Max Brooks: disasters, politics, & Devolution

Max Brooks is a disaster preparedness expert - who is also the author of zombie cult classic World War Z...
01 June 2021

Interview with 

Max Brooks


Mount Rainier in Washington.


Max Brooks is a disaster preparedness expert who also is the author of zombie cult classic World War Z - in turna Brad Pitt movie. Max joined Chris Smith to talk about disasters, politics, and survival - first, what happens if Neil Hyatt's nuclear fuel reignites...

Max - Well, I'm not a nuclear scientist, but I think I can assume that it's not exactly a blast as a meltdown. That's two different nuclear reactions. And I can say right now, the best preparedness that we can all do is understand that what affects one of us affects all of us, and what Neil was talking about perfectly personifies that. There are no real local problems anymore. A runaway nuclear reaction in Ukraine is going to affect the rest of the world. And we all need to understand what we can do, and more importantly, I think our complicity in all of these disasters. Because the Soviets, I think, made one critical mistake when it comes to Chernobyl, which was not making cheap stuff that we all need so we would all apologise for them. Because that's the Chinese model, as we've seen with COVID.

Chris - It's interesting that you bring up coronavirus, because of course your book World War Z - "zed" - that was actually made required reading by the US National Security Council, because it was judged to be such a realistic depiction of how a pandemic would hit society and would affect our infrastructure...

Max - I'm not sure if it was required reading on the National Security Council, but I do know in American national security circles, my book has been circulated because I based it on real research. The zombies were fictional catalysts, but the solutions were all factual.

Chris - Yes, we should explain - this is a sort of a zombie apocalypse, where a virus was spreading through populations, and it actually began in China in your book, didn't it? What gave you the idea for that?

Max - Well, I based it on the first SARS outbreak.

Chris - So that was 2002 to 2003, wasn't it?

Max - Correct. And the Chinese government essentially said, "nothing to see here, don't worry about it. Go look at something shiny." And we did. And before we knew it, it was sprouting up all over the world. So I think that the lesson of my book, and I think the lesson we should all take from this latest pandemic, is that democracy, free and open societies, are integral to good public health. Because if you don't have a system of checks and balances, and if you don't have the ability to watch the watchers in power, then you have the ability for a Chernobyl or a pandemic to spin out of control.

Chris - Interesting you say that, because if one looks at the subject we were just talking about with Neil, which was the disaster at Chernobyl, the same thing happened in some respects, didn't it? There was this enormous explosion, nuclear accident, but the message from the government initially was, "it's a fire, nothing to see here, carry on!"

Max - And I will say that that's not the first time that happened. The Soviets got away with it once, because what most people don't know is that there was a biological Chernobyl in the Soviet Union in the 1970s, in a city called Sverdlovsk, where Western intelligence was suddenly aware of a massive anthrax outbreak. And when the Soviets were questioned, they wrote it off as contaminated meat. So it was a simple natural outbreak. And it was only in the nineties when Boris Yeltsin admitted that it was an accident at a biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk. But you had a system where they had the power to say, "nothing to see here," and they had the power to lie to the world. And if it had stayed in the Soviet Union, either in Sverdlovsk, or specifically in Chernobyl, that would have been one thing, but their lies affected us. And so we have an obligation to protect ourselves by demanding that countries that can hurt us be honest with us.

Chris - Do you see a situation then where people will actually, as a global population, will turn around and say to everybody, so not just picking on China, but to everybody, "right, we need a situation where there is a lot more transparency, because there's only going to be a greater risk as we go forward of more pandemics, because of all the factors that have caused this one, population probably being the number one cause." Are we honestly going to see that happen because jurisdictions like China, they'll just laugh, won't they?

Max - They might laugh, but then they laugh at their own expense because I don't need to tell you that we can do this. I can tell you that we have done this. Because when I was a kid in the 1980s, there was a country called South Africa that had a system called apartheid. And the world initially argued that, "well, we can't boycott South Africa. They have gold and diamonds, rare earth. They have minerals that we all need." So we are victims of our own greed, but eventually it got around that we all said 'enough'. Not only did our boycotts work, but as someone who's been to South Africa, I can tell you from what I've learned on the ground is preventing their soccer teams from playing in the World Cup, that had a huge impact. We all have economic levers that we can pull as customers. And that is what we can do and what we should do.

Chris - You've got a new book out - talking about movies, that'll probably turn into one won't it? Your last one did all right. It's called Devolution, this one - what's it about?

Max - Well, that is a monster story. And whereas now we've been talking about being critical of authoritarian regimes, I'm very critical of our tech industry, because we don't hold them accountable either. And what I can tell you in the book is that we are looking at a high end high tech community nestled in the Cascade Mountains that believes that it is the new green revolution, where you can live through technology in nature. Until Mount Rainier erupts, and they are trapped. And there is no backup plan. And the creatures that live in the woods are very, very hungry.


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