It’s fun to talk about getting ready for a zombie apocalypse–or imagine what kind of spiked muscle-car you’d fill with guzzeline if we were living in a Mad Max wasteland.
Yet if we’re going to be brutally practical, and that’s what this series of posts is all about, we need to focus on two key things:
(1) What ideas, fitness regimens and gear would actually work to prepare you for a disaster or apocalypse of any sort, whether it’s a 9.0 earthquake or a super-volcano going off at Yellowstone?
(2) Whatever we come up with must fit the budgets and lifestyles of everyday people. As in nothing on this silly blog can include things like (a) borrowing $400,000 to build an underground bunker next to your house, (b) spending $$$$ on a tricked-out AR-15 and a fancy $2,000 katana for yourself when you could spend a tiny faction of that for an arsenal of cheap, tough machetes ($15 apiece) along with bows and arrows for all your neighbors and friends, or (c) quitting your job and moving your entire family to a log cabin in Nome, Alaska.
To boil that down: what are the cheapest, smartest things you can do to prepare for the most likely craziness?
That means no, don’t prep for zombies, because they don’t exist. And it means yes, think about evil robot soldiers and artificial intelligence gone wrong, because that is not science fiction anymore.
The most likely apocalypse may already be happening, because all the ice in Antarctica (and Greenland, and the north pole) is melting. Insanely fast.
Which means the biggest box-office bombs of apocalyptic movies, WATERWORLD, may be a prophecy.
For those who didn’t watch the whole story, or read about this in the papers of news, plain old global warming would raise sea levels enough to turn coastal cities into water parks. Not good.
Antarctica holds about 90 percent of the world’s freshwater in its ice sheet.
If all the ice in Antarctica melts, you’re looking at a sea level rise of 230 feet.
Yeah. Not two feet, or 23 feet. Two hundred and thirty.
I already did an entire post on what makes sense to prepare for a global warming or WATERWORLD scenario, and that post still holds true.
What’s important here is to recognize the news happening. Because honestly, if CBS reported a small horde of zombies taking over Nome, Alaska, people would lose their minds, even if scientists said it would take 50 years for those zombies to march through the snow and get to Anchorage to start causing real trouble.
There are great zombie movies, and horrifically beautiful apocalyptic films.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, DAWN OF THE DEAD, WATERWORLD (hey, I’m kidding)–you get the idea.
So why do zombie apocalypse movies smash into the brick wall of failure?
Zombie comedy? Sure. SEAN OF THE DEAD. Zombie romance? Yeah, they’ve tried that. Zombie drama? Yep.
You’d think this would be like peanut butter and chocolate, two great things that taste even greater when mashed together. But I can’t think of a single zombie apocalypse movie that truly works.
The biggest such film–WORLD WAR Z–went splat, despite the star power of Brad Pitt and a big budget. Why?
I’ve pondered this, downed a pot of coffee and consulted the oracle.
Here’s the deal.
In a horror movie, everybody dies
Not because the screenwriter and director are sadistic. The whole point of a horror movie is society getting punished for its sins by the monster, who’s actually the hero.
That’s why Freddy, Jason and all the other horror monsters never truly get killed off.
Slasher movies show teenagers breaking the rules–shoplifting, getting drunk, having premarital sex, lying to their parents about it all–and getting punished by the boogeyman for their sins.
Another big branch of horror movies is about man playing God–inventing super-smart sharks with lasers, creating hybrid genetic experiments that go wrong, or sewing together body parts from the grave and using lightning to reanimate the thing. Then those creations rise up to punish the scientists for their arrogance.
This is why horror movies can fail. If the teenagers or scientists actually win in the end, the movie confuses the message. You might start out rooting for the teeny boppers or mad scientists, but in the end, you’re supposed to see the monsters as agents of rough justice.
Same thing with a zombie movie.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD is actually about racism.
DAWN OF THE DEAD is about consumerism, which is why it’s set in a mall.
Monster in the House is a great story and a dangerous one for zombies
There’s a primal story that screenwriter Blake Snyder identifies as Monster in the House, where there’s a monster in an enclosed space and either it’s gonna kill you or you’re gonna kill it.
JAWS, ALIEN and FATAL ATTRACTION are all Monster in the House stories.
There’s a big difference between these stories and a true horror movie. The ending is completely opposite.
The shark dies in the end of JAWS, as does the alien and the obsessed, discarded mistress played by Glenn Close.
NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD and DAWN OF THE DEAD feature the same enclosed space problem, because it’s good storytelling to put characters in a cage with your monster. But they stay true to the message and let the monsters win, punishing society for our sins.
In an apocalyptic movie, tons of people die–but the story ends with hope
The storytelling bones of a good apocalyptic movie are completely different than a horror story.
Civilization goes buh-bye, and the fun of an apocalyptic movie is seeing how that happens and what replaces the status quo.
Also, you get to loot the hardware store and the mall. Who doesn’t like to see that on film? Always a good time.
The message of an apocalypse film, though, is that lots of people die because they make bad, selfish choices, while the few heroes who survive make good, unselfish choices.
It just doesn’t work to mix a true zombie movie, where everybody dies as punishment for society’s sins, with an apocalyptic film, with its message of survival if you make the right choices.
So: back to the movie, WORLD WAR Z, which is a confused beast.
If you read the novel–which you should–it’s not a horror story, where everybody gets nom-nommed by the living dead. It’s a true zombie apocalypse story that can work, with the end showing the undead almost destroying the world. They’re only beaten when society makes painful, fundamental changes to work together and win the war.
Hope and survival. That’s the right way to thread the needle and tell a zombie apocalypse story that works. Give us that, Hollywood–Brad Pitt is optional.
Let’s talk about WATERWORLD: KEVIN COSTNER WAS RIGHT, PEOPLE–because rising seas due to climate change isn’t really a dystopian fantasy.
Climate change is happening. The world’s getting hotter, which means extreme weather, drought, melting ice caps and yes, Kevin Costner having gills and a sweet sailboat doesn’t seem so silly anymore.
So whether you’re writing dystopian fiction or prepping for the worst, a WATERWORLD scenario is worth talking about.
1) Head for the Great White North
If you live in the northern hemisphere, as most of the world does, a WATERWORLD dystopia means heading north.
Even if your home doesn’t disappear under the waves, like a big chunk of low states like Florida could, changing weather and failed crops will mean a big shift in the population to the north.
Places like Canada and Siberia will go from frigid vistas full of moose and whatnot into much warmer and hospitable places with fertile farmland and long growing seasons.
If you’re in South America or Africa, you’d head south.
Australians? Sorry, I don’t know. Hard to figure.
2) Yes, hoard those seeds
We may think it’s cute that plants and seeds are the MacGuffins in so many dystopian movies, from WATERWORLD to WALL-E to MAD MAX: FURY ROAD.
In this case, collecting seeds makes total sense. Give me a choice between teaming up with a farmer with a seed collection and a platoon of Army Rangers equipped and ready for war, I’m picking the farmer. Because the soldiers will run out of gas and you can’t eat bullets.
Seeds will be priceless. Rising seas, droughts and a hotter planet will mean massive crop failures and starvation unless adjustments are made. Whether you want to be near other people or hiding out in a small group, you’ll want seeds for crops.
Why? Because (a) it’s incredibly hard to transport herds of cows, goats or other animals thousands of miles in good times and impossible when desperate people will happily kill them (and maybe you) to eat those animals, (b) seeds are small, light and easy to transport and (c) anybody who’s studied history knows humans were hunter-gatherers who had to live as nomads until they domesticated the right plants and animals.
Plants are easiest and first. Try for animals second.
3) Figure out the where before the what and the how
Where you want to end up determines what you should gather and how you should plan.
Settling with a bigger population with advantages, like the possibility of specialists you’ll want, like doctors, carpenters, dentists, nurses and other things that can save time and lives.
Since we’re talking about the collapse of civilization, any sort of city will probably have a rough form of government. The biggest, baddest people will probably be in charge and it won’t be pretty, with power struggles if not civil war. Think Bartertown.
And any real city will be a tempting target for raiders.
Hiding out in the mountains and such protects you from living in a snowy version of Bartertown and from roving bands of cutthroats. But you won’t have access to the gear, food and medicines of bigger settlements, and that’s a huge problem when a simple infection can lead to gangrene and death.
A medium approach could work: a village instead of a big city, tucked away far off the beaten path.
4) How will you get there?
This is the toughest bit. A global disaster like this means 7 billion-plus people fighting over the same resources and having the same idea: head to places like Canada, Siberia or Sweden.
It could be a disaster in slow motion, getting worse by the decade. Or the glaciers on Greenland could hit a tipping point and melt quickly.
Seems like there are two obvious options: (a) head north before everybody else even thinks about it or (b) if you wait and are competing with everybody else, travel in a completely different manner.
If it’s a sudden crisis, roads and highways will be clogged and impassable. Traveling thousands of miles on foot, mountain bike or horse isn’t really practical.
Flying could work, if you had enough fuel for a one-way trip. Tough to pull off, and difficult to have a safe landing spot. Say you’re in charge of a little airport in the Yukon and suddenly all these rich people want to land their Lear jeats packed with gold, guns and canned food. This is your chance. Block the runway unless they pay your fee, which you can make onerous. Tell them you want half of all they own. Or take all of it right when they land. People who run airports and marinas could be running things for miles.
Marinas lead to the second option: travel by boat.
Sailboats are incredibly smart for just about every apocalyptic scenario you can dream up. No need for fuel, which will run out quickly.
Hungry? Use a net or fishing pole.
Feeling unsafe? Pull up anchor and sail off.
You could sail up the west coast to Alaska, hanging out in the safety seas of the Inside Passage and towns like Juneau.
The trouble with staying in saltwater is you can’t drink it. There are methods to make saltwater palatable. I think my favorite strategy is sailing along the coast, then heading into a river to find safe harbor. There are plenty of rivers, and you’ll be able to fish for salmon and get fresh water.
5) What would you want to bring?
Aside from the standard considerations on gear covered in previous posts, a WATERWORLD scenario brings some different angles and needs.
Going to places like Canada, Siberia or Sweden mean trees. Big evergreens. That’s what you’d build things with, which means you want hand tools to work with wood. Axes and saws, hammers and chisels, hand drills and nails.
I’d also want tools for digging and farming. Shovels, rakes, hoes.
Because these tools will break, or need repair, it’d be smart to learn basic smithing and collect bellows, an anvil and tongs. Scrap metal will be easy to find in any sort of dystopian scenario, so it’s not like you need to mine your own iron.
Warm clothing will be essential during the winters, which will still be cold. You won’t be growing cotton. It’s far more likely that you’ll tan hides and use fur, so you’d want a book or cheat sheet on tanning hides along with big, strong needles and thread.
6) Is this dystopia preventable?
I have to end with this. There are all sorts of apocalyptic movies, books and possibilities, most of which are either improbable or difficult to stop. If a giant space rock really wants to hit Earth, or aliens with advanced tech decide to invade, well, Bruce Willis only saves us in the movies.
Nuclear war and rising seas / climate change are two dystopian scenarios that can be completely avoided. We might want to think about that. And I think that’s part of the message of every good apocalyptic story, which isn’t just about how that kind of desperate scenario would test and change normal people into heroes and villains. Dystopia stories are really telling us, “Come over here and listen, because this is how terrible things can really get if we act like complete idiots.”
Just as it’s not brilliant to (a) quit your job, cash out your retirement and move your family to an underground bunker in the Yukon to eat canned beans and get ready for the arrival of zombies, aliens or killer robots, it’s equally dumb to (b) do absolutely nothing. Because there will always be hurricanes, earthquakes, raging wildfires and pandemics. No matter where you live, something can go wrong.
HOWEVER: What should you actually prep for, and what scenarios are fanboy fantasies you can safely forget about?
Two bits of terrible nonsense that definitely will happen, but you can completely ignore
Two big ones on the BBC list are things that will happen. Guaranteed.
Yet you can safely ignore them.
Death of the Sun–Yes, this will happen, eventually. Billions of years from now. What are you gonna do about it?
Heat death of the universe–Also guaranteed, if current physicists are right. Also impossibly far off in the future and not worth your time pondering or prepping.
Four horrific things that MAY happen that you should also ignore
Gamma Ray Bursts–Doesn’t sound that bad. Isn’t that how Bruce Banner became the Hulk? But no, in the actual universe instead of the Marvel one, Gamma Ray Bursts are insane space death rays that originate from black holes and such and can fry a planet like earth just like that. Nothing you can do about it. No way to predict or stop one, and they’re crazy rare. Fuggetaboutit.
Rogue Black Holes–Yeah, this is theoretically possible. One of these might float into our solar system and eat Jupiter for breakfast and Earth for dinner. Not likely and there’s nothing you can do about it.
SimCity–Some people think our entire universe is a simulation, and some 13-year-old alien may get tired of it, shut it down and play Batman: Arkham Knight instead. Also not likely and impossible to stop if true.
Zombies–Though I adore zombie movies, you have to really stretch to pretend there’s a scenario where zombies actually happen.
Eight different Apocalypse Maybes
Now we’re talking. These scenarios are (a) possible, if not likely, (b) capable of causing global havoc, (c) preventable, (d) survivable and (e) good fodder for a movie starring The Rock.
Waterworld–Kevin Costner was a prophet, right? Climate change is happening. Seas are rising, weather is getting more extreme and it doesn’t look good.
Spanish Flu on Steroids–Airplanes circling the globe make it super easy for a new virus or disease to spread unnaturally fast.
Supervolcano Goes Boom–There are about a dozen supervolcanos on earth. Any one of them going off could ruin things for, I don’t know, a century. Nasty business.
Overpopulation–We’re already kinda there, with 7 billion people using more resources than the earth can replenish every year.
Underpopulation–The flip side, most likely in combination with another disaster.
Mad Max–Though it’s a Hollywood cliche, nuclear war is still a real-life issue.
The Terminator–Killer robots, or AI gone rogue, are definitely possible, especially if militaries increasingly deploy killer drones and AI tanks and such.
Killer Rocks from Space–Little asteroids hit Earth all the time. A big one could end modern civilization.
In the next few weeks, I’ll dive into each of these eight scenarios. Can it be prevented, and how would you actually prep to survive it?
(1) Prepare for anything, because you can’t predict what will happen in your lifetime
(2) Get ready for the most likely emergencies, disasters or apocalypse (singular, because There Can Be Only One … at a time), or
(3) Dedicate all your time, money and imagination to preparing solely for your Most Favorite Apocalypse, because the other types are lamer than a Justin Bieber concert—and if loving zombies is wrong, you don’t want to be right.
This matters because what you do to prepare for WATERWORLD: KEVIN COSTNER IS OPTIONAL is far, far different than if you expect a Mad Max wasteland next Tuesday after Kim Jong Il insults the bathroom décor at Mar-a-Lago and the Donald starts mashing buttons on the nuclear suitcase.
This great infographic by the BBC gives us a look at the entire universe of possible, probable and unlikely disasters:
Well done, BBC, just spot on. Terrifying, sure, but good.
Next week, let’s start going through all the major options.
What’s a fun fantasy that won’t happen? What’s the most likely and smart to prep for?
This chapter is about traveling, which you’ll need to do since hunkering down, bunker or no bunker, is a terrible option.
Most apocalyptic and zombie movies feature some sort of vehicle—Mad Max is packed with them. Though it would look amazing to ride a Harley through the wastelands, you would only look amazing for a week or two before that bike ran out of gas or attracted dozens of enemies with its insanely loud exhaust, advertising your exact location to anyone within a half a mile.
There are serious problems with relying on any sort of vehicle, no matter how cool it looks when Tom Hardy is driving it.
Though you can count on having to walk, hike, trudge and climb, are there any decent alternatives? In the end, I found three good options.
To get there, let’s talk through the problems and solutions for getting around without zombies going nom-nom-nom as you’re trying to siphon gas from a wrecked Ford Expedition.
Problem #1: Running out of guzzleline
Any serious, long-term apocalypse would mean nobody’s filling up the local Chevron anymore. Fuel would run out within weeks.
There are complicated ways of getting around this, such as using diesel engine and making your own biodiesel. Except that’s pretty involved even today, when you can do it in the comfort of your garage and can get new parts from the local hardware store.
Making your own fuel isn’t practical when you’re trying to survive in a wasteland. Neither is setting up Bartertown just to gas up your rig. We all know how well that worked.
Solution: Whatever options we pick need to be sustainable, and preferably not rely on any sort of fuel.
Problem #2: Roads and highways will be dangerous messes
You won’t be cruising along I-5 at 70 miles an hour—wrecked and abandoned cars will clog up the roads. Smart scavengers will also use obstacles and roadblocks to ambush anyone who does drive through.
A related issue is the fact that highways generally mean civilization, which should be avoided. They’d be trouble in an apocalypse, with millions of people streaming out from big cities and crowded suburbs to look for food. Looting the Safeway is not an original idea. Everyone will head there first with a can opener in their pocket.
Solution: Good options need to travel off-road, and this includes water. WATERWORLD may have been terrible, but a sailboat isn’t a bad idea at all.
Problem #3: Insanely equipped and armored vehicles are also insanely expensive
We’re shooting for cheap and sustainable here. A real military Humvee, armored personnel carrier or RV decked out with steel plates and spikes would cost a lot of money to buy and modify.
It’s also not smart to invest everything into a single vehicle.
Economists have a concept called “opportunity cost” that’s useful here. A plain vanilla RV can easily cost you more than $100,000. Armored cars will cost a lot more. If you can buy a good hiking backpack for $80 and fill it with the essentials for $300, you can equip all your friends, neighbors, coworkers and those college kids down the street with what they need to survive for the same price as that one vehicle.
Solution: Anything that makes our final list has to be cheap, or readily available as you wander around.
Problem #4: Breakdowns would be fatal
Say you have a great vehicle, and it goes off-road just fine. All your food and gear is happily stowed inside.
Any sort of mechanical breakdown would put you back on foot. And there would be breakdowns, since oil changes and mechanics would no longer exist. Even if you’re a trained mechanic, finding parts and tools would be tough.
Solution: This means adding “easy to fix” to our list.
Problem #5: Going to the air is completely nuts
A helicopter could get you in and out of trouble and a dirigible could stay safely above the fray for weeks or months.
And yes, a gyrocopter looks amazing. Combine a Carver trike with a gyrocopter and even James Bond would get jealous.
Fuel isn’t your real problem here, though. You won’t have to come down to the ground just for gas. You’ll need food and supplies, too. And that means landing. A lot.
Every time you land, that beautiful flying machine is sitting there, completely vulnerable. Zombies will swarm it, aliens authorities will confiscate it or scavengers will steal it.
Solution: We’re sticking to ground and water options.
Our three best options
Motorcycles would seem like a much better option than heavy, gas-guzzling RVs, Humvees and M-1 tanks stolen from the National Guard depot.
They’re nimble and could get around wrecks. Even better: dirt bikes, to easily cruise through logging roads, mountain trails and deserts.
Though this is appealing, fuel is still the sticking point. However: dirt bikes do lead us to the first smart, sustainable option.
Great option #1: Mountain bikes
Cheap to buy and equip.
Easy to fix.
Never need fuel.
If your mountain bike gets mangled, you can scavenge another. They’re everywhere.
There are even fat-tire mountain bikes, overbuilt for sturdiness rather than speed, with giant tires meant to go through mud, sand and snow.
Great option #2: Sailboats
A sailboat is a great idea. You can actually pick up small, used sailboats for pretty cheap.
They’re sustainable and have a built-in shelter, letting you snooze out of the elements. A sailboat also means an easy supply of fish.
You can anchor the boat far from shore to stay safe, or use it to set up a series of island bases as you follow the seasons and migrating animals. A sailboat also gives you the ability to carry a lot of friends, food and gear with zero penalty in terms of fuel, since all you need is wind.
A decent sailboat gives you all the benefits of a bunker with none of the drawbacks.
There will be other people with the same idea, and therefore avoiding other boats is smart. But if you know how to work sailboats, and teach your friends to sail, you can liberate marinas along the way and get an entire fleet of boats.
Calling yourself the Dread Pirate Robers is optional.
Great option #3: Horses
If you know how to deal with them, though, this is a smart, sustainable way of getting around. Horses can travel over tough terrain and make it easy to escape trouble.
Since you’ll be traveling in a group as a Nimble Nomad with Friends instead of a Lone Wolf in a Bunker, a group of horses is even smarter because they can feed themselves and reproduce, two tricks that mountain bikes and sailboats still haven’t mastered.
Once again, Kevin Costner has a great idea in a terrible movie.
Despite the fact that Kevin Costner should never again star in an apocalyptic movie, he nailed two out of three best options: sailboats and horses. Well done, Costner.
Next week: Chapter 4—One Backpack and a Pair of Hiking Boots
If you live long enough, something bad will happen. The question is how bad, and whether you’re ready for it.
Here are seven easy ones:
Rising seas from climate change, possibly leading to WATERWORLD (Kevin Costner is optional)
An big, nasty asteroid decides to plow into our planet when Bruce Willis is otherwise engaged
MAD MAX doesn’t seem much like fiction after a reality TV star starts a nuclear war with (a) North Korea, (b) Russia, (c) China or, for variety, (d) all of the above
Aliens invade to enslave the human race, making us all mine unobtanium 20 hours a day after their home planet totally runs out
Zombies—slow, traditional and terrifying
Fast zombies—which tell you this film is full of CGI and no good at all
Say hello to our robot overlords
Even if nothing truly terrible happens, it’s a good idea to be prepared for emergencies, be they tiny or huge. Public health folks have brilliantly latched onto this idea, using zombies to get people to prepare for earthquakes and hurricanes.
Plus it’s just fun to think, “What if?”
However: The traditional—and heavily advertised—ways of being fit and prepared for any sort of apocalypse aren’t all that smart. At all.
The ideal of fitness today means (a) looking great in a speedo or bikini, (b) winning athletic contests or (c) looking great in a speedo or bikini while winning athletic contests.
It also means being highly specialized.
Yet all the tools people use to be fit today—gym memberships, Olympic weight sets, $400 running shoes and protein shakes—won’t exist in any sort of long-term emergency or apocalypse.
And being extremely fit and specialized, by today’s standards, would actually be a problem.
Giant muscles require a massive and steady amount of calories to maintain, along with all kinds of free time and gym equipment, none of which you’ll have in whatever flavor of apocalypse you favor.
Extremely low bodyfat makes you look great on a beach, yet nobody will see you on a beach during the apocalypse, and zero body fat gives you zero margin of error when it’s freezing at night or you can’t find food for three weeks.
Being highly specialized in one game or sport isn’t helpful for survival purposes, where you’ll need to be pretty good at a ton of different and random things.
So that’s what this series of posts will be about—researching and experimenting to find the smartest, cheapest ways to actually prepare for some sort of disaster or apocalypse. And the emphasis will be on cheap.
Each post will look at four different options for whatever we’re talking about, rating them on weight, price and practicality:
Grizzly Adams: absolutely free and crafted from whatever you can find in the woods
Scavenger Special: free or truly cheap, taken from recycled material, stuff you find in a junkyard or can buy today for almost nothing
Best of Both Worlds: great quality for a great price
Crazy Billionaire: the absolute most expensive option and top of the line, just for the sake of comparison
Next week: Lone Wolf in a Bunker vs Nimble Nomad with Friends