The Zombie Post Apocalyptic World
Firstly, we must determine what kind of zombies we’re dealing with. In particular, five vital questions have to be asked: a) how fast are they?, b) are any ongoing metabolic processes within them vital to their survival?, c) how infectitious are they, d) how does the infection progress within a newly-infected host and e) do they possess any higher intelligence?
Consider the classic zombie training films Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978). These zombies infect via contact between bodily fluids (usually biting) and can only be ‘put down’ by destroying their brain. The gap between infection and re-animation can range between hours and days. However, they are slow (referred to as ‘shamblers’ by zombiologists), individually weak and driven entirely by their hunger for living flesh. This means that to pose a credible threat, they must outnumber the beleaguered human group by at least ten to one, and up to a hundred to one if the humans have firearms. And this is assuming that the humans have allowed themselves to become encircled – a grave tactical error that nullifies their key advantages of mobility and agility. In practice, it is possible to navigate your way even through substantially infested and semi-confined areas like city streets or shopping malls without much danger, as long as you always keep on the alert, avoid dangerous shortcuts and keep your hubris down. If you have a firearm and enough ammo, it is possible to simply blast your way through any almost number of zombies – the photo below was taken by a Marine who single-handedly put down a zombie outbreak on a UAC Mars base. Hundreds of zombie and Hellspawn bodies were discovered after my blood-soaked rampage.
The zombies are doomed!
The only way such an infestation can spiral out of control, even in a country with low civilian gun ownership, is if initially a large proportion of the population – something like 95%+ – is infected. But in that case civilization would be pretty much down the gutter anyway… The respected zombiologist Max Brooks in his classic work The Zombie Survival Guide raises the possibility that ghouls (shamblers infected by the solanum virus) could ‘continue to grow, spreading across the body of this planet until there is nothing left to devour’ – a ‘Class 4 or doomsday outbreak, in which humanity is driven to the brink of extinction’. (His fevered imagination expounded upon this theme in World War Z.) While the practical advice in the ZSG on construction, travel and weapons is valuable, the more apocalyptic scenarios should be treated with a pinch of salt. A shambler epidemic will never become self-sustaining simply because its hosts will be destroyed at a much quicker rate than at which they can spread.
Another important theory is that presented in 28 Days Later (2002), where the Rage virus transforms its hosts within seconds into rabid, bloodthirsty beasts. Transmission is again through contact with bodily fluids. However, these ‘zombies’ are still very much alive – they can be terminated by destroying their respiratory and/or blood circulation systems, as well as the brain. Eventually, they starve to death – within about twenty-eight days, in fact. Nonetheless, though they present a substantial threat to a densely populated, unarmed country like Britain, such an epidemic would be containable in North America and probably even in mainland Europe, where gun ownership is higher and population density is lower.
However, we will discard the possibility of intelligent zombies. This is an entirely different ball game and requires thinking up strategies in response to the specific threat. It is also likely that humanity will indeed stand no chance against the thinking dead. After all, imagine two armies – one needs food, medicines and has a horrific desertion rate; the other is immortal and feels no fear. Now who would put your money on?
Therefore we will consider the next-to-worst kind of undead, but one humanity still has a chance against. We are positing ‘runners’ (to use the zombiological description) that have no critical metabolic systems and infect via contact with bodily fluids within the space of hours to days, like those witnessed in the Dawn of the Dead (2004) remake. However, their intelligence is a step above those of Brooks’s ghouls, in that they possess an instinct for self-preservation, albeit a severely underdeveloped one.
It is impossible to predict in advance with any degree of certainty where the outbreak will happen. Nonetheless, a few countries might be able to escape infection entirely. This applies especially to islands with small inflows of people. The certainty that any given country in Eurasia or the American continent will be infected approaches one; small islands like Spitsbergen or the Pitcairns are likely to escape the catastrophe altogether. Whether they do so depends on the effectiveness with which they screen or repel migrants; although given their negligible military capabilities, whether they’d be capable of enforcing a quarantine is open to question. In any case, no matter how good a country’s defenses are, or how isolated it is from flows of people, preparation is vital – and will to a large extent determine how ‘well’ it fares in the zombie post apocalyptic world (from now on, ZPAW).
The zombie infestation will either be contained at the start, or it will engulf most of humanity. This is because the rate of infection depends on the ratio of zombies to humans. It is small at either extreme (initial outbreak, or zombie packs hunting down the last few die-hards); it is huge when the numbers of zombies and humans equal each other. If time is on the x-axis and the number of infected is on the y-axis, then the progress of the infestation will roughly resemble a tanh function as illustrated below. One conclusion we can make is that there comes a “tipping point” when the spread and generalization of the infestation becomes unavoidable. This is backed up by simulations of a zombie infestation – play it to get a feel for its ever changing ‘momentum’. Note that either early containment succeeds, or you have to work your ass off to preserve just a small fraction of humans towards the end.
If the outbreak is not contained in the early stages, preventing an endemic zombie infestation soon becomes impossible.
The aftermath of a sustained zombie infestation will be apocalyptic – crumbling dwellings, car wrecks, the upswelled detritus of our modern civilization. Economic and social relations will revert to an early industrial, if not even earlier, model. You could see small nomadic communities wandering in the wastelands, planting gardens in one place before visiting the burnt out husk of a city to seek out canned produce and goods like whiskey or vodka, which they barter for weapons and ammo at occasional, heavily-defended permanent settlements.
Factors of Survival
To assess how well a particular country can withstand the rise of the dead, two main elements have to be considered, each of which in turn is made up of many components:
- Arena – this the space and the environment in which the fight for survival takes place. The most important component by far is the population density – the more people that are crowded into a space, the harder it will be to avoid encounters with the living dead (the surest means of survival). Other factors are environmental sustainability and forest area/arable land / capita (i.e. could the newly deindustrialized population feed itself?); ‘connectedness’ (i.e. how easily could the population move itself out of the cities into less densely populated countryside?); what are the dwellings like? (flats are easier to defend than slums); is the population predominantly urban or rural? (somewhat counter intuitively, urban is better); is the undead ‘pressure’ in a country positive or negative, and are there physical barriers that could dampen that pressure? (‘pressure’ is a function of neighboring population densities, barriers are things like mountain ranges, wide rivers and seas); does the country possess key resources like oil?
- Gladiators – these are the people that are struggling for survival – they have their swords (firepower) and themselves (their development, demographics and culture). Firepower is composed of a country’s level of civilian gun ownership and the strength of their power structures (military personnel and hardware per person). Development refers to a society’s level of economic, educational and health achievement (summarized in the HDI) and its ‘wiredness’ (proxied by cell phone penetration). Demography refers to the dependency burden imposed upon the nation by children and the elderly, which will become especially acute in the ZPAW. Culture looks at things like a society’s government, corruption, attitudes towards gender equality, community spirit and patriotism.
We shall now consider each of the above factors in turn.
Unsurprisingly, a lower population density is better for surviving in the ZPAW. If you live in a densely populated country, you’re hit with a double wammy – not only do you get absolutely more infected people per kilometre in a certain time period than in a less densely populated country absolutely, but also relatively to the surviving population! Imagine ten children playing a game of tag in a room – say that after a minute half of them have been ‘tagged’. Now imagine forty children playing the game in the same room. After half a minute, more than twenty of them would be tagged, since the average distance between them during the game would be twice smaller. The same principle applies in the zombie apocalypse, albeit on a much larger scale. One must assume that every quadrupling of the population density will halve the average distance between all people – alive or dead – and presumably roughly double the rate of spread of the infestation. Considering that a swift response is essential for preventing infestation gaining unstoppable momentum, the prospects of nations like China or Bangladesh look bleak.
Humans are also much more mobile and in some cases have the benefit of ranged defense against the undead. Translating this to the above model, this means that a) human children are less likely to be surrounded and b) they get more shots at an approaching child zombie before its cold, clammy hands grasp the human and say, “Tag!”.
Of course this model is extremely simplistic and doesn’t account for zombie Trojan horses (infected humans), disparities in population density within a certain region (e.g. Helsinki in Finland), rudimentary self-preservative and pack instincts amongst the undead that we laid out in our assumptions, etc. Population density is far from the only geographical factor, of course – things like the land’s carrying capacity and physical fragmentation are also vital, as we shall soon see. Nonetheless, the population density is probably one of the two biggest single determinants as which countries will best live (or should we say die fewest) in the ZPAW.
Russia and Canada dominate in this domain, followed by Brazil and the United States. Western Europe will find itself in a tight place, while the likes of India, China and Japan will be knee-deep in the dead.
Granted you may dream of “bugging out” when the SHTF (“shit hits the fan”) in the empty polar wilds of deepest Siberia or even Antarctica – but have you seriously considered how you’ll survive there for months and years on end? (And no, a few days of camping trips don’t count). Might as well take your chances in Moscow.
The post-apocalyptic world is dark, dreary and deserted.
As mentioned, the world will revert to an early industrial way of life, if not a medieval or even hunter-gathering one, during the zombie infestation. This means collapse in agricultural output as energy and fertiliser inputs dwindle and labor and capital resources are diverted to countering the zombie threat (canned food will only last so long!). The economy will in any case be almost entirely local, so assessing the hospitality of the proposed retreat is paramount. What is the carrying capacity of land of the region in question? (The magnitude of its medieval population would be a good clue). What is the level of its environmental degradation? (Although I doubt such things will much concern the living denizens of the ZPAW, it will nonetheless be a good idea to avoid lands contaminated from nuclear meltdowns or toxic chemical spills). Does it have stocks of vital resources such as water, lumber and refined oil products?
As before, Russia and Canada are clear winners here. Both have plentiful arable land and forests, which should be able to support much reduced populations for some time. Although the US has incurred much greater environmental damage due to greater numbers and extreme profligacy, excess numbers are free to migrate north (and fulfill the American dream of conquering Canada). Europeans can similarly head east to western Russia (thus satisfying their own Drang nach Osten psyches). Although Russia can theoretically face immense population pressure from Asia, the latter’s woeful unpreparedness for a ZPAW (very high population densities, very low gun ownership) means that in practice there will only be a trickle as most east Asians will die or get turned early on.
Humans are much more agile and intelligent than zombies, so a physically broken up landmass will suit them much better. Although it limits the possibilities of maneuvering (which with runners, however, is of dubious value anyway), it is outweighed by the options it opens up. One can cross a river (and don’t forget to blow up its bridges!) or use a mountain pass, but zombies would be challenged because of their lack of motor coordination – can you imagine them scaling a cliff wall? (Yes, I can. Anyway…)
For instance, at first glance Russians in the Far East of the country seem to be in paradise – until one notices the hundreds of millions of potential zombies south of the border in Manchuria. So they must be screwed, right?
Not quite. The mighty Amur separates them from the zombie Chinese hordes. The major problem might be mass refugee influxes during the early stage of the outbreak, as desperate Chinese seek the safety of the vast empty spaces of the North. However, the presence of the river will dissuade them and will make guarding the border easier (so long as the Russian Army and border troops remain viable, anyway).
(A fair objection would be that the Amur freezes over during the winter and thus no longer presents an obstacle. That’s true. But in those sub-zero conditions, zombies, lacking blood circulation, will have to freeze and hibernate over too!).
However, Mongolia, situated on a continuous plain stretching from Manchuria, does not have that luxury. Although the Himalayas are a practically impenetrable barrier, it would make no sense for Chinese to flee over them to India since that subcontinent is as densely populated as their land.
The denizens of the Mid-West in the US are protected from the Californian undead by the Rockies and to a lesser extent protected from the east by the Mississippi. Although Iceland is lately a financial basketcase, it will remain a ZPAW powerhouse. North Korea is protected by Yalu river to the north and DMZ to the south, and Israel has its wall.
Housing and Settlement
Counter-intuitively, it is better to have a big urban population and a low rural population. Understandably, you probably want to know what the hell I am smoking. Surely having many areas of extreme population concentration is horrifically bad in the ZPAW?
Not really. If there are plenty of people in rural areas, this means the epidemic will quickly sweep over the entire land. Since India and China are both more than half-rural, it means there are plenty of heavily clustered villages (inhabited by people with few arms and flimsily-constructed dwellings). As there is no clear break between city, slum and rural dwelling, the epidemic will radiate out at about the speed of the average runner zombie.
On the other hand, flats are easily defended and have multiple layers of protection (the main door; and a separate door for each place of abode). Although the modern city is in many ways a deathtrap, its density means that for precious days and weeks the bulk of the undead will be pre-occupied with flushing out and tearing apart the people trapped inside.
Even after they’re mostly dead, the city has large numbers of internal physical barriers, which will slow the dilution of the epidemic into the countryside. Armed bands could exfiltrate their way out of the city and it might even be possible for the authorities to organize a mass evacuation covered by the military.
However, this is not to say that having a country with a high share of people employed in or familiar with agriculture (as opposed to living in rural places) is a bad thing. To the contrary, these skills will become vital as preserved produce begins to run down.
In this respect, Russia is particularly well-endowed – although 73% of the population is urban, it has a long, popular tradition of garden farms outside the cities. This is not the case in much of the West, where mechanized farms have replaced small local food producers decades ago in the wave of late industrialism.
The outbreak will be slower in countries with poorly developed road, railway and airport networks. This is because zombies are contagious – contact with its bodily fluids leads to irreversible infection and zombification. An infected person could “escape” by car to a far away city in panic and turn, thus initiating an infestation days before it could spread to there “naturally”.
The directions-instead-of-roads that have bedeviled travelers in Russia for centuries will be a blessing in disguise. However, the post-Soviet appearance of a car-owning middle class in the bigger cities is an extremely unwelcome development. Still, it’s much better than in the US, Europe or Japan, where car and air travel is the standard for the bulk of their populations.
Civilian gun ownership is probably the most important single determinant of how a country will fare in the ZPAW. If gun ownership is sufficiently high, density sufficiently low and communications between nodes sufficiently quick, an outbreak could be contained in its incubation phase, even without military intervention.
Failing that, guns will no doubt increase individual chances of survival. An unarmed human will almost certainly fall to a single runner, whereas possession of even a single pistol will up the odds to perhaps 50-50, given that he or she has sufficient warning of the zombie’s approach.
Although every second household having a firearm probably results in a higher incidence of school shootings and goings postal in America, it will prove invaluable when the zombie hordes rise up – as they inevitably will, at some point. Or do you mean to say George Romero has been pulling our collective legs for the past four decades?!
Unfortunately, there are only 9 firearms for every 100 Russians. Even if the beleaguered survivors managed to obtain some, they’d need an ample supply of bullets (guns are loud – doh! – and will attract more zombies to their location when discharged). America is dotted with gun shops, which can be raided for ammo. The same certainly cannot be said of Russia, or in fact most other countries.
There is however one bright spot. Russia has around 20-30mn firearms in its strategic reserves. This Soviet legacy of guns over butter will pay off handsomely in the ZPAW. Weapons and ammo could be distributed to the general population by the Army – they can be delivered by helicopter to villages and resisting flats in the cities.
In Germany and France, the 30% ratio of firearms to people is respectable and will stand them in good stead, despite their high population densities. Finland and Canada are even better armed, and coupled with their very low population densities, should ensure relatively good survival prospects. Italy and Spain (c.10%) are worse off; overpopulated Britain (5%) is the sick man of Europe. The prospects for China (4%), India (4%) and Japan (2%) are very bleak.
Having large and well equipped military, paramilitary and law enforcement formations is crucial for local suppression, co-ordinating evacuations and resistance and maintaining social cohesion in the ZPAW.
Although debilitating in a peacetime economy, the vast labor force locked up in Russia’s cornucopia of power agencies (the Army, Internal Affairs, Border Troops, Anti-Narcotics, GAI, FSB, and probably a dozen or so others I’ve left out) will be a boon, providing an exceptionally strong backbone to the state in times of crisis. Its huge nuclear arsenal could be used to preemptively wipe out concentrations of zombies (or humans) in Asian and European cities. (If they retaliate and destroy Moscow, who cares? The big cities are doomed anyways).
The US has a respectable number of soldiers and police too (although its hi-tech toys like the F-22 Raptor or missile defense will be of little use against the undead hordes). European armies are small relative to their populations, and their police are typically unarmed. China and India again score very poorly – although large in absolute terms, their power agencies comprise a negligible portion of their labor forces.
Demography and Health
It hurts the country’s economy, it hurts the country’s prospects in the ZPAW. Old people really are useless. The ideal age structure would be: a few old people; some in middle-age; lots of twenty-somethings; some children.
Children are vital for the future, and middle-aged people have experience – so do old people, of course, but their physical constraints are simply too great. People in their twenties learn quickly, run quickly and even have a semblance of maturity. Basically, the best age structure for making war is also the best for riding out a ZPAW.
As such, previously high-fertility countries who have undergone a sharp demographic transition within the past two decades to below replacement levels are best positioned, e.g. Iran, China. Russia has many people in their 20′s, but far too many 50 year olds (and it doesn’t help that they’re generally in poor health and men in particular suffer from high mortality by this age, as covered extensively here). Europe and Japan are becoming geriatric; India is too young, but that’s better than too old.
Infectious diseases will be prevalent in the ZPAW. I’m not sure whether that would favor the developed or the developing worlds; on the one hand, the latter will have strong immunity, on the other hand, the former will have more doctors and medicines.
Chronic diseases, mostly a First World phenomenon, are a big minus. Many Russians taking heart medications will die. Although on the surface Americans appear to be better off, that is not actually the case; their poor health is disguised by the world’s highest per capita healthcare spending. Obesity is a national scourge and around 10% of the US population are diabetics; total economic collapse will result in a huge mortality spike.
Although some might argue that poor countries will be better off since the shock of adjusting to vastly reduced living standards will not be as great as for rich countries, I believe that the advantages of affluence outweigh its costs, namely – access to modern medicines, vitamins (vital since fruit will rot quickly!), books (information on agriculture, sustainability, etc) and most importantly, e-connectivity – which deserves a heading of its own.
In contrast to physical connectivity (which just increases the rate of spread of the infestation), e-connectivity makes its attached nodes – human actors – better prepared. Panic will ensue in any case so that’s not an issue. Cell phones will be extremely useful for communicating between groups, e.g. planning retreats and conveying information on zombie concentrations.
Intelligence is humanity’s key asset against the undead – so why not amplify it by channeling the wisdom of crowds? There must be a reason for why modern military theorists drone on (pardon the pun) about the importance of “network-centric warfare” and “peer to peer” sharing of information on the “battlespace” to increase “situational awareness”…
Don’t quote me on this, but I remember reading that at least in the US, cell phone towers have backup batteries that would enable them to continue functioning without electricity for several months. (Can anyone confirm this? Is this also the case for other countries?) Since the need for information will be most intense by far at the start of the zombie infestation, this should cover the most critical period.
The US, Russia, Europe and Japan are all saturated with cell phones. Penetration in China is nearly half the population, and almost a third in India. Since people will cluster in groupsin the ZPAW, at least in this respect, the world is on a relatively level playing field – which is suprising, given the brouhaha over the “digital divide”.
The Internet will, I imagine, become useless pretty quickly as the world powers down. So Internet penetration is not an important factor.
Human capital is very important. The ability to read, understand and implement ideas in books and journals on all aspects of survival will be paramount (because in practice, modern man can’t survive outside civilization, period – the learning curve will be steep and the smallest error could have you tumbling to your death at the hands of the writhing undead down below).
The ideal political system is authoritarianism. Liberal democracy will be too concerned with human (read – soon to be zombie) rights; totalitarian regimes are hostage to the idiosyncrasies and paranoia of their dear leaders. The authoritarian regime will be unable to suppress information about the outbreak for long, but will not refrain from cracking down hard with resolve and prejudice.
It is important for society to be relatively free of corruption. Otherwise, powerful people would do things that are in their interest, quite possibly petty interest, and spit on the public good.
A degree of gender equality is also quite important. To take the most striking example, the rigid traditionalist and Islamist insistence on sense-restricting, baggy clothes for women will doom many of them to their deaths.
Other factors would be patriotism; national unity; religious unity; social cohesion and happiness.
Russians are well-educated, have a healthy sense of patriotism and gender relations are conductive to surviving the ZPAW. Although the state is not authoritarian, social tolerance for hard, authoritarian measures is stronger than in the West. Corruption could certainly pose a challenge, albeit I suspect it will spike everywhere during the ZPAW. Russians are a relatively pessimistic and unhappy people, according to surveys; but perhaps these qualities would serve them better in the grim reality of the ZPAW than the blind optimism and/or religious fervor of other societies, whose belief systems will be unceremoniously shattered.
China scores very well on the above points, although its government does have a worrying tendency to cover up too much and solve too little (i.e. it’s too authoritarian). European-American hippies and liberals and the disorganized Indians are poorly prepared, socially and morally, for the ZPAW.
In our third poll, our readers nominated Russia, by a narrow margin, as the best placed entity in the ZPAW.
Although I can only commend you adorable lot on your Russophilia, I’m afraid it has to settle for second best. Although it is somewhat less lightly populated than the US, the Americans more than make up for it with sheer firepower. (On which note, I would strongly encourage Medvedev to fully legalize gun ownership. Currently, registration is a bureaucratic nightmare, handguns are legally inaccessible for those who are not security guards or retired generals and full automatics are completely out of bounds. Not only does increasing civilian gun ownership reduce crime rates and keep the English king out of your face, it will also determine who lives and who dies in a zombie apocalypse. Do you want Russians to die, Medvedev? Do you?).
I’ve measured and weighted (roughly and quickly, mind) most of the components mentioned above, and I’ve come to the following rankings for each country. This represents the best places to be in at the time of the ZPAW.
Tier 1 countries – USA, Canada, Finland.
Tier 2 countries – Russia, Australia.
Tier 3 countries – France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Ukraine, Argentina.
Tier 4 countries – Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, Poland, Netherlands, Italy, UK, Cuba, Turkey, South Korea, South Africa.
Tier 5 countries – Japan, Egypt, China, Indonesia, India.
Based on our tanh model of how the epidemic spreads, it also means that if, say, Tier 3 countries manage to contain their infestation, then Tier 2 and Tier 1 countries should be able to do so as well. Meanwhile, the Tier 4 and certainly the Tier 5 countries, ceteris paribus, will cross the tipping point and lose most of their populations – and since in practice the world is interconnected, put additional pressure on the Tiers above them.
Should this be a global pandemic, due to attrition and perhaps a time-dependent mortality function, eventually the zombie plague will dissipate. This leaves a shattered, decimated humanity behind. The size of national populations, again theoretically, will probably have some kind of logarithmic relation to their Tier. For instance, if the Population(end) = Population(start)*k*(1/2^(Tier-1), and k=0.1, then the remaining population of the US would be 300mn*0.1*1/2^0 = 30mn and of Russia, 140mn*0.1*1/2^1 = 7mn. Doing this for the major countries gives us the following rough global demographic profile after a catastrophic zombie pandemic:
US = 300mn*0.1*1/2^0 = 30mn
Russia = 140mn*0.1*1/2^1 = 7mn
China = 1300mn*0.1*1/2^4 = 8mn
India = 1100mn*0.1*1/2^4 = 7mn
Brazil = 190mn*0.1*1/2^3 = 2.3mn
Japan = 130mn*0.1*1/2^4 = 0.8mn
World = Asia (c.40mn) + Europe (c.15mn) + L. America (c.10mn) + N. America (c.35mn) + Others = c.100-120mn
A zombie pandemic will mean the emergence of the US as the dominant hyperpower for the foreseeable future – assuming, that is, that it could reconstruct itself and project power after such a cataclysmic event. (Perhaps this is the hidden psychological basis behind support for the pale-white, shuffling, zombie-like McCain).
Otherwise, Russia and China will be the dominant Eurasian powers, with the former dominating the squabbling European fiefdoms and the Middle Kingdom demanding tribute off a disorganized India and the demographic dwarf, Japan.