For a while a colleague of mine in the IISS Defence and Military Analysis Programme and I have wanted to co-write a review essay for Survival covering Daniel Drezner’s Theories of International Politics and Zombies and the military aspects of Max Brooks’s World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. It would have been fun, and no more frivolous than Drezner’s little textbook, but we both had other more important commitments and never got around to it. Drezner’s book is now two years old, and WWZ even older. Even with this years’ release of the movie version of WWZ making it timely again, the essay will probably never appear (but who knows?).

Survival, whose title reflects the still-young existential threat from nuclear weapons at the time it was launched 55 years ago, often gets press releases and even manuscript submissions assuming it instead deals with questions of personal survival in the event of total social collapse or infrastructure breakdown (otherwise known as ‘SHTF’), of which the zombie apocalypse is the Platonic ideal. There are a remarkable number of (mostly American) websites, forums, magazines and commercial outlets devoted to discussing and preparing for such a catastrophe. I was reminded of this the other day when, needing to find a citation for an article I’d published some time ago, I googled ‘Mazo Survival’. Having a rare surname has advantages when using search engines, but the second result was surprising. The site is apparently tongue-in-cheek – the building houses a web-design company – but it could well have been real: a textbook example of Poe’s Law.

Modern-day survivalists and ‘preppers’ tend to be well over the top: many appear to be gleefully anticipating the end of the world, when they expect to come in to their own in a brave new world of rugged individualism. And the subculture overlaps considerably with others such as self-identified ‘Tea Party’ members, climate-change deniers and others that reflect the anti-intellectual strand of American culture (see my Closing Argument in the December 2011–January 2012 issue of Survival). But making plans and personal preparations for surviving temporary disruptions is not irrational, as last years’ Hurricane Sandy or more localised storms, floods, earthquakes and so on constantly make clear.

The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) offers advice on a basic disaster supplies kit for every family, which includes three days’ supply of food and water. Some local authorities in the United Kingdom, and the devolved Scottish government, offer similar recommendations, but the UK government’s advice is vaguer and hard to find, amounting to little more than ‘keep calm and carry on’. (As my British wife put it, the UK advice equates to ‘make sure you can make a nice cup of tea’. With the British conviction that any problem can be solved with tea, and the corresponding American belief in duct tape, our goal is to invent a product that will combine the two). The transatlantic contrast is similar for civil-society organisations: the American Red Cross suggests three days of food and water for evacuation, and two weeks’ worth for the home; the Red Cross in the United Kingdom suggests three days’ supplies for the home and a ‘warm drink in a flask’ if you have to travel. Their advice, too, is buried on their website under ‘prepare for winter’ rather than highlighted under general emergency preparedness.

Recent polling suggests that fewer than 50% of Americans are adequately prepared for a disaster. That’s actually a lot more than I would expect, but these are only people who claim they have emergency supplies. (A much higher number believe they are prepared, without claiming to have taken the recommended steps. In fact, experts say the real number is probably much lower, even among those whose jobs involve emergency preparation for companies or communities). Anyone reading this blog, or Survival, is likely to be more clued-in than the public at large to the real dangers, and national and international planning and preparation for, extreme environmental events, pandemics, terrorist attacks and war. Yet I would be willing to bet that the proportion of readers who are themselves adequately prepared for disaster is low.

Government recommendations on a range of things – for example food safety, nutrition, alcohol consumption and medical care – differ from country to country based on advice from national scientific bodies and cultural attitudes towards risk. Emergency preparedness is no different. It would be a mistake to read too much into variations in message. More worrying is that neither the United States nor the United Kingdom seem to be getting their messages across to large numbers of their citizens. This is as important a part of developing resilience as national and local emergency response plans.

Personally, because wilderness camping is a hobby of mine, and I keep a rainwater barrel, I have everything on the DHS list already, and more. But it isn’t assembled into a single kit, and I haven’t put any real thought into preparedness. I should be okay in the event of a natural disaster, and I’m unlikely to be affected by any foreseeable terrorist attack where I live. A zombie apocalypse would be another story, but I take comfort in the fact that in The Day of the Triffids my county is one of the only parts of the United Kingdom that survives.

Jeffrey Mazo is IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for Environmental Security and Science Policy and Consulting Editor of Survival.

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