Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Eschaton Awareness: Survival Kits, Part I

A priliminary stage in civilization reconstruction after an Eschaton event would be initial physical survival. Many survival kits are currently marketed. What can we infer about the state of Eschaton awareness or preparedness from the contents of various survival kits?

The first survival kit I will consider is the Special OPs Survival Necklace, avaiable from Special Forces survival gear.

A minimal survival kit, including a compass, firestarter, signal mirror, whistle, ID tag, wire saw, and a tiny flashlight. The marketer suggests adding fishhooks, dental floss, a condom (to use as a water bottle), and tinder.

The contents of this kit indicate a mindset that is planning for an unpleasant detour, not the Apocalypse. Items such as signal mirrors, whistles, and flares are included in survival kits with the assumption that help is available, if only one can signal for it. To the hiker lost in Joshua Tree this weekend, help will indeed be available if he can hold out for a few hours. However, this is not a safe assumption after a civilization-ending or even civilization-threatening event.

A compass is helpful for navigation only if one has a destination in mind.

Packets of storm matches are commonly included in survival kits. Fire could be considered a Foundational Technology - it provides heat and morale, aids in food preparation, and sanitizes water better than any chemical. The packet of storm matches on my desk has twenty-five matches in it. This might be enough to save the life of a lost hiker, but is a laughably short-term solution for the survivors of the Apocalypse. Of course, flint and magnesium or tinder firestarters will probably only light a few hundred fires before they are used up or wear out, but this gives the survivors time to establish and practice with sustainable methods of fire starting.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Synthetic Chemistry, a Foundational Technology

The purpose of this blog is primarily to get into contact with others interested in and knowledgable about the technologies upon which civilization is founded. One of these technologies is undoubtedly synthetic chemistry. I am interested in discussion of several questions, including:

1. What are the most important five (say) chemicals to begin producing, in terms of value to people, ease of production, and status as precursors of more complex valuable chemicals?

2. Given that most of the world's easily-accessible petroleum has been consumed, and that many of the most important precursors for synthetic chemicals are petrochemicals, are their other sources for precursors to the most important chemicals (e.g., plant simples) and/or other synthetic routes to these important chemicals?

I am also interested in book recommendations. In the case of synthetic chemistry, the bibliography necessary will include necessary modern chemical theory, instruction for practical synthesis (microscale), and, again, information on alternatives to petrochemical precursors.

The few books I have on this topic are geared toward the composition and structure of particular drugs, including May's Chemistry of Synthetic Drugs (5th ed., 1961), G. R. Chatwal's Synthetic Drugs (Himalaya Publishing House, 2006), and K. Misra and R. C. Dubey's Chemistry of Synthetic Drugs (South Asian Publishers, 1994).

The goal of the bibliography is to provide adequate information to allow a group of intelligent laypeople (say, lawyers, philosophers, mathematicians, or computer programmers) to reproduce the technology without assuming any previous knowledge. With technologies such as surgery, this is clearly laughable, but this project exists to test those limits.

Agriculture, a Foundational Technology

Part I. Why agriculture?

The only alternative to agriculture (other than photosynthesis) is hunting/gathering. The hunting/gathering lifestyle must be rejected as a long-term mode for survivors of a civilization-ending event because agriculture can support much higher population densities. This is critical for the following reasons:

1. The world currently supports a much higher population than will be maintainable after an Eschaton event. Quick adoption of agricultural methods will mean that fewer people will have to die. This is presumably desirable both ethically (it is better to save people than to let them die of starvation) and genetically (the greater the population maintained after the Eschaton, the greater the genetic diversity, and hence the prospects for the sustained survival of the species).

2. A group adopting a hunter/gatherer lifestyle would be quickly overwhelmed (and either eliminated or assimilated) by any nearby groups choosing agriculture, as has historically happened in virtually every situation where an agricultural civilization has come into contact with a hunting/gathering one. (See, e.g., Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, & Steel.)

3. The population density allowed by agriculture may be important in establishing other foundational technologies of civilization, such as medicine, chemistry, and metallurgy.


Many believe that the indefinite survival of humans is a desirable goal. The preservation of certain foundational technologies beyond an "Eschaton" event could reduce the suffering of any survivors and increase the likelihood of their sustained survival. The current paradoxical dispersal and concentration of foundational technology, due to extreme specialization, render it unlikely that a representative group of humans could restart civilization. Advance planning could increase that likelihood.