Joe Bast | December 29, 2022
I don’t recall hearing about The Road when the movie was released in 2009, but back then the specter of a nuclear war with Russia was not so top-of-mind as it is today, so I wasn’t paying attention to post-apocalypse survival films. I watched it shortly before Christmas this year, probably not the best time of year to watch such a grim and deeply disturbing movie.
According to Wikipedia, the movie is “directed by John Hillcoat and written by Joe Penhall, based on the 2006 novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy. The film stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a father and his son in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.” Mortensen is best known (to me) as Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings movies (2001–03).
I’m not a full-blown “prepper,” but I have dipped my toe into the literature and begun to take some preliminary steps to prepare for the worst. The film brings to life some of the scenarios that preppers write about, prepare for, and probably dream about in their sleep, which makes it a valuable resource even for people who think they are well prepared. I think the movie also may miss some things that I have read or that occurred to me during my research. I’ll cover both in this commentary.
Spoiler alert: Stop reading if you don’t want to know what happens during the movie or how it ends.
About the Movie
The Road is a very sober movie about what life could be like in America following a nuclear war. People who think “it couldn’t happen here” will be pushed out of their comfort zone by the gritty realism of this film. Seeing it close up and often with shocking realism, rather than just reading about it in a book or seeing it in action-adventure movies like the Matrix or Terminator series is jarring and almost strangely convincing.
Other than a few flashbacks, all the action takes place over a few weeks or maybe months about eight or nine years after a devastating nuclear strike occurs. A father and his son are trying to make it to the Gulf coast in hopes of finding warmer temperatures, food, and perhaps a community of other survivors. A nuclear winter has killed nearly all plant life and even dedicated preppers have run out of food or been forced to abandon their bunkers. All but a small remnant of the human population has died by starvation, exposure, suicide, or at the hands of roaming gangs. The few who survive live by scavenging food, clothing, and shelter from abandoned homes and businesses. Some survivors resort to cannibalism and hunt the other survivors.
The Greatest Threat to Survival
A central thesis of The Road is that your greatest enemy in a long-term disaster — say, one lasting more than two years — won’t be hunger, cold, or disease, though all these will occur and may kill you. It will be other people, including or even especially your neighbors who will be hungry, cold, and/or sick and want to take from you what little food, fuel, clothing, and other supplies you own. In The Road, these desperate people sometimes act alone and sometimes form mobs who conduct search-and-kill operations through neighborhoods and the countryside.
In The Road, cannibalism is witnessed and deeply feared by the father and son. In a real post-nuclear war world, would cannibalism be so widespread? If you accept some of the premises of the movie, such as nuclear winter and ubiquitous violence rather than cooperation, it seems plausible. The people with moral objections to cannibalism, even if in the large majority today, would not last as long after other sources of food ran out as those without such compunction. Eight or nine years after the apocalypse, if only the ruthless survived, many of them might indeed be cannibals. It’s a horrible thought.
Scenes in The Road remind us that if you plan to shelter at home during a long-term disaster, you will have to do more than lock and barricade the doors. You’ll have to anticipate people attacking from multiple directions, breaking windows and through walls, and setting your house on fire. They may ambush you when you leave to get water, fuel, or food.
In the movie, the father and son come upon a well-stocked underground fall-out shelter that was not used by its owners and somehow escaped detection by other scavengers. But even that shelter would be difficult to defend once its location was discovered. After enjoying the stash for a few days, the father and son hear a dog barking. The father fears they have been discovered and so they leave, carrying only as much food and clothing as fits in a cart.
There are lessons here for preppers. An otherwise perfect survival shelter may be good for a few weeks or months, but if it is not hidden well, it may attract unwelcome and violent guests. Such a shelter may escape detection while unused for many months, even for years, but maybe not for long after you occupy it. The smoke from your fire or tracks in the snow to get water or firewood may reveal your location to a starving neighbor or passing mob. A dog may smell the food you’ve stashed or are preparing. Unless your shelter is very large, very remote, and a well-kept secret, it will not provide you with safety during a long-term disaster.
Guns and ammunition can provide some safety; a handgun plays a major role in The Road. The father is nearly out of ammunition, leaving us to wonder why. Amassing an impressive armory may seem necessary to survive a long-term disaster, but what happens when, like the father and son in The Road, we are forced out of our home or shelter in order to scavenge or seek refuge elsewhere? Guns and ammunition are heavy. Will we be forced to leave them behind in order to carry food, clothing, sleeping bags, and a tent? Even if we do carry guns and ammunition, could we face down an armed and desperate mob? A sniper?
In a flashback early in the movie, the man’s wife gives birth to the boy seen in the rest of the movie. This appears to occur shortly after the nuclear strike while the couple is sheltering in place. Was she pregnant before the war started? Did she get pregnant after their supply of contraceptives ran out? Was she raped? No one shows up to help her deliver the baby. Are you prepared to deliver a baby at home? An electro-magnetic pulse (EMP) following a nuclear explosion would probably fry all your electronics, including cellphones and computers, so you won’t be able to watch a YouTube video on midwifery. Better watch one now!
The couple raises the boy for around eight years, judging by the age of the boy in the movie’s “present,” somehow surviving in a world plunged into twilight by nuclear winter. We aren’t told how they found food and fuel and safety during all those years. The supplies of even the most enthusiastic prepper would have run out long before then.
The mother in the present is exhausted, weak, and depressed. They can’t survive another winter in their house, she says, and the father and son should head to the coast without her. She no longer wishes to live. Some of their neighbors, she points out, committed suicide. (Later in the movie we see evidence that other people committed suicide when their food supplies ran out.) Her husband begs her to come with them but she refuses to, takes off her warm clothing, and walks out into the cold and dark night.
The lesson for preppers is that family matters a great deal in a long-term disaster. Where will your parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren be when the disaster occurs and what will happen to them? How will you know without television, radio, or telephones? Will you or your spouse want to leave the shelter to find them, hoping to rescue them and bring them back to the shelter? Would that reveal the location of your survival shelter? Would both of you go on the rescue mission or would one stay behind? Will some of your extended family members find you and ask to stay with you? Do you have food, clothing, and shelter for them, too?
You can’t assume that your spouse agrees or will agree with your priorities. Your spouse may want to give up, even commit suicide. Can you blame her (or him)? She may insist on leading a search team for her mother or siblings or children. Can you tell her no? She may insist on sharing food and fuel with extended family members, even neighbors and complete strangers. Can you tell her no? Should you?
The Road illustrates the painful dilemma of husband and wife, and later a father and son, disagreeing on survival tactics during a long-term disaster. It also shows how difficult it would be to care for a child during a long-term disaster. The boy cries, panics, wanders off, needs to be fed and washed and sometimes carried, and can’t stay silent when he and his dad are being hunted by a mob. How could a survival plan have provisions for all of that? This boy is old enough to walk, talk, and even be reasoned with. What if he were still in diapers, colicky, and in need of formula? What if there were more than one child?
The Road illustrates some basic survival techniques that aren’t fictional. During the flash-back to the moment of the nuclear attack, the father begins filling a bathtub and sink with water. It’s a smart move because water pressure will bring water to the house only until nearby water towers are emptied, so you should store as much water as possible in the first hours of an emergency.
Later in the movie, the wood floor of the couple’s house is broken up to provide firewood. During the march to the coast, a grocery cart is abandoned in favor of a larger pull-cart with two large wheels. A water filter is made from two plastic bottles and a t-shirt. Durable shoes and boots are essential and highly valued. Plastic bags keep feet dry, butane lighters (what we used to call cigarette lighters) start fires and provide light at night, and duct tape, can openers and scissors are essential tools.
Is having a dog a good survival technique? Dogs obviously require food, which will be scarce, and they make noise that could give away the location of your shelter. But they can also warn of approaching strangers and smell food that may be hidden or a considerable distance away. Dogs were the first animals domesticated by humans back when we were still hunter-gatherers and lived in caves. Their usefulness outweighed their cost then, and probably would again in a post-nuclear war scenario.
The weather portrayed in The Road is always twilight or night, cold, and full of thunder and lightning, rain, and earthquakes. This apparently is the “nuclear winter” scenario famously predicted by Carl Sagan based on some older climate models that assumed that soot produced by nuclear explosions and massive fires (shown in the movie) would block sunlight for several years or even longer. In the movie, all the trees and other vegetation (in the world?) have died from the lack of sunlight. Dead trees still standing sometimes come crashing to the ground due to wind or earthquakes. There seems to be no insect or animal life except, perhaps, at the end when the father and son reach the coast.
The good news is that the climate impact of a nuclear war, even a massive one, is likely to be much less severe than what is shown in the movie. Sagan along with other anti-nuke activists at the time exaggerated the size and duration of fires, the amount of soot they would produce, how much would reach the stratosphere, and how long the soot would stay there. A more likely scenario, apparently, is that many population centers would not be bombed, average global temperatures would fall by only a couple degrees, for only a couple years, and temperatures, crops and trees would rebound afterwards. For more information about all this, see the book Nuclear War Survival Skills by Cresson Kearny, originally published by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and updated in 1988.
Not all scientists are so sanguine. Wikipedia reports, “according to a peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature Food in August 2022, a full-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia, which together hold more than 90% of the world’s nuclear weapons, would kill 360 million people directly and more than 5 billion indirectly by starvation during a nuclear winter.” Of course, these scientists are also anti-nuke activists, so should they be trusted?
If a nuclear war is more likely to produce a “nuclear autumn” than a “nuclear winter,” the scenes presented in The Road are much less realistic. If plants continue to grow, even if stunted for a few years, then animal life also survives and hunting, foraging, and agriculture are all options. Light and warmth dramatically improve safety and living conditions. Surviving wouldn’t be a walk in the park, for sure, but it would not be the death march depicted in the movie.
According to Nuclear War Survival Skills, “Within two weeks after an attack the occupants of most shelters could safely stop using them, or could work outside the shelters for an increasing number of hours each day.” The amount of radiation and heat produced by a nuclear bomb depends on proximity to the blast site, the size of the bomb, whether it is detonated in the air (an “air burst”) or touching the ground, and even on the weather at the time of the explosion (clouds and water vapor absorb and scatter heat radiation, reducing the area affected by the blast). ‘“Firestorms’ could occur only when the concentration of combustible structures is very high, as in the very dense centers of a few old American cities. At rural and suburban building densities, most people in earth-covered fallout shelters would not have their lives endangered by fires.”
Also according to Nuclear War Survival Skills, “If the fallout particles do not become mixed with the parts of food that are eaten, no harm is done. Food and water in dust-tight containers are not contaminated by fallout radiation. Peeling fruits and vegetables removes essentially all fallout, as does removing the uppermost several inches of stored grain onto which fallout particles have fallen. Water from many sources — such as deep wells and covered reservoirs, tanks and containers — would not be contaminated. Even water containing dissolved radioactive elements and compounds can be made safe for drinking by simply filtering it through earth.”
You should study Nuclear War Survival Skills to learn more about living with the after-effects of a nuclear bomb. A copy can be downloaded (in PDF) from the Oregon Institute of Science and Medicine by going to https://www.oism.org/nwss/.
Trading Instead of Fighting
Every encounter between the father and son team and other humans in The Road is violent or involves the threat of violence. Would that necessarily be the case in a long-term disaster?
Man, wrote Adam Smith in 1776, has “a propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another.” He “is an animal that makes bargains: no other animal does this— no dog exchanges bones with another.” Archeologists agree, having found evidence that humans were trading in ancient times, probably as far back as the Stone Age. So why should we imagine, as the filmmaker of The Road does, that a nuclear attack, even one that “bombs us back to the Stone Age,” would make us stop trading with one another for the goods and services we want?
Outside ground zero of a nuclear bomb detonation, trading would still occur during a long-term disaster. The world would be a far better place than the one portrayed in The Road and other post-apocalypse movies because trading produces value for both parties. For example, I am willing to trade a can of soup for a cigarette lighter if I have plenty of soup but need a lighter, and you will agree to the deal if you have plenty of lighters but need soup. We are both better off after the trade, even though the supply of soup and lighters hasn’t increased. It’s kind of like a miracle, and it’s the reason free enterprise — an economy based on exchange instead of force — is the essential foundation of freedom and prosperity everywhere in the world today. After a nuclear attack, the miracle of trade would be even more needed and beneficial.
A long-term disaster would change the conditions under which trade takes place in two ways. First, it would reduce the value of the existing medium of exchange — cash — or even replace it entirely with other media or barter (as in my example of soup and lighters). Second, trading works only if the parties abide by their agreements and not resort to the use of force to take what they want. During a long-term disaster there may not be a police force or justice system to enforce contracts and exercise a monopoly on the use of force. Let’s address each issue, since they affect how we should prepare for a long-term disaster.
A Medium of Exchange
During short-term disasters, such as hurricanes or tornadoes, cash retains its value although the prices of some goods and services may rise dramatically. In a medium-term disaster, one lasting a year or two, many people will hope things will return to normal soon and prices will return to their past levels, so they will be willing to accept cash for food, water, energy, protection, etc. Many people will probably lose access to bank accounts and investments, so they will not be able to withdraw cash until banking services are restored. This will make cash relatively scarce and actually more valuable, so I recommend including cash in your stash.
During a long-term disaster, assuming order is not restored by martial or civil authorities, confidence in the value of cash is likely to fall and may disappear entirely. When you are asking someone to give up some food, water, or fuel that you desperately need, offering them $10 or $100 or even $1,000 may not be enough. You can’t eat cash. You also can’t eat gold or silver, so I really doubt that people would accept gold coins, jewelry, even silver or gold bars, in exchange for life-sustaining necessities. If it looks like a disaster may be long-term, I recommend using your cash in the first weeks and months because it will become worthless as other people discover the scope and length of the disaster.
Once cash loses its value, people will find other media of exchange or resort to barter. A commodity becomes a medium of exchange by virtue of being lighter, more durable, and more divisible than other objects. In POW camps during World War II, cigarettes became a medium of exchange among prisoners. Today, since fewer people smoke, one imagines that bullets, cigarette lighters, and maybe canisters of propane fuel might become new media of exchange. I recommend stockpiling all these to trade for less durable and more difficult to transport food, clothing, and even shelter.
While we may be willing to trade peacefully with other people for the things we want and need, some people will try to use force to take what they want. Today, these people are mostly kept at bay by police, our justice system, and sometimes by potential victims fighting back. The same situation would prevail during short-term and even a medium-term disaster, perhaps with more cases of potential victims having to defend themselves. In a long-term disaster, self-defense may become the rule rather than the exception.
The experience of the Western Frontier in America is encouraging. Peaceful trade occurred in thousands of tiny towns and “trading posts” without a police presence. A bartender or grocery store owner might keep a shotgun behind the counter and folks mounted rifles above fireplaces at home for safety, not just for a rustic look, but historians have found that the level of violence in the West was much lower than we might gather from watching Western movies or reading novels. (See The Not So Wild, Wild West: Property Rights on the Frontier, by Terry L. Anderson and Peter J. Hill.) The same could be true during a long-term disaster. A lot would depend on whether certain social institutions survive the war or are eventually restored, the topic I address below.
In The Road, guns and ammunition both seem to be in short supply and all but one gun (a handgun) and two bullets are in the hands of bad guys. That has to be wildly inaccurate. A quick internet search finds “There are estimated to be over 400 million guns in the United States between police, the military, and American civilians. Over 393 million (over 98%) of those guns are in civilian hands, the equivalent of 120 firearms per 100 citizens. The average gun-owning American has 5 firearms, while nearly 22% of gun owners only have a single firearm.” Around 12 billion rounds of ammunition are sold every year.
With 400 million guns and probably more than 100 billion bullets in the country, I think the good guys would be well-armed for many years. Many are well-trained, too. So when a gang of bad guys comes down the street on a search-and-destroy mission, as occurs in The Road, I’m guessing a couple folks firing rifles from upstairs windows would make short work of them. And remember, a violent gang would have to win such contests over and over again, for years on end, in order to survive by preying on others. The good guys won’t run out of bullets. Even really bad guys might decide it’s easier and safer to make a living by trading than by stealing.
(This is, incidentally, why invading tribes settled down and became the rulers of provinces and nations in Europe according to Mancur Olson, a distinguished political scientist. See his last book, Power and Prosperity (2000).)
The Road seems to ignore the entire possibility of peaceful transactions in the presence of severe poverty and in the absence of government. While violence may indeed increase, I picture vendors and traders offering their services in a post-war scenario, perhaps with a handgun in their belt and a companion or two to watch their backs. In cities, open markets might flourish and “exchange rates” for bullets, lighters, and propane canisters could even be posted and widely followed.
A Resilient Social Order
When the mother in The Road gives birth to the boy, she and her husband are alone in their house. Later scenes up to and including the day the mother leaves to commit suicide also show the couple and their son alone in their house. Did they really live this way for eight years? No neighbors, no friends, no extended family? No midwife, no doctor, no traveling salesmen? No children from next door, no police presence, no deliverymen? Isn’t that odd? Yes, it is.
Aristotle famously observed, “”Man is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” We may be able to live alone, or with only one or two companions, for months at a time during a short-term or medium-term disaster, but more than two years would probably require communicating with other people. This is partly because we would go crazy if we didn’t, but also partly because we need the skills and resources of other people in order to survive. We need other people to help us build or maintain a shelter, to forage or farm, to deliver babies or chop firewood. It is inconceivable that some people would be living alone or as couples eight years after a nuclear attack.
We can only speculate about how resilient our social institutions would be in a long-term disaster, but consider the following scenario for what I call a medium-term disaster, lasting two years.
After two weeks of sheltering in their homes, people begin to emerge in search of food, water, fuel, relatives, companionship, news, and protection. Some people just want to help other people cope with the disaster. People are social. They start to gather at grocery stores, Walmart, or Home Depot — places with large inventories of food and other essential commodities — and the local town hall, library, YMCA, high school, and hospital. Call them Safe Places. People offer to work with others to protect these buildings from looters, repair damage, restore services, and maybe provide food and shelter to people who need it.
Because communications systems and cars and trucks are disabled due to an EMP, people network by word of mouth, exchanging letters, and traveling short distances by walking or riding bikes. Word spreads about where people are getting together, where soup kitchens and emergency public shelters have been set up, and where people can go to find out if their relatives and friends survived the disaster.
Store owners, police, veterans, and patriots work together to defend stores from looters, squatters, and arsonists. Maybe an effort is made to turn the larger stores into Safe Places or to move their inventories to other Safe Places where they can be protected and distributed to people on the basis of their need. A Provisional Police Force led by policemen, Army Reserve, and National Guardsmen is created to protect the Safe Places and vulnerable people and resolve disputes.
Marketplaces pop up in the Safe Places so people can trade for foods they want and other necessities. People have a propensity to truck and barter. New community leadership starts to emerge: maybe composed of the local mayor, police chief, the director of the YMCA, the manager of the Home Depot, a high school principal, a doctor, and a veteran. They form a Provisional Government recognized by the Provisional Police Force. It oversees the rationing of food and other supplies.
What are you doing? You may be better prepared than most. You have stashed enough food and fuel to last for a few months. This enables you to help your neighbors, identify and protect Safe Places, and help form or join the Provisional Government and Police Force.
Perhaps in advance of the disaster, you and your friends and relatives created a Freedom Pod — a group of trusted individuals who, together, have the skills it would take to survive this disaster. Among its members might be a doctor, dentist, hunter, farmer, self-defense expert, carpenter, mechanic, and others with key survival skills. You previously agreed on where you would meet in the event of such a disaster and pledged mutual support. Not all of you show up at the meeting place, but you have a network of friends who will help you get by.
In this scenario, people are able to come to the Safe Places and get food, clothing, and other necessities for months or even a year or two. The Provisional Government identifies warehouses of food and other necessities and sets up a system for moving the supplies to the Safe Places where people line up and get what they need. The Provisional Police Force keeps the streets, Safe Places, marketplaces, and people’s homes safe from looters and bandits. The sun comes out and the temperatures rise, agriculture can commence, electricity is restored and manufacturing start again, and communication and transportation are restored. Rationing ends and businesses reopen. The normal institutions of democracy replace the Provisional Government and Police Force. Safe Places return to being schools, hospitals, etc.
Based on what we know about human nature, society, and the science of nuclear war, this is the most likely scenario, not the violent anarchy portrayed in The Road. It’s not so bad, right?
But What If Things Get Worse?
What if the disaster lasts longer than two years because for some reason farming and the production of goods and services doesn’t resume? This is the scenario presented in The Road.
Food and fuel would grow scarce and start to run out. As the Safe Places run out of food and fuel, people will become desperate. Some will try to travel to other cities or, if it is cold, to a warmer part of the country. Some will starve to death, others will commit suicide first. Your Freedom Pod may help keep you and your friends warm, fed, and safe as things around you go from bad to worse, but other people won’t be as fortunate.
Some people would resort to violence to feed themselves and their families. The Provisional Government and Police Force can try to stop this, but they may fall apart for any number of reasons: members become too weak to participate, it is too dangerous to travel to meetings, factions arise making cooperation impossible, corruption undermines public support, and disagreements come to the surface once the food supply runs out. You retreat to your barricaded home or the emergency shelter you share with your Freedom Pod.
Unless you’ve been able to keep the location of your emergency shelter a secret all this time, you will get a knock on your door. A neighbor has visited in the past, or sees a light in a window or smoke from the chimney, or a dog smells food being cooked. The door knocker asks if you have extra food or fuel to share, his family is starving. Maybe you say yes and give him some food; it’s the Christian thing to do.
The knocking on the door becomes more frequent. You decide you do not have enough food to feed the entire neighborhood so you stop answering. The knocking turns into pounding; people start breaking windows or trying to break through walls. It’s no longer safe to leave the shelter, even for water and firewood. The number of people threatening you is no longer one or two, it is a mob and it is well-armed. Your warning shots hold them off for a few days, you may win the first few battles, but they are hungry and will keep coming so long as they think you have food and fuel. Eventually, you run out of water, or the door is knocked down and you are killed, or you surrender.
The mob may be led by a former member of the Provisional Government or Police Force, someone you know. Maybe he offers you a choice: Share your food and fuel with the mob and in exchange you will get the mob’s protection and maybe a position in the new provisional government he is leading. If you say no, the mob will take your food and ammunition and kick you out of your shelter. You will be shunned and at the mercy of bandits and other mobs, or even be killed on the spot. This is the new social order. The only way to survive is to become part of the mob.
What would you do?
The Road is a work of fiction, not a documentary or a survival guide, so it is no surprise that it is not always based on science, history, or economics. It tells a grim tale of survival in one unlikely, but not impossible, scenario. The movie is not appropriate for young children and some adults who are inclined to anxiety, but I recommend it highly to everyone else. Being prepared for disasters is a civic duty, one that we may be called on to perform sooner than we think. The Road reveals how difficult it might be to perform that duty, but also some of the ways we can prepare to do it.