Cannibals Die Fast

I just watched the movie The Road, and then skimmed the book. The scenario is that a calamity covers the sky with ash, making things cold and dark, and basically wiping out most of the biosphere. The story is about a child born after this starts, now at least 7 (the actor who plays him was 12 when filmed). He and his dad travel south seeking warmer climes, scavenging food along the way and avoiding “bad” folks who have resorted to cannibalism.

Both the book and movie are widely celebrated for their “realism.” NYT:

“What’s moving and shocking about McCarthy’s book is that it’s so believable,” Mr. Hillcoat said. “So what we wanted is a kind of heightened realism, as opposed to the ‘Mad Max’ thing, which is all about high concept and spectacle. We’re trying to avoid the clichés of apocalypse and make this more like a natural disaster.”

In fact, regarding the author:

You know that Cormac McCarthy won the Pulitzer Prize for literature, but you may not know that he also has an interest in mathematics and science, which he engages as a research fellow at the Santa Fe Institute.

Which stupefies me. Does anyone ever actually think about post-apocalytic scenarios?  Sure it has good emotional and physical detail, but that near-real is detached from its far-unreal premises. Consider:

1. Within a year at most wild food and human food stores would be completely gone. Locals have a far better abilities to find remainders; no way years later travelers would find much the locals hadn’t found.

2. Cannibalism would be the main food source within a year, and travelers would be easy prey for locals who lie in wait. You’d have to be very desperate to even consider traveling, and then you’d avoid lighting a campfire every night like these travelers. And you wouldn’t last long.

3. Cannibalism is war, where coordination is crucial.  Yet this pair don’t seem interested in joining a larger group for self-defense, and they see many other un-teamed individuals. Foragers understand that lone folks traveling in unfamiliar territories are goners.

4. Even under ideal conditions, people living mainly on cannibalism just couldn’t last that many years. Quoting Zac Gochenour:

The typical human body has a muscle to fat ratio similar to a bear, which is about 770 calories per pound. If the average post-apocalyptic person weighs about 130 lbs and is a bit leaner than a bear (say 600 calories per pound), throw away say 20 lbs of bones and 20 lbs of inedible organs, leaves you with about 54000 calories. Assuming 1200 calories a day for survival, that’s 45 person days per human body. 1200 may be too high; I’ve read concentration camp prisoners survived for months on about 300-500 calories per day, engaged in some degree of hard labor.

I figure the biggest problem facing such a population would be lack of essential nutrients. Vitamin C, for instance. The way the eskimos (who traditionally ate a diet consisting almost entirely on meat and fish) dealt with this is by eating their meat raw and keeping the vitamin C in tact. The cannibals would have to do the same.”

Even at a rate of 100 person days per body, that would use up 1% of the population per day.  An initial population of 100 million, killed off at this rate, would have only one person left after five years. In the novel there were many corpses around that clearly hadn’t been eaten; if only half the bodies were eaten, the population would last half as long. No way a kid lives to be seven when born into a world where the main food is cannibalism.

Given how lauded and celebrated is this book, didn’t anyone else has pointed these out before? (The novel Blindness dealt with similar sort of issues, but assumed a more realistic timescale.)

Added 29 May: Henry Farrell did say in ’07:

I agree on the campness of the broiled baby, and even more so of the amputees in the cellar. The latter annoyed me, in part because my sfnal instincts made me ask practical questions- how is this kind of cannibalism sustainable – presumably you’ve got to feed your victims something if you want to keep them alive, which sort of defeats the purpose of the thing (far smarter, if you adopt the logic of the cannibals to just butcher em and smoke em).

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  • burger flipper

    seriously, dude, the whole book (which is fantastically plotted and very moving) is an allegory about fatherhood and mortality. not supposed to be realistic and it ain’t.

    you definitely botched it. should have read the book and fast forwarded the flick.

    maybe the realism was lauded in reviews, but it has never come up in any of the several discussions I’ve had about the book

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  • I recently finished the book One Second After which took place in a small town after a nuclear bomb releasing electromagnetism is set off in the United States. They somewhat resorted to cannibalism in the book, at one point choosing to use all stray dogs as the next food source, and moving on to humans who had died. In this case, I found the book to be pretty realistic and very well thought out.

  • JamieNYC

    Robin, I’ve read the book, but haven’t seen the movie – so I can only say something about the level of realism in the original work: it is very low, as far as scientific facts and estimates are concerned.

    Consider: it is very cold and cloudy (all the ash from nuclear war is still hanging in the atmosphere), yet it constantly rains or snows. How does the water vapor get up there – Antarctica is the driest continent for a reason? Also, there are frequent forest fires – notwithstanding the cold and damp weather. These conditions are obviously combined just to increase the level of hardship that the survivors are supposed to face.

    On the emotional level, the novel tugs at the heart strings rather strongly, I must admit.

    • Bob

      It never said it was nuclear war that caused it. There was no mention of radiation (which would kill most within 1 year), so I think it was more likely a meteor. A meteor that hit in the ocean would spray massive amounts of water vapor into the atmosphere, where it would remain for years. The forest fires may have been caused by meteor fragments that continued to hit the Earth after the impact event. But honestly, this book was not meant to be scientifically analyzed – it never mentioned the reason for the apocalypse because it’s irrelevant to the story.

  • The post-apocalyptic Fallout video game mythos does a better job of this: survivors are mostly people who were sealed in vaults in preparation for the disaster with years of food stores, or their descendants, and when they emerged there was enough sunlight to support some limited agriculture. Cannibalism is still common though, and it is exceedingly dangerous to take to the roads without being heavily armed and constantly vigilant. For realism though you’ll have to ignore the mutants and ghouls..

    In defense of The Road, I think the book is mostly about trying to hold on to traditional values in a world that has abandoned them, not an attempt to show the post-apocalyptic world as it literally would be.

  • jb

    I wonder – if McCormack hadn’t been praised for his scientific background, would Robin have gotten on his case?

  • Buck Farmer

    I think in literature we look more for realism in people than in the environment. When I think of Battlestar Galactica as being “realistic” what I really mean is “gritty, cynical” and portraying characters that I identify as acting realistically given their unrealistic environment.

    The masses of cannibals are part of the environment. The father and son are the characters.

  • You meant Blindsight not Blindness?

  • MarcTheEngineer

    I’m not sure about the 1 year timeline for foodstores to run out.

    Especially if you assume that the initial cataclysm wiped out a significant portion of the human population. America has ALOT of preserved foodstores.

  • burger, what’s wrong with my responding to reviews?

    Zac, Buck, I’m complaining that story “realism” is conceived in such near terms. What shall we call far-real stories, and why does that matter less?

    XIXDu, I mean Blindness.

    Marc, even with two years of food stores, I have the same complaints.

    • Buck Farmer

      I’d say a significant chunk of our intelligence is optimized for social interactions; this is reflected in the common themes/structures that appear in almost all narratives.

      Narratives are rarely about the emergence of complexity or order from a series of tiny random events. We have trouble thinking about aggregation.

      This shows up in the portrayal of cannibalism as a sustainable means of sustenance as well as in the identification of the State or a corporation as being a person with a will, desires, etc.

      I don’t know that our brains will accept narratives that are outside of the standard themes/structures. Maybe that’s why we don’t see them. They all failed.

    • Buck Farmer

      Incidentally, I’d say you, Robin, frame a lot of your posts in the “Thus Spake Zarathrustra” type theme that you also see in the tale of Cassandra or in John the Baptist.

      I.e. the prophet gifted with unusual insight shunned and silenced by the crowd.

      How does the use of this narrative trope bias your view of your work or your readers’ view?

    • Charlie

      A far-real story would not conform to our popular notions and fantasies. What would a far-real western or cop movie look like?

      Also, a far-real story would restrict the near-mode of the story. There is only so much space/time in a story; story creators must have found it more profitable selling stories focused on near-mode.

      I find I prefer stories and fantasies with intense emotions or victories and vague (not necessarily realistic) context. How else would I (and un-athletic child) have ever dreamed of playing in the NBA?

  • Aron

    The final paragraph is worth quoting for why people actually read the story:

    “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

  • burger flipper

    Robin, you also brought McCathy’s scientific interests into it as though he’d failed to live up to them.

    he’s on record: he neither knows nor cares about the cause of the apocalypse in the book. thus I can’t imagine he’s too concerned w portraying it accurately.

    it’s an allegory and love letter to his own son who he had very late in life.

    not sure spotting a few book reviewers mistaking his ability to immerse the reader into that allegory for “realism” counts as an insight

  • botogol

    Rival bands might kill eachother so quick they run out of meat.
    Hmm, stone age civilisatipns didn’t eat themselves to extinction, there must be an equiibrium.

  • J

    You make some good points, but they’re loaded with assumptions themselves.

    As others have pointed out, the amount of time the food supply lasts depends a lot on how many survivors there are. If only 5-10 thousand people survived in a large metroplitan area, it could easliy take them decades to fully forage the area. It could also be dependent on human superstition (there are places locals fear that non-locals don’t), behavioral changes (cannibalism becomes suficiently common prior to exhaustion of the existing food supply that it is never fully used), or knowledge of sources locals possibly aren’t aware of (travelers have knowledge of locations that had, say, large clusters of wealthy Mormons).

    I defnitely agree traveling alone would be insane and desperate.

  • Metacognition

    Movies are a great opportunity to signal others that you’re a thoughtful individual.

  • HonestAlbert

    Thank you for living up to the stereotype of the autistic economist so obsessed with mathematical rationalism that he can’t understand art or metaphor or emotion.

    Only someone like that could possibly see this as a weakness or error in the book.

  • I figure the biggest problem facing such a population would be lack of essential nutrients. Vitamin C, for instance. The way the eskimos (who traditionally ate a diet consisting almost entirely on meat and fish) dealt with this is by eating their meat raw and keeping the vitamin C in tact. The cannibals would have to do the same.”

    This is really bad biochemistry. It works for Eskimos because all animals except primates synthesize vitamin C and have plenty. With humans eating other humans not a single molecule of vitamin C is synthesized at all – and humans have about 10 times lower vitamin C concentrations than other animals in the first place (because it is less available, it was large replaced by other molecules where possible, and we have ways to recycle oxidized vitamin C – as the end result eating bear provides far more vitamin C than eating human per kg of flesh).

  • While I’d echo the comments about the book being more of an allegory than a realistic novel, it isn’t as unrealistic as you’re making out:

    Within a year at most wild food and human food stores would be completely gone.

    Which is precisely what the novel depicts. The Father and Son regularly come across former food supplies which have been long since ransacked. They are on the brink of starvation when they, by chance, find the food stash in the bunker which keeps them going until the end of the story.

    Locals have a far better abilities to find remainders; no way years later travelers would find much the locals hadn’t found.

    Thus the fact they are always desperately short of supplied and, at at least two points, on the brink of starvation.

    Cannibalism would be the main food source within a year, and travelers would be easy prey for locals who lie in wait.

    Which is why the Father travels so stealthily. And why the guy who rescues the kid at the end is amazed they had stayed alive so long.

    Cannibalism is war, where coordination is crucial. Yet this pair don’t seem interested in joining a larger group for self-defense, and they see many other un-teamed individuals.

    Two, actually.

    Even under ideal conditions, people living mainly on cannibalism just couldn’t last that many years.

    Nothing in the book indicates that they are living “mainly on cannibalism”.

    • If you don’t think there’s any wild or human food stores, and you don’t think folks are living mainly on cannibalism, just what do you think folks were mainly living on 7+ years after the disaster?

      • Krutz

        I don’t think the book says what the world population was following the disaster. If the disaster wiped out enough of the population, the remainder could have survived on the stored/canned foodstuffs for a considerable time. Heck, the population could have dwindled even further due to desperate consumption of rancid foodstuffs. The time that the Man and the Boy are in could be the tail end of humanity’s epoch for all we know.

        For his book to be “impossible” requires more data than he presents. We could spend all day figuring out how it “could have happened.”

  • Microbiologist

    Wikipedia suggests, vaguely, that vitamin C is only partly destroyed by cooking:

    “cooking can reduce the Vitamin C content of vegetables by around 60% possibly partly due to increased enzymatic destruction as it may be more significant at sub-boiling temperatures.[172] Longer cooking times also add to this effect, as will copper food vessels, which catalyse the decomposition.”

    You might have noticed, the two dudes get off the road and hide when a gang comes by. They manage to avoid the costs of the gang-on-gang pitched battles that must surely take place. Besides, they do join a group ultimately.

    If there was a truly nasty, organized, depopulating war just after the apocalyptic event, one involving factions of national militaries plus partisans bearing small arms, why then most of the people in the country would have died, and there might be pockets of canned food around for several years. Heck, even genocides might have occurred.

    • Microbiologist

      I wonder if any saprophytes (eg, edible fungi) contain vitamin C.

      It is interesting to note that the vast majority of the ecological energy flux never enters herbivores that attack living plant tissue, including seeds. Most of the energy flux is tied up in leaves, wood, and husks that are fated to be ingested by organisms (including microbes) only after they die and are shed.

      This is interesting primarily because it’s slightly puzzling why herbivores are not able to capture much more of the flux. But it also means that there is tons of energy sitting in the soil, with a degradation half-life measured in years, which might continue to give rise to lots of fungi even in McCarthy’s hell.

      • Microbiologist

        > You might have noticed, the two dudes get off the road and hide when a gang comes by. They manage to avoid the costs of the gang-on-gang pitched battles that must surely take place

        One thing that might make their tiny-grouplet strategy seem very unrealistic, is that it hasn’t been seen in stateless humans studied by anthropologists (at least not that I know of). But those humans, even if they are nomads who defend absolutely no non-portable material resources against their rivals, are still trying to defend and hold on to one very, very important thing: fly honeyz. The father and son in the story are not facing the constraints that stem from this objective. They have no other family or friends to defend, either. So their situation is pretty unprecedented.

  • Microbiologist

    WIk on the scurvy threshold:

    Notable human dietary studies of experimentally-induced scurvy have been conducted on conscientious objectors during WW II in Britain, and on Iowa state prisoner “volunteers” in the late 1960s. These studies both found that all obvious symptoms of scurvy previously induced by an experimental scorbutic diet with extremely low vitamin C content, could be completely reversed by additional vitamin C supplementation of only 10 mg a day.

    Some paper on the vitamin C content of Portugese wild mushrooms (three taxa, respectively):

    Ascorbic acid (mg/g) 0.13 ± 0.0069 0.16 ± 0.0072 0.35 ± 0.0015

    I don’t know if that’s dry g or wet g, and I don’t feel like combing the paper.

  • ravi hegde

    Most fiction is rarely meant to be realistic. Most people resort to this stuff as a way to engage their emotional circuitry (possibly to keep it greased and well oiled?) … Like the commenter said something about fatherhood and mortality .. people see in these kinds of incomplete chaotic jumble of images, sounds and fast moving sequences .. just about anything they wanted to see .. By focusing on trivial details .. you are just showcasing that you cannot look clearly at the bigger picture .. the gestalt of why these kind of details are ignored and so on … I remember you had a post about avatar and it was a similar commentary .. look at star trek and all those movies .. they are very very rudimentary and they have to be .. to capture a broad audience .. each person will be able to tell you how the movie is incomplete .. and so on ..

    • Eyestrain Police

      …The parentheses…make it stop…can’t…take…much…more…

  • ravi hegde

    what is really happening is that you are possibly trying to get more hits to your blog ..

  • well

    I read the book too. I thought a few other things were really weird about it.

    So, they stumbled upon 2 large food supplies at random. ok. why did they leave? There was no reason to beleive it would be much better at another place.

  • There have been all too many “post-apocalyptic” cases in human history — war, drought, and other disasters –which we can take a model:

    Cannibalism was not a major source of nutrition in these cases, because by the time people get that desperate, no one has much meat left on their bones.

  • Les Cargill

    Both novels and film are narrative. Narrative is *un*reality. People suspend disbelief willingly and are rewarded with a shot of endorphins when the suspension is resolved.

    Even S.M. Stirling’s “Dies The Fire” suites (which are still being written) gives you a wink-wink, nudge-nudge about the premise. It’s kinda like the answer to the question “How do the Heisenberg Compensators work?” of a Star Trek insider – answer: “Very well, thank you.”

    What’s more interesting to me is how it is that we have such a taste for apocalypse as narrative in general. SFAIK, the origins of apocalypse were with the Zoroastrians of the Persian Empire, but we still see it carried forward.

  • ChrisB

    “What would a far-real western or cop movie look like?”

    Like Barney Miller.

  • I admit to being no biochemist Tomasz. The vitamin C issue didn’t even occur to me at first. If what you say is true (which I do not doubt), scurvy will kill off the cannibal population long before starvation became even slightly an issue.

    Once the food (and vitamin) stores were gone, almost everyone would be dead in a month or so in a world with no vegetation.

  • Rocky

    This is a horrible thought, but, wouldn’t the strongest coalitions enforce property rights as to the weaker humans as food stores? Wouldn’t this greatly increase the 5 years of survival? Maybe even leading to sustainability?

  • anna

    who cares?? it was a good book. it hasn’t happened, so we can’t completely know what would happen. why knock cormac mccarthy?

  • Alexei Turchin

    Remember that where will be many dead and freased animals on the cattle farms. 2 billion cows live on Earth.

  • I made a similar calculation about Soylent Green, with a similar order of magnitude in days of human sustenance per human victim (~100 days).

    Even doubling or quadrupling the yield, we’re far from anything sustainable.

  • I dispute the cannibalism claims you make.

    Human beings are very, very stubborn.

    We’ve had over 600 years of people proving the Church completely wrong about, well, everything, including the existence of any kind of deity, and people still believe in that crap.

    So, for it to take only a year to convince people that cannibalism isn’t “wrong” and it won’t actually harm them seems far too short, even with human beings being extremely hungry with no other source of food about.

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  • Carl Shulman

    There is a lot of wood lying around. There could be enclaves eating mushrooms and termites raised on wood. Also, if there are technological enclaves they could use nuclear, fossil fuel, hydro, or wind power to enable greenhouse agriculture or cyanobacteria bioreactors. 

  • kpatterson

    The cannibals wouldn’t just be eating the muscle, they should also eat the bone marrow and organs including the brain which is the most calorically rich organ in the body. Of course they’d be risking contracting a prion disease such as Kuru but in an extreme and catastrophic survival situation such as this, that is a secondary concern.

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  • J O

    I agree with Hanson’s argument. If the apocalypse really did wipe out the ecosystem, and it was severe enough to make the ecosystem stay wiped out for 7+ years, then it seems very unlikely that you would still see people, and certainly not children. This should be a thorough extinction event for any humans not living in a bunker with many years of rancid-proof food already stored.