Preparing for the Worst?

The starting point for The Knowledge is a global catastrophe that destroys our technological civilisation and forces survivors to start again from scratch. Such a possible eventuality offers a superb scenario for exploring the behind-the-scenes fundamentals of how our modern world actually works, and how it progressed and developed over centuries and millennia of history. Whilst researching for the book, and continuing still on the web Discussion board after its publication, I’ve had many fascinating and informative conversations with people who’ve been thinking about similar topics for far longer that I have.

Doomsday_PreppersThere is a large community around the world making active preparations for disaster; people who identify as preppers or survivalists. Of course, aspects of this movement cover a wide spectrum.

On one hand are everyday people living in regions vulnerable to natural disasters, such as the earthquakes near San Francisco, taking precautions like keeping a few days-worth of canned food, bottled water and battery-powered lights to wait-out at home a blackout or temporary disruption of other public utilities, or else preparing a bug-out bag to escape the city at the early warning signs.

On the other extreme are those who anticipate global catastrophe within their lifetimes; some moving to isolated, fortified compounds and devoting their life savings to stockpiling consumables and weapons to protect their families from looters after societal collapse. Unsurprisingly, it is this tail of the distribution that TV shows like Doomsday Preppers tend to focus on, but preppers in fact include an enormous range of people with different lifestyles and motivations.

And the movement has been going for a long time, building in waves in response to world events, as this guest post from Chris Ruiz charts.


The Rise and Rise Of Prepping

Interest in prepping has been on a steady rise over the past few years. This is not to say that the idea of preparedness never existed before. People have been actively preparing for emergencies, including possibly life-threatening disruptions, since the first nomadic clan decided to raise crops instead of hunt and gather.  In this article we will look at 3 major waves of interest in preparedness from recent history.  This will give us context for where we are today and show that being prepared is a well-worn road, not just some new fad based on some questionable reality shows on television.

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Sunday Times Book of the Year

SundayTimesBookOfTheYearThe Knowledge has been named the Sunday Times ‘New Thinking’ Book of the Year. For a chance to win your own copy of the hardback book in time for Christmas, retweet the below message by 15th December.


Legacy: Life Among the Ruins

LegacyMost post-apocalyptic films and games focus on the horrors and hardships of the immediate aftermath of a global catastrophe. The Knowledge looks at the longer-term recovery of society, and what you can do over the generations to reboot civilisation from scratch. So this Kickstarter project really caught my eye - Legacy: Life Among the Ruins is a tabletop game where players work together in a changing world to rebuild a life for themselves. The game is very nearly fully-funded on Kickstarter and so if this appeals to you make a contribution right away! This guest post is from the game’s designer, James Iles.

Hi!  I’m the designer of Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, a tabletop roleplaying game about the survivors of a reality-twisting apocalypse, the families they form, and the new world they will create as the ages turn. While most post-apocalyptic media focuses on the immediate aftermath of an apocalypse, with its associated grim survivors making hard choices, I thought it’d be interesting to explore the process of rebuilding: the difficulties people face understanding the old technology of the world before, the new challenges the apocalypse has created, and how the world changes from generation to generation.

To accomplish this, Legacy gives every player control of both a Family of survivors and a Character chosen from that Family to deal with their problems. A Family is created by choosing one of five reactions to the apocalypse – holding on to the old lore, turning to martial strength for security, finding refuge in faith, seeking and trading valuable things, or trying to impose law and order. Each archetype comes with its own playbook of traits and abilities, with customisable cultures, lifestyles, resources and needs. Each Family has something it urgently needs and cannot easily get, and that’s where your Character comes in, picked from one of eight basic archetypes and customised by your choice of abilities and gear. While your Family can accomplish broad, sweeping changes in the world via diplomats, spies, scientists and soldiers your Character excels at more precise, dangerous activities – exploring crumbling ruins, conducting delicate negotiations in enemy territory, and hunting down the horrifying monsters created by the apocalypse.

Legacy promises rapid, flavourful gameplay, with a system that produces tough choices and unexpected opportunities. If you’re interested the Kickstarter has two days left, and provides the current draft text of the game free to all backers. Check it out!


How do children think the world might end?

I’m doing an event called the End of the World Cabaret in Oxford on 12th December, along with some very talented science communicators. Dr Sarah Bearchell is also taking part, and has a plea for some input… 


Pleeeease……I need your help!

I work with children. We do science together. It’s immensely rewarding and often (inadvertently) hilarious.

I’ll be joining Lewis for The End of The World Cabaret on 12th December. Choosing my topic was very easy; I decided to ask children “How do you think the world will end?” Zombie apocalypse, disease, meteor strike and global warming have all been mentioned with some wonderful descriptions and variations!

My sample is geographically localised and I would really like to discover the opinions of children further afield. This is where you come in.

Please ask your child/sibling/niece/nephew/grandchild how they think the world will end, and then send their response to me. You can simply email me ( what they say, or ideally you could record their response on your phone and then send me the sound file as an mp3. I don’t need their name, just their age at the time of recording and the town/area where they live.

I’ll incorporate some of these into the show and I’ll share the best on Twitter (@SarahBearchell) and my Facebook page (Sarah’s Adventures in Science).

Thank you very much for your help, I really look forward to hearing their responses!

Dr Sarah Bearchell
Sarah’s Adventures in Science

BioLite electricity-generating stove

BioLite The Biolite woodstove is an incredible supereffficient design that will not only boil water in minutes but even charge your phone while it does it. The stove uses a small electric fan to get started and drive fierce combustion using nothing more than twigs as fuel; so there’s no need to carry heavy fuel with you. When it’s going at full-burn it will boil water in a matter of minutes. And even better than that, the stove will even recharge your phone or other device through the USB cable. To do this, the Biolite woodstove incorporates a themoelectric generator to convert heat to electricity – the same technology employed by the Curiosity Mars rover. The whole thing is no bigger than a 1 litre Nalgene waterbottle and weighs just a kilogram. And the stove isn’t just for camping, and the electricity it generates could be vital for keeping devices charged when the power goes out in a storm or other natural disaster. The Biolite woodstove is available here

Beard beer

Photo credit: Flickr user notmargaret

Chapter 4 of The Knowledge talks about the importance of fermentation for making wine, beer, mead (see the How To guide here), or any other alcoholic beverage, and how concentrated ethanol can be distilled from that for applications like antiseptics. If you can’t find any dried sachets of yeast for brewing or making bread I explain how you can isolate the yeast and other microorganisms you can use from the environment around you. The cells are present on the skins of grapes, or wheat grain, or even just floating on the air. One increasingly popular method for producing craft beers is spontaneous fermentation - simply allowing wild or natural yeasts and bacteria to essentially infect your starter and drive fermentation.  Well, about the most wonderfully hipster effort I have ever come across is that of John Maier of Rogue Ales, who is planning to sell beer brewed using yeast harvested from his own beard. Cheers…

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World Made by Hand

Although it’s been out for a little whiWorldMadeByHandle now, I’ve only just stumbled across and read James Howard Kunstler’s novel World Made by Hand, after it was recommended by a visitor to this website. Kunstler wrote The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, an analysis of the likely societal effects as we reach depletion of fossil fuels, and has been thinking long and hard about the challenges of a post-oil future.

‘World Made by Hand’ is the first book in a series of novels set in a post-apocalyptic world, beginning an unspecified number of decades after collapse. The majority of humanity has succumbed to a combo-whammy of terrorist nuclear bombs devastating major US cities, global pandemics, resource wars and climate change. Small surviving communities have regressed to simpler means, living off locally-grown food and relearning skills of  self-sufficiency and home production – the central character was once a business executive but now plies his trade as a carpenter.

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Tacit knowledge and loss of reading

The Knowledge attempts to provide a guide to the fundamental principles and processes that underlie our civilisation, and so how to rebuild from scratch if you ever needed to. But trying to rebuild civilisation and resurrect practical skills purely from the knowledge contained in a guide book would be a huge challenge, no matter how extensive it might be. Tasks are achieved not just by knowing the correct information, but also by possessing the required practical skills.

NetMakingDiderot recognised this short-falling in the mid-1700s and so attempted to preserve not just facts in his encyclopaedia but also the practical or manual skills needed in carpentry, weaving and mining, for example, in detailed engravings. While a picture may well be a worth a thousand words, how can you hope to capture the subtlety of the dextrous motions required for, say, carpentry in just a few images or even a video? Achieving the required ability can take years of apprenticeship, under the tutelage of an already-proficient craftsman.

This is the problem of implicit or tacit knowledge; something you may know how to do yourself, but would find extremely challenging, if not impossible, to successfully convey to someone else in just words or pictures.

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