How long can they last?
May 19, 2011 3:26 PM   Subscribe

In the novel, The Road, the people are slowly starving to death due to a nuclear (assumption) winter. What is the reality of this situation?

I realize The Road is fiction and something of a parable. The boy is about 10, so for 10 years they have been pretty much living off the scraps of civilization and cannibalism. This question has haunted me since I read the book: How realistic is it that people would be able to survive the way they do in the book?
posted by fifilaru to Health & Fitness (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I think the missing variable is the surviving population/pre-apocalypse population. The average person probably has X days worth of non-perishable food at starvation rations in their house, add all that up and then divide it amongst total survivors and you could get a reasonable answer.

Considering how rarely the man and the boy encounter other survivors, it sounds at least plausible. Also they keep moving to encounter new caches of food.
posted by 2bucksplus at 3:33 PM on May 19, 2011

My guess is that the disaster hinted at in the book is really an asteroid strike, or perhaps some catastrophic geological event, like a supervolcano that throws tons of ash into the environment. If it was a nuclear winter, the older adults and children would have mostly died off from radiation poisoning. Any survivors would be pretty sick, beyond long-term effects of breathing in dust.

That said, I always wondered how the survivors (both the protagonists and those that threaten them) could manage ten years of post-collapse living, or why the hunters go as far as keeping humans captive for food. Seems pretty wasteful to keep human beings alive after an apocalypse, feeding and caring for them, keeping them healthy enough to realistically continue eating off of.

I think McCarthy was aiming more for the macabre, and less for realism. After an event as catastrophic as what is hinted at, it's pretty unlikely there would be any survivors after ten years. A more gruesome reading helps with the good-vs-evil theme that underlines his books. Without the thrill of being hunted by cannibals, the story is about just trying to stay alive off the scraps of a civilization's unburnt remnants, which is more realistic but perhaps not as captivating or deep.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:42 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

Starting here, I think the big assumption in The Road is that most other people are already dead by the time the novel begins. Realistically it'd be unlikely, which is why I leaned toward environmental catastrophe rather than nuclear apocalypse when I read the novel-- more possibility for a gradual decline.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 3:42 PM on May 19, 2011

From what I recall of the book and later the film, chances of staying alive and propagating the race etc are very slim, and, from the bleakness of it all, not much to look forward to but trying to get to the next day, though for what remains a question that might be asked.
posted by Postroad at 3:49 PM on May 19, 2011

Yeah, the Road doesn't really stand up as "hard science" - I strongly doubt that humanity could go on for even one year after a total environmental collapse, let alone ten. I mean, if there's no plants converting CO2 to oxygen, wouldn't that have led to unbreathable air pretty quickly?
posted by modernserf at 3:51 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

if there's no plants converting CO2 to oxygen, wouldn't that have led to unbreathable air pretty quickly?

Phytoplankton could help with post-event recovery.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 3:54 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: There are many ways a disaster could play out. The film's depiction of the boy's childhood seems realistic in a slow building disaster. Environmental catastrophe -> economic turmoil -> political implosion -> basic infrastructure collapse -> etc.

Over the course of many years some pockets of 'normality' would surely be maintained.

I don't remember the situation being the same in the book i.e. the details of the boy's upbringing and his mother's death are much more vague. We can assume though, given the veracity of the groups of cannibals haunting the road, that collapse occurred long enough enough for a different hierarchy to emerge from the tatters of civilisation.

To change tact on this a little, I always wonder (in these fictions) about the human beings from non-western sectors of the world. George Orwell said in 1984 that it would be the proletariat that inherited the world. This is a similar idea to the 'meek' inheriting the Earth, or so the bible says.

If a catastrophe did occur, whether asteroid, nuclear winter, whatever, there would definitely be some pockets of human settlement that remained basically untouched. Let's say the people living in remote regions of the Amazon, or high plateaus of the Andes, or the Himalayas were lucky. Their ancient knowledge and more self-sufficient means of living might see them erk out an existence far closer to normality than those of us used to tanks full of gasoline and 24 hour news.

Basically, what I think I am saying is, that survival is not a problem if you are in the right place at the right time. Yes, a nuclear winter would mean the end of the world as we know it, but if enough small pockets of life managed to hang on long enough, the kind of world arising in McCarthy's The Road might not be too far away from possible.

Of course "total environmental collapse" would mean the end, for most living things, but - AND SPOILER ALERT HERE - in the very last paragraph of the book, there is a beautiful passage about the boy seeing rainbow trout in the river. A shining symbol of hope in an otherwise depressing depiction of human (Earth's?) frailty.
posted by 0bvious at 4:04 PM on May 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

Possibly the most-recent, modern example of a societal collapse is the Irish potato famine, which reduced the Irish population by 25% either by outright death or immigration. The famine is generally considered to have lasted 7 years, so while the Road's depiction is farfetched, it's not completely out of the question.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 4:10 PM on May 19, 2011 [4 favorites]

I think the best explanation for the even was an asteroid strike and a subsequent global firestorm caused by the raining of fiery debris across the large northern forests. Tons of ash, ecosystem collapse, but at least there's no radiation to worry about.

As for phytoplankton, with the coasts vomiting up fish skeletons and smelling of iodine, I'd guess the oceans would be as ruined as the land.
posted by Rhaomi at 4:13 PM on May 19, 2011

My assumption when reading the book was that it was some sort of new weapon that interrupted plant growth somehow. All plants pretty much stopped and died and then the web of life collapsed after that. Man was able to survive due to cached supplies, but most of us died out pretty soon after due to starvation and disease.

The fact that The Man could get sick gave me some home for life because it meant that perhaps some sort of non-human life had survived as well (though I hoped it was non only viruses)

I could imagine a world that stored all the dead fish, plants, etc... and somehow eeked our an existence for a decade before the final collapse, esp if it wasn't a catastrophic event like a meteor impact.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 4:33 PM on May 19, 2011

Best answer: It is completely, 100% unrealistic, and it's one of the things which kept me from enjoying the book. If the solar cycle is broken by global cloud cover and ash fall, we would have about one year to survive on food stores. I could begrudgingly believe 3-5. 10? No way.

Cormac McCarthy is not a science fiction writer. He apparently had no interest in making his scenario scientifically plausible. You're meant to take it on faith, as a parable. (Personally I couldn't suspend my disbelief that far.)
posted by ErikaB at 4:45 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

McCarthy is associated with the Santa Fe Institute, a private think tank of multi-disciplinary scientists and like-minded. I recall an interview he gave about The Road in which he said something like "I asked one of the people there to outline a global apocalypse that would allow for the scenario in The Road. Having been given one and been satisfied that it wasn't completely impossible, I forgot about it since the apocalypse isn't the subject of the story."
posted by fatbird at 5:31 PM on May 19, 2011 [7 favorites]

Echoing fatbird -- I recall reading that he spoke with a colleague about potential disasters that would be environmentally devastating on a global scale, such as an asteroid strike. My recollection is that his colleague said he was interested in the broad details of the event and its aftermath, but not necessarily the finer points of the disaster or even the likelihood of the event playing out to the nadir described in the book.

That said, there are many events in the book that struck me as being there simply for their shock value, or because they were good indicators of how far we as civilized humans living in a modern, civil society would fall if society collapsed around us. He's a fantastic novelist and he's allowed to write whatever sort of novel he wants. I didn't look too hard at the science in the story, but rather focused on the human drama of the narrative, which depressed me for weeks afterwards. Perhaps the bleakest novel I've read, and certainly the bleakest I've read since college.
posted by mosk at 6:30 PM on May 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I think the people saying this is not plausible are off-base.

Firstly, this is unlikely to be a nuclear winter - note the prevalent earthquakes, so the more probable scenario is a dinosaur killer or a supervolcano.

Both of these have happened multiple times in the past without wiping out all life. It is suspected that the Toba eruption of ~70kya reduced the total human population to a few thousand.

This sort of event has global impact, but the severity varies by location - close to the event location all life is wiped out. Further away it may be marginal but still survivable.
posted by HiroProtagonist at 7:22 PM on May 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

What is the reality of this situation?

I also found the whole cannibal thing to completely destroy my suspension of disbelief. If food is as rare as it seems you are much better off eating the shriveled roots and rusty canned goods rather than feeding them to people you are going to eat.
posted by Meatbomb at 7:27 PM on May 19, 2011

Best answer: A pig human like that, you don't eat all at the same time.

My understanding is that the cannibal victims weren't long-term livestock but rather semi-recent captures. If you have food that is going bad, you feed it to the livestock. When you're hungry, you amputate a limb.

The eating-of-the-newborn thing was stupid, though. Massive net energy and building block loss. Why not abort as early as possible? The only thing I could think of is if things were "ok" and there was enough hope that you could bring the baby to term and still have enough food for it... then near the end of the pregnancy, something bad suddenly happens and cannibalism in this case was a "might as well" thing.

As for realism... couldn't you cultivate mushrooms and other fungi without too much sunlight? Mosses and lichens and certain plants don't require too much direct sunlight. Even with a 100% cloudcover, there'd be enough sunlight filtering through to sustain some plant life photosynthesis.

I guess the breakdown of society and the proposed level of violent tendencies would but a damper on farming, though.
posted by porpoise at 8:02 PM on May 19, 2011

> Of course "total environmental collapse" would mean the end, for most living things, but - AND SPOILER ALERT HERE - in the very last paragraph of the book, there is a beautiful passage about the boy seeing rainbow trout in the river. A shining symbol of hope in an otherwise depressing depiction of human (Earth's?) frailty.

MORE SPOILERS: I think the last paragraph says there used to be trout in the river, but not any more.
posted by The Card Cheat at 8:05 PM on May 19, 2011 [5 favorites]

@The Card Cheat: I disagree with this interpretation. The boy is talking from a future point about a past event. From the point of view of the end of the book, this event has not happened yet. Future-past tense. This comment from your link agrees:

If you listen to John Hillcoat's directors commentary on the movie DVD, where he had Cormac McCarthy on set there to answer any questions about the text of the book, Hillcoat states that "in the book after the boy meets the family it continues on to into the future years later when the boy is older, in some ways the book finishes optimistically in that it shows he has lived on through the years".
Now although this may just be Hillcoat's interpretation I can't imagine he wouldn't have sought to confirm it with McCarthy (who he states is now a close friend of his). Therefore I think this is the closest we will get to receiving an explanation from the author that the last paragraph describes how the trout have not lived on as what man has destroyed cannot be put back, but that man has survived, the good guys do survive.

posted by 0bvious at 12:14 AM on May 20, 2011

Best answer: Aside from the occasional human, the world in The Road is utterly dead. If the disaster were so toxic as to kill off everything down to the algae in the lakes, the moss on the trees, the bulbs underground, etc. -- it would definitely have killed the people too. Even if they were hiding indoors at the time of the disaster and had the foresight to fill the bathtub with water.

Fortunately, no one pointed that out to me until after I had read the book and been thoroughly and wonderfully horrified.
posted by gentian at 1:23 AM on May 20, 2011 [1 favorite]

SM Stirling presents another take on a similar theme in his Emberverse series starting with Dies the Fire. I think his view is more realistic in that food stores almost disappear within the first year and that in order to survive, communities must form to start growing crops. It could still be possible to live a hunter/gatherer life given the right circumstances in the post-apocalypse. The book didn't say that they were living well and didn't give many details of the "event" or all the details surrounding who survived. I guess I wouldn't discount being able to live off the land for ten years especially in more rural areas that may have been less affected.
posted by JJ86 at 6:32 AM on May 20, 2011

> @The Card Cheat: I disagree with this interpretation. The boy is talking from a future point about a past event.

It's certanily possible (McCarthy likes to leave things vague and open to interpretation), but...the fish don't (IIRC; it's been a few years since I read it) actually make an appearance in the book, which means that for the last paragraph to be the boy talking he'd have to be referring to some fish he saw after the events in the book, which seems unlikely to me.

Personally, I read this paragraph as the viewpoint of some sort of omniscient narrator (similar to the epilogue of Blood Meridian), but I'm certainly not a McCarthy authority.
posted by The Card Cheat at 7:16 AM on May 20, 2011

I came here to say what 2bucksplus did. There's not enough information in the book to make any judgements either way, and one major variable missing is the number of people sharing the remaining food.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:05 PM on May 20, 2011

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