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Creating the Book of Knowledge

james-lovelock1.jpg

James Lovelock, originator of Gaia theory, inventor of the electron

capture detector (which made possible the detection of CFCs and other

atmospheric nano-pollutants) and of the microwave oven.

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Excerpt from The Revenge of Gaia by James Lovelock

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 byproduct 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 their personal use of fossil-fuel energy to warm, or cool, their homes or drive their cars. We suspect that we should not wait to act until there is visible evidence of malign climate change – for 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 guidebook 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 we always know where we are and what 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 the state is now and how we got here. It would help to have a guidebook written in clear and simple words that any intelligent person can understand.

Scriptorium-monk-at-work1.jpgNo such book exists. For most of us, what we know of the Earth comes from books and television programs 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 they gain from 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 only understand 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 bookshelves 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 us – 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 us. It would explain the natural selection of all living things, and give the key facts of medicine, including the circulation of the blood, the role of the organs. The discovery that bacteria and viruses caused infectious diseases is relatively recent; imagine the consequences if such knowledge was 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 using 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 fleeting as the chatter of the Internet and would never survive a catastrophe. Not only is the storage media itself short-lived but its reading depends upon specific hardware and software. In this technology, rapid obsolescence is usual. Modern media is 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, 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 anyone 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.