Cormac McCarthy and Santa Fe Institute

theroadFrom the New Scientist I learned that American novelist Cormac McCarthy has a long history as a writer in residence at the Santa Fe Institute.  Interviewing Joe Penhall the screenwriter of the movie based on McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel The Road:

Cormac McCarthy doesn’t tell us the cause of the apocalypse. What did you imagine it might be?

McCarthy told me it was some kind of environmental meltdown. He has an office at the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico, he loves hanging out there and a lot of his friends are environmental scientists, molecular biologists and physicists, so he’s coming at it from a very scientific point of view. It’s about what would happen if environmental meltdown continued to its logical conclusion: crops and animals would die, the weather would go out of control, there would be spontaneous wildfires and blizzards, you wouldn’t be able to grow anything and the only thing left to eat would be tinned food and each other. But I was anxious not to quiz him too much about what happened because we wanted to preserve the mystique of it.

The Independent writes about Cormac McCarthy:

For him, science still guards the flame of creation that literature has lost. “Part of what you respect is their rigour,” he says of the scientists he admires. “When you say something, it needs to be right. You can’t just speculate idly about things.”

… McCarthy seems to have imbibed a scientific pessimism currently expressed in, but by no means confined to, worries about climate change and environmental entropy.

At Sante Fe, the subjects that snagged in McCarthy’s imagination include the logistics of mass extinction, best known through study of the meteorite strike that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Traces of this fascination crop up in The Road, but the rest of his oeuvre hints heavily that feral human beings can easily reach their own apocalyptic crisis, without any help from outside. “We’re going to do ourselves in first,” he said to Kushner when asked about the threat of climate change.

Oprah’s book club selected The Road last year.  Oprah’s book club links to several SFI scientists discussing about the themes of the book including anthropologist Stephen Lansing (who also works at the Stockholm Resilience Centre).  Lansing writes on Man vs. Nature: Coevolution of Social and Ecological Networks:

As early as 1820, one observer wrote that truly “external” nature—nature apart from humanity—”exists nowhere except perhaps on a few isolated Australian coral atolls.” Not only do humans directly alter many ecosystems through development and agriculture, we impact apparently untouched habitats in remote regions of the earth through pollution and climate change. Yet we depend on nature for “ecosystem services” such as water purification, pollination, fisheries and climate regulation. For better and for worse, humans are constantly coevolving with species and the environment. Many traditional societies have found creative ways to remind themselves of the critical interdependence of the human and natural worlds—consider the water temples of Bali, for example. Claude Lévi-Strauss, perhaps the greatest anthropologist of our time, believed that this interdependence is fundamental to human thought.

According to Lévi-Strauss, when we think about nature we are always already thinking about ourselves.

In the past decade, scientific journals and the media have been filling up with reports of our changing relationship to nature. The most prominent example is climate change, but there are many others: the destruction of the world’s tropical forests and reefs, the eutrophication of lakes and coastal zones, the beginning of a new age of mass extinction. In The Road , Cormac does not dwell on the scientific details of these catastrophes. Instead, he imagines a world that represents their logical outcome and asks us to imagine what that might feel like. What if there was a near-complete breakdown of the complex networks joining humans with one another and with other species? It’s a question that stirs and troubles our sense of who we are.

“There was yet a lingering odor of cows in the barn and he stood there thinking about cows and he realized they were extinct. Was that true? There could be a cow somewhere being fed and cared for. Could there? Fed what? Saved for what? Beyond the open door the dead grass rasped dryly in the wind” (p. 120).

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