The Post-Apocalyptic Famine

A couple of days ago, I viewed Tim Fehlbaum’s directorial debut Hell, which “tells the story of a group of survivors in post-apocalyptic Germany in the year 2016, when solar flares have destroyed the earth’s atmosphere and temperatures have risen by 10°C.” As my posts here on The Walking Dead and The Road would indicate, I often find my mind wandering to cheerful thoughts of post-apocalyptic times. One of my dominant obsessions in this domain–as it appears to be of the productions just named–is food, or rather, the lack of it.

Here is an excerpt from a post I wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy:

Somehow, through this all, the most unsettling image yet was [of] a row of empty food shelves at a coffee shop; on asking the barista why their normal snack offerings were not available, I was told it was because the usual deliveries were not being made by trucks.  At that moment, again, I became aware I lived on an island, one serviced by road and train connections to the ‘rest of the world,’ that bridges and tunnels were still lifelines for it, that most connections between its points occur in relatively mundane, non-glamorous, and as Sandy showed, eminently disruptable ways. It was at that moment too, that the fragility and contingency of our existence here became just a little clearer; I was reminded again of the logistical connections, of the coordinated work of hundreds and thousands of men and women that keeps everything  ’normal’ on a day to basis: those trucks that make deliveries day and night, the gas that keeps them running (and that heats our buildings). All those supermarket shelves–normally bursting to the seams with packaged goods and produce efficiently delivered from afar–would rapidly empty, if the gas-tunnel-truck disruption continued. (For remember: we live on an island, we don’t grow our food around here.) This city is only able to play home to ten million people because a vast interdependent network of supply chains lets it do so.

The vast majority of us do not grow or produce our own food; we buy it from stores, which are supplied by a vast transportation network, in turn supplied by a vast manufacturing network (dependent on other networks of supply and manufacture and so on). When the apocalypse strikes, the first thing to go will be these two networks: those who man them will be incapacitated, production lines will break down, deliveries will cease. In response, panicky runs on the remaining food supply will begin, as will hoarding. Violent clashes for food will be inevitable; these will continue as it will become increasingly evident that no more supplies are forthcoming. And because fuel will be in short supply too, looking for food will become extremely difficult. Cities will rapidly become dying–and killing–zones.

The resultant desperate situation is, I think, only dimly grasped; the cannibalism that is a recurrent feature of modern takes on the post-apocalypse is a grim acknowledgment of it. (The Walking Dead comics feature it; the television show has not done so yet.) The shortage of food and the ensuing mass starvation will almost certainly be the grimmest–and least ennobling–aspect of the disaster that our modern culture seems to spend so much time speculating about.

11 comments on “The Post-Apocalyptic Famine

  1. I agree. Modern society is closely reliant on intertwined systems. We seldom realise the depth or fragility. It’s interesting how as a species we also have shared fear of sudden apocalypse. It seems entrenched, not just in fears about the end of everything but often also on a personal scale. I sometimrs wonder whether it is hard wired.

  2. elkement says:

    This is unfortunately very plausible. 2 or 3 years ago German experts in disaster management have published their diligently compiled research results on a hypothetical blackout of the power grid lasting for a few days (and a critically acclaimed novel based on similar research has been released, too).

    They say that basically within 24 hours there will be anarchy in orderly middle Europe. There will be e.g. no gasoline available at high-tech fuel pumps, so police cars will be stuck.
    No street lights, no toilets, no refrigerators … thus basically no food.

    What I found most interesting was that it is exacltly the extremely high availability of the power grid in Europe that makes us even more vulnerable (called the “vulnerability paradox”) as nobody cares about a backup plan – such as a personal electrical generator driven by diesel or storing enough food at home to be able to survive two weeks.

    • Samir Chopra says:

      Elke:

      Thanks for your comment. What is the name of the novel? I hope it will be translated – sounds like an interesting read!

      Cloud computing makes me nervous for similar reasons.

      • elkement says:

        It’s “Blackout – morgen ist es zu spät”, by Marc Elsberg.

      • elkement says:

        Sorry for the “spam”… I considered to paste the amazon URL, but the decided against it as that usually embeds such a large image in WP comments. So I copied only the title (from amazon.com) – but obviously you copy a lot of meta-data with it, and I spammed you ever more😉
        You can delete anything but the first line!

  3. Cody says:

    There’s a decent graphic novel series by Brian Wood called DMZ, wherein an American civil war causes Manhattan to be isolated from the outside world, allowing the author to imagine what would happen next. Long story short, lots of awesome anarchist cafes and rooftop farms. De Blasio, take note.

  4. I’ve got part of a blog post on a similar theme sitting in my drafts, but from the other end of the supply chain. Regardless of the delivery logistics, even the commerical scale primary producers would be non-functional without ‘business as usual’ supply. The bales of hay we use to feed cattle, for example, are too large for one or probably three people to lift. Without a running tractor to do so, the cattle won’t get fed.

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