Greens, The Road, and Left Behind
By Bryan Caplan
When I watched The Road, it seemed nearly apolitical. At the most abstract level, you could take it as a defense of Hobbes against Locke. But it’s hard to see how liberals, conservatives, libertarians, or anyone else would see it as even a feeble vindication of their views. So I was surprised to discover this review of the book by Guardian columnist George Monbiot. The bizarre opening paragraph:
A few weeks ago I read what I believe is the most important
environmental book ever written. It is not Silent Spring, Small Is
Beautiful or even Walden. It contains no graphs, no tables, no facts,
figures, warnings, predictions or even arguments. Nor does it carry a
single dreary sentence, which, sadly, distinguishes it from most
environmental literature. It is a novel, first published a year ago,
and it will change the way you see the world.
When I read this, I almost immediately wondered: How would this make The Road any more “important” than the literally hellish Left Behind novels? Mere fiction about the apocalypse hardly shows it’s likely to happen.
Monbiot admittedly seems vaguely aware of this concern. He does grant that The Road‘s scenario is highly unlikely:
Cormac McCarthy’s book The Road considers what would happen if the
world lost its biosphere, and the only living creatures were humans,
hunting for food among the dead wood and soot…McCarthy makes no
claim that this is likely to occur, but merely speculates about the
is hard to see how this could happen during humanity’s time on earth,
even by means of the nuclear winter McCarthy proposes. But his thought
experiment exposes the one terrible fact to which our technological
hubris blinds us: our dependence on biological production remains
Still, this leaves me wondering: What makes The Road more relevant than Left Behind? Yes, a “thought experiment” where all biological production ceases is terrifying. But then again, so is a thought experiment where God raptures the faithful and leaves us reprobates to face the Antichrist (a.k.a. Nicolae Carpathia if you see the movie version produced by Alex Tabarrok’s brother Nicholas). I guess Monbiot’s answer would be that a scaled-down version of The Road might really happen, while Left Behind isn’t going to happen even on a small scale.
I can buy that story, but it’s still unsatisfying. If The Road exposes our utter dependence on biological production, one could just as easily write dystopian novels to expose our utter dependence on modern technology, fossil fuels, or even, dare I say, the “men of the mind.” The lesson: Human civilization requires many ingredients to exist. Single-mindedly protecting one at the expense of all others is not the path to paradise, well-being, or even survival. And that’s why economists’ focus on trade-offs is so much wiser than environmentalists’ nightmares about their favorite ingredient going kaputt.