Peak Oil and the Zombie Apocalypse

Have you ever had this conversation?

Amy: I’m sort of worried about this peak-oil thing.

Bruce: Yeah. What are we going to do when we can’t afford to fill our cars?

Amy: Well, groceries are going to get more expensive.

Bruce: We might have to fix up those old bikes.

Amy: And I guess that we won’t be taking many trips to the mall…

Bruce: … since there won’t be much to buy there anyway…

Amy: And we’ll probably have bigger things to worry about…

Bruce: … what with the Zombie Apocalypse!

Amy and Bruce: Bwa ha ha!…  Followed by Nervous laugh. Darting eyes. Deep sigh.


Bruce: So, did you pick out a colour to paint the living room?

What is the world like, and what comes next?


This week, after an article in Brain, Child, some of the Moms in the blogosphere (and the NY Times) were pondering impending “Armageddon”, technological development, and the tendency to push children to be competitive at ever younger ages. At heart lies this question: Are we preparing our kids for a future of depletion and severe disruption, or are we preparing them for a future that looks pretty much like the present, only faster? (Always faster.) And in case I didn’t feel up to writing about this question, my inbox this morning contained a link to CBC’s Doc Zone for the week, Surviving the Future.

The question of the week was “Are you preparing your children for profound and unpredictable social change?” And if you are, how do you do that without scaring/scarring them? (1)

Depending on whom I ask, I have either grown up at the a world teetering on the brink of catastrophe (nuclear war/winter, environmental degradation, rainforest and biodiversity loss, civil unrest, genocide, climate change, AIDS, incipient anarchy, water stress) or a world at the pinnacle of human achievement (access to education, the internet, economic growth, instant communication, medical technologies, a huge middle class, freedom of speech, thought and assembly, cheap and plentiful food).

It’s not that this paradox is new to me. Through the wonders of technology, I’ve seen the demise of apartheid and the fall of the Berlin Wall, the emergence of the personal computer and the internet, and the reduction of risk in our middle-class-developed-world-lives to such an extent that we are fixated on ever-more-remote and hypothetical dangers. I have also watched the world stand by and allow genocide, seen international “leaders” squabbling instead of taking action in the face of the most pressing environmental concerns, the time-lapse extinction of animals, plants and biomes that have been predicted since my childhood, and heartbreaking inaction on the real issues of global poverty and human rights.

In the face of all that, I must confess that I am preparing my children for unpredictable social change… wherein lies the problem. By its nature, the future is unpredictable. And, if it’s anything like the past, it will be different from the present.

From social change to zombies

Which brings me, oddly enough, to Zombies. A not-insignificant portion of our culture has recently become… erm… obsessed, shall we say. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Zombies in all the campus-generated scripts I worked on at university, Zombies on the internet. Zombies vs. Ninjas. Zombie movies. Comedic Zombie movies. Zombies have become part of the great urban myth, a modern fairy-tale thing that goes bump in the night, and then eats your brains. In all these stories, Zombies are also our former neighbours and our friends, and they illustrate the heart of a great discomfort.

Many writers who acknowledge concerns about possible social disruption them have difficulty confronting how difficult things can actually get. We seem to display a profound split between our literary knowledge and our own ability to believe things. One of the things I heard during the coverage of 9/11 was, “This is worse than we could possibly have imagined.” And I thought, “No, it’s exactly the sort of thing we’ve imagined.” Modern literature is full of pandemics, nuclear attacks on major urban centres, water-contamination, biological weapons, and horror disguised as other-worldly. We have disaster movies, dystopian fiction, and post-apocalyptic epics. These fears are a bubbling cauldron just beneath the popular conversation. Secretly, or not, we sometimes think, “They could turn on us at any point! We might have to choose between our selves and them!”

But we can’t live our lives that way. So we come up with all kinds of techniques for diverting our own minds from the reality that things can suddenly go horrifyingly awry.

One of the great denials sounds like this: “Oh, you doomsayers are always predicting catastrophe, and it never comes.” Only it does. Catastrophe comes with great regularity – in the form of natural disasters, wars, plagues, famines, droughts, and terrorist attacks. Every day, all over the world, people are struck down in the midst of lives that they weren’t done with. Social fabrics tear and neighbours turn on each other, and astonishingly awful things happen. I’m not going to detail them, because they already get the majority of air time on our mainstream media. You’ve had to watch and listen to them for years already. And even though it doesn’t happen here, it could.

Oh, wait. It does happen here. Katrina, wildfires, 9/11, profound poverty and homelessness – we have instant and slow-motion disasters unfolding in North America too. There is nothing different about here from anywhere else except the sheer amount of resources we have at our disposal… but our current set of values has produced a society of people who are not very good at sharing or taking care of themselves. In the midst of a society of great abundance and wealth, we have left ourselves profoundly dependent and vulnerable to systems and supply chains that are stretched paper thin.

We have a dual myth working against us here. On the one hand, we have the self-made man, the individual standing alone. At the very same time we demand a high level of social conformity, particularly with respect to participation in a consumption-based economy. Neither of these turns out to be a particularly effective strategy for weathering social crises, during which compassionate leadership, the ability to cooperate, and the practical skills that our consumption culture has eliminated all turn out to be highly valuable.

Do you know where your food comes from? Really?

First, a couple of unrelated facts that are relevant to this discussion:

  1. The fact that our home is more than one gas tank from the nearest major urban centre comes up in conversation fairly regularly.
  2. After four years of pretty intensive gardening, we still found ourselves eating Swiss Chard and eggs several days in a row this summer, and eventually conceding and going to the grocery store.

I considered my move to the country to be partly an exercise in awareness. What, exactly, was I asking of people when I suggested that they needed to find different balance in their lives, more practical skills, and less reliance on increasingly unstable employment? I had previously purchased shares in Community Supported Agriculture when I lived in the city. It occurred to me that for there to be a CSA, there needed to be an A, and I’m deeply practical. But maybe, just maybe, I was thinking, “How hard could it be?”

Let me tell you; it’s harder than I expected. Not hard-unpleasant, but certainly hard-challenging. The first thing that has to come is a different relationship to time. If you want green beans in January, you have to plant them in June. Which means that you need to order seed in May. And ideally prepare the garden bed the previous October. That’s a 15-month lead time on out-of-season green beans. Moreover, you need to know that if you miss the day to harvest them, they will be past edible, and the plant will be satisfied that it has reproduced and stop making new beans. Also, you need to know that if you add too much manure (that is, nitrogen) to the bean patch, you will get lovely leafy plants – with no beans. And as a clincher, you need to know how to store them so that you’ll still want to eat them in January.

Well, that’s just beans. And after this summer, I’m here to tell you, woman does not live by beans alone.

Here’s what it comes down to: we transplanted urban folk don’t know what we’re doing. We are each attempting to reconstruct 10,000 years of oral tradition and skills training by reading a few books, attending some workshops, and examining some pictures on the internet. All while being mocked, or scoffed at, or gazing wistfully over the fence at Starbucks, fancy clothes, and a life devoid of manure. Really, it is my greatest irony that I went to graduate school to get away from manual labour. Ha ha, universe. Good one.

It’s not that I don’t want to share with my neighbours; it’s that if I fed all my neighbours, we’d get one meal, and then we’d be out of food.

Preparing my children for an uncertain future

Let me get this straight: I would love to be wrong about all of this. I would love to wake up one day to a miraculous world in which some technology has absolved us of all our environmental sins, and in which energy is cheap, harmless, and abundant. Internet? I’m in favour. Medical science? Has already saved at least two lives in our family directly. Sterile surgical theatres? I’m all over it. Same thing with refrigeration, running water, and light switches.

But since I can’t guarantee that, and there’s pretty good evidence that at least some things are going to get worse, I’m trying to raise kids that have skills and a sense of pride in them. We spend a lot of time on emotional intelligence, communication, and constructing strong social networks.We still drive a lot (more than I care to admit), but the conversation about transportation is open and on-going. My son is a bicycle convert, while my daughter is convinced that the future lies in horses. (She also thinks that it would be a good idea to live in a tent or a tree, though, so she doesn’t get a vote for practicality just yet.) And as a final immunization against affluenza, we try to take joy in simpler things, like a good stomp in the woods, a day of playing board games with other families and friends, or reading by the woodstove.

If nothing happens to go wrong, and I’ve raised skillful, resilient, creative, open-minded and caring people for no good reason, I’ll just have to live with that.

We need to laugh at the things that terrify us the most

So, among the converted, those of us who are already teaching our children life-sustaining skills, raising our own food, and generally getting on with the business of the slow decline, just in case there’s something to all of this, the conversation often goes more like this:

Amy: So, do you think when peak oil hits, there’s going to be a Zombie Apocalypse?

Bruce: Um. Yeah. I’m a little worried about that.

Amy: Yeah. Me too. Think we can do anything about it?

Bruce: Sure, but only if we can get the neighbours to start growing food instead of lawns.

Amy and Bruce: Bwa ha ha!…  Followed by Nervous laugh. Darting eyes. Deep sigh.


Bruce: So, did you find any decent mistints to paint the barn yet?

  1. Or, for the post-structural among us, scar(r)ing them.

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