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‘The Road’ and the disappearance of nature

Reading a short article about the reasons for the meat and dairy industry being unsustainable, and watching David Attenborough’s documentary, Madagascar (with its visual feast of beautiful, but ecologically endangered creatures in Madagascar’s forests), from the corner of my eye, reminded me of Cormack McCarthy’s novel, The Road, made into a riveting film by John Hillcoat in 2009.

If you read the article by Abigail Geer, you will notice that the 10 reasons listed by Geer are deforestation, fresh water, waste disposal, energy consumption, food productivity, global warming, loss of biodiversity, grassland destruction, soil erosion and lifestyle disease — all of which are intimately linked to continued meat- and dairy-production, and denote important indices of the impact this has on the earth.

Deforestation, for instance, is linked to this industry because the animals involved need more land than one needs for crop-production, and, to add insult to injury, entails the destruction of vitally needed forests (for biodiversity and for the production of oxygen through photosynthesis). All the other things listed there are similarly linked to the meat and dairy industry, which brings about a cumulative cycle of unsustainable practices, in other words, practices that cannot continue without undermining the very ground of their own continued existence. (Needless to say, alternatives to these practices point in the direction of vegetarian and vegan diets.)

But what does the term, “unsustainable”, really mean here? Among its synonyms are listed “unmaintainable”, “indefensible”, “unjustifiable” and “untenable”, which clarify its implications to some degree. But unless one elaborates on these within the context of a planetary ecological totality (which includes human society), or more concretely, of overarching “nature” as the indispensable condition of life for all living creatures — past, present and future — it does not quite hit home. This is what made me think of The Road.

To get an inkling of the importance of this novel and its counterpart film, here is George Monbiot, commenting on the book on which Hillcoat’s film is based: “It could be the most important environmental book ever. It is a thought experiment that imagines a world without a biosphere, and shows that everything we value depends on the ecosystem.” (You have to scroll down to the McCarthy entry under “Fifty people who could save the planet” to find this.)

Just reflect on this for a moment. Make it your own thought-experiment. Could any human being, or any other living creature, continue existing without food and water? We take things for granted if we are fortunate enough to have access to these two indispensable sources of energy, but try to do without them for just a day. There is a saying (if I recall correctly) that anarchy (in the sense of chaos) is just eight meals away. Miss your next eight meals, and you will experience the kind of desperation that would certainly lead to chaos if everyone were to forego their food and drink for eight conventional mealtimes in a row. This is the situation that McCarthy imagines in a sustained manner in The Road. I’ll concentrate on the film version here.

The noir-narrative of The Road unfolds on earth, but not the one of natural beauty that some of us know. The film does open with a scene-sequence displaying such beauty — trees, flowers and a horse being stroked affectionately by a man — but one that turns out to be dreamt by one of the main characters. This man is travelling on foot, together with his young son, across the desolate wasteland that used to be the bountiful earth, but is now a pitiful landscape covered by the trunks of dead trees, sticking out like quills from a porcupine carcass. They are shown, either looking for something to eat, or for shelter, or trying their utmost to avoid the roaming bands of men looking for, and hunting down other living creatures, including humans, to be eaten by them. (Yes, cannibalism is an obvious consequence when all of the usual, natural, sources of food were to be destroyed.)

In between these scenes there are periodic flashbacks to the time when he and a woman — the mother of the boy, who resembles her eerily — were still together, before nature was destroyed. For this is the situation depicted in harrowing glimpses as the narrative unfolds before one’s eyes: nature has finally caved in; plants are dead, no animals seem to have survived. One is never afforded any information as to the exact causes behind this, but early on the voice-over narration by the father informs the audience that the “clock stopped” when there was a “searing white light”, followed by a “series of concussions”. This suggests a nuclear Armageddon, or perhaps a planetary conflagration by solar flare, and one is aware of sporadically manifested signs of near-total ecological destruction in the intra-cinematic world — in fact, the man talks about symptoms of the “world slowly dying”, such as the worsening cold.

The man is trying to get to the coast with his son, and one can gather that he hopes to find some kind of succour there. Along the way they encounter adversity aplenty, ranging from lack of food to being apprehended by a member of a gang of men-turned-cannibals — whom the father disposes of by using one of the two precious bullets he has kept in case they have to commit suicide in the face of something too dreadful to contemplate. They also inadvertently discover a cellar-cum-bomb-shelter stacked with food, which they enjoy for a while, before the suspicion that someone has noticed their whereabouts forces them to leave, taking as much of the canned food with them as they can. Along the way they encounter a pitiful old man, with whom they share some of their food.

I won’t recount events further and spoil things for those readers who want to see the movie (or read the book); suffice it to say at this stage that, compared to another eco-political film, Avatar (where things work out in the end for the protagonists), there is no hope here, although the father assures the boy that they are the (Promethean) ones who “carry the fire” (of civilisation). The hopelessness is the point, and Hillcoat has succeeded admirably in cinematically visualising such an almost unimaginably bleak set of circumstances. In the novel, McCarthy’s sparse prose presupposes readers’ ability to imagine the endgame-situation for themselves. Don’t watch the film if you are squeamish; on second thought, watch it anyway to get an impression of what the destruction of the overarching ecosystem called “nature” would entail for us humans. This is what it means, in the not-so-long-run, to say that the meat- and dairy-industry is “unsustainable”.

Anyone interested in a thoroughgoing exploration of this theme can read my paper, “Film as communicational mediation of the ecological crisis: Avatar and The Road.” Communicare — Journal for Communication Sciences in South Africa, Vol 30 (1), 2011, pp 66-85.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.