Down the road

The Road: Book by Cormac McCarthy (2006), movie directed by John Hillcoat (2009).

A thought experiment about the essence of humanity, The Road examines human beings with everything stripped awayexcept love. I am drawn to apocalyptic art and dive through a lot of crap, which this certainly is not.

It is a beautifully crafted story, the dialogue is direct and simple, and the characters are so elemental that they’re not named – the boy, the man, the woman. Cormac McCarthy is a first-rate writer, and the acting is excellent (particularly faves Viggo Mortensen and Michael Kenneth Williams). This is an apocalyptic work of the highest quality, surpassing the Mad Max trilogy and perhaps even Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker. Subtle, touching even.

Still, I find the thought experiment disturbing in ways that have gone unnoticed. Why is it so easy for humans to imagine human existence outside of nature? This ability promotes a way of thinking that is ridiculous and illogical. Deluding ourselves this way is perilous to human survival.

Humans evolved here, on this planet. We are physical beings and need air, water, and food – even when we’re engaged in escapism, at the movies or reading a book. We are inseparable from nature – at least from breathing, hydration, and nutrition.

In The Road, the air, the water, and the soil are dead. There are no animals left. The only plant food is the desiccated remains of an apple orchard; nothing fresh or new grows. The characters (conveniently) are able to drink the grayish, metallic-tasting water, perhaps because even bacteria and diseases are dead. Where living trees had stood, lifeless sticks crumble in huge waves of devastation.

We ought to find it difficult to imagine. Anything that had killed animals, insects, the air, the water, the soil, and food would have killed us too. Put all that in a realistic writing style, and voila! nobody notices. That’s because here, now, in reality, human activities are murdering the living systems of the planet we depend on. We are surrounded by it and don’t notice it.

However, we cannot dream our way out of physical reality. Our actual escapes are temporary and unreliable. Look at the space program, submarines, air travel. They are possible only because human beings have a place to build temporary life supports, ourselves supported by the earth’s living systems. (See the brilliant movie, “Gravity,” for a deep reflection on just how trivial our technological tricks are.)

Escapism doesn’t take us out of this physical reality. Sure, we can imagine human life after the death of our habitat. But only in our imaginations. We indulge in this illusion while our bodies continue living – here, on this planet, breathing, hydrated, fed. No amount of escapist literature and entertainment will untether us from being living animals from and part of a place.

In The Road, there’s no food, so humans turn to cannibalism. Which is completely illogical. In one scene three people wander through the wilderness. The woman in the group is pregnant. And so as soon as she gives birth – there’s a fire, a spit, and you get the picture. Also prominent is a roving group of cannibals who keep pregnant women chained to trucks.

Hideous and shocking, yes, but it makes no sense. The “product” of a pregnancy is a poor use of resources. If you’ve experienced pregnancy yourself or close-up, you’d know how much food and water a woman has to consume in order to have a big baby. Any sensible starving person would just eat that instead of waiting. Even an evil starving person would take the pregnant woman’s food and let her starve. Hungry people are never patient.

The Road , then, is a thought experiment that is intimately connected to the assumption that nature isn’t necessary to humans. Corporations that benefit from extracting “resources” break nature into pieces, and assigned numbers (prices) to these pieces, rethought as “environmental services” that are somehow replicable with technology or labor. Bees, the Arctic Ocean, the Gulf of Mexico, the Ogllala Aquifer are expendable, replaceable – so goes the thinking.

We are coming to the end of the road that that thinking leads to. The most prominent example to me, now, on an extended vacation in California, is the impending collapse of the agriculture of the Central Valley. Just one more year of drought here will require a dramatic rethinking of our food system. Many farmers are already selling out or switching over to nut orchards.

Thus we practice deluding ourselves that physical truths can be escaped. Humans cannot live without breathable air, drinkable water, and edible food. To think otherwise is a ridiculous, illogical, and perilous idea. We are courting extinction. And extinction is actually a more common fate for a species, survival being more the exception. I would think this would be particularly true of a species that devotes so much time dreaming about continuing beyond its own physical existence and so little on preserving the physical reality that has been the only thing that has ever sustained us.


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