What was the catastrophe that happened in "The Road"?

  • My googling says that the catastrophe in "The Road" is unexplained.

    Given what we can see on-screen, can anyone come up with a better explanation for how the world got that way?

    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about a book/movie that is neither sci-fi or fantasy.

    @MajorStackings -I disagree. The book & film are explicitly stated to be set in the future, after some sort of apocalyptic event. Although the author claims it to be "not science fiction", that only pushes it further into the "fantasy" category; http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2007/feb/15/after-the-apocalypse/

    It's the story of a father and sons hopeless journey in a hopeless world. No elves. No laserbeams. Just a coke and a smile.

    @MajorStackings Neither science fiction nor fantasy need elves or laserbeams to be science fiction/fantasy.

    We are not intended to think much about how it has happened; the catastrophe is a premise we need not analyse. If one does, however, the most striking – and to my mind unrealistic – feature is that all _non-human_ life seems to be impossible. I would expect any of the catastrophes proposed so far to allow many simpler life-forms to survive, and that humans would be more likely to perish, though admittedly access to locked or packaged caches helps them.

  • TL;DR: We don't know.

    Word of God:

    The author, Cormac McCarthy, refuses to reveal what happened:

    I don't have an opinion. It could be anything – volcanic activity or it could be nuclear war. It is not really important. The whole thing now is, what do you do? The last time the caldera in Yellowstone blew, the entire North American continent was under about a foot of ash. People who've gone diving in Yellowstone lake say that there is a bulge in the floor that is now about 100 feet high and the whole thing is just sort of pulsing. From different people, you get different answers, but it could go in another three to four thousand years or it could go on Thursday...
    - Source

    What we do know is that in the course of planning the book, McCarthy asked paleobiologist Doug Erwin (a friend he knows from his work as a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute) about the meteor that killed off the dinosaurs:

    ONE DAY A FEW YEARS AGO, after checking his mail and pouring his coffee, McCarthy gingerly made his way down the hall at the Institute. He passed the equation-scrawled windowpane, down the steps where Dr. Zen was curled in the corner, past the long, red sofa where a grad student lay sprawled, and into the corner office of his friend Doug Erwin. Then he started asking about the apocalypse. In particular, he wanted to know about extinction-the Cretaceous-Tertiary meteorite that wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago...

    Erwin told McCarthy about the likely aftermath of the deadly meteorite: the magnitude of the desolation, the collapse of ecosystems, the fallout of debris and gases. Then, one day last year, Erwin sat down to read a galley of The Road, which depicts the harrowing, post-apocalyptic journey of a father and son. Erwin smiled – so this is what McCarthy was up to, he figured.
    - Source

    Erwin himself wrote an article about this issue, and has no concrete answers - despite his friendship with McCarthy:

    If Cormac McCarthy knows what caused the cataclysm in The Road, he's not telling, and we're all left to speculate. Was it a nuclear exchange? A massive volcanic eruption? The impact of an extraterrestrial object? We don't know, and in some sense, it does not really matter.
    - Source

    Descriptions in the text:

    These offer no conclusive evidence, either.

    The disaster itself:

    The clocks stopped at 1:17. A long shear of light and then a series of low concussions. He got up and went to the window. What is it? she said. He didn't answer. He went into the bathroom and threw the light switch but the power was already gone. A dull rose glow in the window glass. He dropped to one knee and raised the lever to stop the tub and then turned on both taps as far as they would go. She was standing in the doorway in her nightwear, clutching the jamb, cradling her belly in one hand. What is it? she said. What is happening?
    - The Road, Cormac McCarthy

    After-effects of the disaster:

    The lingering effects of the cataclysm include:

    • Near-extinction of all life, including humans, other animals (e.g., birds, dogs, deer, fish, etc.), and plants. During the novel's "present-day", the only animals we encounter are some skeletal remains and a solitary dog who barks in the distance; there are no living plants (as far as I can determine), but the Man finds some morel mushrooms at one point.
    • Evidence of massive, widespread fires, including charred remains of trees, buildings, corpses, etc, and a layer of ash covering the entire landscape.
    • Skies left completely obscured by a heavy shroud of dark grey clouds.
    • There is one earthquake in the novel, but we don't know whether this is a one-time fluke, or a frequent occurrence connected to the catastrophe.

    Descriptions in the text vs. what we know would happen after one of the most commonly suggested theories about the nature of the catastrophe in The Road:

    These clues don't point to any of the most commonly proposed theories about what caused the world to end - climate change, nuclear war, volcanic activity, or an asteroid impact.

    Nuclear War:

    • Scientists now say that a nuclear exchange wouldn't wipe out all life on earth, or even the entire human race:

    Although extinction of our species was not ruled out in initial studies by biologists, it now seems that this would not take place... The oxygen consumption by the fires would be inconsequential, as would the effect on the atmospheric greenhouse by carbon dioxide production.
    - Source

    • If we assume that McCarthy intended for the earthquake(s) to be a by-product of the cataclysm, occurring frequently over many years after the disaster began, we must rule out nuclear warfare. All the nukes in the world wouldn't cause years of earthquakes.

    • The novel gives us little or no reason to believe that radiation is a threat to the Man and Boy, but it would be a significant concern after a nuclear war.

    Asteroid/meteor impact:

    • The Man sees "a long shear of light" when the event occurs. If he was close enough to see the flash of an impact by an object large enough to kill off almost all life on earth, he'd be far too close to survive for more than a few seconds.

    • As Erwin explains, the dark skies and absence of vegetation in The Road do not agree with the actual aftermath of an impact by an extraterrestrial object:

    Geologists and paleontologists (who study fossils) have studied how plants and animals responded to the six great mass extinctions of the past 600 million years, as well as smaller events such as massive volcanic eruptions. The first organisms to reappear are often ferns and weedy flowering plants that reproduce and spread rapidly. In the sea, many microbes and some algae spread rapidly. The deforestation described in The Road would release nutrients from the land into rivers, lakes and the ocean, encouraging further growth.
    - Source

    “Instead of having gray skies that look like Beijing, it would actually be blue skies, like this,” Erwin tells me one afternoon, as he motions outside his window to the hills rolling down toward Santa Fe. “There would also be a lot more ferns. But because of what he was trying to achieve, he had to take some artistic license. That book was about his son.”
    - Source

    Climate change:

    • Climate change is causing all sorts of damage to the planet, but no one is seriously suggesting that it will lead to worldwide infernos, the extinction of all plant and animal life, earthquakes, explosions, or a complete darkening of the skies for a decade or more. Jared Diamond describes the worst-case scenario of a global collapse caused by human activity which destroys the environment - in short, a world in which life exists, but is far less pleasant:

    Much more likely than a doomsday scenario involving human extinction or an apocalyptic collapse of industrial civilization would be ‘just’ a future of significantly lower living standards, chronically higher risks, and the undermining of what we now consider some of our key values.
    - Collapse, Jared Diamond

    Volcanic activity:

    • The eruption of a supervolcano would be catastrophic on the continent on which it occurred, but it wouldn't kill every living thing on the planet.

    • Again, the Man sees a flash of light when the apocalypse begins, and if he can actually see a supervolcano erupting, he is so close to the volcano that he'll be dead in minutes. Everyone living within hundreds of miles of him is going to die in the immediate future as well. He won't be wandering around ten years later with a son who wasn't even born yet when the eruption took place.


    We don't know what caused the apocalypse; the evidence provided by McCarthy doesn't completely support any of the commonly proposed causes of the apocalypse; and McCarthy says it doesn't matter.

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Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM