What if Cormac McCarthy’s The Road Isn’t About Global Warming At All?

What caused the apocalyptic disaster in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? It is popular to suggest that man-made climate-change, or a nuclear war, brought the end:

  • Andrew O’Hagan called The Road: The first great masterpiece of the globally warmed generation.
  • An editorial in the Guardian called The Road: …the most important environmental book ever written…
  • From a review of The Road in Slate: …by eliminating the promise that nature can provide a refuge from human destruction (an appropriate revision in our era of nuclear rogues and global warming)…

The obvious point of a story of human-induced disaster is that we are fallible and shortsighted. Yet this view also elevates us to an almost God-like status. Its baseline assumption is that we have tight control over our destiny, and that what comes our way is a function of our decision-making (faulty or otherwise).

If McCarthy accepted this premise, it would bring the The Road in line with other (lesser) apocalypse stories, from The Planet of the Apes to The Day After Tomorrow. Those are declension stories – they take as their premise the belief that our choices shape what lies ahead for us, and we are leading ourselves (and much of the natural world) into decline and waste.

McCarthy is unforthcoming on the nature of the disaster in The Road. He is no doubt aware that his book is popularly interpreted as a parable of man-made disaster. His few comments on the matter suggest the popular consensus is mistaken. While McCarthy says he doesn’t care what caused the disaster, he mentions a few possibilities – massive volcanic eruptions and meteor strikes, the sorts of things that have caused mass extinctions in the distant past – that suggest McCarthy has thought about it a great deal.

And this small distinction about the nature of the disaster changes everything about the meaning of The Road. A meteor strike or volcanic apocalypse is a random event, a force of nature. We don’t bring them about, and we can’t stop them. They arrive – out of the blue – from a universe that is not interested in negotiating the severity of the impact.

To the extent that a meteor strike has meaning, it is this: we don’t control – through our behavior or our decisions – what gets thrown at us. Massive meteor strikes are indifferent to our beliefs. They can’t be bargained with, and we can’t somehow make them change their behavior by changing our own.

The popular interpretation of the Road – as a parable of devastation brought about by people who had the ability to avoid the disasters headed their way, but made a mess of it – stands in stark contrast to story we find on the actual pages. The book ignores the arrogance and dreary self-flagellation of the declension narrative, and instead hones in on a more profound personal story, a tale of people driven to project meaning and warmth onto a cold, heartless physical reality that defies their every effort.

That’s the incongruity that clobbers the grim protagonists of The Road. The Man and the Boy. For the Boy there is nothing more significant than his concerns about what sort of man he will grow up to be. For the Man there is nothing more significant than the well being of the Boy. For the disaster that came their way, there is nothing more insignificant than their innocence or guilt, or the dreams they hold for their future.

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