Thursday, April 03, 2008

Why This Project Is Impossible And Undesirable

This essay is a refutation of my previous work. In it, I will try to explain why preserving technology through a major civilization collapse is futile, and, separately, why it is not necessarily desirable. I am not trying to destroy the hope that many people maintain for survival through a civilization collapse. If others feel it is worthwhile, I encourage them to continue working and studying in this area. I am merely trying to explain why I have stopped taking the project seriously.

First, in researching how to preserve certain technologies, it has become clear to me that these technologies depend not on a few easily reproducible foundation technologies, but on an entire complex market society, for their existence. Think, for instance, about what is required for producing antibiotics (see previous post). Then think about the equipment required to test the finished product for lethal impurities. Think about the number of people and resources necessary to produce that equipment. Now think about how much food and other resources those people must necessarily consume. That gives you an idea of the surplus food and primary goods that must be produced to keep that one technology up and running. Our current complex society and market economy produces a huge surplus, enough so that only a small percentage of the population need work in food production. However, this is highly unlikely in a post-collapse situation. We might ask the question: if it were so easy to produce this surplus after a collapse, why don't Djibouti and Burkina Faso produce their own antibiotics?

Second, the collapse is upon us, and it appears to be a slow one - one in which the standard of living will slowly decline over years, decades, even generations, until basic needs can't be met. Of course, I am talking about the United States here - basic needs already can't be met in a huge portion of the world, and it will only get worse as the United States and the West slip into economic depression and stop providing aid. According to United Nations classifications, over 900 million people live in slums, most living in the kind of insalubrious conditions we associate with the end of civilization. A slow collapse, with a huge population slowly but inexorably using up all existing resources until they are gone, unable to save resources for future generations, is the worst-case scenario from an Eschaton management perspective. Technological enclaves are not impossible, but the slow-collapse population pressure will force them to over-invest in security, and it will be unlikely that any such enclave could be large enough - and hence complex enough - to support the continuation of the most important technologies. To put it in more concrete terms, a large surplus of food could be used to support a scientific research laboratory and its staff - but if a huge population surrounding the laboratory is starving, the surplus is more likely to be diverted to present needs. (Even in a quick-collapse scenario, with few surviving humans, immediate resource pressure is still likely to subvert the goal of preserving technologies for future generations. This scenario is explored for modern audiences in Cormac McCarthy's irritatingly-written but important book, The Road.)

Third, I have always had concerns over whether the continuation of human society is desirable. There are some who take it as a given that it is important to continue humanity - indeed, that this is the most important thing. But those who take suffering seriously must be given pause by this assertion. Humans are the most conscious and complex of all animals, and as such, have the greatest capacity for suffering. Continuing human civilization - especially under collapse conditions - is continuing suffering. One view - that taken by John Leslie in his important book on the Doomsday argument, The End of the World - is that the joy experienced by some humans makes up for the suffering experienced by others. Another view - that taken by Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov - holds that suffering can never be redeemed, even by eternal happiness in Heaven:
It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to 'dear God' in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it, because her tears remained unredeemed . . . But how, how will you redeem them? . . . And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. I do not, finally, want the mother to embrace the tormentor who let his dogs tear her son to pieces! . . . . they have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket. (Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, p. 245)
Under this view, just as it is potentially an unredeemable offense against a child to give birth to that child, it is an offense against humanity to try to continue humanity.

If we take this idea seriously, perhaps the ideal end-of-the-world preparation is not to ensure survival, but to prevent suffering. By this view, the bug-out bag should not be filled with fish hooks and flashlights and freeze-dried food, but with three grams of a fast-acting barbiturate per person.

Friday, May 04, 2007

How To Make Penicillin: Cheap and Tasty Version

Now open for peer review! Leave a comment or send email.

  • Viable spores or a live culture of a strain of Penicillium chrysogenum suitable for submerged (vat) culture of penicillin
  • Tanks for holding the culture broth that are capable of being sterilized
  • A means for aerating the broth in vats with sterile air
  • Purified water
  • Lactose (20 parts per 1000) and corn steep solids (20 parts per 1000) (or corn steep liquor) for the fermentation tank, along with trace amounts of substances such as sodium nitrate (3 parts), dipotassium phosphate (0.05 parts), magnesium phosphate (0.125 parts), calcium carbonate (1.8 parts), and phenyl acetic acid (0.5 parts). All these items must be completely sterile.
  • Filtering material, such as parachute silk
  • A weak acid and a weak base
  • Amyl acetate or ether (for removing the penicillin from the broth)
  • Aluminum oxide powder or asbestos (to filter microorganisms and "pyrogens" - fever-causing impurities - from the penicillin)
  • Freeze drying equipment such as a rotary freeze dryer (for removing the water from the penicillin to make a storable crystalline compound)
  • Microscopes and slides (for testing the activity of the penicillin)
Thoughtful people might add other items likely to be necessary to this list, such as electricity, laboratory glassware, and agar agar. For simplicity, I am leaving such background items of indirect necessity off the list - for now.

  1. Sterilize the tanks and aeration equipment.
  2. Dissolve the sugar, corn steep liquor, and other substances in the water in the tanks.
  3. Introduce the mold to the culture medium.
  4. When the mold is reproducing, begin aeration with sterile air. Ideally, maintain the temperature at approximately 24 degrees Celsius. Using aseptic methods, test the broth regularly for penicillin concentration and antibacterial activity. (See note.)
  5. When the broth has reached a high level of penicillin concentration, filter the mold juice through a physical filter, such as parachute silk.
  6. Acidify the mold juice to a pH of 2-3 using the weak acid (such as citric acid).
  7. Thoroughly shake the mold juice with the solvent by hand or using an apparatus.
  8. Allow the mold juice and penicillin-containing solvent to sit until they reseparate.
  9. Drain off the dirty water.
  10. Filter the penicillin-containing solvent through the aluminum oxide powder (alumina salts). The top brownish-orange band contains little penicillin; the pale yellow band contains the majority of the penicillin and no pyrogens; the bottom brownish or reddish-violet purple band is full of impurities. (The solvent may be re-used.)
  11. Carefully separate only the yellow band in the aluminum oxide powder; wash it in a buffer to clear off the alumina. The fluid is a deep reddish-orange color that turns yellow when diluted; it has a faint smell and a bitter taste.
  12. Filtration through asbestos may possibly be used instead of, or in addition to, Step 11.
  13. Freeze dry the solution to obtain crystalline penicillin.
Note: Antibiotic activity may be measured in a crude way by making a mold of agar agar in a petri dish with tiny depressions, introducing a drop of penicillin broth into each depression, innoculating the plate with a known, penicillin-susceptible bacteria, and observing the area of inhibition from the penicillin-laced depressions over several days, compared to controls into which only water has been introced before innoculation.


Chatwal, Gurdeep R. Synthetic Drugs. Mumbai: Himalaya Publishing House, 2006.
Herrell, Wallace E. Penicillin and Other Antibiotic Agents. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company, 1945.
Lax, Eric. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat. New York: Henry Hold and Company, 2004.
Ligget, R.W. and H. Koffler. Corn steep liquor in microbiology. Bacteriol Rev. 1948 December; 12(4): 297–311.
Pathak, S.G., and R.P. Elander. Biochemical properties of haploid and diploid strains of Penicillium chrysogenum. Appl. Microbiol. 22:366-371.
US Army Special Forces Medical Handbook. United States Army Institute for Military Assistance, 1982.
Werner, David. Where There Is No Doctor. London: Macmillan Education Ltd., 1993.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Developing Countries as Eschaton Practice Grounds?

Pat Delaney's "MultiMachine" is a versatile machine tool that, according to its inventor, can be built with simple hand tools out of scavenged junk. The inventor conceives of applications in developing countries, but this sort of "intermediate technology" is EXACTLY the sort of thing that will be invaluable after an Eschaton event.
Developing countries have many parallels with post-Eschaton industrialized countries. Technologies wrangled and perfected with the Eschaton in mind could be applicable in developing countries where things like laboratory-produced penicillin are scarce and infections are rampant, and technologies meant for use in developing countries are exactly what will be needed in developing countries after an Eschaton event.
Already in my permanent post-Eschaton bibliography are Where There Is No Doctor and Where There Is No Dentist, books developed for use by medical practitioners in areas without modern medical care. I am happy to find another excellent example of crossover technology.

Monday, March 05, 2007

How Ideas Reach the Future

In preparing for an Eschaton event, it is sometimes useful to try to imagine just what the event will look like. Two possible categorizations:

  1. Instant population crash-type event (plague) versus an event that destroys systems and technologies while leaving population relatively stable in the extreme short term (well-coordinated widespread economic terrorism)

  2. Sudden event (nuclear war) versus slow reduction in standard of living resulting in generations-long collapse (what we are currently experiencing)

Leaving the first distinction for another post, I wish to address just the second for now. Many thinkers, including Chalmers Johnson and Jared Diamond, provide good evidence that we are currently sliding toward an end to our civilization of the second type - a gradual, generations-long reduction in the standard of living, accompanied by increasing chaos and decreasing availability of the benefits of civilization. In this scenario, information about rebuilding after the end of civilization would need to survive and be passed down through generations. A physical book or electronic information may not be enough to guarantee the survival of the information until it is needed.

Historically, how has complex information been preserved across generations? Very few books have survived more than two or three generations, and those that have survived have done so in successive editions, being copied and re-printed frequently. Most books printed today will not survive in any form - paper or content - beyond a few decades. The survival of printed information is also dependent on the technology of literacy in the language of printing. Research into the books that have survived may yield answers for how to preserve foundational technologies for future generations.

The amount of oral information that can be transmitted between generations is extremely limited. However, this has been the primary mode for passing information throughout human existence. Oral transmission may be a very viable way for passing foundational technologies to later generations, if the content were packaged in a way conducive to memory and re-transmittal. Of course, the form most conducive to memory and re-transmittal is the story. (See, e.g., Schank, Roger. Tell Me a Story: A New Look at Real and Artificial Memory. Macmillan Publishing Company, New York: 1990.)

I would like to reproduce an example of a story that holds technical information conducive to re-starting civilization. The story is this. During World War II at Oxford, Florey and his team were hard at work trying to isolate and purify usable penicillin. They knew, however, that at any point the Germans could invade and take over the lab. They hatched elaborate plans to evacuate and destroy the laboratory so that their research would not fall into German hands. However, the wanted to ensure that their research could continue once they reached safety. Toward this goal, they rubbed their clothes with spores of the penicillin mold they were working with - spores are very hardy and are stable for a long time if kept dry. If forced to evacuate, they would take the precious P. notatum mold with them to restart their research elsewhere. (Lax 2004, full citation in previous post.)

This memorable story contains (or at least suggests) the following information:

  1. Mold that produces penicillin is not ubiquitous, but rare, and, once located, should be preserved.

  2. Mold spores are hardy and will survive in clothing, and anywhere the mold has been, spores will probably be.

  3. Contingency planning is admirable even if the plan is never implemented.

I am interested in figuring out whether this, and stories like this, could form the germ of a transmissible set of foundational technologies (an Iliad-length "Ballad of Florey and Chain"). It is difficult to imagine a set of stories so long that they encompass every detail of every technology (see previous post for an idea of just how technical it's going to get), but they can hold key information and could even serve as coded "pointers" to physical caches of printed information, treasure hunt style.

Some Historical Problems in the Production of Useful Penicillin

Survivors of an Eschaton event may encounter many of the same problems as the historical discoverers when producing new technologies, such as penicillin. Therefore, it is useful to study creative, low-tech solutions to these problems.

Penicillin is an acid produced by some strains of the mold species now known as Penicillium chrysogenum. There has been some confusion historically surrounding this choice of name, because Fleming, the original discoverer of the antibiotic action of penicillin, used the term "penicillin" to refer to the unpurified "mold juice" produced when P. chrysogenum is grown on, say, beef broth, and Florey and later investigators applied the term "penicillin" to refer to the purified antibiotic chemical. It is important to keep these two uses straight in one's mind - injecting "mold juice" into a person would cause death by anaphylactic shock because of all the impurities in the product, whereas purified penicillin is only dangerous to those who are allergic to the substance. I will follow Lax and generally use the colloquial but very descriptive "mold juice" to refer to the unpurified product, and "penicillin" to refer to pure penicillin. At any rate, penicillin, a product of the mold P. chrysogenum, was discovered as early as 1929, but was not purified into a form useful for treating humans until 1941. Researchers encountered several problems along the way; post-Eschaton scientists may expect to encounter any of the following problems:

  1. Locating the right strain of the right mold. The mold that produces penicillin is not just any mold, but specifically the mold Penicillium chrysogenum. (The mold involved in the original research on penicillin was then known as P. notatum, which was "found in decaying hyssop in Norway" (Herrell, 1945). P. notatum has since been taxonomically merged with the species P. chrysogenum. It is an extremely variable species, and many strains have been identified and even created by mutation under UV light or X-ray. Strains vary WIDELY in their efficiency in producing penicillin.) This mold must be located, identified, cultured, and tested for penicillin production, before biological synthesis can occur. Stay tuned for next post regarding an ingenious plan devised by Florey's British research team during World War II to preserve cultures of the mold in case the Germans took over their lab.
  2. Growing large quantities of "mold juice," and/or improving the penicillin yield of the mold juice. Nearly 100 liters of mold juice were required by Florey and his collaborators to produce one day's dose of penicillin; several modifications over the years made biological production of penicillin much more efficient. (Ibid.)
  3. Extracting the penicillin from the mold juice. Florey collaborator Heatley devised a fairly ingenious way to extract pure penicillin from mold juice. The mold juice was strained through parachute silk to remove macro impurities, then shaken with ether; the penicillin would dissolve into the ether. The (heavier) water could then be drained off. Then the ether was shaken with alkaline water, and the penicillin would be back-extracted into the water. (Lax, 2004) Note that this process requires either a supply of or the ability to produce ether, a fairly volitile chemical.
  4. Stabilizing the penicillin in powder or crystal form.
In the coming days I will post separately about each problem.


Lax, Eric. The Mold in Dr. Florey's Coat: The Story of the Penicillin Miracle. Henry Hold & Company, New York: 2004. (An extremely readable, fairly popular history-of-science account of the discovery and production of penicillin, from Fleming to Florey. An excellent resource for stories associated with the problems of producing penicillin; see upcoming post about stories, human memory, and the distribution of this project.)

Herrell, Wallace. Penicillin and other Antibiotic Agents. W. B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia: 1945. (An account of what was known about penicillin in 1945, i.e., four years after the first purification of penicillin. Very useful for historical problems.)

On Curating

Angela Sanders, a writer on perfume at nowsmellthis, provides a useful five-part definition of what it means to "curate" a collection, provided to her by an anonymous museum curator friend. The list includes five items: stewardship (protecting the items in the collection from damage and loss), research (involved in creating and updating the collection), considerations of intrinsic and relational value (the value of each piece on its own, and in relation to the rest of the collection), theme (an organizing principle to the collection), and "schmoozing" (helping the collection along by networking with possible donors and contributors). I am thankful to her for this formulation - it helps me organize my thinking about this project, which I have always understood to be a curating project, rather than, say, a normal original research project or any kind of controlled experiment. As applied to Eschaton management, the five aspects are:

  1. Stewardship: locating, organizing, protecting, and distributing in a usable format the resources necessary to rebuild after an Eschaton event
  2. Research: massive amounts of research are involved both in building the initial collection and updating this collection as new information becomes available
  3. Intrinsic and relational value: each piece (of knowledge) selected for the project must be intrinsically useful to Eschaton survivors, and must complement the other sources selected and fit in with the ethical and logistical framework established for the project
  4. Theme: to be selected, informational sources must relate to and advance the mission statement articulated for this project
  5. Schmoozing: many minds and hands are necessary for the successful implementation of this project

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Ethical Foundations

In the previous post, I referred somewhat ironically to The Good. However, one of the foundational considerations to the very existence of this project is, what are the criteria for saving technologies?

In my daily life, I am surrounded by analytic philosophers, so I am accutely aware of this issue. I am not remotely qualified to propose and write ethical foundations for a project such as this, but I think there is an easy, fun answer to the central question: it's a Rawlsian original-position situation in the most literal sense. A group of people prepares, pre-Eschaton, to build a civilization after the Eschaton event; we include the technologies that would make up a society we'd want to live in. We are in the original position, not knowing what position we will occupy in post-Eschaton society (or, indeed, if we will even survive the Eschaton event). This gives us some preliminary basis for asserting that our preparations are just, no matter what those preparations are.

(The only problem with this thinking is that the bloody neo-Nazi survivalists could claim this justification for their preparations, too. One response to that argument is that the "original position" participants in the neo-Nazi case do not meet the criteria of not knowing the position they will fill post-Eschaton. Based on their plans, they'll be The Ones With The Guns. On a personal note, I hate these people - they are not dangerous now, but they could pose a major short-term security issue post-Eschaton.)

Technology Triage

Most technologies are dependent on other technologies. Tracing back each technology to each component foundational technology results in a lengthy, difficult list.

Instead, the approach I will be taking is to choose a few key foundational technologies that in my judgment are responsible for the greatest advances in The Good, such as antibiotics, vaccines, antiseptic practices, and agriculture. I will assume certain technologies can be initially "scavenged" - e.g., microscopes - and, when the post-Eschaton civilization has sufficiently developed, those technologies can be reproduced. It is simply impossible to develop all important technologies simultaneously.

My current research: developing usable penicillin with minimal technology.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Do You Want to Survive the Eschaton?

I have spoken with many people who would like to personally survive a civilization-ending event. While any individual's personal survival is not exactly the focus of this project, here are some things to consider:
  1. Get into excellent physical condition, as survival may depend on large amounts of travel by foot over difficult terrain, carrying all necessary supplies.
  2. Get any chronic medical conditions under control with diet and exercise to the extent possible; make provisions for emergency medication, but realize that medication after an Eschaton event will be scarce.
  3. Carefully prepare an emergency survival kit, and have it with you at all times. It is worth nothing to you if you can't find it when you need it.
  4. Have a group and have a plan. Make sure that everyone in your group has complied with (1), (2), and (3) to the extent possible, and have a plan regarding what to do in case of emergency - and what situations will trigger the implementation of your plan. The most important part of the plan is a specific, safe location to meet if your group is not together when the emergency occurs. This meeting place should be located outside of a major city. Other important parts of the plan: where are you going, and what will you do when you get there?
  5. Rehearse at least the initial stages of your plan (i.e., reaching your meeting location on foot with packs).
  6. Share your experiences and contribute your expertise!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Why Biointensive Farming? And another question for thought.

Biointensive farming is a collection of methods for raising food sustainably and with minimum inputs of material technology (inputs which will not be available to Eschaton event survivors).  Methods include the use of double-dug, raised beds (rather than plowed fields), composting and crop rotation (rather than the use of factory-produced chemical fertilizer), natural pest management (rather than heavy use of pesticides), planting complementary crops together (rather than monoculture), and planting seedlings on hexagonal corners (rather than in rows or scatter-sowing). 

Excellent resources on this system include John Jeavons' books, How to Grow More Vegetables . . . (fairly technical) and The Sustainable Vegetable Garden (less technical but practical).  Ecology Action provides an online introduction to the system.  The Sustainable Vegetable Garden is definitely on my Bibliography at the End of the World.

Proponents of the biointensive method boast extremely high, sustainable yields on small plots of land, with few technological inputs.  I am unable to locate any peer-reviewed studies which confirm or deny this.  However, the method's greatest feature for survivors is the minimal technological level necessary to farm.  Animals and machinery are not necessary, as farming is accomplished with human labor.  (Animal feces and bones may, of course, be added to the compost pile.)  A "scavenging list" for biointensive farming might look like this: 

Potatoes and seeds
Small boards
Containers for seedlings and transferring soil, compost, water (buckets, scavenged plastic food containers)

Of course, you can get really fancy and have special sticks for transferring sprouted seeds to containers and little shovels for transplanting your seedlings, but I have transplanted my share of seedlings and all you really need is a flat stick.  Or your hand, if you can't find a stick.

I previously put the per-person plot space at 30 100-square-foot double-dug beds, assuming large quantities of potatoes can be located.  Double-digging refers to the process of measuring out a bed, and, starting at one end, digging a one-foot-wide, one-foot-deep trench in the soil, removing that soil, and then loosening (with a pitchfork) below that trench to a depth of another foot or so.  Then the one-foot-wide, one-foot-deep section of soil next to the removed section is moved to the top of the previously loosened soil, and the process is repeated (loosening, digging).  Question:  Mary, a barista and would-be actress, survived the collapse of Los Angeles and fled to central California, locating several hundred kilos of potatoes on the way and transporting them to her new protected location.  Terrified, half-starved, and wearing the impractical shoes she had on at the moment the catastrophe struck and she had to leave the city, how long will it take her to double-dig three thousand feet of bed space?  Bonus:  How much longer will it take her if she has asthma or diabetes?

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Minimum Viable Population, and Implications for a Model Settlement (plus see substantive comments)

The minimum viable population is a measure of the minimum genetic diversity required to sustain a population indefinitely. Too few individuals endangers the survival of the population. Obviously, harmful, recessive mutations are more likely propagated in small populations, but small populations are also more vulnerable than large ones to all kinds of stochastic dangers, such as too many members of a given generation being born of only one sex.

The minimum viable population has implications for Eschaton management. The population supported by a post-Eschaton society must be equal to or greater than the minimum viable population number. Some have estimated the number to be as few as 500 individuals; however, some research suggests that the proper number is at least in the thousands and probably in the tens of thousands.

It is difficult to imagine a single post-Eschaton, agricultural city with a population in the tens of thousands. I propose a model of post-Eschaton reconstruction that emphasizes small, self-sufficient, agricultural settlements, with one or more self-sufficient University-style settlements dedicated to research, technology preservation, and training.

Consider, for instance, the amount of land necessary to supply the caloric needs of 30 people. The most calorie-intensive crop (by cultivation area) is the potato. The bare calorie needs of a single individual may be supplied by as few as fifteen five-feet-by-twenty-feet (one hundred square feet) beds of nothing but potatoes, as opposed to several times that area for wheat or beans. Allowing for other nutrition needs, a measure of surplus, and food for visitors and animals, it would be unwise to posit fewer than thirty five-by-twenty-feet beds per individual. In a settlement of thirty people, this makes nine hundred beds, for a total area of at least two acres of nothing but biointensive garden beds (not counting walking space).

A post-Eschaton settlement will have to defend its cultivated land and growing crops from raiders (and other pests). Small, two-acre plots are one option; massive, hundred-acre plots are another. Widely dispersed, smaller plots have a defense advantage in that they are less concentrated and each plot is less appealling to target; also, there is less area to defend. (Larger plots, of course, have a lower perimeter-to-area ratio, which may be desirable in some defense circumstances.)

I propose to work with the small, self-sufficient, University-style settlement model. My ideal University is a unit of 30-100 individuals who produce all of their own food plus a surplus, research and preserve foundational technologies, and train individuals in the foundational technologies. Individuals would spend time in the University, and would then go out into the post-Eschaton world and assist, or even found, self-sustaining settlements. Social and economic assimilation would be an absolute necessity for the maintenance of human civilization under this model.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

What are the Foundational Technologies?

My working list, with some overlap between disciplines:

1. Agriculture and Animal Husbandry
2. Chemistry
3. Engineering
4. Metallurgy
5. Security
6. Medicine, surgery, and dentistry
7. Fibers and Textiles
8. Electronics
9. Economics
10. Morale

Eschaton Awareness: First Considerations (or, Locate the Potatoes)

Recent posts have focused on initial survival considerations after an Eschaton event. A major reason to have an Eschaton management plan is to avoid a situation where irreplaceable items or irreplicable technology is lost early on. Therefore, items whose acquisition may not be critical to immediate survival, but which may be quickly consumed or destroyed beyond hope of recovery if not saved, may take precedence over other important items. For instance, if all chickens starved to death or were eaten in the months following the Eschaton, or if all seed potatoes were eaten or rotted, they could never be recreated by survivors later on. Technologies that could be sustainably practiced by a group of survivors, but which require initial technological inputs to be practicable, may exist; for instance, it may turn out that we need a few heat-tempered glass beakers in order to produce the substances that enable us to produce more heat-tempered glass. I am interested in researching and cataloging a "scavenging list" of the most important examples of necessary inputs for potentially extinguishable technologies.

Bruce Beach, in his writing on survival after an Eschaton event, suggests the following rules:
1. Get out of the cities
2. Get out of the cities
3. Get out of the cities

I would propose rules of the form:

1. Get out of the cities
2. Locate the potatoes
3. Locate the potatoes

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Eschaton Awareness: My Proposed Survival Kit

My proposed survival kit, prepared to provide for retreat from urban centers and to ensure initial physical survival after a civilization-ending event, is presented below. Note that this kit does not yet include items necessary for the long-term survival of civilization (e.g., seeds and potatoes to plant, chickens, books).

Excellent backpacking boots
Well-balanced frame backpack
Layered clothing
Warm, waterproof clothing layers (e.g., poncho)
Sun protection gear (hat, light long-sleeved shirt, sunblock)

Firestarter (magnesium/flint type or other)
Water bottles, some water, purification tabs (iodine)
Bandana cloth (filtration, etc.)
Cordage in varying weights and lengths
Saw and/or axe
Paramedic scissors
Handgun, ammunition, and carrying apparatus
High-calorie and high-protein food (shelf-stable), e.g.:
* Macademia nuts - 960 cal/134 grams (one cup)
* Honey - 1030 cal/339 grams (one cup)
* Dehydrated potatoes - 170 cal/48 g (one cup)
* Dried figs - 496 cal/ 199g (one cup)
* Fat (e.g. olive oil) - 1900 cal/205 g (one cup)
* Velveeta cheese spread - 680 cal/224 g (one cup)
* Peanut butter - 1545 cal/258 g (one cup)
* Lifesavers - 1000 cal/200 g (100 lifesavers)
* M&M's - 1023 cal/208 g (1 cup) (or other candy)
* Jerky - 928 cal/226 g (1 cup)
* Sweetened coconut - 351 cal/74 g (1 cup)
* Dry whole milk - 635 cal/128 g (1 cup)
* Lentil flour - 560 cal/160 g (1 cup) - and 44 g protein
Fishhooks & line
Unscented soap
Bandages, moleskin, wound cleaning material
Blanket (for warmth, for catching insects for food, etc.)
Plastic bags in varying sizes
Needle & heavy-duty thread
Pan for cooking
Tent, tarp
Stun gun, pepper spray, less lethal defense methods
Sleeping bag and pad may be considered for comfort
Water purifier may be considered

Edible plants and foraging techniques
Water purification
Destination and route plan
Defense (including handgun use)
Medical first aid

Eschaton Awareness: Survival Kits, Part II

The American Red Cross recommends that a survival kit include the following:

Battery-powered Radio
Plastic Sheeting and Duct Tape (for shelter construction)
Food, including
* Ready-to-eat canned meals, meats, fruits, and vegetables;
* Canned juices; and
* High-energy foods (granola bars, energy bars, etc.).
Water (at least one gallon)
Medications (a three-day supply of prescription medications)
First Aid Supplies, including wound dressings, antibiotic ointment packets and antiseptic wipe packets, aspirin, a pair of non-latex gloves, scissors, and instructions

They recommend additionally:
* Paper plates and cups, plastic utensils
* Non-electric can opener
* Personal hygiene items, including a toothbrush, toothpaste, comb, brush, soap, contact lens supplies, and feminine supplies
* Plastic garbage bags, ties (for personal sanitation uses)
* Change of clothes and shoes, including a long sleeved shirt and long pants, as well as closed-toed shoes or boots
* Extra pair of glasses

Red Cross goes on to specifically discourage the inclusion of "weapons, toxic chemicals, or controlled drugs unless authorized by a physician."

I feel that the Red Cross recommendations are excellent - for a minor, regionally localized disaster. People sitting out a hurricane might need only have three days of medication, a few bandages, and a gallon of water. However, for a civilization-ending event, the weight of some of that gallon of water would better used for iodine tablets, a firestarter, and a metal pot, equipment which could be used to purify unlimited amounts of water, given access to fuel. This kit also does not help the city-bound survivor escape the urban areas safely, which is unnecessary for a minor disaster but of critical importance during an Eschaton event. Heavy canned food is emphasized, giving the impression that the survivor will be staying in place until things return to normal or he is "rescued."

Finally, the specific injunction against weapons could prove extremely misguided in a civilization-threatening event. We have very little information on human behavior during Eschaton events, but the data from regional disasters (troubling enough on its own) probably underpredicts the willingness of humans to resort to violence if they perceive that society is over and their survival is endangered. Consider also the groups that have invested in Eschaton preparations (survivalists). I do not want to be at their mercy when the world ends.

Eschaton Management: Desired Knowledge

I am interested in connecting with people with knowledge and experience in the following areas:

Biointensive and organic agriculture
Microscale synthetic chemistry
Microscale metallurgy
Surgery and dentistry
Weapons use and manufacture
Engineering (small-scale construction with hand tools)
Telegraphy and radio construction and communication
Military security - low-tech defense of small village areas
Electronics, electricity generation, and construction of electronic components from base materials
Village economics
Small-scale sustainable animal husbandry (poultry, sheep, goats, pigs, horses)

Please contact me if you are such a person and are interested in the project.

Eschaton Management: A Catalogue of Ignorance

In a sense this is a project of cataloging ignorance: my own, my community's, and my civilization's. The knowledge required to continue civilization under relatively pleasant circiumstances is vast, but few of us individuals have a grasp on even a framework for it.

Some important knowledge is widely dispersed. Even schoolchildren are familiar with the germ theory of disease. And some technology foundational to applying it (manufacturing soap from hardwood ash and rendered fat, for instance) is also widely known and easily replicated. Indeed, good hygiene has probably prevented more suffering than antibiotics and vaccinations put together. But antibiotics and vaccines are clearly desirable technologies. Unfortunately, the knowledge required to replicate them are simultaneously do dispersed (among people) and so concentrated (in a few industrial organizations) as to be virtually lost in the event of a civilization-ending catastrophe.

What knowledge and technologies (a) are foundational to a relatively pleasant, ethical life, and (b) can be preserved so as to be replicable by a group of Eschaton survivors?

Unfortunately, this requires us to first answer the question, what is "a relatively pleasant, ethical life"? This project requires a series of judgments about what constitutes the Good Society. I am choosing to limit research and preservation efforts to material technology so far as possible, but even doing so, a choice must be made as to what technology has primacy.

Almost any moral system can justify choosing technology consistent with itself on grounds of efficiency or suitability to future conditions (future conditions which are necessarily impossible to measure). Consider the choice of whether, as a society, to be vegetarian. Vegetarians may point out that their solution is a more efficient use of soil and space, and that killing livestock would be bad for fragile post-Apocalypictic morale. Non-vegetarians may argue that every calorie will count, and all food sources should be used; prevention of kwashiorkor (protein-deficient malnutrition) comes before considerations of space and morale.

A priori, it is impossible to know whether morale or calories will be at a greater premium, and whether agricultural efforts will be strained or aided by livestock. One must constantly look out for unwarranted assumptions about untestable future conditions. One solution is to look to other civilizations (ancient, or contemporary but economically and technologically simpler than, say, Los Angeles) to test hypotheses. This should be a focus of curator research.

The solutions must be a set of compromises - not necessarily the best strategies, but ones a group of capable people could carry out to ensure a reasonably high standard of living that will be sustainable across many generations.

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.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006


Eschaton: The end of civilization, or end of the world. The origin and connotations of the world are Biblical, but I use the word in a completely nonreligious sense.

Eschaton event: An event (which may be instantaneous or generations-long) that brings an end to most of the technologies of civilization in most of the world; this end would be permanent without a concerted effort to restart technological civilization.

Foundational: A technology is foundational to another technology of the second technology depends on the first in order to exist. For instance, one might say that metallurgy is foundational to the construction of guns, and microscopes are foundational to microbiology.

Foundational technology: A technology upon which other technologies are based, especially those upon which civilization itself is based, such as agriculture.