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Zombies, “Scarcity,” and Understanding Poverty

A world defined by zombies is a world that has redefined the nature of human free will and choice.

The original comic book series The Walking Dead opens with “This is not good” in the panel depicting police officers pinned behind their patrol car by gun fire. The page ends with officer Rick Grimes being shot, followed by a full-page panel on the next page of Rick waking with a gasp in the hospital. Zombies are soon to follow.

Preceding this first story is an introduction from creator Robert Kirkman, who explains:

I’m not trying to scare anybody….

With The Walking Dead, I want to explore how people deal with the extreme situations and how these events change [emphasis in original] them. I’m in this for the long haul.

While the AMC television series is an adaptation of the comic book (and not bound to Kirkman’s graphic narrative), this central premise tends to remain true in both the comic book and the TV series, notably in the “Isolation” episode (October 27, 2013):

AMC’s The Walking Dead picked up right where it left off, exploring the mental and emotional toll Karen’s and David’s deaths has had on the group and specifically Tyreese, who experienced the loss of someone close to him for the first time in this new world….

The biggest reveal of the hour, however, came in the final moments after Rick (Andrew Lincoln) uses his sheriff skills and pieces together that it was Carol (Melissa McBride) who was the one who killed Karen and David in a bid to contain the deadly illness threatening the group’s safe haven.

When asked by Rick and with a calm matter-of-fact detachment, Carol confesses to killing, dragging outside, and then setting on fire Karen and David. While there is certainly tension and shock created by this confession, the more powerful point may be that Carol has acted in a way that she feels is justified by the shared human condition: the pervasive threat of zombies surrounding the prison along with that anybody who dies, including those living in close quarters with Carol and the others, will reanimate as a zombie.

Two of the most compelling aspects of the AMC series are that zombies are omnipresent and that every human is a walking potential for becoming a zombie. Now that the main characters have positioned themselves in a prison behind two layers of fences, viewers watch as the characters go about their reduced lives (sometimes casually hoeing the garden) with zombies always moaning and clawing at the fence.

There is only one world for these characters—a world saturated with zombies. And a world defined by zombies is a world that has redefined the nature of human free will and choice.

On Rationality and Free Will (Choice)

Western culture honors rational behavior above emotional responses, and particularly in the U.S., choice is a nearly sacred value. That prejudice for rationality tends to normalize rational behavior creating the appearance that rationality is objective. Yet, in fact, rationality is always bound by context.

Consider the hiker, Aron Ralston, who would not have been rational for amputating a limb in his day-to-day life, but once Ralston was confronted with being trapped by a boulder while hiking, amputating a limb became not only rational, but also life-saving. The context changes and so does rationality.

In The Walking Dead TV series narrative, Carol’s murderous acts raise the same sort of debate about her behavior: Considering the threat of the newly spreading flu in the prison, is Carol’s behavior rational?

Certainly in a world without zombies, Carol has no justification for murder and burning the corpses, but in the realities of The Walking Dead, context dictates behaviors—and colors our judgment of those behaviors.

While rationality is contextual and subjective, choice as a sacred value in the U.S. is popularly idealized and misrepresented.

Choice is not a foundational aspect of being human. In fact, being human is about basic behaviors about which humans have no choice: breathing, eating, seeking shelter, attending to ones health. And broadly, survival (think Ralston).

Zombie narratives are speculative stories of humans reduced to a single basic human necessity, consumption. Zombies are perpetual and relentless consumers—to the extreme that renders them simultaneously campy and terrifying.

The Western fetish for choice is an exaggeration of a great human hope or quest: The human faith in free will, the human faith that our free will lifts us above the rest of the earth’s beasts.

“So it goes” is the now-iconic phrase that provides Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five the coherence of a refrain against the staccato of Vonnegut’s time-traveling narrative.

At its essence “So it goes” is an acknowledgement of the human condition, one in which humans cling to a belief in free will that doesn’t exist. When a Tralfamadorian explains to Billy Pilgrim that Pilgrim is on the planet Tralfamadore, the conversation turns to free will:

“Where am I?” said Billy Pilgrim.

“Trapped in another blob of amber, Mr. Pilgrim….”

“How—how did I get here?”

“It would take another Earthling to explain it to you. Earthlings are the great explainers, explaining why this event is structured as it is, telling how other events may be achieved or avoided. I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.”

“You sound to me as though you don’t believe in free will,” said Billy Pilgrim.


“If I hadn’t spent so much time studying Earthlings,” said the Tralfamadorian, “I wouldn’t have any idea what was meant by ‘free will.’ I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe, and I have studied reports on one hundred more. Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.”

Do the characters in The Walking Dead have the choice to live as if zombies do not exist?

Do people living in poverty have the choice to live as if they are not in poverty?

Free will and choice—like rationality—are bound by context. But neither free will nor choice is basic to being human since our basic human nature consists of those things about which we have no real choice.

Choice, in fact, is not an essential aspect of a free people. Choice is the result of a free people collectively insuring that all people have the essentials of life protected so that the human longing to choose becomes possible and even ethical.

Simply stated, choice and being free are luxuries that exist toward the top of the triangle representing Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: choosing between a Camry and an Accord is of little importance to a person starving. If nothing else, The Walking Dead highlights how trivial our choices about materialistic lives become once the human condition is reduced to survival within an ever-present threat.

Before Free Will: Zombies and Understanding Poverty

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much explain:

Poverty is surely the most widespread and important example of scarcity….

One cannot take a vacation from poverty [emphasis added]. Simply deciding not to be poor—even for a bit—is never an option….Our data suggest causality runs at least as strongly in the other direction: that poverty—the scarcity mindset—causes failure.

In other words, poverty is as omnipresent for the poor as the threat of zombies is for the characters in The Walking Dead. Just as the threat of zombies and reanimation into zombies weigh on the characters’ minds and drive their actions 24 hours a day and every day of their lives, poverty too dictates who poor people are and what they do.

Living in constant vigilance against the threat of zombies, ironically, reduces all living humans to their basic compulsions, rendering even living humans more zombie-like than they would want to admit: zombies are only consumers, and humans living under the threat of zombies are primarily survivors.

Living under the weight of poverty is a very real condition that zombie narratives represent in metaphor.

Human behavior, then, is likely a window into larger social contexts and less a reflection of individual strengths and weaknesses.

Because of cultural stereotypes that marginalize and even demonize people in poverty, Mullainathan and Shafir caution against drawing conclusions from observable behaviors by people living in poverty:

Given that we hold highly negative stereotypes about the poor, essentially defined by a failure (they are poor!), it is natural to attribute personal failure to them….Accidents of birth—such as what continent you are born on—have a large effect on your chance of being poor….The failures of the poor are part and parcel of the misfortune of being poor in the first place. Under these conditions, we all would have (and have!) failed.

In The Walking Dead, Carol-as-killer is a consequence of the existence of zombies in the same way people in poverty have their mental capacities drained by the state of poverty in which they are trapped. As well, poverty may be as unavoidable as zombies for people who find themselves born into impoverished homes (considering that in the U.S., affluence and poverty are highly “sticky”—most people remain in the social class into which they are born, especially at the extreme ends of the class spectrum).

The Walking Dead’s central relevance as it speaks to the power of poverty is that becoming a zombie in this narrative is simply the result of dying; everyone is a potential zombie (unlike the traditional need to be bitten by a zombie). Zombies in The Walking Dead and poverty, then, are unavoidable and pervasive.

Depending on evidence instead of metaphor, with unintended zombie flair, Mullainathan and Shafir argue, “Scarcity captures the mind.”

For example, Carol’s entire existence now tunnels (Mullainathan and Shafir’s term for an intense form of focus) on surviving zombies. For example before she kills Karen and David, she offers the children in the prison covert lessons on killing zombies swiftly by using knives and weapons to execute effective blows to the brain.

In a world devoid of zombies, Carol’s behavior would be warped. In her previous life, in fact, Carol has been a different person.

Zombie narratives as well as Mullainathan and Shafir’s work on scarcity help highlight an understanding of poverty that rejects stereotypes as well as what people and children living and learning in poverty need: Their state of scarcity must be alleviated.

Until we alleviate poverty, however, we must be vigilant not to increase the consequences of scarcity (such as artificially ramping up stress for teachers and students) and we can no longer ask children and their teachers to work as if poverty doesn’t exist.

Social programs addressing poverty and education reform targeting the achievement gap must begin with embracing a closing claim from Mullainathan and Shafir: “We can go some way toward ‘scarcity proofing’ our environment.”

But that goal cannot be achieved within a deforming idealism that asks impoverished people to live as if poverty doesn’t exist, that asks children living in poverty to pretend they are not impoverished during the school day. It deserves repeating: “One cannot take a vacation from poverty.”

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