The Ministry of Mad er… Stuff.

The Ministry of Mad er… Stuff.

On May 26 this year, The Times’ feature writer Janice Turner posted a rather thought provoking tweet.

Since our last three blogs have been focussed on almost exactly this (here, here and here), we’ve had a fair bit of time to think about Turner’s idea.

What she is thinking about, as any reader of the late Iain M Banks’ Culture novels will tell you, is an organisation called Special Circumstances.  SC is a division of Contact, the only real organisation in Banks’ techno-utopia called the Culture, Contact’s “moral espionage weapon, the very cutting edge of the Culture’s interfering diplomatic policy, the elite of the elite, in a society which abhorred elitism” (from Consider Phlebas). Its job is to solve problems, particularly those of the confusing or existential kind which Turner summarises. In a zombie apocalypse, Special Circumstance, and the sentient spaceships called “Minds” would be at the front of humanity’s defence.

Most importantly, it would already have had a plan. This is what Turner’s Ministry needs to have – plans (and hopefully stockpiles) for the highly unlikely “but if it does we’re screwed”.

Such organisations already exist, of course. The UN has UN Disaster Assistance and Coordination. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is in the US, Министерство России по делам гражданской обороны, чрезвычайным ситуациям и ликвидации последствий стихийных бедствий is in Russia (with the rather splendid name in English of “The Ministry of the Russian Federation for Civil Defence, Emergencies and Elimination of Consequences of Natural Disasters”), and the UK has its own Civil Contingencies Secretariat and its ministerial subcommittee, NSC (THRC) – the National Security Council Ministerial SubCommittee on Threats, Hazards, Resilience and Contingencies. It is a reasonable guess that armed forces, defence ministries, security services and other, even more covert government departments study risk on a day by day basis.

Indeed, page 9 of the UK government’s National Risk Register has a matrix of possible events, plotted in their likelihood against impact, which covers everything from malicious attacks to industrial action.

HM Government, National Risk Register, 2020 edition

As we have highlighted before, there are academic bodies looking at MSTMNH, such as the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is dedicated “to the study and mitigation of risks that could lead to human extinction or civilisational collapse”. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists “informs the public about threats to the survival and development of humanity from nuclear weapons, climate change”. At Oxford, the Future of Humanity Institute brings “the tools of mathematics, philosophy and social sciences to bear on big-picture questions about humanity and its prospects”. And among NGOs, the Centre for Applied Eschatology, the Centre for Long-Term Resilience and many others, all concentrate on the sort of existential risk which Turner highlights.

The problem is that Turner’s brief is insufficiently well drawn. There should be such a Ministry – indeed, there sort of is. And whilst it may not explicitly cover zombie apocalypse, it certainly does cover pandemics, volcanoes, asteroids, and solar flares.

What it far more rarely covers is paying for it.

We have had recent experience in the UK of stockpiles – which gave us two key lessons. The first is that stockpiles need to be paid for, and maintained. The second is that stockpiles need to be of the right equipment. The UK’s pandemic flu stockpile was run down by 40% over 6 years; and spending on other stockpiled goods held for use in national emergencies has fallen in value since 2013.

So when we needed it, we had 40% less than we needed – and for the wrong sort of disease. Both were predictable errors – Asia had had the experience of SARS and MERS, both CoV illnesses, as is coronavirus; and even a full stockpile is rarely enough to cope with a country-wide outbreak, so 60% of one certainly wouldn’t.

At SAMI, we spend our lives living in the future. We have experience thinking about what might happen, and how bad it might be. Some of us have direct experience in planning for the worst – from wars to disease. A vital part of contingency planning is not only knowing what might happen – but what you will do when it does. Who will you deploy? What equipment will they need? And where is it?

Turner has taken the wrong takeaway. We do have the Ministry she wants – in international bodies, national governments, academia and the private sector. What we do not have is enough preparedness – equipment, vaccines, swift-run vaccine roll-out programmes, in place contracts with factories to deliver kit, sufficient telescopes to give long-range warning of asteroids.

We know what might happen. We probably have plans in place, to one level of detail or another. But we are unprepared to spend public money year after year on things that may never come to pass. It is easy to understand why: in 2006, workers at the Brooklyn Bridge in New York found a sealed room with a stockpile of equipment and food to supply a nuclear war shelter. The equipment was date stamped 1962 – the date of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It had not been resupplied since. Someone had followed a well worked out plan, stockpiled equipment just in time, and when the crisis passed, it had never been restocked.

We must commit to resource not only our planning process, but also our preparedness. These stocks, as well as the plans, are our collective national insurance, and we should keep up the payments on the premiums. That way whatever happens, we shall be ready.

In a follow up tweet, Jess Philips MP pointed out that her “husband has a well honed zombie apocalypse plan”. Which may come in useful, especially if he has up-to-date supplies.

Written by Jonathan Blanchard Smith, SAMI Fellow and Director

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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