May 24, 2007

Thought For The Day

Being a former member of an apocalyptic faith, a science fiction fan, an R.E.M. fan, and someone slowly coming to terms with the fact that our species is actively trying to destroy the planet's ability to support our lives (iow, just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean they're not out to get you,) I've spent a lot of time thinking about the end of the world as we know it.

Not about how to survive it personally, that's an exercise in futility for a variety of reasons I won't go into at the moment. Let's just say that, being not entirely delusional, I recognize that my continued existence is tied up in the ability of this species I'm part of to get its act together. A cabin, a generator and a year's worth of spam and beans won't see me through.

Though I have spent a good amount of time thinking about what sorts of arcane knowledge it would be most useful to preserve for future generations that they'd have a hard time rediscovering, particularly if you had to pick just one key idea and some of its surrounding corollaries. I think I've arrived at a satisfactory answer: Germ Theory.

Let me explain.

First, I ruled out all the basic craft skills. Anyone with exposure to modern culture, even in a developed nation where few people are actually required to learn them, is probably capable of inferring the basics, muddling through and improving through practice. By which I mean lots of stupid, yet instructive, mistakes. Anyone in a developing nation who isn't living in a modernized region is probably better off on this score than the rest of us. The biggest peril survivors of an apocalypse will face in getting some semblance of a society up and running again isn't going to be forgetting basic carpentry, and anything more complex simply wouldn't have the infrastructure necessary to support its continuance.

Second, though it was a tough choice, I ruled out botanical knowledge. If you're in an urban area and no garden stores survived, you're just going to be toast when the canned food runs out. If you want to live, the thing to do is to learn to like barbecued pigeon or mount an expedition to find people who know how to grow food and save seed. If you're in a rural area, chances are that a) you missed the brunt of whatever it was, b) either a farm supply store survived nearby or you were already stocked up, and in any case, that c) you have a trusty rifle to scare the crap out of overly pushy city dwellers who've gotten sick of hunting pigeon.

In either case, there might come a time when it seems like a good idea for your merry band of survivors to explore wild plants as food sources. Well, when the first ancestors of the Native Americans arrived here, they had to learn everything from scratch, too. They did just fine. Though you may want to remember about the berries: Blue always, red sometimes, white never.

Third, I rejected philosophies of government and philosophy in general. Is it possible to seriously believe that something other than tribal packs, probably brutal at first as everyone sorts out their turf, would hold sway? That gender roles wouldn't nearly at once return to men owning women and trading them amongst themselves like ambulatory traveler's checks? That bizarre, authoritarian religious cults wouldn't bloom like spring flowers in a cow pasture? Please.

Computer knowledge? Spare me. Metalworking skills? Yeah, only the kind practiced by the smithies who sell at SCA events would be useful, and you wouldn't know where to get the metal. Pottery? Find some clay if you can, practice a lot, you'll figure it out eventually. Mathematics? Mother bear plus cub equals screwed is about all you'll need. If no one survives who remembers basic arithmetic and the concept of zero, y'all in trouble. Law? Ha!

But germ theory, now that's practical. And hard to discover. And, and, and, lack of knowledge regarding it still kills people. Consider some of the things that flow from understanding contagion and its sources: Separation of sewage from food sources, avoiding contact with the bodily fluids of sick people and washing hands to prevent contamination.

Those are great, but also, consider all the things you avoid that have hampered human progress in the past: No one would be accused of spreading disease by magic or through curses. No one would be able to say that they had done so in an attempt to appear powerful. People wouldn't cluster together in the event of an epidemic, thereby making things worse. Sources of disease could be more readily looked for and therefore identified and avoided.

Anyway, that's my $0.02. Anyone else have any thoughts on what they'd like to make sure people remembered after an apocalypse.

Posted by natasha at May 24, 2007 12:15 AM | Random Mumblings | Technorati links |

Interestingly enough, we were taught how to find clay during my first geology class. The "sample" I picked was light gray, damp, heavy -- literally perfect clay, snatched right out of the ground. So that one isn't too bad if you have the right education. Besides, hardly any disaster is going to affect all the pottery in the world.

Posted by: Scorpio at May 24, 2007 08:57 PM