The Knowledge and The Manual for Civilization

Posted on Saturday, April 19th, 02014 by Alexander Rose - Twitter: @zander
link Categories: Book Lists, Manual for Civilization   chat 0 Comments


One of the early inspirations for creating the Manual for Civilization was an email I received from Lewis Dartnell in London asking me for information on a book he was writing inspired by James Lovelock’s “Book for all Seasons”.  The idea was a kind of reboot manual for humanity, and it coincided well with some other conversations we had been having at Long Now about making a collection of books that could do something similar.

Fast forward to 02014 and Lewis has finished his book “The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World From Scratch” which comes out today, and he was kind enough to send us a copy for our Manual for Civilization library collection. Since this is a single volume you might be wondering how much practical knowledge a book like this could actually impart. This book gives the reader a basic strategy for rebooting civilization – not every detail. For instance if you wanted to get a certain technology up and running again, which method should you employ given what we now know about modern and historical methods? Dartnell goes over the basic principle for each fundamental technology, and then discusses best options for how to rebuild it with scavenged materials (always easier), or how you might do it from scratch. He starts with the most critical and fundamental, and then builds on each of these as the book progresses. So in a way the book kind of boot straps itself from chapter to chapter. The overall goal, it seems, is to make the “hole” referred to in the graph below smaller and recover faster than the one left after the fall of Rome. (yes I know there are lots of issues with that graph but it illustrates the point of a loss of technology in civilizations)


The Knowledge is not another survival guide for gun toting doomsday “preppers”, or those excited for the zombie apocalypse, but both crowds might get something out of it. It is also not a standalone book, Lewis has published his chapter by chapter further reading list and bibliography alongside it that contains the nitty gritty details for each of the technologies discussed. You should consider The Knowledge a primer and table of contents for that larger reading list. We are happy to have The Knowledge in our collection for this reason.

Dartnell has also been following The Manual for Civilization project and has submitted his own list of books for our collection, which we include below. He considers these to be the most useful from his bibliography. You can follow updates and new information around the book via @KnowledgeCiv on Twitter. Dartnell speaks at The Interval in March 02015

  • njeschin

    How did you get the data for your graph? How do you measure scientific advancement?

  • Christianandproud

    Thank you for using that stupid graph! Now every atheist, socialist and transhumanist fanatic, who has never opened a decent history book in there lives, get taugh to hate Christianity. You even mention there are issues with the graph, you are disgusting!

  • William Rae

    I read “The knowledge” and didn’t like it. There were a few things left out that should have been added in like the fact that tetracycline is the one antibiotic that has a possibly fatal shelf life which wasn’t explained in the book. When I read this article where Lewis lists John Seymour’s The new complete book of self sufficiency, the one book that I used to own that I actually burnt in disgust I decided to post this warning.

    I burnt John Seymour’s book because it contained information that was destructive and I didn’t want someone to read it and follow it’s mistakes. For example it recommended to cut bracken fern and feed it to your farm animals. Bracken fern is a poison at all ages to herbivores, and that’s the world over. It recommended the way to remove an old wooden handle from an axe head is to burn it out, which will remove the temper from the axe head, it basically anneals the metal. There were a few other examples as well, on balance I made the decision I couldn’t trust any of the information in it. If The Knowledge uses it as a source then by extension I can’t trust the information in it as well.

    Which gets me to the core of the problem of putting together a library for the future. If you have a single source, and that source is wrong then history will echo that mistake. When you can’t be sure what is right and wrong then the only solution is diverse sources, many libraries made up from different books from different cultures and different points of view. It would also make sense to put them in different locations around the world, not in one location.

    You might want to consider that the oldest source of information that we have are the oral traditions passed down through the Australian Aboriginals, that these stories possibly date from 12 thousand years ago and that the oldest written language we still can read today are Egyptian hieroglyphics. Wouldn’t it make more sense to work on story telling rather than books, or wouldn’t it make sense to work on both.