Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Monday, March 20, 2017

Zombie Apocalypse: will it be our future?

 Caution, this is probably the most catastrophistic post I ever published: famines, cannibalism, mass extermination and more. But, hey, this is just a scenario! (Image from "teehunter").

For those of us who delight themselves in studying long-term trends, the rise of zombies as a movie genre is a fascinating puzzle. There is no doubt that it is a strong trend: look at these results from Google Ngrams.

The term "zombie" was wholly unknown in English before the 1920s, then it slowly started gaining attention. In the 1970s, it exploded, mainly after the success of the 1968 movie by George Romero "The night of the Living Dead." The term "zombie" wasn't used in the movie, but the concept became rapidly popular and it created the genre called "zombie apocalypse".  Today, the idea is widespread: it involves the sudden appearance of a large number of undead people haunting suburbs and shopping malls, searching for live humans to eat. They are normally the target of the fire of heavily armed but much less numerous groups of people who have escaped the epidemics or whatever has turned people into zombies. 

Now, if something exists, there has to be a reason for it to exist. So, why this fascination with zombies? How is that we have created a genre that has never existed before in the history of human literature? Can you imagine Homer telling us that the city of Troy was besieged by zombies? Did Dante Alighieri find zombies in his visit to Hell? How about Shakespeare telling us of Henry the 5th fighting zombies at Agincourt?

I think there is a reason: literature always reflects the fears and the hopes of the culture that created it; sometimes very indirectly and in symbolic ways. And, here, it may well be that zombies reflect an unsaid fear of our times, a fear that is present mainly in our subconscious: hunger. 

Let's start with a typical feature of zombies: the black circles around the eyes.
Zombies are supposed to be "undead," cadavers that somehow returned to a semblance of life. But do cadavers have this kind of eyes? I must confess that I don't have much experience in autopsy (actually, none) but, from what I saw on the Web, it seems to me that it is rare that cadavers have those dark eye sockets; that is, unless they had developed bruises before dying. It is true that a decomposing cadaver will slowly lose the soft tissue and, eventually, the eyes will disappear leaving only dark holes in a mummified skull. But that doesn't seem to agree with the facial aspect of the zombies that appear in the movies. (I know, this was a ghoulish search, I did it in the name of science).

Instead, for what I could find, dark eye sockets may be a characteristic of undernourished people, often as the result of the development of a facial edema. Here is, for instance, a photo of a Dutch girl during the famine of 1944-1945 in Holland.

This is not always a characteristic of malnourished people, but it seems to occur rather frequently. Another example is the Great Famine in Ireland that started in 1845. We don't have photos from those times, but the artists who drew pictures of starving Irish people clearly perceived this detail. Here is, for instance, a rather well-known image of Bridget O'Donnell, one of the victims of the Great Famine. Note her darkened eyes. 

So, we have some idea of who these zombies could represent. They are starving people. And it is clear that they are hungry. In the movies, they are described as stumbling onward, desperately searching for food. They seem to be the perfect image of the effect of a famine. Look at the memorial of the Irish famine, in Dublin:

Do they look like the zombies of a modern movie? Yes, they do. This doesn't mean a lack of respect for the Irish men and women who perished in one of the greatest tragedies of modern times. It is only to note how, in our imagination, real starving people may be turned into imaginary undead zombies. 

Now, imagine that a famine were to strike our society, today. It is true that the world hasn't seen major famines for the past 40 years or so, but that doesn't mean they can't appear again. Today, our globalized commercial system is fragile, based on a long supply chain that involves maritime transportation and road distribution. The system needs low-cost fossil fuels to function and, more than that, it needs a functioning global financial system. If food travels all over the world it is because someone is paying for it. A currency crisis would make the whole system collapse. The consequences would be, well, let's try to imagine the unimaginable. 

People living in suburban areas have no other source of food than their shopping centers. Now, imagine that, suddenly, the ships and the trucks stop running. Then, the shelves of supermarkets can't be replenished anymore. The suburbanites would be first surprised, then angry, then desperate, and, finally, starving as their home stocks of food run out. Even before that, they would have run out of gas for their cars; the only system of transportation available to them. Now, assume that the elites would decide that it is easier for them to let the suburbanites starve and die rather than attempt to feed them. Suppose they decide to wall off the suburbia and instruct the army to shoot on sight anyone who tries to escape. Who could force them to do otherwise?

We can imagine what the results would be. The inhabitants of suburban areas would become emaciated, blundering, hungry people haunting the neighborhood and the shopping malls in the desperate search of something to eat; anything. Would they turn to cannibalism? Possibly, even likely. Some of them may be able to put their hands on a good supply of guns and ammunition, then they could play king of the hill, gathering most of the remaining food and shooting dead the poor wretches who still lumber in the streets, at least until the run out of food and ammo, too. It would be the zombie apocalypse, nothing less than that.

This is, of course, just a scenario, Nevertheless, I think it is interesting as an illustration of how the human mind works. In a previous post, I noted how the "overpopulation" meme disappeared from cyberspace as a result of how people gradually developed a kind of "infection resistance" to it.  The zombie meme seems to be related to the same issue, but it is a much more infective meme and it is still growing and diffusing in the world's population.

There are reasons for the success of the zombie meme. Fictionalized catastrophes ("it is only a movie!") are surely less threatening than those that are described as likely to happen for real. So, the concept of "Zombie Preparedness" is making inroads in many areas. Apparently, preparing for a zombie apocalypse is more socially and politically acceptable than preparing for the consequences of resource depletion and climate change. This is a curious trait of the human mind but, if this is the way it works, so be it. It makes the concept of "climate fiction" (cli-fi) an attractive one for generating preparedness for climate change.

It may be that the only way for our mind to understand catastrophes to come is to see them as tales. In Ireland, before the great famine, there was some premonition of the incoming disaster. Here is what the Irish poet Clarence Mangan wrote in 1844 about an undescribed "event" that he expected to take place in the future.

Darken the lamp, then, and bury the bowl,
Ye Faithfullest-hearted!

And, as your swift years hasten on to the goal
Whither worlds have departed,
Spend strength, sinew, soul, on your toil to atone

For past idleness and errors;
So best shall ye bear to encounter alone
The Event and its terrors. 
The Irish may have had some kind of premonition of the "event" that was going to hit them, the Great Famine of 1845, even though that didn't help them much to avoid it. Is a similar "Event" coming for us, too? Maybe it is already starting.


  1. Add in climate refugees. Our way of life is threatened. Human response is to kill.

  2. Read "the Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck and you get an idea of what happens when central order breaks down and food is scarce. What you get are "warrior bands", typically armed men who plunder, steal food--and in the future probably gasoline--rape, kill, etc. John Michael Greer Talked about this in a post a while back. You see it in many parts of the world at present where young men get there hands on guns and vehicles, behind some kind of leader and go on a rampage.

  3. This is why the rhetoric in America right now is really concerning to me. Nothing is really happening right now, besides ongoing deportations of illegal immigrants. But everyone is talking like the country is already over. All the major news media consider it almost a done deal that the last true believers in America have already left, and the lights have already been turned out. I can only hope that whatever happens next is swift and peaceful.

  4. "literature always reflects the fears and the hopes of the culture that created it; sometimes very indirectly and in symbolic ways."

    Immediately comes to mind the, in my experience, Americans' favorite book of the Bible: Revelations. Rife with symbolic scenarios said to be prophecy, predicting the End Times. It was my exposure to this fascination, combined with what I believe to be the collective guilt of the world's reigning empire that led to my eventually coining the aphorism "Eschatological paranoia is fueled by the awareness that others are enduring a personal apocalypse now, and that none familiar with its cause should remain immune to its effects."

    Anyway, I dig your analysis additionally for its implications in the manifestation of that apocalyptic book and how it would seem that all times so far have been End Times, it's just that there are different zombies conjured depending on the most vexing issue of the era.

  5. To toot my own horn, my novel (easily found) takes place just AFTER the (hungry shuffling masses) zombie apocalypse when 0.01 percent of the population remains, and is STILL fighting over what's left. I was only able to get my protagonists to the end of the book by means of an already tired deus ex machina, and became quite depressed. No, no sequel is planned.

  6. Sorry about the bunny trail. Dr Bardi, how does one figure the EROEI of something like, say, a wooden waterwheel, that, with some local repairs, will last indefinitely (ceteris paribus)?

    1. How about the EROEI of a noria? A wheel that lifts water out of a river into an aqueduct, and that is turned by the flow of the river itself. It requires no external source of energy, so its EROEI is infinite, apart from the cost of erection (small) and maintenance (negligible).

      The Hellenistic engineers were smart: they worked with Nature, not against her.

    2. I don't know, Vera. I don't think there are studies for that. You can read an interesting paper by O'Connor and Cleveland, here: They mention waterwheels, but not their EROEI. As a personal impression, anyway, I think that the EROEI of waterwheels must have been good. Not so good as that of the oil of early times, otherwise we would still have waterwheels and nobody would worry about climate change

    3. Appreciate both your responses. Will check out noria -- it's not often I get the pleasure of a brand new word, brand new concept. :-)

      Well, Dr Bardi, I dunno. Something that never wears out? Never underestimate the power of "progress propaganda." I suspect it must have been... quite good. After all, didn't someone demonstrate that the more "progress" we have in agriculture, the lesser returns? Even with all the oil behind it.

    4. I suppose it is getting on for 50 years since I visited a watermill 40 miles outside London. It was in a placid but reasonably reliable stream with a ‘low’ weir. It had been recently converted for show with a cafĂ© etc. It had been renewed every 200 years since 1100 or 1200 AD but had reached the end of its working life and this time was not going to be renewed. Renewal was necessary every 200 years when the wooden bottom of the central vertical rotating post wore out. (Think of a vertical gear box with all machinery taking power via gear wheels from the central post: the building needed to be taken down and rebuilt round the central shaft.) The sight of worn ancillary wooden structures constantly handled for 200 years in an oily environment was unforgettable.

      I had seen a working watermill circa 1948 grinding grain on a similar river. After that the mills were ‘uneconomic’.

    5. Seems our idiot-economists call anything that lasts "uneconomic." For them, garbage is a plus.

    6. For classical economy, the central concept is that of scarcity. The scarce component of a product is the one, which defines the price. In the Marxist view (which I share), the main scarce component is human time. In this view, cheap fossil energy is cheap, because it can be produced and used to move a lot around with very few human working hours involved.
      In this sense, the waterwheel seems to be economic both in terms of working hours and energy. But if you have a closer look at it, its grinding capacity is rather small, compared to modern fossil powered mills; but the former uses for this small output almost the same workforce as the latter for its big. So there is the economic root of it been put out of work.

  7. Adding... to grind grain, for example.

  8. Naah, you all just dont get it. The zombie apocalypse allready happened. Its not our future, but our present.

    Thats what zombie movies are all about.

  9. The best answer to the question of what aggregate behavior will be like is to look at countries currently in moderate famine like Venezuela or deep famine like Somalia. At least so far we don't have stories coming out about rampant cannibalism in these places, although reports said zoo animals were killed for meat in Venezuela.

    In most modern cultures, the taboo against cannibalism is very strong, and I think most people will starve themselves before eating somebody else. You do have the example of the Donner Party though, so it's not out of the question this will become a significant aspect of collapse moving down the road a piece.

    Overall though, I think the Zombie genre is just a reflection of the dying culture overall. Blank stares, vacant minds, moving blindly along just to consume. That's what the real population is right now, and the films reflect that.


    1. There are many cases reported where people resorted to cannibalism during famines. It depends on how badly the social fabric collapses. There are no reports of cannibalism during the Great Famine in Ireland. But there are several ones for other cases, for instance the Chinese Famine of 1958–1962. It is difficult to say. For one thing, these reports could be exaggerated. But it is also true that cannibalism may well go unreported.

    2. Well, there are certainly stories about it in the Bible,and more than a few non-Western cultures were regular cannibals. New Guinea, Amazonia, Africa etc.

      But then if you look at the photos of Dorothea Lange from the Great Depression, there were obviously many people starving (to death) at the time, and no reports of cannibalism during this period.They may have been surpressed, of course.

    3. The Siege of Leningrad; there definitely was cannibalism there. I'd eat a human if down to dying...

    4. With a little planning, I'd feed the dead humans to pigs then eat the pigs. Or you might feed them to chickens, they grow faster.

      There should be plenty of pig & chicken feed here in the future.

    5. Might be a survival trait. I wouldn't be surprised if we all had cannibal ancestors!

    6. We do have cannibal ancestors... if you want to go far back enough. Humans are among the very few species that eat their own... not out of desperation, but as prey -- we join the fine company of cobras, spiders, scorpions, and sharks. I believe the New Guineans call hunted human meat "the long pig."

    7. Doesn't seem to be a great survival trait generally speaking. Few animals will eat each other even once dead, and fewer still will hunt & kill each other for food. Black Widow Spiders eat their mates, those are the only ones I can think of offhand that have cannibalism as part of the survival strategy.

  10. Great post, professor! I just posted the link at the Cli-Fi Facebook Group page via -- THANKS!

  11. I would also point out that the rise of zombie films also coincided with peak oil in the U.S. Coincidence? Nice to link zombies with famine, but for me it represents more generally our cultural fear of (and fascination with!) an increasingly likely end of the world unfolding in whatever form.

  12. I would also add another aspect of massive famines-rampant plague blooms. Think of diseases like syphilis that used to destroy people's health and even make their faces deteriorate down to the bone. Zombies that spit up bile and rot. Famine and plague victims wandering and spreading their misfortune.

  13. The rise of zombie films can also be seen as a way (pushed by elites) to train younger generations to callously exterminate starving poor. Time after time , war after war it has been shown that dehumanizing the enemy is an excellent and productive propaganda move

    1. Could be. The latest zombie movie I saw had zombies bleeding when shot. A step in that direction.

  14. The premise here does not really work. Lore about undead humans that feed on the living has been around for centuries. Just the word "zombie" is relatively new. It's really just a modern variation on vampires.

    1. Come on, Bruce! Do the test yourself: seek for "undead" on Ngrams. It has exactly the same behavior as "zombie". Of course, the idea of the dead coming back from their graves has been around for millennia, but here we are discussing of a whole new literary/movie genre that arose in the 1960s and that's still growing

  15. Ooo! Ooo! Zombie siting 9th Level, 2nd Ring of the Inferno!!!

    I saw two shades frozen in a single hole
    packed so close, one head hooded the other one;
    the way the starving devour their bread, the soul
    above had clenched the other with his teeth
    where the brain meets the nape.

    (Canto XXXII, lines 124–29)

    Undead, vicious, eating the brain... OBVIOUSLY a Zombie!!! I'm SURE literary scholars will back me up on this! ;)

    Dave Z

  16. i absolutely love zombies and everything to do with zombies. my favorite show is of course the walking dead, and one of my favorite video games of all time is plants vs zombies.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)