on Feb 4, 2013
A couple of weeks ago I asked people how they would survive the zombie apocalypse. Afterward I wanted to try my hand at post-zombie-apocalypse survival, but my answer ended up being too big for a comment. So now you get a 5,000 word
post series of posts. Lucky you.
For the purposes of this exercise, I’ve sat down and tried to make this plan just based on what’s observed in The Walking Dead game. I’m not mining Wikipedia for answers or scouting locations using Google Earth. I’m assuming I’m being dropped into the Zompocalypse without any foreknowledge or preparation, aside from whatever trivia I’ve accumulated over the last 41 years of diligent breathing in and out. The only time I’ve gone to the web is to get reference links for the benefit of the reader.
I’m building my answer around the central question of “What would you do if you were leading a group in a Kirkman-esque zombie apocalypse?” In my case, this requires some hand-waving, because I’d likely die of asthma. Or if I lived, I’d have to be very careful to avoid strenuous activity, which would include basically everything that a post-technology society would need to do. I’d be a mouth to feed. And once we brought in animals for protection, labor, and food, I’d be dead for sure.
If we hand-wave my physical limitations, we need more hand-waving to put me in charge of a group. There’s no way around it: I would never be a leader. This is a simple fact of group dynamics. I’m an engineer by trade, by inclination, and by temperament. People do not like to follow engineers. You’ll notice the vast majority of all political, social, religious, and corporate leaders are alphas. They are people who state their opinions firmly and with conviction. They believe in both their ideas and in their ability to execute them.
Which is more inspiring:
- We need to get this group to Savannah as soon as possible. That’s our best hope for survival and every minute we spend arguing is another minute we waste while other people claim the boats and supplies.
- There’s a lot of options open to us and a lot of different approaches to all of them. There are no guarantees, and it’s possible for even a good plan to fail because of unknown factors. But knowing what we know now, I think that looking for a boat in Savannah is probably our best bet. This might change as we learn more.
You know the only people who like being led by engineers? Other engineers. Everyone else wants confidence and conviction. Both of the above proposals call for the same course of action, but their presentation leads to very different responses from the crowd. The alpha leads the crowd to think, “No time to argue, this is our only hope!” On the other hand, the engineer’s proposal makes people think, “This guy has no idea what he’s doing. He’s going to just wander around guessing until we all die.” This tendency for the group to follow the self-assured is amplified when people are scared and desperate.
This doesn’t mean that alphas are wrong or that engineers would make for better leaders if only the foolish sheeple would listen. Alexander the Great and Steve Jobs were both alphas, and they managed to accomplish a lot of stuff. (And of course, some people were both. Edison comes to mind. The two aren’t mutually exclusive.) The point is, there’s more to leading a group than having good ideas. Leadership is also about morale, and the habit of engineers to couch their assertions in qualifiers is horrible for morale.
But let’s give me another hand-wave and say that I somehow end up in charge anyway. Maybe this is a group of like-minded engineers, or maybe my age gives me some bonus points with the crowd. (40’s and 50’s are seen as prime leadership range. Old enough to seem wise, young enough to still be sharp and vigorous. Of course, actual useful ranges vary, but that’s politics for you.)
So somehow I’m the leader of a small band of post-apocalypse survivors. What do I do?
Of course the ideal plan for people in this situation is to find a bunker, fallout shelter, Y2K shelter, government shelter, or other fortified, provisioned, and secluded place. But that’s just cheating. I don’t know where places like that are right now, and even if I did, those places aren’t usually run on a “first come, first serve” basis. The’re either inhabited with the intended owners or they’re locked up tight. Saying you’ll begin with a bunker is like saying, “To start a company, first I’d get a couple of million dollars and then I would…” You’re skipping over the most implausible and difficult step and treating it like a trivial detail.
So we’re sticking to conventional spaces.
My plan would vary based on time of year, but since zombie plagues always seem to strike in high summer, let’s just assume that’s our starting scenario. Since the world was presumably running fine back in spring, we can assume that crops have already been planted and are just a couple of months from harvest.
My guess is that most survivors are going to be fighting over the big-box stores and strip malls, scavenging for supplies near zed-heavy population centers. We’re going to head for the boonies. We’re thinking longer term. Assuming that somehow zeds have killed rural populations (a bit of a stretch but it’s one of our givens) then all we need to do is find one of the farms attached to the millions of acres of farmland in this country. A decent-sized farm should have more than enough food for our group, and that food should already be planted and growing. We’ve got two months to get our defenses up and figure out how to harvest the crops.
The second-best time for the zed plague is the fall. Crops are ready for harvest and -latitude allowing – we’re only a month or so from freezing temperatures
The very worst time for a zombie plague would be early spring. The crops haven’t been planted, and it’s likely going to be a couple of months before survivors can band together and get to work. So your very first crops will be planted without technology, by clueless newcomers, months late. That first harvest will be dangerously small.
Moreover, the long summer will weigh heavily on the existing resources. The world could be all scavenged out before we get that first bleak harvest.
In the event of an early spring outbreak, I’d probably head for someplace like Battle Creek. Historically, it’s the birthplace of the three biggest manufacturers of breakfast cereal in the United States. I’m assuming those factories are still there, and that they must have some serious tonnage of processed grains on hand. (I’m not going to cheat by looking it up. I’m assuming I’d have to make these decisions without the help of Wikipedia.)
Assuming those plants are still in Battle Creek, assuming they have the grain, assuming nobody else has claimed it, and assuming we can actually gain access, then the food stores might get us through that first winter. Afterwards we’d roll back into my regular plan.
I’m actually worried about excess food in this first year. The pre-disaster world planted crops for three hundred million, and now there are perhaps a hundred thousand people left. Given that the world is now covered in neglected farmlands and all of the standing crops, grain silos, and warehouses are going to be left to rot, we could end up with a MASSIVE rat problem over the next couple of years. (And other rat-like pests.) The rats will breed like crazy in the coming year. Next year the fields will be empty and the bodies will be gone, and we’ll have a huge population of starving rats. If we don’t have a really secure, modern gain silo on this farm then we need to come up with our own system to protect the food.
The other pest we’ll have to face is deer. Without the millions of hunters keeping the population in check, the deer population will explode. Deer are pretty to look at, but they’re also pilfering vandals. We need to keep our food locked up tight and have nighttime patrols to keep them away from the standing crops. We should be able to shoot a few without difficulty. (It ought to be like shooting fish in a barrel, really.) A full deer can deliver hundreds of pounds of meat, but without refrigeration none of it will keep.
A generator would make the difference between meat for two days and meat for two weeks. A generator shouldn’t be hard to find, but The Walking Dead universe never makes it clear how much fuel is left.
We want to live a modest distance away from major population centers. My preferred place would be one of the crossroad towns I see scattered around Pennsylvania. These towns are little more than a stop sign and a few houses, maybe with a lone gas station or bar. (I lived in one of these towns when first moved out of my parent’s house twenty years ago.)
We want to be close enough to the carcass of civilization that we can scavenge for medicine and fuel if such a thing is possible and practical, but we don’t want to be so close that gunshots will draw a big crowd. We also need to keep secondary swarms in mind. Maybe we’re fine living 10 miles from the city. But then some doomed survivors manage to attract a crowd and drag the horde within 2 miles of our homestead before they succumb to their own zombie bites and infighting. Now we have a cluster of zeds just two miles from home, and we don’t know it. The next time we shoot a lone stray we might end up summoning this migrating crowd, and then we’re screwed. You can’t ever be 100% safe from these sort of shenanigans on the part of a vindictive writer, but by keeping an eye on distance and lines of approach we ought to be able to make such a thing sufficiently unlikely.
So our final home is going to be a farm, along a river, at a crossroad-sized town. Lots of places meet that description. I can find a couple of them without looking at a map, and they’re all within an hour or so of where I live now. The group might know of a few more, if we have the time and the inclination to shop around. Assuming we’ve got vehicles and fuel, there’s no reason to just pile into the first wooden farmhouse we find. Maybe we can find brick houses. Maybe we can be on top of a hill. Maybe we can be near a water tower. Maybe find a dairy farm. (I know where two dairies are. I don’t know how far they are from crops, or if cows would still be alive and milk-able in our scenario.) Let’s spend a day or two scouting around before we plant our flag.
Well, we’re about 2,000 words into this and all we’ve done so far is pick a home. I’ll talk about the rest in the next entry.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.