Bryan Caplan  

Greens, The Road, and Left Behind

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When I watched The Road, it seemed nearly apolitical.  At the most abstract level, you could take it as a defense of Hobbes against Locke.  But it's hard to see how liberals, conservatives, libertarians, or anyone else would see it as even a feeble vindication of their views.  So I was surprised to discover this review of the book by Guardian columnist George Monbiot.  The bizarre opening paragraph:
A few weeks ago I read what I believe is the most important environmental book ever written. It is not Silent Spring, Small Is Beautiful or even Walden. It contains no graphs, no tables, no facts, figures, warnings, predictions or even arguments. Nor does it carry a single dreary sentence, which, sadly, distinguishes it from most environmental literature. It is a novel, first published a year ago, and it will change the way you see the world.
When I read this, I almost immediately wondered: How would this make The Road any more "important" than the literally hellish Left Behind novels?  Mere fiction about the apocalypse hardly shows it's likely to happen. 

Monbiot admittedly seems vaguely aware of this concern.  He does grant that The Road's scenario is highly unlikely:

Cormac McCarthy's book The Road considers what would happen if the world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans, hunting for food among the dead wood and soot...McCarthy makes no claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the consequences.

...It is hard to see how this could happen during humanity's time on earth, even by means of the nuclear winter McCarthy proposes. But his thought experiment exposes the one terrible fact to which our technological hubris blinds us: our dependence on biological production remains absolute.
Still, this leaves me wondering: What makes The Road more relevant than Left Behind?  Yes, a "thought experiment" where all biological production ceases is terrifying.  But then again, so is a thought experiment where God raptures the faithful and leaves us reprobates to face the Antichrist (a.k.a. Nicolae Carpathia if you see the movie version produced by Alex Tabarrok's brother Nicholas).  I guess Monbiot's answer would be that a scaled-down version of The Road might really happen, while Left Behind isn't going to happen even on a small scale. 

I can buy that story, but it's still unsatisfying.  If The Road exposes our utter dependence on biological production, one could just as easily write dystopian novels to expose our utter dependence on modern technology, fossil fuels, or even, dare I say, the "men of the mind."  The lesson: Human civilization requires many ingredients to exist.  Single-mindedly protecting one at the expense of all others is not the path to paradise, well-being, or even survival.  And that's why economists' focus on trade-offs is so much wiser than environmentalists' nightmares about their favorite ingredient going kaputt.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
rapscallion writes:

I think trying to extract any political, economic, or environmental message from The Road is to miss the point entirely: It's about the anxieties of fatherhood. It's a brilliant and stark expression of the fear that one has brought one's children into a cruel world and will leave them all-too-soon to fend for themselves. The focus is on emotions, not politics. McCarthy wasn't trying to be realistic about the environmental effects or population reductions rates resulting from mass cannibalism. Those are just plot devices to draw what he wants out of his characters.

Brett writes:
It's about the anxieties of fatherhood. It's a brilliant and stark expression of the fear that one has brought one's children into a cruel world and will leave them all-too-soon to fend for themselves.

To be honest, I don't think The Road was the best vessel for that, then. The situation is just so overwhelmingly hopeless, that you seriously wonder if they wouldn't be better off if the father just shot the son and himself. His son is more or less condemned to a (probably) brief life of slow starvation at best, even with the ending that happened.

rapscallion writes:
The situation is just so overwhelmingly hopeless, that you seriously wonder if they wouldn't be better off if the father just shot the son and himself.

Perhaps you would have preferred a magical journey through Care Bear Funland, to find the fairy princess who will make everybody's dreams come true.

Skinner Layne writes:

Although I do not think The Road had a great many economic lessons or an overall economic message, I do think that it served a particularly useful descriptive function. The Road, and Denzel Washington's Book of Eli, describe a world where there has been a universal collapse of the division of labour. If there is any normative message to be derived from that, it is the rather subtle inference that where there has been a collapse of the division of labour, man becomes more primitive in all ways, including how he interacts with his fellow man. In our current world of highly specialized labour, we are all in many ways mutually dependent upon the work of other people, and because of market systems, we are able to trade the products of our labour (in admittedly very roundabout ways) with each other.

Where that system of stability and specialization does not exist, our animal instincts would take over, and we would view other people primarily as threats until some sort of mutually agreed upon order can occur. But the re-establishment of such an order has pre-conditions that clearly were not going to be met in the scenario found in The Road (source of fresh water, ability to procure steady food supply either via hunting & gathering or agriculture).

fundamentalist writes:

About the Left Behind series, the theology and prophesy behind it are extremely popular but a minority of us think it's very bad theology and the prophecy is based on very poor hermeneutics.

Isegoria writes:

If you want a book about the collapse of civilization once a plague eliminates most division of labor, I suggest Earth Abides, which also examines the futility of rebuilding modern society without a critical mass of people to enable specialization.

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