He skipped Cultural Studies for Bicycle Tech Class

Continuing this week’s zombie theme, Grey has raised in comments to my last post the possibility that our modern specialization and lack of basic survival skills – farming, hunting, that sort of thing – would be a major problem in surviving the zombie apocalypse. The obvious implication of this is that your average media studies graduate, pasty white-faced urban public servant, is meat hanging on a hook once the gates of hell open up. Now, every time I watch a zombie movie I’m thrown into something of a reverie of thought about this – how would I survive, what would I do, what skills make one a valuable team member? And I’m forced to conclude that the skills of urban man aren’t actually so useless in your classic urban zombie apocalypse. In fact, I think the classic survival skills that one associates with a man[1] of a previous, simpler, less specialized era wouldn’t actually be anywhere near as useful either in the short term or the long term as one might initially think. This post is my classically long-winded attempt to work out why, but first let’s consider two examples of modern urban humans – one “real” and one not – in a short term and long term zombie survival scenario.

The Short Term Survival Skill of Greatest Importance: Media Studies and Jim from 28 Days Later

In the classic post-apocalypse scenario that everyone is familiar with, Jim wakes up from a coma in hospital. We know Jim is a bicycle courier, and he is in a modern (post-2000) world where the infected have taken over the streets. He emerges into the light of day and in a series of classic scenes stumbles through an empty London looking for clues as to what happened. He enters a church and takes altogether too long to figure out what’s going on, and ends up having to flee the scene with a bunch of infected chasing him, until a pair of survivors turn up with a few molotovs and save his bacon.

What was the key skill Jim needed here? He needed to have attended those early morning media studies classes, so that he could understand the narrative signs of a zombie apocalypse. No amount of gun-toting, pig-farming, deer-hunting experience was going to get him out of this one. What he needed was to know that in a deserted London with signs up at Picadilly Circus looking for lost loved ones who have fled to the country, going into an abandoned church is a bad plan. Similarly, the people who rescued him had a key skill they learnt at too many black block demonstrations – throwing molotov cocktails. And when he started to have his freak out, the woman in the group knew enough about medicine and nutrition to make him aware that he was suffering from his sugar-rich diet.

These aren’t skills or adaptation tactics one learns on the farm.

A Statistician in the Wilderness: Experimental Design and Community Survival in a Long-term post-Apocalyptic Scenario

Suppose that a gang of survivors that includes your humble blogger finds itself needing to carve out a long-term existence in the wilderness, having identified that there is no chance of society as we know it re-forming. Obviously we need to start farming at some point, because while survival hunting might be useful in the short term, it’s unlikely to provide sufficient food for a growing community and anyway, there are zombies out there. So, this community needs an efficient way of learning what farming methods are best within a few seasons, based on what knowledge we have between us. A statistician with training in experimental design is very useful for this sort of enterprise – a single season with a few crop yields will be sufficient to identify the best growth techniques in a well-designed trial, and this is very important for protecting a community long-term against crop failure and the destablizing effects of famine. It’s also essential to enable community growth. So even a skill as apparently useless as statistics can be put to work in the long-term interests of a post-apocalyptic community.

The Importance of Education for Adaptation

These examples are both facetious but they show that there is a key skill in surviving a zombie apocalypse – adaptation. And adaptation is facilitated by a wide and advanced education, popular cultural knowledge, exposure to media, and the coherent exchange of specialist skills in a community. In the short term the ability to farm or hunt is irrelevant to survival in a collapsing urban environment – key skills are adaptability, brutality, and knowledge of the urban environment[2]. In the long term survival is best facilitated not by the ability to hunt or grow food, but by the ability to research, learn and adapt.

If an early group of pre-moderns survived a zombie apocalypse[3] and escaped to the wilderness, they might find themselves at a deserted abbey full of books on farming, the origin of zombies, good herbs to cure disease, local hazards, and the quickest and safest way to the coast, but their illiteracy would render all this information meaningless. Finding good mushrooms would be a process of trial and error, as would building a decent roof. It strikes me that my long-term survival strategy would be:

  • Find a pharmacist
  • Loot a library
  • Start a community based around a source of power, a pharmaceutical manufactory, and a farm

You can’t do this with a bow and a good knowledge of how to grow potatoes. In adapting to a new world, common sense is nowhere near as useful, I suspect, as the ability to synthesize new information and turn it to advantage, and this is very much a feature of the modern urban world. Why, even looting a library is not an easy job if you have to do it in a very short period of time before the zombies come – that takes organization, planning, and knowledge of how libraries work and how knowledge is accumulated.

Also, some skills that seem ubiquitous in zombie movies are actually extremely rare and probably more likely to be learnt anew than randomly occur in any group of survivors. The one that springs to mind most readily when watching US movies is gunplay. Not only is this skill extremely rare in the rest of the developed world, but getting guns is difficult and requires research and the ability to move large distances through hostile urban territory to find them. In fact, finding alternatives to guns is probably a much more viable option, and that – again – relies on adaptation. Not to mention that most peoples’ actual training in gunplay doesn’t extend to “using it safely in the presence of your comrades while exploring a deserted warehouse.”[4]

The Huge Range of Neglected Skills in Modern Life

I think it’s fashionable in the modern world to suppose that many of our jobs and skills are useless and really just represent the icing on the cake of civilization. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. Suppose, for example, that you end up in a gang of survivors composed of a weekend warrior paintballer, a retired cop, a housewife and a history teacher – these are hardly the sorts of people who’re going to build the new world, are they? But these people all have skills you might not expect. The weekend warrior might actually be very good at shooting, which is handy; the retired cop would have first aid skills; the housewife might previously have been an urban planner, with knowledge of the sewage system and how to move through the city safely underground; and the history teacher could be the local organizer for the teacher’s union, with a lot of experience of getting disparate groups of people to work together in a common cause. Someone in the group may have studied agriculture at university; the history teacher may know the location of the city’s key commercial food warehouses, which would be an extremely valuable piece of knowledge.

The Importance of Social Connection

In fact that last example is probably the most important of all, because the history of zombie attacks tells us that the single most important survival skill is the ability to play well with others, and to make judicious rules about how a group of people is to work together. This is the pre-eminent achievement of the modern urban world – advanced skills in group dynamics, planning, and getting shit done. Surviving in the zombie world is about fast collective decision-making and coordinated action, not individual prowess with knife, stick or gun. In the short term the ability to coordinate a raid on a supermarket to maximize your useful acquisitions in the minimum time, while guarding the exits and maintaining clear communication, is vastly more important than how many zombies you can kill or whether you can catch fish. If you have no-one in that supermarket who can quickly and rapidly tell the difference between antibiotics and antidepressants in the pharmacy counter (or if you send them to the clothing department to get padded jackets instead), you’re fucked – and having a good supply of antibiotics and machetes and nutritious tinned food is probably going to keep your group alive longer than a gun, 7000 rounds of ammo and a fishing line. Anyone who has spent time in a modern company knows how to function as a cog in a larger machine, what part to play and how to play it, and it’s likely that most modern urban dwellers if forced could come up with a decent group response to their plight.


Never fear, telephone sanitizers and personal shopping assistants of the world, you have more to fear from the global financial crisis than you do from a zombie apocalypse! Especially if you have done enough team-building exercises with your fellow survivors!

fn1: And I think the classic survivalist scenario always assigns these skills to a man, not a woman

fn2: All well evidenced on any Friday night in the centre of London!

fn3: Which seems like an excellent campaign idea!

fn4: In fact, in this scenario would 15 years’ training in a shooting range be even 10% as effective as 3 weeks playing Time Cop at the local arcade?