Teaser: The question has been , "What useful purpose is served by spreading the most pessimistic message possible?" The answer is that Malthusians need to convince people that our situation is extreme before they will agree to what they now perceive to be our "extreme" solutions---until then it will be "business as usual". Movies, videos and you-tubes can be more effective in conveying the extent of our clear and present danger than dry text. "The Road" is one such movie. After viewing it, many people will ask themselves, "Do I want my children or grandchildren to wind up on that road---or can we take a detour now, while there is still time?"
"I think the value of 'The Road' is to wake people up. They have to say that could be me.... The action is not to run and hide in transition towns. The action is to first realize that if the world had 1 million births a year, and we had a global population of only 70 million in 70 years there is no guarantee we could keep it together in the transition. The transition will take careful planning and people have to support both, a highly controversial process for limiting births to 1 million and that planning process. Only someone who sees a really black future like 'The Road' as the high probability event would even consider this extreme deviance from business as usual." Jack Alpert, Director of the Stanford Knowledge Integration Lab.
I have seen perhaps 100 dystopian or apocalyptic movies in my lifetime. That is what makes me such a cheerful fellow. I am gleeful at the prospect of this imperfect world tumbling down, and revel in so many calamitous possibilities. Then I remember that my dog or the people I love would most likely be among the casualties. That tends to throw a wet blanket over the whole idea of an apocalypse. I guess the people who wrote the story of the Great Flood and Sodom and Gomorah were similarly inclined. In fact, I suppose most of the great religions of human history had flood-myths or stories about how wicked and unrepentant people met a sorry end. But I notice that the prophets of these catastrophes seemed to have had an escape hatch. Noah made it through the flood, along with his family, and Lot escaped those cities of sin in time to miss Yahweh's fireballs (his wife, however, looked back and turned into a pillar of salt). And of course, many fundamentalist Christians are quite happy to see this decadent world go to hell because they will go to heaven--- raptured there at the last moment. Those who don't make the cut have no one to blame but themselves. All they had to do was accept Jesus into their hearts and keep the local preacher in the style to which he had become accustomed.
Which movie depicted the disaster scenario that seemed most likely to happen? In the first half of my life, they were movies about nuclear war. "On the Beach" was the first. Then came "The Day After" and "Testament"-- a poignant movie. But the most graphic and hard hitting was the one about a nuclear attack on the city of Sheffield, the aptly named "Threads". There is nothing like a disaster movie to show how fatally interdependent we have become. The British always seem to do it best. They have an eye on realism, while Hollywood has an eye on profits. "Hey, the people want a happy ending, so let's give it to them." But now the Americans---albeit with the help of an Australian director---- have surely taken the prize for realism with a 2009 release. Why?
Since the end of the Cold War, the mushroom cloud has faded from our nightmares. Perhaps it shouldn't have. Perhaps critical resource shortages will spark the nuclear exchange that we feared decades ago. But right now, the shortage of hydrocarbons seems to be grabbing the centre stage, jostling for attention with the spectre of global warming, which I believe will recede into second place as our nightmare flavour-of-the-month.
Until recently it seemed that "Mad Max", even with all of its cheap stunts, described our most credible disaster---a world where every drop of gas is almost more precious than water. It was a world without government, without education, medicine and social safety nets. And most conspicuously, without law and order. A world where those who survived had to be "mobile enough to scavenge, and brutal enough to pillage." I say "seemed" rather than "seems" because last night I saw a movie that hit home harder than anything that I have ever seen. It was entitled "The Road". It depicted a post-apocalyptic America of the near future, an America of crumbling ghost towns or Alpha cities with empty roads strewn with rusty broken down cars and deserted homes, malls and skyscrapers. The mood was bleak. Set in winter, it followed the wanderings of a man and his young son walking in makeshift shoes and tattered clothing down a road in search of food and shelter, only to find the countryside largely empty of survivors, as armed marauding packs, as desperate for sustenance as they were, search for people to kill and eat. If you think a nation of civilized people would not practice cannibalism then you don't know the full story of Leningrad's 900 day siege. Archives opened in the post-Soviet era confirmed that Leningraders not only ate disinterred corpses, but actually killed living people to survive.
If you want to know how miserable life was for the survivors of this particular apocalypse, imagine being on a camping trip for the rest of your life. Your clothes are wet, damp and dirty, your hair and uncut beard are filthy, your teeth are rotting, a bath or a shower is a distant memory, and your whole life is focused on getting warm and getting something to eat. There might be moments of grief and nostalgia as flashbacks of the good life come back to you. A deceased wife, a daughter, a family dog, a garden, a piano. But those dream-like intrusions were swiftly dispelled by focused desperation. And at every moment, if you were not busy trying to start a fire or look for food, you fear an ambush or an assault. The loss of a jacket or a blanket or the food that you carried to thieves could be a death sentence, unless you were killed outright. To compound the futility of the struggle, the movie was filmed without colour, in a kind of brownish sepia tone that you see in old photographs. I was reminded of "The Elephant Man", which achieved the same gloomy effect.
It was not clear what had precipitated the disaster. The landscape was lifeless. No birds. No greenery But since the ruins and cars and buildings still stood, it seems doubtful that America had been nuked. It seemed rather, that society had simply collapsed. But everything you see makes one thing apparent. There are no hydrocarbons and no energy to run anything. The cities are empty not because of a neutron bomb or chemical warfare, they are empty because they were deserted. As analysts like Rick Belfour and Richard Embleton have observed, post carbon cities of more than 20 or in some cases 30 or 40,000 people will not be able to be fed or energized. In this movie you do not see urban streets or buildings littered with dozens or hundreds of skeletons. With some exceptions, it seems that people fled and died elsewhere.
This film is as emotionally devastating, and my opinion, as realistic as it can get. I don't see any soft landings or smooth transitions in my crystal ball, so to me, it was like viewing a documentary. Had I been the director though, I would have included a vignette of a formerly delusional Green who had once been on the lecture circuit talking about how the End of Oil would usher in a New Jerusalem where people experienced a Spiritual Awakening engendered by a communal life based on sharing, caring and a rejection of materialistic values. Viewers like myself would then spend delicious moments thinking about when his delusional bubble burst. When did his epiphany come? When he realized that his battery-powered car could not be recharged? When the local health food store could no longer be supplied with Amazonian soybeans or blue-green algae harvested from some obscure Oregonian lake, or be stocked with any one of innumerable over-priced exotic herbal placebos that he once thought essential to his life? When he began to regret that off-shore oil drilling succumbed to his environmental protests? Or that his campaign to reinstate Canada's gun registry resulted in his inability to defend his family from rape and murder? I would cast a Jack Layton look-a-like in that role. The last scene would have him on the end of a rope that he threw over the limb of a tree, clutching a copy of the last Sierra Club newsletter, which offered advice as to how we might lessen our personal ecological footprints and welcome more refugees to share our country's bounty.
"The Road". See it, and then savour every moment of life in this doomed civilization.
PS For those lucky enough to be beyond the reach of the CBC , New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton was instrumental in getting his trained parliamentary seals to vote the party line and help urban MPs keep their pet boondoggle, the Gun Registry. You see, law abiding Canadians have no need for guns, as they have the police force to protect them in an emergency, as Americans did in New Orleans during Katrina. I understand that the police can be everywhere at once, and in the midst of a societal collapse, will forget about attending to the needs of their own families, and stay on the job interminably without pay.
September 25, 2010