Observations on infrastructure failure in fiction

Originally published at Notes From The Bunker. You can comment here or there.

Get ten survivalists in a room and you’ll get ten (at least) different reasons why they’re survivalists. The Peak Oil nut will shout down the hyperinflation cheerleader who is sneering at the Bird Flu advocate and they all get together to snicker at the zombie apocalypse fanboy.

But, ignore the disease and look at the symptoms…zombies don’t eat food, so why are you storing those freeze drieds? “Because the grocery supply chain will be disrupted”, replies the machete equipped lad. And what about Bird Flu lady? Cans of Spam don’t catch bird flu and die, so why the cases of food in her basement? “Because the grocery stores won’t be getting any more inventory as things are quarantined”, she’ll say between spritzes of Clorox. And the Peak Oil wonk, asked why he’s stocking up on canned tuna when tuna don’t drive or require petrochemical lubrication, says “because the grocery stores won’t be getting trucks of food in if those trucks can’t run.” Each one of these folks sees a different disease, but the symptoms, by and large, will all be the same – the grocery store will be useless. Infrastructure will be affected and distribution networks/chains will be destroyed or disabled.

So, really, 90% of what we’re preparing for is infrastructure failure – the inability (or total collapse) of a distribution system (distribution of food, distribution of power, distribution of supplies, distribution of security, etc.) While it does matter how that failure occurs (an interruption in electrical service from a fallen power line will probably be remedied faster than one from a comet strike that wipes out the eastern seaboard), the preparations against that failure differ only in scale (a weeks worth of generator fuel will probably get you past the fallen power line, it might take significantly more to get past the comet strike.) But, fundamentally, no matter what we think the main event will be, we all agree that infrastructure will be affected.

Looking at the crop of post-apocalyptic films and television shows, the one thing they all have in common is that infrastructure failure is central to their premise. “Jericho”, “The Walking Dead”, “I Am Legend”, etc, etc. are far less compelling without the element of scarcity-of-supplies. Surviving a nuclear war is a snap if the power stays on, the water keeps flowing, the grocery trucks keep driving and the cops still make their rounds. Zombies aren’t any more dangerous than rabid dogs when society is still functioning like it does normally. Take away the electricity, water, power, heat, food and ‘civilization’, though, and all those things become something else.

I mention this because I was watching the latest episode of “The Walking Dead” (a guilty pleasure) and if you ignore the there-might-be-a-zombie-behind-this-door moments, and watch it with a critical eye towards how infrastructure fails, the results of that failure, and the methods of coping with that failure…then the show becomes a bit more entertaining (although it will probably result in more yelling at the screen.) Electricity is virtually unavailable, food is scrounged, medical supplies are exhausted, fuel is scavenged, communications are nil, etc, etc. On a larger scale, transportation is greatly limited due to obstructed highways and fuel shortages, long-distance communications are gone as the telecommunications networks fail due to fuel and maintenance issues, lawlessness (in the sense of people killing you for your stuff) is the norm….and all of these things occur (or have occurred) in pretty much any disaster. Remove the flesh-eating undead and the infrastructure failure (and it’s consequences) are pretty much exactly what you had after Hurricane Katrina.

I have absolutely no idea what the future looks like. I’m pretty sure zombies, the rapture, and global thermonuclear war aren’t on the menu. But, no matter what sort of unpleasantness does kick off the freefall into chaos you can be certain that it’s most manifest component will be infrastructure failure. And thats why I like watching these end-of-the-world shows and reading the books – I like seeing situations and how some people think folks should react to them. (And, so far, no one has really impressed me with the depths of their preparedness…with one exception.)

While I’m sure you and I have a good enough imagination that we can ‘wargame’ potential problems arising from various system failures, I find that watching fictional interpretations of the apocalypse help me to think through scenarios I may not have previously considered. Sure the premises of some of these shows may be far-fetched or extremely unlikely, but the results are a different story..alien invasion or hurricane, the power is going down. So, I guess if someone were to ask me what it is I’m preparing against (or preparing for, I suppose) I’d have to say ‘infrastructure failure’…unlike many other apocalyptic scenarios I can at least point to dozens of occurrences of that, wheres I’m hard pressed to point to some of the other scenarios.