Thursday, 19 January 2017

Book review: Economics of the Undead

I just finished reading "Economics of the Undead", edited by Glen Whitman and James Dow. The premise of the book is a collection of chapters applying economics (and some other social sciences) to better understanding the economics of vampires and zombies. It sounded like a really interesting book (though I admit it has been on my bookshelf for a couple of years), but it took me a while to get through it. Mainly, that was because I found the book to be quite uneven. Some chapters were excellent (such as the chapter What happens next? Endgames of a zombie apocalypse, by Kyle William Bishop, David Tufte, and Mary Jo Tufte), but some were quite weak (I won't single any particular chapter out for this). To be fair, this is a problem with many edited volumes where many different authors contribute chapters on related topics. In this case, often it felt like the examples were forced (maybe they were glamoured?) when they didn't quite fit, while several opportunities were missed.

However, there were several highlights, including this from James Dow in the chapter Packing for the zombie apocalypse:
If you wanted the country to plan for a zombie apocalypse, you might think the most important thing would be to set up installations to preserve modern technology. However, existing books do that pretty well (although less well each year as the Internet - which would not survive the apocalypse - increasingly takes over). What is really needed is a setting that preserves the older technologies today; knowledge that might have been lost otherwise but will be needed after the zombies come.
Indeed, I've often pondered what skills would be in demand if there were a zombie apocalypse. For instance, who is going to make the shoes you need to outrun the zombie hordes? If you think specialisation and trade is bad, in a zombie apocalypse it would become very clear very quickly why doing everything yourself is not a good idea. What do you mean there isn't enough time to fight zombies and grow food?

I also liked this bit, from the aforementioned Bishop et al. chapter:
...economics and biology are complementary, and both suggest the existence of another endgame. What might that look like? In economic terms, zombies face a tragedy of the commons: each individual zombie wants to eat more humans, but if they all do this, then no zombie will have any humans left to eat.
The solution is obvious, isn't it: private property rights for zombies over humans - let each zombie farm their own humans to eat. Ok, Bishop et al. didn't say that, but I thought it needed to be said.

Michael O'Hara's chapter on Zombies as an invasive species gives us this:
The fact that zombies fit standard definitions of invasive species cannot be disputed. The Global Invasive Species Program (GISP) states that "biological invasion occurs when a species enters a new environment, establishes itself there and begins to change the populations of species that existed there before, as well as disturbing the balance of plant and animal communities." In the case of a zombie invasion, this change of the existing population of species is quite literal.
The chapter essentially concludes that control is probably more cost effective than prevention, when it comes to the zombie apocalypse (but try telling that to the first people turned into zombies!).

Dan Farhat (University of Otago) contributed a chapter on using agent-based modelling to model a vampire population within a (human) town, which builds on a similar paper that I blogged about three years ago.

Overall, the book will be of most interest to those who like both economics and undead in pop culture, although even then (like me) not all chapters will appeal.

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