Guest Post by Michael O’Hara
No, I don’t mean the kind of reanimated corpses you encounter when you teach an 8:30am econometrics class. On a recent day in my natural resource economics class, I set the students free to construct an economic model of zombies as a recreational hunting species. These students have spent the semester so far analyzing models of resource use including how to efficiently and sustainably use renewable resources such as fish or deer. But ultimately what I want to teach them is a way of analyzing issues that can be applied to new problems. In my chapter in Economics of the Undead, “Zombies as an Invasive Species: A Resource Economics Perspective”, I suggest that in the inevitable event of a zombie invasion, a possible control method might be to encourage zombie hunting for sport. Building upon this idea, I set the students loose to think through the problem of how to make the best use of zombies as an economic resource.
I gave the students minimal guidance, letting them take the discussion in any direction they chose, and they had to make many choices and assumptions along the way. Since the idea of allowing free-range zombies was understandably a little troubling to them, they chose to build upon an idea I raise in my chapter: private zombie-hunting preserves. This keeps the zombies in check so that humans are not in danger, but it also raises an interesting problem: if zombies are contained, then there is no natural reproduction to maintain the zombie stock as there is in most of our bioeconomic models. Assuming that zombie hunting is a popular sport and we want to continue it in a sustainable way, this would require a steady stream of new zombies. As mentioned in my chapter, one way would be to limit head shots in some way so as to prolong the hunting value, but students recognized this as only a short-term fix. They needed some other way to replenish the herd.
Unlike my own (perhaps dated) concept of zombies being created by a bite from another zombie, most students were familiar with a more modern idea of zombies from The Walking Dead, in which anyone who dies is reanimated as a zombie. Making this assumption, they decided that deceased humans would be delivered to the preserve to restock the zombie population. Working through the implications of the model, this led the students to the logical conclusion that the rate at which we could sustainably harvest zombies would be constrained directly by the mortality rate of humans outside the preserve. Oddly (to me), students took this rate as given. The larger question of whether altering this rate could result in an improvement in economic welfare was not investigated.
Students truly enjoyed this exercise and it was very instructive for them to have to build a model of a new situation and see how the assumptions they put into the model lead to the conclusions at the end. Several of the students have told me since then that they were a little skeptical of the exercise at the start, but that it turned out to be one of their most memorable days of class.
Michael O’Hara is an assistant professor of economics at Colgate University, where he teaches and publishes in environmental and resource economics and econometrics.
Last week I was interviewed on Australia’s RN Sunday Extra, where I talked about the tragedy of the blood commons, zombies as an invasive species, legal vs. black markets in blood, and cross-the-grave dating, among other topics. You can listen to the whole thing here.
In an appearance on Jimmel Kimmel, Nathan Fillion reveals his concern for “zombie apocalypse preparedness.” And unlike many who share that concern, Fillion does not focus exclusively on the material things you should bring (ammo, duct tape, and so forth). Instead, he’s thinking about the team of people he wants with him after the collapse. He’s taking notes about which of his friends have something useful to contribute, and observes that some of his friends have “no marketable skills in the zombie apocalypse.”
(Sadly, WordPress won’t allow embedding from this source, so you’ll have to follow the link.)
Fillion is hitting upon a theme that comes up repeatedly in Economics of the Undead, particularly in James Dow’s chapter on “Packing for the Apocalypse.” Dow argues that the survival guides’ lists of stuff to bring are helpful enough for short-run survival, but long-run survival will depend on engaging in trade with other survivors. That means bringing the human capital (i.e., knowledge and skills) that will allow you produce the goods and services most in demand after the apocalypse. While Dow looks at it from the supply side (what skills do I have to offer others?), Fillion looks at it from the demand side (what skills do others have to offer me?). These are just two sides of the same coin, of course. Ultimately, the return to prosperity will depend on survivors joining communities that enable their members to engage in specialization, division of labor, and trade — a point also made in Brian Hollar’s chapter titled, “To Truck, Barter… and Eat Your Brains!!! Pursuing Prosperity in a Post-Productive World.”
Okay, not much econ content in this post, but science writer Kyle Hill has put a finger on something that’s always bothered me about the logic of The Walking Dead. In the Walking Dead universe, it turns out that everyone has the zombie virus latent in their system. As a result, death by any cause (for instance, a bullet wound or just old age) can result in reanimation as a zombie. But in that case, why does a zombie bite kill you? If you already have the virus inside you, then getting exposed to more of it shouldn’t be a problem. A zombie bite should be no worse than any other bite.
Hill offers an explanation, one that is not stated explicitly in the show but that is consistent with it: that victims of zombie bites don’t die from the zombie virus, but from other pathogens that thrive inside the mouths of the dead. In his words:
Dead bodies are dirty. Shortly after our body stops fighting off bacteria and starts decomposing, we are colonized by microscopic critters not safe for the living. For example, the state of a corpse is dangerous enough that crews searching for victims of natural disasters take special precautions to make sure they don’t get infected. A rotting body can still transfer gastrointestinal pathogens, tuberculosis, and hepatitis [PDF] to the living. Tuberculosis itself can survive in a corpse for 36 days after host death. So, one can imagine that a biting mouth of a rotting corpse, continuously chomping down on humans, isn’t the most hygienic place. It harbors a cocktail of bacteria and viruses that could be considered a sort of “zombie venom.”
Another possibility is that zombies produce a genuine venom of some sort — a toxin carried by the saliva. But regardless, a bite victim doesn’t actually die from the zombie virus; he dies from something else, and then becomes a zombie for the same reason everyone else does: the zombie virus already in his system.
However, this explanation implies that there may actually be hope for the victim of a zombie bite. They’re not doomed to become a zombie any more than the gunshot victim is. If the actual death is caused by bacteria carried in the biter’s mouth, then antibiotics could do the trick. If the actual death is caused by a genuine toxin, then an antitoxin of some sort might work. Either way, this opens up a world of possibilities for saving people and resisting the zombie threat. Producers of medical treatments for the zombie venom should see substantial demand for their services (okay, that was my weak attempt at making an econ connection).