A MODEST INHERITANCE
In the event of a world catastrophe, future generations
will need a book of knowledge to guide them in rebuilding civilization.
PERHAPS JULIAN SIMONS is right to think all will be well for the next few decades. He sees the growth of resources sufficient to meet demand. He thinks it probable that the future air will be warmer and still polluted but not enough to cause discomfort. There may be more of us in some places. There will be more cars but they will be smaller and more efficient. He expects no worse than this for at least the next twenty years.
Others, like Paul Ehrlich, see a much gloomier future. Most of us believe in the maxim "Business as usual" and so we behave like the inhabitants of Tokyo and Los Angeles. We put thoughts about the earthquake at the back of our minds. We act in the hope that the world will continue into the twenty-first century much as it is now.
Few travellers from the North would go to the tropical South without antimalarial drugs, or without checking how the nearby local war was progressing. By comparison our journey into the future is amazingly unprepared. Where people know well the local danger, as in Tokyo, they prepare for the earthquake to come. When the threats are global in scale we ignore them. Volcanoes, like Tamboura 1814 and Laki 1783, were much more powerful than was Pinatubo or Krakatoa. They affected the climate enough to cause famine, even when our numbers were only a tenth as many as now. Should one of these volcanoes stage a repeat performance, do we have now enough stored food for tomorrow's multitudes? If part of a Southern glacial ice sheet slid into the sea, the level of the sea might rise by a metre all over the world. This event would render homeless millions of those living in coastal cities. Citizens would suddenly become refugees. Do we have the food and shelter needed when cities such as London, Calcutta, Miami and Rotterdam become uninhabitable?
We are sensible and we do not agonize over these possible doom scenarios. We prefer to assume that they will not happen in our lifetimes. We take them no more seriously than our forefathers took the prospect of hell, but the thought of appearing foolish still scares us. An old verse goes, "They thieve and plot and toil and plod and go to church on Sunday. It's true enough that some fear God but they all fear Mrs Grundy."
In science we have our Drs Grundy also. They are all too eager to scorn any departure from the perceived dogma. Scientists and science advisers are afraid to admit that sometimes they do not know what will happen. They are cautious about their predictions and do not care to speak in a way that might threaten business as usual. This tendency leaves us unprepared for a catastrophe such as a global event that was wholly unexpected and unpredicted - something like the ozone hole but much more serious. Something that could throw us into a new dark age.
We can neither prepare against all possibilities, nor easily change our ways enough to stop breeding and polluting. Those who believe in the precautionary principle would have us give up, or greatly decrease, burning fossil fuel. They warn that the carbon dioxide by-product of this energy source may sooner or later change, or even destabilize, the climate.
Most of us know in our hearts that these warnings should be heeded but know not what to do about it. Few of us will reduce our personal use of fossil fuel energy to warm, or cool, our homes or drive our cars. We suspect that we should not wait to act until there is visible evidence of malign climate change - by then it might be too late to reverse the changes we have set in motion. We are like the smoker who enjoys a cigarette and imagines giving up smoking when the harm becomes tangible. Most of all, we hope for a good life in the immediate future and would rather put aside unpleasant thoughts of doom to come.
WE CANNOT REGARD the future of the civilized world in the same way as we see our personal futures. It is careless to be cavalier about our own death. It is reckless to think of civilization's end in the same way. Even if a tolerable future is probable, it is still unwise to ignore the possibility of disaster.
One thing we can do to lessen the consequences of catastrophe is to write a guide-book for our survivors to help them rebuild civilization without repeating too many of our mistakes. I have long thought that a proper gift for our children and grandchildren is an accurate record of all we know about the present and past environment. Sandy and I enjoy walking on Dartmoor, much of which is featureless moorland. On such a landscape it is easy to get lost when it grows dark and the mists come down. We usually avoid this mishap by making sure that always we know where we are and what was the path we took. In some ways our journey into the future is like this. We can't see the way ahead or the pitfalls but it would help to know what is the state now and how we got here. It would help to have a guide-book written in clear and simple words that any intelligent person could understand.
No such book exists. For most of us, what we know of the Earth comes from books and television programmes that present either the single-minded view of a specialist, or persuasion from a talented lobbyist. We live in adversarial not thoughtful times and tend to hear only the arguments of each of the special-interest groups. Even when they know that they are wrong they never admit it. They all fight for the interests of their group while claiming to speak for humankind. This is fine entertainment; but what use would their words be to the survivors of a future flood or famine? When they read them in a book drawn from the debris would they learn what went wrong and why? What help would be the tract of a Green lobbyist, the press release of a multinational power company, or the report of a governmental committee? To make things worse for our survivors, the objective view of science is nearly incomprehensible. Scientific papers and books are so arcane that scientists can understand only those of their own speciality. I doubt if there is anyone, apart from these specialists, who can understand more than a few of the papers published in Science or Nature every week.
Scan the shelves of a bookshop or a public library for a book that clearly explains the present condition and how it happened. You will not find it. The books that are there are about the evanescent things of today. Well written, entertaining or informative they may be, but almost all of them are in the current context. They take so much for granted and forget how hard-won was the scientific knowledge that gave us the comfortable and safe life we enjoy. We are so ignorant of those individual acts of genius that established civilization that we now give equal place on our book-shelves to the extravagance of astrology, creationism and homeopathy. Books on these subjects at first entertained us or titillated our hypochondria. We now take them seriously and treat them as if they were reporting facts.
Imagine the survivors of a failed civilization. Imagine them trying to cope with a cholera epidemic using knowledge gathered from a tattered book on alternative medicine. Yet in the debris such a book would be more likely to have survived and be readable than a medical text.
What we need is a book of knowledge written so well as to constitute literature in its own right. Something for anyone interested in the state of the Earth and of ourselves - a manual for living well and for survival. The quality of its writing must be such that it would serve for pleasure, for devotional reading, as a source of facts and even as a primary school text. It would range from simple things such as how to light a fire, to our place in the Solar System and the Universe. It would be a primer of philosophy and science - it would provide a top down look at the Earth and ourselves. It would explain the natural selection of all living things, and give the key facts of medicine, including the circulation of the blood and the role of the organs.
The discovery that bacteria and viruses cause infectious diseases is relatively recent; imagine the consequences if such knowledge were lost. In its time the Bible set the constraints for behaviour and for health. We need a new book like the Bible that would serve in the same way but acknowledge science. It would explain properties like temperature, the meaning of their scales of measurement and how to measure them. It would list the periodic table of the elements. It would give an account of the air, the rocks and the oceans. It would give schoolchildren of today a proper understanding of our civilization and of the planet it occupies. It would inform them at an age when their minds were most receptive and give them facts they would remember for a lifetime. It would also be the survival manual for our successors. A book that was readily available should disaster happen. It would help bring science back as part of our culture and be an inheritance. Whatever else may be wrong with science, it still provides the best explanation we have of the material world.
IT IS NO USE even thinking of presenting such a book on magnetic or optical media, or indeed any kind of medium that needs a computer and electricity to read it. Words stored in such a form are as evanescent as the chatter of the Internet and would never survive a catastrophe. Not only is the storage medium itself short-lived but its reading depends upon specific hardware and the software. In this technology rapid obsolescence is usual. Modern media are less reliable for long-term storage than is the spoken word. It needs the support of a high technology that we cannot take for granted. What we need is a book written on durable paper with long- lasting print. It must be clear, unbiased, accurate and up to date. Most of all, we need to accept and to believe in it at least as much as we did, and perhaps still do, in the World Service of the BBC.
In the dark ages of our earlier history the religious orders in their monasteries carried through the essence of what makes us civilized. Much of this knowledge was in books and the monks took care of them and read them as part of their discipline. Sadly, we no longer have callings like this. The vast collection of knowledge that is now available is more than any one person could hold. Consequently it is divided and subdivided into subjects. Each subject is the province of professionally employed specialists. Most are expert in their own subject but ignorant of the others - few have a sense of vocation. Apart from isolated institutes like the National Centre for Atmospheric Research perched on a mountain side in Colorado, there are no equivalents of the monasteries. So who would guard the book? A book of knowledge, written with authority and as splendid a read as Tyndale's bible, might need no guardians. It would earn the respect needed to place it in every home, school, library and place of worship. It would then be to hand whatever happened.
James Lovelock, CBE, FRS, is the author of
Gaia, the Practical Science of Planetary Medicine.