Packing for the Apocalypse

Excerpt from Chapter 3, by James Dow

While today weight and volume are not the prime determinants of the opportunity cost of the decisions we make (time seems to be the modern constraint), in a zombie world we need to travel light, and so weight and volume matter. The goods we bring should be scarce, valuable, and low-cost in terms of the constraints on what we can bring. However, the importance of those constraints suggests a different approach.


The title of “Worst Zombie Movie Ever” is hotly contested. Hillbilly Bob Zombie is certainly in the running; I made it through about ten minutes before giving up (in other words, don’t bother). But what brought me to it was the premise. In the zombie literature, there are a few major “creation myths.” The original version was that zombies were created by voodoo priests (I Walked with a Zombie). In more recent movies, it’s a biological cause such as a virus, either a domestic mutation (World War Z) or something extraterrestrial (Night of the Living Dead). Sometimes chemicals, often from a government experiment gone horribly wrong, are what reanimates the dead (Return of the Living Dead). Hillbilly Bob Zombie provides a novel take on the chemical story. The protagonists of the movie decide to set up a backyard still, and they find an abandoned barrel off the side of the road that seems ideal for the job. Unfortunately, the barrel formerly contained toxic waste, which ends up contaminating the moonshine and turning the drinkers into zombies. Havoc ensues.3

Let’s face it, after the world has passed through a zombie apocalypse and civilization as we know it has collapsed, it’s probably alcohol that will be in popular demand. In fact, distilled beverages may turn out to be water’s highest-valued use. You may want to take advantage of this prediction. From an economic point of view, alcohol is just a technology for turning water and grain into drunken people. To make the most of this entrepreneurial venture, you want to be involved at the right part of the process, where value is high and opportunity cost is low. Bringing water and grain would take up a lot of space. Premade alcohol would take less space, but it’s still pretty heavy. The better thing to do would be to bring a still, with the expectation that water and things to ferment (grain or potatoes or fruit) will be in plentiful enough supply.

Owning the means of production, what economists call physical capital, offers several potential benefits.4 It leverages what you bring, since typically the value of the goods produced by the physical capital will exceed the value of the capital itself. Labor, by definition, comes with you, and raw materials are less beneficial to bring because they are bulky (high opportunity cost) and are likely to be abundant anyway due to the reduced population.

There are some risks to this strategy. One risk is that when zombies attack, they kill people but leave their goods behind. It might be that all sorts of useful capital will be left lying around, and so packing your own would be a waste. However, capital can be very specific to the goods being produced and the structure of the economy (as we will see later), and so what we find lying around may not be what is needed.

It’s also important to take into account what other survivors will bring. If everyone brings their own stills, then alcohol will be in plentiful supply, and we know from the diamond/water paradox that this will make alcohol have low value in exchange, even if alcohol on average is highly valued. If you think alcohol will be in plentiful supply, then think of what else might be scarce. Guns will be valuable, which means ammunition will also be valuable. But sooner or later the ammunition will run out, so if you are packing for the long run, instead of bringing bullets, bring the physical capital needed to make bullets. Perhaps shotgun shells, which are relatively easy to manufacture and have parts that can be reused. Or find another key point in the process of transforming materials into dead zombies: perhaps you should bring the tools to manufacture gunpowder.

3. This is not the only zombie creation myth involving alcohol. Donn Beach, sometimes known as Don the Beachcomber after his successful Polynesian restaurants, was one of the early promoters of the “tiki” style that was very popular in the forties and fifties. Once he prepared a special high-alcohol cocktail for a customer who later returned and complained of being turned into a “zombie,” and so the zombie cocktail was born ( One version of the recipe combined three and a half parts of various kinds of rum, one part brandy, and two parts fruit juice, and so it’s not surprising that the drinker would be reduced to staggering around moaning incoherently. This may be the first example of a zombie created by nonmystical means, and so I would argue that Donn Beach is the true originator of the modern zombie.
4. It’s called physical capital to distinguish it from financial capital, the money or financial assets that you can use to support your business.

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