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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  • Grant

    The existence of libraries should pretty much guarantee our knowledge wouldn’t be lost. As long as the books aren’t burned for heat.

    Printing out wikipedia would be a good start. Maybe try and use some sort of media that couldn’t be used for firewood, and of course have many, many copies. It would be hard to make an efficient system for referencing different URLs, but I’m sure it would be more efficient than following tangential subjects in a library.

    I wonder how long a computer could last, with a nuclear power source?

    Fortunately if disaster struck, the Internet would probably remain functional for at least a few days. We’d have a chance to print out survival guides and manuals. Unfortunately those without Internet access might not be so lucky, but I suppose many of them may be more familiar with hunting and gathering already.

    • http://entitledtoanopinion.wordpress.com TGGP

      You might be interested in some of Steve Dutch’s thoughts: Writing in the Sand: The Need for Ultra-Robust Digital Archiving
      Very stale hat-tip to Ilkka Kokkarinen

    • http://space4commerce.blogspot.com Brian Dunbar

      The existence of libraries should pretty much guarantee our knowledge wouldn’t be lost. As long as the books aren’t burned for heat.

      As long as the roof stays on the building and the windows remain unbroken. And the critters stay out of the building and don’t use the books for nesting material.

      A building without someone maintaining it has a very short life. If civilization goes ‘phht’ I give an untended collection of books about five years before they’re gone.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/1054626558129691997 Rob

    One book to end them.

  • http://www.rationalmechanisms.com Richard Silliker

    A book ain’t going to do it. However if you look at this paragraph…

    >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.

    Take the word systems and replace it with the word metabolism. See how it may change your thinking.

  • http://rationalmechanisms.com DWCrmcm

    How about a book on Tax Law?

    A few thousand??

    all in the same place? or here and there?

    I say the Cub Scout field book.

  • DW

    Grassie has obviously not read The Road. History doesn’t mean jack when you’re starving and fending off cannibals.

    Also reminds me of Russ Roberts’ podcast last week on trade. You need a population of millions of people to actually use the specialized knowledge in that book on “big history”. Hopefully it’s big enough to keep someone warm for a night.

  • michael vassar

    The Bible has more selective fitness than any other book. It will survive if Westerners do, whether one wants it to or not. Any other book you want to preserve had best not compete with it’s niche. Ditto the Book of Mormon. (the Koran, probably less than you would guess)

    The best choice might be to “translate” the Bible in a manner as to embed large amounts of practical knowledge a description of the scientific method and precise experimental predictions plus prose drawing on modern psychology. That way, people could do simple and intuitively obvious tests to demonstrate that their bible was the true and accurate translation.

    • bejeebus

      (the Koran, probably less than you would guess)

      All in all I’d say the Koran is slightly more likely to survive a major existential shock than the (full) Bible, if only because 1- it’s shorter and 2- there’s an awful lot of people who have fully memorized it (anyone with “Hafiz” in their non-patronymic name), removing the need for a physical support / literacy.

      Admittedly the Bible has the advantage of larger geographical dispersion, though this is changing.

  • Greg Conen

    I agree that something practical is key. Foraging would be useful. Medicine (very basic medicine) might be more useful, especially since that provides a strong societal benefit even if only a “literate subculture” knows what’s going on. Something similar to the practice of PRC “barefoot doctors”, covering basic hygiene/germ theory of disease, basic first aid, etc. If possible, also information on prevention and (low-tech) treatment of common diseases endemic to the area the books are distributed.

    Of course, regardless of content, the books will be tinder within a generation or two. If the information is useful, it will be passed on orally. If not, everyone will forget.

  • Jayson Virissimo

    I think the United States Army Survival Manual beats Maps of Time any decade of the century.

    • adam

      This was my first thought, too. I can’t think of a more useful book if there were a disaster that brought survivors back to the subsistance level.

  • http://timtyler.org/ Tim Tyler

    I think “you get to choose one book.” was part of the premise. The author was just playing “desert island books”.

  • Michael Blume

    The quoted piece simply wasn’t about the future. Tim Tyler’s got it right.

    Robin, I’m not sure of your “people won’t read just one book” claim — wasn’t there a good while when people learned to read so they could read the bible, full stop?

  • http://pojatitkee.blogspot.com Paavo Ojala

    I wonder if it would be useful for the one book to be in some sort of folklore style. Should we prepare and write useful folklore for the postapocalyptic forager. Useful stories about brewing beer and some lessons of life wherein the hero learns how to forage effectively and is warned of the dangers of bad hygiene.

  • Ryan Vann

    Probably some Navy Knot tying book. It’s amazing the utility you can get out of a few cords of string/rope.

  • http://space4commerce.blogspot.com Brian Dunbar

    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?

    I’d spend a few minutes a day – before I dropped into an exhausted sleep for a few hours – cussing my ancestors for not having the foresight to plant civilization in space before the Big Blow Up.

  • John 4

    I don’t know if there is a book with this stuff in it now, but I think this kind of knowledge is most important:

    Basic medical/physiological knowledge: esp. the germ theory of disease.

    As Robin says, knowledge about food production etc.: farmer’s almanac? (I don’t know what that is but it sounds like the kind of thing I’m thinking about.) Can I stick packets of seeds in the book?

    How to make paper, blow glass, basic chemistry/metallurgy, horse training, etc. The basic trades from 1000 AD. Less that 1/10,000 people know how to do these things, and it would take a damn long time to figure them out again.

    A special section devoted to electricity: won’t be useful for a while, but electricity is the single most important element in increasing the standard of living. (Most of the work accomplished in 1850 AD was accomplished in the same way it was accomplished in 50 AD and in 1000 BC: muscle.)

  • http://www.isegoria.net Isegoria

    I’ve long been fascinated by the challenge of bootstrapping society — and the question of what tight cannon of books might help — and I agree that Grassie’s answer is terribly disappointing. He transparently wants to replace “outdated” religious cosmologies with the New Cosmology, which has very little to do with economic growth.

    I think we can agree, per point 1, that well-chosen stockpiles could make the difference between survival and extinction — so they are vital — but they don’t directly address the issue of advancing beyond hunting and gathering.

    I think points 2 and 3 are soundly refuted by the Bible, Koran, etc. Many, many people have learned to read specifically to read one religious text, and many, many households throughout history owned exactly one book, that religious text. (For a time, I believe, millions of American households owned two books: the Bible and Ben Hur.)

    Would we want to craft our bootstrapping text as a religious text? That’s an interesting question that raises an even more interesting question: Can you craft a religious text that meets the religious needs of ordinary pre-modern folk that does not contradict the tenets held sacred by overcomingbias readers?

    As for point 4, would books full of successful folkways, like the Foxfire books, retain any value after a generation? Again, we certainly want to see humanity survive in the first place, but would such books help beyond that? Would they even be a force for retaining literacy, once everyone in that society had been raised using such practical skills on a daily basis?

  • Matt

    This issue is explored in the classic–it’s hard to use the term unironically, but it fits–science fiction novel, Earth Abides (George Stewart, 1949). It describes the slow decay of the old civilization–the gradual forgetting of existing technologies, and the gradual rediscovery of forgotten technologies–after a plague that had killed perhaps 99.9% of the population.

  • Vladimir Golovin

    Can you craft a religious text that meets the religious needs of ordinary pre-modern folk that does not contradict the tenets held sacred by overcomingbias readers?

    A fascinating idea. I think that this is possible — especially given the modern knowledge of dramatic/mythical structure, effective narrative, heuristics and biases and social engineering.

    Actually, when constructed correctly, the book might become the ultimate religious text that consistently wins against independently-arising rival religions due to the fact that it is founded on real-world knowledge inaccessible to rival authors, and its “spread” and “stickiness” will be significantly boosted by the fact that the book will give real, tangible, real-world advantages to those who read and follow it.

  • Mikhail

    Humanity has passed the point of, I will call it, “possible retrogression” some 50 years ago. With all nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants and chemical factories such catastrophe would mean the end of every higher live on the earth.

    • michael vassar

      Citations needed.

  • lemmy caution

    Maps of Time is a good book. It isn’t a guide to repopulate the planet though.

  • http://lesswrong.com/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    If you’re going to criticize every Internet personality who makes up wise-sounding gibberish, you’ll have to write an awful lot of blog posts.

  • gavin

    OUR FOOD SYSTEM IS BROKEN we therefore must LOCALIZE .I only want to eat local SPRING MIX (arrugulllaaa) must gut pigg friend within 100 miles of place of birth .grain crop suckee time to look for long pig.amaranth and quinona will save us .no use evil petrol. we grow with gia. wimmen eating beans make babys.(in rome)must ; must get;CLUE

  • gimli4thewest

    Why save humanity?

    How about something about the power of evolution, the trinity: Dennett,
    Dawkins, Darwin?

    Knowing humanity, I would choose Sun Tzu.

  • Kevin W

    Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” requires survival needs be met first. This “one book” will be immensely useful to THEIR FUTURE generations. Will it be written in sanscript and preserved in pyramids?

  • Alexei Turchin

    We should write such book “Guide to re-building civilization” and print it on hard metal.
    Its expected utility would be high.

    • http://ogre.nu/ Anton Sherwood

      Sure, one can always melt it down to make arrowheads.

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