Cormac McCarthy’s "The Road" and the Unknown Apocalypse: Exploring the Terrain of Environmental Pessimism

By Doctor Comrade

Dystopian settings have been popular in science fiction for the last century, tracing back at least to H.G. Wells’ visions in The Time Machine (1895), Jules Verne’s depictions of Paris in Paris in the Twentieth Century (1863), and Fritz Lang’s subterranean world of Metropolis (1926). More recent science fiction has confronted the prospect of apocalypses brought on by humanity’s own carelessness, such as The Planet of the Apes (1968), 28 Days Later (2002), I Am Legend (1954 novel, 2007 film), and The Walking Dead (2010-present). These works and others have couched human interactions within the setting of a devastated planet, placing various representations of the natural world at the center of these narratives. By examining Cormac McCarthy's The Road, I will explore the ways in which popular culture represents devastated landscapes within fictional narratives, and through these examinations I hope to explore how fiction expresses the fears and anxieties of broader society about the possibilities of apocalyptic scenarios in the near future.

Dimension Films

Dimension Films

American novelist Cormac McCarthy won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for fiction for his post-apocalyptic novel The Road, which was subsequently developed into a movie starring Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The book and film portray a father and his son travelling across the barren landscape, which is covered in ash and completely lacks animal and plant life. The boy was born shortly after an undescribed disaster wiped out the Earth’s food supplies, leading to the collapse of human civilization, and the book describes the struggles of the man and the boy to find food and shelter. Their principal foes are other humans, who in their desperation have resorted to cannibalism, banditry, and sex slavery. But throughout the narrative, the man maintains the essential goodness of his mission, protecting his son and trying to find hope in a world devastated by natural disaster and the folly of humankind. In this sense, The Road takes on the dialectical character of two faithful believers who compete against humanity’s natural barbarism. At the center of the story, however, is the despoiled environment, which is never merely the backdrop of the action but always a character forcing the man and the boy to adapt. Thus, it seems that The Road is both a story of survival of the human spirit as well as a condemnation of the pretensions of humankind to overcome the power of nature.

Dimension Films

Dimension Films

The Road takes place in the denatured wasteland of an unknown apocalypse, but portraying the Earth in this way carries several implications. The first is that the apocalypse slowly strips away human history from the landscape: the roads and cities are crumbling alongside the values that held civilization together. More importantly, McCarthy never explains how or why the apocalypse occurs, or whether it was caused by people or not. I think this superpositionality of the cataclysm reflects a well-worn narrative of environmental history: humanity has undoubtedly caused the decline of nature through imbalance, exploitation, and overuse.[1] In the mid-nineteenth century, hardly anyone could have imagined that the industrial revolution would result in pollution on such a large scale that it would cause global warming and genuinely endanger the wellbeing of people two hundred years in the future. McCarthy’s apocalypse similarly reflects this unknowability of future disasters: that humanity’s hubris towards the natural world would eventually precipitate non-survivable conditions. The unknown apocalypse is by far the most dangerous kind because it illustrates the lack of preparedness on the part of human civilization as well as the seeming inevitability of such events to transpire.

Dimension Films

Dimension Films

Despite humanity’s technological brilliance, an environmental disaster would result in the end of civilization and the un-ironic abandonment of technological innovation. The Road’s stunning portrayals of withering civilization reinforce the notion that humanity’s control of the environment is superficial and fleeting, and although humans have successfully colonized almost every corner of the Earth’s landmasses there remains the possibility that the environment will strike back and revert to a pre-human form. The color scheme of the film especially illustrates how the vibrant colors of human technology recede against the onslaught of natural catastrophe. Recently, some authors have argued that technology will increase the efficiency of natural resources almost infinitely, which would solve ecological, demographic, and political problems associated with environmental degradation.[2] What McCarthy suggests, however, is that the links of human civilization are so tenuous that they can be broken by the unanticipated disaster, which renders optimistic prognostications about the future moot. The foundation of society and the social contract is embedded in the environment, and therefore when the environment exerts agency against the conquests of humanity the entire system breaks down. Moreover, technological innovation may itself be the cause of The Road’s collapse, not its solution.

Dimension Films

Dimension Films

Lastly, The Road portrays the fates of two true-believers who McCarthy refers to as “carrying the fire,” the last two people who embody the essential goodness of the human spirit. Their flames would be extinguished if they are unable to survive, especially if they are captured by roving bands of cannibals. The man carries a revolver but only has two bullets: one for the boy and one for himself in case they are in serious danger of being taken. This classic tale of good and evil played out in the Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction: suicide and global conflagration become preferable to the captivity of communism. Moreover, their suicides would also extinguish the flames of the human spirit, marking the final annihilation of the good from the world.[3] Ultimately, the goodness of human nature is seriously suspect, as those who are without faith are portrayed largely as rapacious cannibals driven to madness by a scheming Mother Nature. The man must struggle, much like the Biblical Job, against the forces which contest his faith. This could be read as a triumphant struggle against the forces of nature, embodied both by barbarous marauders and an unforgiving landscape; or it could be read as futility, the ever-receding possibilities for survival and redemption in an uncaring environment. Given the preeminence of the unknown apocalypse and nature’s successful re-conquest of the planet, I’m inclined to believe the latter interpretation of nihilistic pessimism about humanity’s eminent future.

[1] For example, Alfred W Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900 (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986); Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1988); Ted Steinberg, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).
[2] Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future Is Better than You Think (New York: Free Press, 2012).
[3] Michael J. Martin, “American Crossroads: London, McCarthy, and Apocalyptic Naturalism,” Studies in American Naturalism 8, no. 1 (2013): 35.