As anyone who has reached the age of 30 can attest, the hangovers sure do not get better with age. What make these hangovers almost bearable is the existence of Netflix, and having the unbelievable power of limitless streamed TV shows and movies available while you lie on the couch and hate yourself. After a particularly heavy night last Saturday, my girlfriend and I dragged ourselves out onto the couch at around 2pm on Sunday, and started binge-watching The Walking Dead. The show revolves around a group of people struggling to survive a Zombie Apocalypse, but is far more interesting than that premise sounds. Zombies are slow and stupid, so within a series or two, the zombie threat somewhat stabilises as our survivors learn how to deal with them, and the focus of the show shifts to their interaction with other groups of survivors in this post-apocalyptic world. These interactions rarely end well, and usually involve as many deaths as a zombie attack would have yielded. Maybe I have seen too many post-apocalyptic movies in my lifetime, but I did not find this too shocking. My girlfriend, on the other hand, could not believe that people would be so ruthless to each other when they were all going through this nightmare zombie plague together. They were all human and should help each other survive, she said, why should they act so barbarically to each other? Now, as you may have noticed if you are a regular reader of this blog, I am not the type of person that hears a question and doesn’t at least pretend to know the answer.

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One of the main reasons people congregate together en masse is because more is accomplished when we work together. Human society only really emerged when groups of people stopped wandering around hunting, and made permanent residences where they farmed, growing their own food rather than relying on just killing animals to survive. This led to probably the greatest achievement of the human race, which was how our ancestors removed us from the food chain. When within the food chain, our ancestors survived day-to-day, constantly scavenging for food and living from meal to meal. This is how all other animals on this planet spend their lives. To most animals, the future is merely where the next meal is coming from: it would be pointless to imagine further than that, even if their brains had the power to do so. To us, outside of the food chain, we can imagine tomorrow, and next week, and even do things today that we hope will benefit us years from now. We go to university, invest in the stock market, and commit to a twenty year mortgage.  All of this is backed up by our faith in the power of laws and law enforcers to ensure that society will still be there when this future that we imagine actually occurs.

Further, and I will be blunt; people are not actually supposed to live as close together as we do now. More specifically, we are not supposed to interact so much with people who are not in our own immediate family. Often we forget that we are little more than animals with big brains, but animals nonetheless. Not many animals play well with others of the same species that are not part of their own community. Communities develop from the mixing of two or more families that learn to cooperate, and these communities do not react well to outsiders. This was the same with humans, yet over a period of thousands of years, technological and political advancement have led to the emergence of towns and cities. The idea of a city, with millions of perfect strangers living side-by-side on a daily basis is something that is extremely unnatural  in an evolutionary sense, and one that is unique to humans.

Think of yourself on an elevator when a stranger enters. You both pretend to ignore the fact that you don’t know each other and are trapped in an enclosed space for what can feel like an excruciating amount of time. If you put one of your homo-erectus ancestors in that space with a stranger for the same amount of time, only one of them would be coming out when the elevator doors open again. The awkwardness you feel in the elevator is a kickback to this: your primal urges indicating to you that the stranger is a threat to you. What human society has achieved over the millennia is the strength of will to ignore these urges, and trust that the other person will not harm you, that the hundreds of other people walking down the crowded street with you will not harm you, and will ignore you if you ignore them. This system is known as “civil inattention”, and is once again backed up by the existence of laws and a police force to step in and impose order if it all breaks down.

Back to zombies. I hopefully have conveyed above that two of the main lynchpins of the massively urbanised society are 1) that we have removed ourselves from the food chain and 2) that we can safely live amongst strangers. These advancements are backed up by a system of laws that ensure the safety of all of us in case some deviants may veer from the course of civilised behaviour. In the event of a zombie (or any other kind of) apocalypse, the first thing to disintegrate will be the mechanisms of the state that impose order. The police force and army are not trained to combat the undead, and therefore will be overrun and therefore join them in their quest for brains, swelling the ranks of the walking dead. This precipitates the breakdown of the very fabric of society. When thousands of zombies are baying for your flesh, it is fair to say that we are well and truly back in the food chain. Further, with the breakdown of organised society, no excess food is being produced anymore, and therefore any survivors of the apocalypse must once again scavenge for each meal, living from day-to-day, while at the same time escaping the hoards of zombies who only want to eat human flesh.

Humans are adaptable, however, and this is why we have survived. After a certain amount of time, any survivors will adapt to the situation and forge outposts for themselves, attempting to rebuild a sense of society. Small communities may emerge, but how will they react to outsiders? Any safe haven from the zombie threat has been hard won, and no one wants to give up ground, or share scarce resources. In essence, this reduces the human race to how we were a few hundred thousand years ago, to the level of an animal fighting for territory when confronted with a stranger that is not part of the settled community. Even if the outsider is harmless, it is impossible to ignore the threat, as the times are different and there is nothing to stop one overpowering the other and stealing possessions. What is most unsettling is that even if you don’t believe this, and you believe people would never resort to this, your best strategy for survival would be just to simply assume that everyone you meet will try to kill you and that it is up to them to prove you wrong. Civil inattention is therefore impossible and the collapse of society becomes a mutually detrimental equilibrium in a prisoners dilemma. Survival, from the clutches of zombies and outsiders alike, is the only future in such a world, and therefore thousands of years of our advancement has been destroyed.

I don’t like zombie movies, nor the supernatural in general, yet I liked The Walking Dead. In a similar vein I am not a fan of fantasy, dragons nor magic, yet I have devoured every minute of Game of Thrones and every page of A Song of Ice and Fire. What I find fascinating in all of these is simply the politics involved in societies so vastly different from our own. The Walking Dead in particular makes you realise just how quickly the norms of society could breakdown if just a few hundred million people die, and in the process become zombies that crave the flesh of the living. It really reminds us of how fragile an existence we really live and how far we have come as a species, particularly when lying on a couch all Sunday evening praying for the end of your world.


2 thoughts on “Fight the Dead, Fear the Living: Civil Inattention at the End of the World

  1. Yeah, I was turned off by the whole zombie thing, to be honest. Finally got round to watching the first episode, and have been hooked ever since.

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