Max Brooks’ depiction of society under a zombie apocalypse was especially interesting to me because it exposed how much our current society is driven by profit. Social status, health, safety, and opportunity were at first heavily tied to how wealthy one was, yet during the Zombie War, this whole capitalist system crumbled. This made me think about what we value as a society and how much this is driven by a very basic and selfish human need to survive. From an economic perspective, we all seek to maximize our living conditions within a given set of constraints, and when these constraints change, so do our preferences.
At the start of World War Z, money is still perceived as something that is all-powerful because it is highly fungible, guaranteeing safety and health. One of the first accounts in the novel tells of the black-market organ trade, where those with money can purchase their way to a longer life. Dr. Oliveira recounts, “Few of you Yankees asked where your new kidney or pancreas was coming from, be it a slum kid from the City of God or some unlucky student in a Chinese political prison. You didn’t know, you didn’t care” (Brooks 34). His patients simply assumed that paying a hefty sum would be the end to their problems. At the same time, the operators of the black market were similarly profit-minded, willing to take risks and shun health precautions in order to pad their own pockets. This account reminds me of the Phalanx ordeal later on in the war, when people swarmed to buy placebo pills marketed as a vaccine for zombification. People were so ready to believe that there was a cure-all for the zombie plague because the other option would just be too bleak, but I also believe their gullibility was in large part due to the huge value money has in our society today. It’s a reality that money can purchase us better healthcare and longer lives nowadays, so why wouldn’t people believe that they could simply purchase a panacea? Another striking example of wealth-based privilege is that of the heavily-armed sanctuary populated by the rich and famous who hoped to ride out the zombie war in style, broadcasting their frivolities within the mansion while the outside world was fighting for survival. Even as money was rapidly depreciating in its power to keep people safe, people did not yet recognize this at the beginning of the war. Their wholehearted belief that they could buy their way to safety seems foolish and myopic, yet it seems all too likely that this is what would happen in reality.
As society crumbles and money completely loses its significance, a new social order springs up, one based on health and physical ability. In areas designated as sanctuaries, only the healthy are let in, regardless of former occupation, religious belief, or any other factors. And when America begins its rebuilding process, its those with actual physical and mechanical skills, rather than the high-paying white collar ones we value today, that are valued in society. As one interviewee puts it, “That’s the way the world works. But one day, it doesn’t. No one needs a contract reviewed or a deal brokered. What it does need is toilets fixed. And suddenly that peon is your teacher, maybe even your boss” (175). This passage was particularly striking to me because it made me realize that many of us would be screwed in a disaster situation. It’s very true that what is valued by society today is managerial, analytical, and verbal skills, since these can generate more “worth” than any type of physical labor. And yet, as we discussed in class, our current system is all very fragile.
In an economics class I am taking this semester, we were taught a theory about how investment in human capital increased only due to the inevitable acceleration in technological progress that made human capital more valuable than physical capital. In other words, people had an incentive to invest in education since doing so would increase their earning potential in the future in a technologically advanced society. The Zombie War renders modern technology obsolete, and thus, the skills valued in such a society as well. Both World War Z and Enders Game caused me to think about humanity’s very deep and basic need to survive. When money is the key to survival, and I would argue that it is in today’s society, at least in the U.S., our entire social structure is driven by profit. When suddenly money no longer matters and physical ability becomes the key, the social hierarchy shifts to reflect this change. This is a very bleak idea to me, as I’d like to think that there is more to humanity than just the need to survive and pass on our genes. Both books do acknowledge other dimensions of humanity – faith, love, and art – yet in order for those to survive, so must humanity. Thus, novels about the end of the world make it clear that at the very core, stripped of all our complexities, humans just want to be alive.