime into this miraculous transparent membrane, but the world outside my window feels closer and more in focus for the knowing.

And a few more ideas from the book:

Once all the canned food you find in abandoned supermarkets is gone, could you grow your own crops? You could if you had a few implements such as a manual hoe, plow, seed drill, scythe and thresher taken from museums.

… Disinfecting water? Too easy. Find plastic bottles imprinted with the recycling symbol and the numeral 1 (other kinds of plastic will block out useful UV rays), tear off the paper labels, fill them with water and lay them out in the sun to kill bacteria. In bright sunlight, a bottle of 2 liters or less (don’t use anything larger) takes only six hours or so to disinfect.

Curing meat so it’ll stay edible sans refrigeration? Dig a fire pit, cover it with a metal lid and add a shallow trench to the side for the smoke. Above the smoke trench place a fridge with a hole cut in it and the shelves covered with meat, fish and/or cheese. Smoke for several hours.

Electricity? Building a windmill is a trifle, so Dartnell hurries on to how to turn the energy into electricity (a car alternator makes for a handy generator) and then into the question of how to store it (take the batteries out of golf carts because a car battery isn’t good for providing a sustained, steady supply of voltage).

One cannot eat or drink declarative knowledge. Whether you survive the early and middle stages after an apocalypse may have a lot more to do with the group of people you find yourself surrounded by, than anything you read in books or blogs. The more competent, resilient, and widely skilled, the better.

A lot will depend on luck, of course. Where the super-volcano blows, where the asteroid hits, where the nuclear warheads detonate, where you are when the killer pandemic hits, etc.

To the extent that one can prepare for apocalypse, the single most important decision you can make is where you intend to spend most of your time — because that is probably where you will be should apocalypse strike. If you travel the world as a routine, then the apocalyptic odds for you might resemble the odds for a roulette wheel.

Finally, here is a summary of useful ideas from the book, in 10 step form:

1 | Don’t Panic

It’s the morning after the end of the world as we know it. Most of humanity has been obliterated. But, hey – things aren’t all bad.

There are plenty of resources left behind that you can scavenge to keep yourself going comfortably: mountains of canned food in the deserted supermarkets, underground lakes of fuel in petrol stations, countless abandoned cars and homes.

2 | Forget Fashion

Sure, you can take this opportunity to raid the entire contents of Selfridge’s and be the best-dressed survivor on the planet.

But it’s time for pragmatism – you need clothes that wil help you in the weird new world you find yourself in.

Hard-wearing trousers, layers of warm tops and a good waterproof jacket will keep you comfortable when spending a lot more time outdoors or in unheated buildings.

And remember, the hospitals are in pieces so a broken leg isn’t really an option. Decent hiking boots are suddenly essential.

3 | Be A Firestarter

Like your primitive ancestors, fire is going to become your life-saver.

It’ll keep the cold away and mean you can rustle up dinner.

At first, there’ll be plenty of lighters and boxes of matches lying around, but it won’t stay that easy for long.

You’ll need to learn to strike steel and flint, focusing sunlight with a lens or polished bottom of a drinks can, or even brushing the terminals of a 9V battery against some wire wool.

4 | Keep Your Friends Close

Civilisation has collapsed. Your days of mate-making over a pint are over.

Gangs and bandits will be roaming the land, and the best way to keep safe is to surround yourself with a group you can trust.

Working in a team, you’ll also be able to scavenge and find other survivors far more effectively.

5 | Escape to the countryside

It’s time to leave your sophisticated urbanite set-up.

The cities will quickly become intolerably foul with the stench of decomposing bodies, plus with the power grid down and no gas or water supplies, modern buildings will become practically uninhabitable.

Countryside homes with fireplaces rather than central heating are where you want to be, with a natural water supply close by.

6 | H2-NO

Think like you’re abroad.

Do not drink the water.

It is now contaminated and could lead to disease, which, now there’s no NHS, could see you off – a real shame if you’ve made it through a nuclear Armageddon.

Scavenge all the bottled water you can, and make sure you sterilize what you find in rivers and ponds before drinking by boiling it, or even using diluted household bleach or swimming pool chlorine solution.

7 | Wash Your Hands

Basic hygiene matters.


Health education studies in the developing world have found that nearly half of all gastrointestinal and respiratory infections can be avoided simply by regularly washing your hands.

Soap can be made by hydrolysing animal fat or plant oil with lye – itself made by reacting soda (soaked out of seaweed ashes) and quicklime (roasted chalk or limestone).

8 | Get The Power

The national grid will fail very quickly, so grab diesel generators from road work sites to keep the lights and appliances running in your settlement.

In the longer term, as fuel becomes scarce, you can scavenge the alternators from abandoned cars to generate electricity from jury-rigged water wheels and windmills, and store it in deep-cycle batteries from golf buggies and mobility scooters.

Cross that bridge when you come to it.

9 | Get Farming

Eventually, the tins of beans are going to run out.

If you want a hope in hell of surviving, you need to learn to grow crops.

10 | Be A Petrolhead

Once the petrol and diesal have run out, you can keep whatever vehicles you’ve obtained running with home made fuel.

Rendered animal fat or harvested plant oil reacted with methanol (wood alcohol, distilled from heated timber) and lye produces biodiesel.__Esquire

There are a number of key, basic survival concepts covered in Darnell’s book. But as most of us know, there is a difference between “knowing the path,” and “walking the path.” Developing hands on skills plus the resilient ability to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, should not be postponed for last-minute cramming before the final exam.

Human reactions to life and death events and circumstances tend to be very emotional. Human emotions can be trained, in most people, and should be. Those who are caught on their own, isolated from their communities, will need to be able to survive long enough to reach a safer haven.

In the worst TEOTWAWKI situations, those who survive will need to consider the genetics of long term human recovery from collapse. Minimum viable population to prevent significant genetic drift is likely to be close to 10,000 breeding pairs, plus or minus an order of magnitude. Even more persons of breeding age would need to survive to preserve a wide range of positive traits, such as intelligence, executive function, creativity in many areas, etc. (see Minimum Viable Population vs. Effective Population Size)

Rebuilding civilisation can be done in many ways, quickly or slowly. But if you take too long, your group may be overrun by barbarian hordes who have no concern for the perpetuation of civilised technologies, sciences, or arts. Everything you worked for may be lost, if you cannot protect your group from being overrun.

For more short-term apocalyptic survival, think basics:


Water is the most essential survival necessity. Plan for each person to use at least one gallon of water per day. If you are unable to transport water on a wilderness adventure, bring water purification tablets to clean stream water you find. You may also boil water over a campfire to remove bacteria before you drink it.

Beans last for long periods of time even in extreme heat.

Nonperishable food items, such as beef jerky, nuts, protein bars and beans are essential for survival.


Whether you are on a camping trip or in an urban survival scenario, shelter is necessary to protect you from the elements. For [survival on the move], choose a small, lightweight tent that is easy to carry and quick to pitch. You can also build a makeshift shelter in cases of emergency.

Medical Supplies

Select basic first aid items, such as bandages, antibiotic cream, peroxide and sun screen. For longer expeditions or emergency survival kits, include more advanced medical supplies, such as a suture kit or basic surgical supplies…


[From basic to advanced depending upon how far from home you get caught in an emergency]

Weather-Appropriate Clothing

[If you have to leave your home base for a safer location, think it through before setting out — if you have time]

Before you … embark on a [post-apocalyptic] journey, evaluate your current weather conditions. You will naturally require different clothing for warm and cold weather, as well as rain, snow or flooding. Pack at least one extra set of clothing per person. [Don’t forget your weapons and ammo]

__Ehow [Note: Liberal editing applied to original article by Al Fin staff]

It is a long way from Manhattan to safety when TSHTF, unless you have your own boat or plane that can get you and your supplies away from the population density quickly. If you cannot locate within a resilient and competent community soon, make very detailed plans for your escape route from the city, with multiply redundant fallback contingency plans.

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4 Responses to Coming Back from Apocalypse

  1. Matt Musson says:

    Won’t burning all that wood cause global warming?


  2. Matt Musson says:

    I highly recommend Johnny Ringo’s The Last Centurion – a book about surviving a major flu pandemic along with the coming of a mini-ice age.

  3. jabowery says:

    Start now with the decentralized security of backing assets for a county currency: A county-level mutual property insurance corporation, whose members can be called upon to perform duties ranging from enforcement of property rights to “barn raisings” in the event of natural disaster.

    The role of demurrage (as in, say, a gold standard) is replaced by the insurance premium. Underwriting assessments take the form of escrowed bids for the insured properties — bids accepted at the current owners discretion. The bids are denominated in currency issued by the mutual insurance corporation.

    The shareholder/members of the mutual insurance corporation hold one voting share each which is issued at the time they join. They may proxy their votes, as in any corporation.

    Delivery of social goods, and elimination of attendant problems corresponding to public sector rent-seeking, can be largely handled by purchasing power placed in the hands of the share holders from the regular payout of dividends.

    Only the high bid in escrow for a given property right is charged no demurrage. This efficiently allocates the monetary base among the local economy’s assets. By this means, the monetary base becomes the liquid value of the local economy’s assets. In the theoretic ideal case, where all transactions are conducted electronically, a purchase consists of a change in the escrowed bids, transferring money from one person’s escrowed bids to another person’s escrowed bids. In this case, the role of the “investment expert” is essentially to act as an insurance underwriter who accepts a person’s money and, on their behalf, places that money in one or more escrowed bid that, by being the highest, is not charged demurrage because it has served the purpose of insurance assessment at the liquidation value of the assets bid.

    The best places for this are in the rural midwest counties.

    Having done some work with amateur rocketry, it is apparent that you don’t need anything like the missiles being developed by North Korea or Iran to deliver a “super” EMP weapon (not in raw nuclear power but in highly efficient conversion of a small device’s energy to EMP energy) capable of taking down the US government. A lower altitude burst could do the job due to system disruption effects from taking out the eastern seaboard’s electronics infrastructure. Indeed, you don’t even need a small rocket nor would you want to use one since you can accomplish the mission with a radar-transparent balloon and radar-opaque packaging of the device launched well off-shore. It may be possible to defend against such a balloon delivery with sophisticated active optical sensors but I’m far from sure that would be feasible, moreover I see no evidence that anyone has been thinking along those lines. (Caveat: My last contact with such optical systems was mine detection (looking down from helicopters) in an emergency classified project I worked on in 1987 when mines were being deployed against oil shipping in the Persian Gulf).

    Another thing to keep in mind is that if a major power wanted to, the optimal location for detonating a super EMP device would be a larger device of about 1MT detonated a few hundred miles over the middle of the US. That means the rural midwest would be hard hit.

    Therefore EMP hardening of a county-level quasi-autarky, such as would arise from the county currency system describe above, would need to be a priority. This means your critical electronics infrastructure, describe below, would have to be protected by multiple levels of shielded spare components in the event that there were multiple EMP attacks in series.

    An strategic technology trend to pay attention to when preparing for local self sufficiency is the emerging trend toward re-localization of manufacturing.

    A good introduction is this presentation by Chris Anderson.

    I should caution that Chris Anderson is dead wrong about the material strength/toughness of 3D printable parts:

    Electron beam melting is a 3D printing technique that is actually being used to fabricate critical high performance components including those for rocket engines.

    What is emerging is an alternative to the old-time machine shop where you had a collection of machines that did different jobs. The Southbend lathe, the mill, etc. are going to be replaced by a range of 3D printing machines — the combination of which will be able to — given raw materials — reproduce themselves.

    It used to be an article of pride among machinists that they could fabricate a Southbend lathe equivalent from the equipment in a machine shop including a Southbend lathe.

    This is similar but you’ll be able to fabricate a wider range of products.

    Moreover, the speed as well as economy is increasing so the time value of capital will be increased.

    My intent in bringing up these additive manufacturing techniques is mainly something to keep an eye on as part of a longer range strategy.

    The immediate problem of localized access to critical design should be based, first, on obtaining a complete patent library — preferably multiple distributed copies in data DVD form. Secondly, there should be some population of computers that are kept off-line at all times. Third, some of these off-line computers should be running a flavor of Linux and some a flavor of Windows.

    Insofar as networking is concerned wireless mesh networks for local areas can be taken off the grid and keep running by the end users. That is something that should begin immediately, targeting eventual “fire drills” where the local community simulates operation without connection to the Internet or the local phone system. I can provide some technical advice for wifi mesh networks, although I got into it rather early and have not been keeping up with more recent techniques.

    Transportation? Trying to get people to raise draft animals is probably less likely to succeed than is getting people to start manufacturing vehicles locally using additive manufacturing — which means they can be designed to be EMP-tolerant.

    Energy? The best strategy there is the quasi-autarky’s pursuit of microgrids.

    Two baseload electricity wild cards:

    Atmospheric Vortex Engine

    Cold Fusion

    Of the two, the AVE looks the most likely to succeed in a quasi-autarky since the minimum size of a self sustaining vortex requires an array of sails, angled to induce helicity to the updraft, no larger than Stonehenge. Windmill generators placed radially around the stator sails will have reliable wind day and night, winter and summer because when there is no natural wind, the vortex is stable (providing temperature difference between ground and tropopause) adequate for good carnot efficiency. When the vortex is disrupted it is because there is natural wind — so the wind mills in the microgrid can pick up the baseload.

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