One Book To Save Them

William Grassie has a fuzzy-headed far view on surviving catastrophe:

Imagine a major planetary catastrophe, … something in the order of the Mt. Toba supervolcano … some 73,000 years ago. … Humanity was reduced to some 1000-to-10,000 breeding pairs. … One of the thirty or so supervolcanos … is the Yellowstone Basin. … The United States disappears in the course of a few days. … The survivors would be reduced to subsistence farming, gathering, hunting, and fishing in areas around the earth’s equator. … Let’s say that humanity is again reduced to some 10,000 breeding pairs. …

What knowledge from today would be most valuable to these survivors as they tried to rebuild their lives and repopulate the earth? … You get to choose one book. …  Stockpiling food and weapons in the mountains of Idaho would be a silly and small-minded emergency plan. … Instead of focusing on the survival of my tribe, my family, or myself, we need to focus on the survival of civilization. ….  And the only way to do this with assurance is to distribute the most valuable and practical knowledge as widely as possible across the planet today in anticipation that unfortunate day. …

The book I would chose is Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. … It is the combined history of the universe, our creative planet, and our restless species. …. Catastrophic collapses, however, are part of the big story. … Civilizations do not last forever. Farmlands become deleted. …

Most modern technology will be nonexistent. … Such technology will need to be reinvented, along with most of agriculture, medicine, engineering, economics, politics, art, music, morality, and religion. …

Curiously, most of us today, even among the best educated and most privileged, do not really know much about this incredible New Cosmology. … If future generations had the basic outline of this story … they would know where to focus their own intellect and creativity as they sought to rediscover and reinvent science, technology, agriculture and human culture. They could start looking for atoms, molecules, microbes, and cells, even if they lacked the tools to do so. … They would understand the motion of the sun, moon, and stars. … They would quickly rediscover and reinvent advanced mathematics. … They would understand the importance of energy density flows and creative innovation processes.

It turns out that this Epic of Evolution may also be important information if we are to successfully meet the other challenges of the twenty-first century. The story includes insights into how nature functions as complex, distributed systems, and the dangers of run away environmental problems. It includes new insights about economics and how complex, distributed economic systems produce incredible wealth, as well as dangerous dysfunctions…. It includes insights about the importance of limited governments and individual freedoms and responsibilities. … Our Common Story gives humanity new perspective, a vantage point, which takes the edge off bitter ideological, nationalist, and religious conflicts around the world.

(HT James Hughes.)  This is amazingly wrong-headed:

  1. The reason to stockpile is not to save “my family” but to ensure that our species survives at all.  A disaster that kills all but a thousand couples could nearly as easily have killed everyone.  Well-chosen stockpiles could easily make the difference between survival and extinction.
  2. You either preserve literacy or you don’t.  A literate culture needs a lot more than one book to function.  Readers would quickly forget what the words in that one book meant unless those concepts were commonly used in many other books and in their lives.
  3. It would take a huge effort to maintain even a small literate subculture, that read regularly, and passed this habit on to thier kids.  This won’t last unless some very practical advantages accrue to readers.  Impressing friends by quoting fascinating cosmology facts just won’t do.
  4. Yes knowledge is key, but survivors would face an immediate need to know about how to survive as foragers.  It is far from easy to forage well, and without effective foraging they’ll die.  If you want distribute copies of a book to ensure our species survives, it should a book on how to forage.  You might also pack those books with some simple foraging tools (like knives).

How could Grassie get this so wrong?  His last paragraph quoted above is the tipoff.  Like most who talk about the future, he is far more interested in using future folk to set morality tales for today, than in ways to actually help them.  How else could  he imagine that a few ragged survivors desperate to avoid extinction should spend a big chunk of their time reminding themselves of just how glorious were we, their ancestors?

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