Thursday 7 May 2009

vanishing act

George Monbiot has called Cormac McCarthy's The Road the most important environmental book ever written.

That's one reason why Benjamin Morris and Bradon Smith, who run CRASSH's 'Cultures and Climate Change' programme, chose this widely-acclaimed novel as the subject for an excellent seminar.

The afternoon's discussion fell into two parts: text and context. The discussion about text ranged from the paradox of a rich vocabulary conjuring a bleak and ashen world, through to post-apocalyptic ethics and the theme of redemption.

In discussing context, and how the book was received, there was a difference between its reception in the US - where its Biblical and lapidary cadences were noted by critics - and its reception in the UK, which has been somewhat skewed by Monbiot's striking claims. He also nominated McCarthy as one of the 50 people who could save the planet because The Road shows that 'everything we value depends on the ecosystem.'

That is, of course, irrefutable: no food, no civilisation. But McCarthy never says what has caused the devastation, so there's no sense of cause and effect. It might even have been an asteroid. All we know is that the biosphere is dead and the survivors have been eating tinned food (at best) and each other (at worst).

A novel about climate change, one that imagines a future that's been brought about by rising levels of CO2, would still show large parts of the biosphere surviving. One ecosytem would have replaced another. As James Lovelock keeps reminding us, it's the millions and millions of humans who would have vanished.

(A summary of the seminar will appear shortly on the RSA's Arts and Ecology website.)

pic: Kodi Smit-McPhee and Viggo Mortensen in The Road (to be released October 2009)

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