Envisioning a Civilization Recovery Plan

A thought experiment

Join with me in a thought experiment. Imagine a major planetary catastrophe. It could be a global nuclear war, a devastating pandemic, or perhaps rapid climate change. It could be a sleeper computer virus. The Unix equivalent of rm * on all the computers of the world, wiping out all of the digital memory banks at some future date. In any of these scenarios, we would anticipate an economic and therefore also environmental collapse, though not necessarily in that order. The catastrophe would directly and indirectly involve a massive die off of human populations.

Like the White Queen in Lewis Carroll Through the Looking Glass, I find it useful to practice imagining these "impossibilities" a little bit each day. "When I was younger I always did it for a half an hour a day," the Queen tells Alice. "Why sometimes I believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."1 It is not bad to think of these impossibly dark possibilities. Contemplating one's own death, or even the death of billions, feels impossible, even though it is always a certainty from the day of our birth. Reflecting on death is an important part of spiritual practice in many different traditions. A little bit each day is a great way to focus life on really important matters. Taking the White Queen's lead, I try to do my imaginings before breakfast, so I can focus the rest of the day on accentuating and appreciating the positive in life.

The point of this thought experiment, however, is not to contemplate death and disaster, but to imagine survivors and continued life. My question is what knowledge contained in what books of science, culture, and civilization would you most want to pass on to the surviving humans as they faced the prospect of adapting to this new environment and rebuilding their lives over many generations. You get to choose one book, not the whole Library of Congress.

For the purposes of this thought experiment, I imagine a natural catastrophe, not a human-caused catastrophe, because I do not want to introduce morality and culpability into the equation, not yet at least. Let's imagine something in the order of the Mt. Toba supervolcano, which blew up in Sumatra, Indonesia some 73,000 years ago. This super eruption, estimated to be three thousand times greater than the 1980 eruption of Mount Saint Helens, changed everything for our hunter-gatherer ancestors overnight. The volcanic ash released in the atmosphere reduced average global temperature by 5 degrees Celsius for seven years and triggered a global ice age. The Indian subcontinent was covered with 5 meters of volcanic ash. Humanity was reduced to some 1000-to-10,000 breeding pairs. And yet we, and the other flora and fauna, survived, and as the sky cleared and the ice slowly retreated over the millennia, we resumed our expansion. Over time humans migrated to every continent except Antarctica. We are all descendents of these survivors, a story written in our mitochondrial DNA.2

One of the thirty or so supervolcanos active in the world today is the Yellowstone Basin. The caldera is about 72 kilometers across. Over the last 16.5 million years, Yellowstone has blown up about a hundred times. The last three super eruptions occurred 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago with a number of minor lava flows in between. Let's be clear about the scale of such an event. The eruption that occurred 2.1 million years ago covered California under 6 meters of volcanic ash and New York State under 20 meters of volcanic ash. As with the more recent Mt. Toba supervolcano, it was accompanied by the onset of a sudden global ice age.3

So in this scenario, the United States disappears in the course of a few days. It is hard to argue with geology. There would be 300 million dead in short order and the breadbasket of the world gone. The rapid cooling of the atmosphere would further accentuate massive famines around the world. Global trade and industry would grind to a halt. The survivors would be reduced to subsistence farming, gathering, hunting, and fishing in areas around the earth's equator. For our thought experiment, let's say that humanity is again reduced to some 10,000 breeding pairs dispersed along the tropical and sub-tropical zones around the world.

So here is the thought experiment: what knowledge from today would be most valuable to these survivors as they tried to rebuild their lives and repopulate the earth. What has humanity discovered or invented in the last ten thousand years of human civilization that would be most useful in rebuilding civilization in the aftermath of such a global catastrophe. For this thought experiment, you get to choose one book to pass on to future generations.

Of course, different people would answer that question based on their biases and prejudices. A devout Muslim might say that the most important book to pass on would be the Qur'an. A devout Christian would presumably privilege the Bible. A Buddhist might argue in favor of the Pali Canon. A Hindu might pick the Vedas or the Upanishads, but these are actually libraries of manuscripts, and not single books. I am going to put my trust in the Holy Spirit, God-by-whatever-name, to help the survivors without the benefit of one of these sacred books.

There would also be regional variations of this parochialism. American exceptionalists might most want to see their beloved Constitution or an American history book passed on, even though there would no longer be any Americans surviving the Yellowstone eruption. Russians, Indians, Chinese, and so forth would all favor the preservation of their own exceptional regional histories and cultures.

This cultural and geographical parochialism is likely to carry over into the sciences and humanities. A physicist might argue in favor of knowledge of fundamental atomic building blocks. A physician might argue in favor of the knowledge of microbes, vaccinations, and antibiotics. A professor of literature might argue for Shakespeare or some other author of note. An economist might chose Adam Smith or Friedrich Hayek. A philosopher might choose Plato's Republic, or God forbid, Heidigger's Being and Time. You get the picture. It would be frankly pathetic and tragic if all that remained of ten thousand years of human civilization were the local histories of one region or nation, one religion or tribe, one ideology or disciplinary bias.

Stockpiling food and weapons in the mountains of Idaho would be a silly and small-minded emergency plan for the scenario I am describing, in the first order because anywhere in North America would be the wrong place at the wrong time. Instead of focusing on the survival of my tribe, my family, or myself, we need to focus on the survival of civilization, of what is most precious and useful to future generations. And the only way to do this with assurance is to distribute the most valuable and practical knowledge as widely as possible across the planet today in anticipation that unfortunate day. How do we give the survivors a head start? What information would be most useful in rebuilding human civilization in the event of such a horrible collapse? Remember the best and the brightest, the most privileged and most educated, are not likely to survive in any great numbers. You get to choose one book for the survivors to help them rebuild civilization.

The book I would chose is Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History, by David Christian (2004).4 There are other books in this genre.5 I can imagine even better books in the future, but for now David Christian does a remarkable job in putting 'it' all together. It is the combined history of the universe, our creative planet, and our restless species. I want to argue that the most useful information for the long-term survival of our species is this macrohistory from the Big Bang to today. It goes by different names—the New Cosmology, the History of Nature, the Epic of Evolution, and Big History. Whatever we call it, it spans some 13.7 billion years from the primordial flaring forth of the early universe to the rapid flaring forth of our global civilization in the last century. I like to call it Our Common Story, because for the first time we have a progressively factual account of the universe and ourselves that encompasses all religions, all tribes, and all times. This grand history is perhaps the most remarkable achievement of human civilization.

The scientific metanarrative is quite new and still evolving. In brief outline, this omnicentric universe began some 13 billion years ago as infinite heat, infinite density, and total symmetry. The universe expanded and evolved into more differentiated and complex structures—forces, quarks, hydrogen, helium, galaxies, stars, heavier elements, complex chemistry, planetary systems. Some 3.5 billion years ago, in a small second or third generation solar system, the intricate processes called "life" began on at least one small planet. Animate matter-energy on Earth presented itself as a marvelous new intensification of the creative dynamic at work in the universe. Then some 2 million years ago, as if yesterday in the enormous timescales of the universe, proto-humans emerged on the savanna of Africa with their enormously heightened capacities for conscious self-reflection, language, and tool making. Ten thousand years ago agriculture begins and with it growing populations of humans living in ever larger and more complex societies. And this unfolding leads us all the way to today, six billion of us collectively transforming the planet and ourselves. The wonder of it all is that each of us is a collection of transient atoms, recycled stardust become conscious beings, engaged in this global conversation, brought to you by ephemeral electrons cascading through the Internet and bouncing off of satellites.

Maps of Time provides this overview in six parts, fifteen chapters, eight different timelines, nine maps, thirty-nine charts, two appendices, over six hundred references, all bound in one big book. The story of the universe and the evolution of life are covered in the first hundred and forty pages. The remaining four hundred some pages detail the evolution of humans, the rise of agriculture and agrarian civilizations, and the great acceleration of the modern era. That seems like the right balance for a survival manual for human civilization. David Christian is a skilled historian and storyteller. He provides not only the macrohistory, but explains the evidence for why we know it to be so and when the evidence might be inconclusive. He is generous in crediting others. The book is now also available from the Teaching Company as a series of audio or video lectures.6

David Christian not only lays out the facts in a compelling narrative, but he interprets the large-scale patterns of transformation at different scales. For instance, he writes:

In the early history, gravity took hold of atoms and sculpted them into stars and galaxies. In the era described in this chapter, we will see how, by a sort of social gravity, cities and states were sculpted from scattered communities of farmers. As farming populations gathered in larger and denser communities, interactions between different groups increased and the social pressure rose until, in a striking parallel with star formation, new structures suddenly appeared, together with a new level of complexity. Like stars, cities and states reorganize and energize the smaller objects within their gravitational field. (245).

So we are not only recycled stardust (the atoms in our bodies), empowered by the sun through photosynthesis (in the food we eat and fossil fuels we burn), but our own human cultural patterns of complexification may be analogous to that of star formation. Sweet!

Catastrophic collapses, however, are part of the big story. These have happened throughout the long evolutionary history of our planet with at least seven mass extinctions. To a lesser degree, they have also happened throughout the rise of human civilization. Civilizations do not last forever. Farmlands become deleted. Famine and disease cause population declines. Internal conflict and external competition lead to wars and the destruction of cities and the eclipse of entire civilizations. May it not happen in your lifetime, but it will happen in someone's lifetime, some time in the future. How do we prepare?

In the face of a catastrophic collapse of human civilization, we need to pass on useful information that will survive a long period of impoverishment in isolated communities around the world as they rebuild over many generations. Remember in this scenario, humanity is back down to 10,000 breeding pairs dispersed around the globe, initially eking out their subsistence in extremely reduced environments. Most modern technology will be nonexistent. Sorry, but your iPhone is not going to be much use. If it is ever to exist again, such technology will need to be reinvented, along with most of agriculture, medicine, engineering, economics, politics, art, music, morality, and religion. This is not going to happen overnight, but it could happen over many generations.

Curiously, most of us today, even among the best educated and most privileged, do not really know much about this incredible New Cosmology pieced together by scientists in diverse disciplines. There are precious few undergraduate courses that expose students to this Big History.7 Only a few attempts have been made to systematically teach this Epic of Evolution at the K-12 level.8 I know of no seminaries or business schools for that matter that teach Our Common Story. Fortunately, we now have a number of books, not just David Christian's, which attempt to bring it all together, but the books and the ideas contained therein, are not widely distributed, studied, taught, interpreted, and debated.9 The broadest possible distribution of this new user-manual for Earthlings is the key to the survival of this precious knowledge.

It is not just a beautiful and amazing story; it is also a very practical story. If future generations had the basic outline of this story, the woof of emerging complexity and the warp of space-time, they would know where to focus their own intellect and creativity as they sought to rediscover and reinvent science, technology, agriculture and human culture. They could start looking for atoms, molecules, microbes, and cells, even if they lacked the tools to do so. They would know of something called the Periodic Table and have a head start on rediscovering and reinventing modern chemistry. They would know something of metallurgy, indeed of the possibility of flying machines and space ships. They would understand the motion of the sun, moon, and stars. They would know of galaxies, even though they could see none.10 They would quickly rediscover and reinvent advanced mathematics. They would understand that we are Earthlings, who evolved from other life forms on this dynamic, creative, and sometimes dangerous planet. They would know that some plants and animals can be domesticated, and that even the wild flora and fauna are our close relations. They would understand the importance of energy density flows and creative innovation processes. They would not only speak, read, and write; they would understand something of the evolved human brain and body that enables these miraculous accomplishments within the mutual aid and collective learning of human societies.

It turns out that this Epic of Evolution may also be important information if we are to successfully meet the other challenges of the twenty-first century. The story includes insights into how nature functions as complex, distributed systems, and the dangers of run away environmental problems. It includes new insights about economics and how complex, distributed economic systems produce incredible wealth, as well as dangerous dysfunctions. It includes important insights about war and violence, including the technological, psychological, economic, and biological evolution of conflict in human history. It includes insights about the importance of limited governments and individual freedoms and responsibilities. It includes insights about the deep time of the cosmos and the rather unique moment in space and time in which humans find our selves. It includes practical knowledge about the great problem of the twenty-first century and fundamental principles that inform how these challenges should be addressed. Our Common Story gives humanity new perspective, a vantage point, which takes the edge off bitter ideological, nationalist, and religious conflicts around the world.

This then is the real take-home message. Our Common Story helps orient humanity towards pragmatic problem solving in dealing with our contemporary challenges—war and peace, economics and the environment, education and innovation, health and happiness, freedom and responsibility.11 It may just be that distributing this knowledge as broadly as possible throughout the world today is also the key to solving our twenty-first century problems. We may not be able to prevent the next supervolcano, but we can certainly prevent the many evils and stupidities that we inflict on each other and the planet.

The point of this dark thought experiment is to finish up before breakfast. Recalling Alice's discussion with the White Queen, one should probably not dwell on these "impossible" apocalyptic possibilities for more than a half an hour everyday. Considering such "impossibilities" is a kind of looking glass back on ourselves and through which we can also help future generations. The point of this thought experiment is to wake up and pay attention to the larger drama in which we live each day and to focus our thoughts and actions on crafting a safer and healthier future.

Our Common Story is really quite a positive story, one in which the universe seems to repeatedly err on the side of elegant improbabilities. May it always be so in the long arc of time. The most important knowledge that humans have gained in the ten thousand year march of human civilization is the history of the universe, our planet, and our selves. Hopefully many other books and tools would also survive some future cataclysm, but if our descendents only had this Big History, they would have an enormous head start on the challenges of rebuilding human civilization. May that day not be in our lifetimes, or our children's children lifetimes, but some day it will be so, if past performance is any guide.

Knowledge of the Epic of Evolution would vastly accelerate the rediscovery of science, the reinvention of technologies, and the recovery of civilization. Our descendents would understand the remarkable cultural achievements of past civilizations and be inspired to create their own, resuming and exceeding us in our quest to return to the stars. Rebuilding human civilization may well take them thousands or tens of thousands of years in this post-cataclysmic world, but we may take comfort in knowing that we have passed on this hard won knowledge. Our descendents in turn will remember us always with gratitude for having bequeathed them this great gift.

The clincher, of course, is that Our Common Story also turns out to be essential for saving human civilization from its own self-destructive tendencies. The challenge then is to distribute that gift as broadly as possible today, and in so doing perhaps also help solve the great anthropogenic challenges of the twenty-first century.


1. Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (Project Gutenberg, 1871).

2. Stanley H. Ambrose, "Late Pleistocene Human Population Bottlenecks, Volcanic Winter, and Differentiation of Modern Humans," Journal of Human Evolution 34, no. 6 (1998).; ____, "Volcanic Winter, and Differentiation of Modern Humans. Bradshaw Foundation. ," Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/stanley_ambrose.php.

3. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition (New York: Broadway Books, 2003, 2005), 283-86.

4. David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

5. Thomas and Brian Swimme Berry, Universe Story, The: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era (San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992)., Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition., Eric Chaisson, Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006)., Robert and William H. McNeill McNeill, The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003)., Joel R. and Nancy Ellen Abrams Primack, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (New York: Riverhead, 2006)..

6. http://www.teach12.com/ttcx/CourseDescLong2.aspx?cid=8050

7. For examples of college course, see Ursula Goodenough, Claude Bernard, and Michael Wysession, "Epic of Evolution: Life, the Earth, and the Cosmos," Washington University in St. Louis, http://shiro.wustl.edu/210A/index.html., and Eric Chaisson, "Cosmic Evolution: An Interdisciplinary Approach," Tufts University, http://www.tufts.edu/as/wright_center/cosmic_evolution/.

8. For examples of K-12 curricula, see SETI Institute, "Voyages through Time," SETI Institute, http://www.voyagesthroughtime.org/., Ross Dunn, "World History for Us All," San Diego State University, http://worldhistoryforusall.sdsu.edu/.

9. For a curriculum and annotated reading list, see William J. Grassie, "A Teachable Moment: Our Common Story," grassie.net, http://www.grassie.net/articles/2009_Teachable_Moment.html.

10. The Andromeda Galaxy is the only galaxy that can be seen with the naked eye. It is 2.5 million light years away. It was not until 1925 that Edwin Hubble determined its distance from Earth and there by established the existence of other galaxies.

11. For why this curriculum might promote general science literacy, see William J. Grassie, "Teaching the History of Nature: Towards an Integrated Science Curriculum," Metanexus Institute, http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10326/Default.aspx.. For how this curriculum might help promote peace in the world, see ___, "Universal Reason: Science, Religion and the Foundation of Civil Societies," Metanexus Institute, http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/9301/Default.aspx. For an example of an undergraduate curriculum, see my essay Grassie, "A Teachable Moment: Our Common Story" http://www.grassie.net/articles/2009_Teachable_Moment.html


Ambrose, Stanley H. "Late Pleistocene Human Population Bottlenecks, Volcanic Winter, and Differentiation of Modern Humans." Journal of Human Evolution 34, no. 6 (1998): 623-51.

_____. "Volcanic Winter, and Differentiation of Modern Humans. Bradshaw Foundation. ." Bradshaw Foundation, http://www.bradshawfoundation.com/stanley_ambrose.php.

Berry, Thomas and Brian Swimme. Universe Story, The: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era. San Francisco, CA: Harper, 1992.

Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition. New York: Broadway Books, 2003, 2005.

Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking Glass: Project Gutenberg, 1871.

Chaisson, Eric. "Cosmic Evolution: An Interdisciplinary Approach." Tufts University, http://www.tufts.edu/as/wright_center/cosmic_evolution/.

____. Epic of Evolution: Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.

Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.

Dunn, Ross. "World History for Us All." San Diego State University, http://worldhistoryforusall.sdsu.edu/.

Goodenough, Ursula, Claude Bernard, and Michael Wysession. "Epic of Evolution: Life, the Earth, and the Cosmos." Washington University in St. Louis, http://shiro.wustl.edu/210A/index.html.

Grassie, William J. "A Teachable Moment: Our Common Story." grassie.net, http://www.grassie.net/articles/2009_Teachable_Moment.html.

____. "Teaching the History of Nature: Towards an Integrated Science Curriculum." Metanexus Institute, http://www.metanexus.net/magazine/tabid/68/id/10326/Default.aspx.

____. "Universal Reason: Science, Religion and the Foundation of Civil Societies." Metanexus Institute, http://www.metanexus.net/Magazine/tabid/68/id/9301/Default.aspx.

McNeill, Robert and William H. McNeill. The Human Web: A Bird's-Eye View of World History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2003.

Primack, Joel R. and Nancy Ellen Abrams. The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos. New York: Riverhead, 2006.

SETI Institute. "Voyages through Time." SETI Institute, http://www.voyagesthroughtime.org/.

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