If civilization collapsed tomorrow because of, say, a virus or an asteroid, how could we rebuild society? What technologies are fundamental to keeping humans healthy, fed, in communication, and on time?

What is great about The Knowledge, is that it’s an excuse to teach the fundamentals of modern society, such as how an internal combustion engine or a microscope works, through the lens of surviving the apocalypse. As a chemist myself, I especially enjoy that there are two chapters dedicated to “substances”, and that the periodic table is described as a “colossal monument to human achievement”, which it is. As an apocalyptic guide to survival, The Knowledge has far too few diagrams and step-by-step guides to actually enable you to recreate necessary technologies, but it’s a good start for piquing interest. If you want to construct a rudimentary mechanical reaper or an absorption refrigerator, you may need to find more detailed instructions elsewhere.

Most of the information presented is, well, informational, and not the most engaging. I do, however, enjoy learning of the existence of historical or modern treasures, including

  • the Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, which is exactly what it sounds like
  • an electrochemical cell, dated 200BC-200AD, was unearthed in the 1930s, called the “Baghdad battery”
  • WWII fuel shortages popularized vehicles fueled by gas bags
  • Cut off by Serbian army during the Bosnian War of the 1990s, the city of Gorazde jury-rigged rudimentary hydroelectric generators to supply electricity to the city… for three years!

If you want to learn the basics of how to extract base-material chemicals from natural sources, this is a great start. Everything else is probably just for fun. (Did you know the meaning of the word broadcast, which describes not radio or TV waves, but the scattering of seeds far and wide?)

Recommended for readers interested in how everyday science impacts their lives, and less of a “prepper” how-to.

“My hope is that by seeing just how civilization actually gathers and makes all the fundamentals we need, you’ll come to appreciate, just as I have during the research for this book, the things we take for grated in modern life: bountiful and varied food, spectacularly effective medicines, effortless and comfortable travel, and abundant energy.”