In the bleak midwinter, when the sun is shrouded, the skies are clouded and the denizens of Delhi shuffle through the city bundled up like bag-people, there’s nothing quite so comforting as giving up on hope altogether and wallowing in the special pleasures of despair.
Some may consider it inauspicious to begin a new column on a hopeless note, but we bite our denticle at them. After all, when you’re at the bottom of the rockpool, the only way is up.
So although the mercury may be low, it’s on the way up. As are: sea-levels, global temperatures, oil prices, the frequency of extreme weather events, and the number of books dealing with the above. Titles like Heaven and Earth, Hell and High Water, Six Degrees, Hot Flat and Crowded, The Long Emergency, With Speed and Violence, and Climate Code Red have shot like multiple distress flares across the bows of the great ship of fools as we plough on inexorably towards the Edge of the World-as-we-know-it. The statistics are terrifying, the problem itself is so overwhelmingly huge and so apparently unstoppable in its juggernaut progress, it’s entirely understandable if you, like me, would rather not think about it at all. Those who can’t, or don’t, often suffer from what Rob Hopkins, low-carbon guru and founder of the Transition Movement, calls “post-petroleum stress disorder”, whose symptoms range from nausea and mild palpitations to the “irrational grasping at unfeasible solutions.”
There again, if you prefer your tales of ecological apocalypse on screen rather than page, there’s been no shortage of films on the subject. Last year’s crop included Will Smith & Son in After Earth, Tom Cruise’s Oblivion (to which it was quickly consigned), and who can forget Brad pitted against zombies in World War Z? But on Planet Hollywood, no matter how great the odds, the world will be saved. By a lone American man. With great bone structure.
To really hit the sweet spot of bleak hopeless despair, you need a very different kind of lone American male. Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road has been described by leading environmental campaigner and journalist George Monbiot as “the most important environmental book ever written” – outstripping even classics like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring or Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.
Set in a world where the biosphere has simply gone, where the landscape has been eviscerated and destroyed by an unspecified environmental catastrophe, The Road is quite simply the bleakest, darkest book I have ever read – and that includes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The Road would make a Dementor whimper for its mummy. One blogger put it rather well. This book, she said, is a killer: “First, in the sense that it’s amazing. Second, in the sense that it kills your will to live.”
In the world of The Road, there is nothing but the Road. The story follows a father and his young son making their way through a land that is “barren, silent, godless.” Scavenging for food and hiding from marauding packs of other humans for whom they are prey, their lives’ possessions easily contained in the shopping trolley the man pushes along. The past is long gone, and as for the future, “There is no later. This is later.” The pared-downness is matched by the writing style: the short, declarative sentences, brutal imagery, minimal punctuation. There is something naked, raw, about the language. As though everything but the bare necessities have been burned away. The book reads like an Old Testament parable – minus God.
But what it is and what it does, are two very different things. Miraculously – and herein lies the genius of the book – what we are left with, at the end of the road, is not nothing. It is, in fact, anything but. The Road offers up the possibility of redemption in the absolute absence of hope. Turn the last page, and you are returned to life. To the realisation that what we have, which is everything, is right here, right now – the spring air, the trees, books and stories, and each other – in heart-stopping abundance.