While much of the focus on The Road is used to highlight the supposed ‘environmental message’ of the film and the novel on which it is based, I was left wondering if in fact the apocalypse levelled on the fictional world was not more akin to the great devastation we so nearly faced during the Cold War. During The Road I was often reminded of that icon of the 1980s The Day After, and left the cinema wondering what that the latter film might have been if shorn of it’s propaganda (“we’ll make it, though it’ll be tough”), and humanity. I’ve also made a note to try and find it on DVD.
The similarity between the two films is of course the nuclear winter, and the key difference the willingness of humans to band together in the face of catastrophe. My memory of The Day After – seen in the eyes of a teenager scared of the holocaust, as we all were – is of people who have barricaded themselves in a hospital removing the mattress-screens once the radiation has dropped, and of the gradual decline due to radiation sickness of some of the individuals unable to hide. These scenes are of hope, that some will survive once the danger has passed, despite the misery they’re victim to. The Road creates none of these pretences whatsoever, and instead drops the two main characters into a world without ethics, morals, or future. There is nothing that can save them, and instead we watch perhaps the last two vestiges of our humanity picking their way through the utter devastation of a dying biosphere.
The question I was left with circles around why the author chose this world for his vision of our future. And most often I see his settling on the natural selfishness of man. The looming environmental catastrophe he is attempting to warn us of is one of our own making, and one which we propel ourselves towards despite the warnings of experts. We are told again, and again, that that future is an illusion, and if it is not, it is too expensive to change , and so it is that we continue to push ourselves towards an abyss. Contrast this message with The Day After, where it more or less a momentary ‘accident’ that almost destroys us, one that can be averted by the awareness of people that this future does not need occur. To reinforce the message the main character in The Road, the Father, often looks backward to the days of plenty, a time when he was surrounded by items, luxury and comfort. Food was cheap, colours abundant, light falling upon the face of an angel, his wife. The author is in this way both allowing us to see what it is we have now, while creating a contrast to what will be if this present is not changed. There is no way to turn off and dismantle the rockets. To live, we must leave the Garden, or the Garden will be no more.
What made this gut-wrenching message more prescient is a TV series of the 1970s we were made to watch in school (by a lazy social studies teacher). Connections was a major influence on a younger me, depicting as it did the holistic intertwining of science, art, and industry in the history of Western Europe. In one episode Burke, the host of the show, presents a world without a key resource, electricity. He begins in a modern, post-industrial city, and works his way out to the rural hinterland, the source of our other need, food. In a very simple description Burke made it very clear that you and I are entirely dependent on the network we support, and which supports us, and clearly demonstrates how simple it would be to collapse it all, with the flick of a switch. The Road epitomises that collapse in the most horrifying way possible, by turning humanity on itself in the search for food.
So what did this leave me with? A mild depression? Yes. A fear for the future, and Chef Du Plunge in particular? Absolutely. While Left and Right equivocate about the impending natural disaster we face, I sit and read of the collapse of civilisations throughout history, and take comfort in the knowledge that collapse is normal. All civilisations end, and almost always due to environmental exhaustion. The only question is whether the end of the Oil Age will bring so much damage to humanity that we regress to the horror depicted in The Road, or whether it is something more akin to the optimism of The Caryatids. And only time will tell.