Won't The Zombies Just Take Your Food Storage Away Anyway?

Sharon January 29th, 2009

Whenever I do these classes and start posting about food security, we come up against what I would call “the zombie issue” - the idea that marauding hordes of some sort will immediately emerge if we ever need our food storage, and promptly take it away from us.  There are a host of reasons I don’t buy this, one of them being that I think the “0 to Zombie in 30 seconds model skips over the fact that a whole lot of grey areas exist in between 0 and zombie ;-) , and most of the middle territory is far more likely to be enacted than the most apocalyptic anxieties/fantasies. 

 But for the purpose of the discussion, let’s imagine that there’s been some major disruption in food supplies and the undead are getting hungry. 

Now I’m still somewhat skeptical of the “zombie theory” for a number of reasons.  They include:

1. The assumption is often made that the zombies all come from cities, and by implication are often one of those “thems” - which to me suggests that underneath our zombie worries are some older and uglier assumptions about who we’re really worried about.  We saw how this played out in New Orleans, where reports and assumptions about violence were far greater than the reality - most of the violence that actually occurred was caused by people who thought they knew that bad guys were coming for them - even though they weren’t.  Our fears of the other from the city are complicated, and not always rational.  Sometimes, they create the situation they fear.

 2. The zombie theory tends to assume a well organized, armed populace of people who have guns and maybe gas (or maybe walk in an organized fashion), but no food, descending on a population of unarmed, pacifist agrarians.  This is seriously messed up for a host of reasons.

a. The trip out of the cities is longer than most people think.  Let’s say that a mass of angry, hungry zombies plan to march out to the countryside to get food, say, from New York City.  Well, before the zombies get to me, they’ve got to cover 200 miles of suburbia, not filled with food.  Then, they have to be able to recognize and obtain food from the farms - that is, they have to be able to look at the oats and say “yum, let’s take those…and thresh and hull them and roll them into oatmeal and eat them!”  If they are on foot (and let’s assume this isn’t winter), they are going to run out of steam somewhere in White Plains, long before they hit my neighborhood. If they might make it here, and run into the harsh reality - most rural areas don’t have a lot of gardens, and the things they produce often are the components of food, rather than food as most people who don’t cook recognize it. 

b. Rural people are armed and work together well.  Guns are usually among the tools of ordinary work out here  - people hunt, they run off predators, they butcher livestock and use their weapons.  Is it possible that zombies could overrun things?  Sure, but it would take a fair number of zombies. How did they get trained?  Where did they master the territory?

3. For the most part, and there are historical exceptions, zombie hordes are not what you have to worry about most in difficult times.  That is, if people are truly hungry, what people will worry about most is not the “random evil folk from far away” but their near neighbors who compete with them for resources.  This is much more likely to be expressed as a rise in the crime rate - less zombieism, much more “I beat you up and took your cash and food on hand.”  Now that’s not good either - but preparation for dealing with those basic crime security issues is rather different than for preparing to fight off the local zombie warlords.  In that case, your community is needed and essential.

Crime rates against people didn’t rise much in the great Depression, although light theft of food or small amounts of money did.  For people who wandered about looking for work or food, they were more likely to be victims than the perpetrators - in many towns the homeless during the Depression were thrown in jail, and used in forced labor, simply for the crime of being poor.  They were victims of crime quite often.  Crime rates did rise in places like Russia after the Soviet collapse, but the zombie reality never kicked in.  More crime has its tough parts, I don’t diminish this, but people who live now in extremely high crime areas find strategies for dealing with it.  I’ve lived in such areas myself. 

My point isn’t that no one will take your food away - maybe someone will.  Or maybe you’ll lose it to fire, flood, or having to evacuate.  Life doesn’t really come with certainties.  But I think we have a disproportionate fear of being targeted, in part based on the idea that we’re all going to experience things equally.  Now if everyone stops getting food all at once, it may be pretty obvious who has the food.  But how often does that happen?  There will be some rich folks and poor folks in most likelihood.  We probably won’t know what our neighbors have - some will still have a job and maybe some food coming in, some may be relying on stores, some may have virtually nothing.

I don’t find myself compelled by the idea that your stores will make you a target - or rather, any more than having a job or any other thing most of us don’t plan to give up unless we have to makes us a target. In fact, most of the victims of rising crime are poor people in poor neighborhoods - that is, right now, the targets aren’t the fortunate, but the unfortunate.  And that tends to get played out over and over again - it is the refugees and those without anything who lose the most.  Not always.  But history stands against the “your stores will mark you” analysis.

 But most importantly, all of this assumes that your stores exist entirely in isolation - that you in your house sit there with your food and eat when others are suffering.  But I think that’s very much unlikely for most of us - I’m sure if things get really bad, we’ll develop some kind of insulation against suffering, simply because we can’t help everyone.  But at the same time, those we’re in relationship with aren’t going to disappear, either.  And we are very much unlikely to live in a world where we know now, today, that this is the last crust of bread, and there will never be any more, and thus, sharing will starve our children.  That happens in novels, and not much in real life.  In real life, what happens is that you share, and the next day, perhaps your neighbor shares the food he found with you.

Indeed, in most poor cultures, the obligation to share is taken far more seriously than it is here.  In poorer times the fairy tales about the widow who gave the last crust of bread to a poor stranger, and about greedy rich people taught the cultural message that you shared because it was right, and also because what you shared returned to you. 

Joetta Handrich Schlabach, writing in _Extending the Table: A World Community Cookbook_ (a wonderful book) writes of a story a friend of hers who was visiting Lesotho. She visited a friend ‘Me Malebohang. They discussed the bad pumpkin harvest, and how ‘Me Malebohang had only 8 pumpkins for the whole winter. As the friend got up to leave, ‘Me Malebohang offered her guest the largest of the pumpkins. When the guest refused, saying she couldn’t take one of her pumpkins, ‘Me Malabohang answered, “We Basotho know that this is the way to do it. Next year I may have nothing in my field, and if I don’t share with you now, who will share with me then?” 

And even if you imagine that the worst case scenarios came true, the “last crust of bread” scenario becomes a reality, there is this - for some of us, how we live our lives matters as much as the lives themselves.  In the end, if, G-d forbid, we are confronted with that choice, I at least have to believe that those harshest and most uncertain moments are the ones that you  most need your own moral underpinnings - doing right may be more important than one more day.

But realistically, I don’t expect that most of us will face anything like that particular set of tragedies.  That doesn’t mean life won’t be harder, and that some people won’t go hungry - indeed, America has plenty of hungry right now.  But not because we’re all fighting over one last crust of bread.


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