I have made fire! Robinson Crusoe, Cloud Atlas and the Survival Narrative

Almost every survival narrative is an energy narrative. In order to survive we need to transfer a form of energy into one that we can consume. The first thing that Chuck Noland does in Cast Away is to try to learn to make fire. He needs it to eat and to stay warm and to signal any passing vehicles that he is there.


This is exactly what Robinson Crusoe does when he is shipwrecked on an island. Granted, he was shipwrecked with gun powder and that made it a lot easier for him but much of the novel focuses on his ability to cook food for himself with fire: “Having now fixed my habitation, I found it absolutely necessary to provide a place to make a fire in, and fuel to burn” (Defoe 40). Crusoe is also a very religious man and claims that he only survived on his island because of the grace of God.

In the Zachry narrative in the Cloud Atlas sextet, human beings forgot how to make fire after the fall of civilization. So the humans went to the Wise Man whom sent a crow to pick up a burning branch from a volcano. The crow carried the branch back to the humans but he was injured (or possibly killed) in the process. Meronym explains to him that this is a myth to describe how “humans got their spirit” and managed to survive the end of the world:

Back when the Fall was fallin’, humans f’got the makin’ o’ fire. Oh, diresome bad things was gettin’, yay. Come night, folks cudn’t see nothin’, come winter they cudn’t warm nothin’, come mornin’ they cudn’t roast nothin’. So the tribe went to Wise Man an’ asked, Wise Man, help us, see we f’got the makin’ o’ fire, an’, oh, woe is us an’ all. So Wise Man summ’ned Crow an’ say-soed him these words: Fly across the crazed’n’jiffyin’ ocean to the Mighty Volcano, an’ on its foresty slopes, find a long stick. Pick up that stick in your beak an’ fly into that Mighty Volcano’s mouth an’ dip it in the lake o’ flames what bubble’n’spit in that fiery place. Then bring the burnin’ stick back here to Panama so humans’ll mem’ry fire once more an’ mem’ry back its makin’. Crow obeyed the Wise Man’s say-so, an’ flew over this crazed’n’jiffyin’ ocean until he saw the Mighty Volcano smokin’ in the near-far. He spiraled down onto its foresty slopes, nibbed some gooseb’ries, gulped of a chilly spring, rested his tired wings a beat, then sivvied round for a long stick o’ pine. A one, a two, a three an’ up Crow flew, stick in his beak, an’ plop down the sulf’ry mouth o’ the Mighty Volcano that gutsy bird dropped, yay, swoopin’ out of his dive at the last beat, draggin’ that stick o’ pine thru the melty fire, whooo-ooo-ooosh, it flamed! Up’n’out o’ that Crow flew from the scorchin’ mouth, now flew with that burnin’ stick in his mouth, yay, toward home he headed, wings poundin’, stick burnin’, days passin’, hail slingin’, clouds black’nin’, oh, fire lickin’ up that stick, eyes smokin’, feathers crispin’, beak burnin’  …   It hurts! Crow crawed. It hurts! Now, did he drop that stick or din’t he? Do we mem’ry the makin’ o’ fire or don’t we? See now, said Meronym, riding backwards on that lead ass, it ain’t ’bout Crows or fire, it’s ’bout how we humans got our spirit. (Mitchell 284-285)

The pre-industrial revolution survival narrative exists somewhere in between the positive energy narratives found in creation myths and the negative energy narratives of industry. Humans shift from being the weaker force to being the stronger force and dominating their environment. Crusoe goes back and forth from giving thanks to God for providing him with fire and food to considering that he and his guile alone are responsible for his survival. Mitchell mirrors this idea in Cloud Atlas. Zachry is not sure whether or not a deity is responsible for post-Fall humans being able to make fire or if their will to survive was so strong that they figured it out for themselves. Chuck Noland in the post-industrial age story, Cast Away believes that he and he alone is responsible for making fire.


Energy narrative characteristics found in these stories: life=energy, religious element, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, nomadic existence.

Energy Narratives in Mythology


In many Greek mythology accounts, Prometheus and his brother are contracted by Zeus to create man. Prometheus becomes so enamored with humans that he convinces them to cheat Zeus out of animal sacrifices by giving him bones disguised in furs instead of the meat and fat of the animal. Zeus punishes man in two ways: the first is by giving them Pandora, which is another story, and second is by taking fire away from them. Prometheus fears that his creation will not survive this punishment so he steals fire from the heavens. Zeus then chains Prometheus to rock and sends an eagle to peck out his liver every day for his eternal life.

Humans require energy to live and they receive this energy in pre-industrial times from fire and the sun. Without fire, human beings are unlikely to survive. Prometheus pays for their energy with his eternal life, so that humans may in turn receive the constant gift of fire and so sustain their lives.

This positive energy narrative involves a sacrifice from a stronger force. Not all positive energy narratives have this element but it is fairly common.


Energy narrative characteristics found in this myth: life=energy, religious element, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.


The Sun

There are many Native American Indian myths that refer to the sun as a deity or the creator of the world. In The Boy and the Sun the Sun refers to himself as the boy’s father when he travels to the sun to ask whom his father is. In Changing Woman the Sun claims to “take care of all things, whatever there is on earth.”

Similar to Prometheus, in the several of these stories we see the Sun make some sort of sacrifice for the betterment of humans. However, there are several myths here were that is not the case including Coyote and Eagle Steal the Sun and Moon.


Energy narrative characteristics found in these myths: life=energy, religious element, exaggerated inequalities, segregation, nomadic existence.

Solar: Self Interest in Alternative Energy?


If an alien arrived on earth and saw all this sunlight, he’d be amazed to hear that we think we’ve got an energy problem. (30)

Solar by Ian McEwan takes an interesting approach to the energy debate: self-interest. His main character, Michael Beard, is a Nobel Prize winning physicist who could not care less about climate change, and would rather spend his time and money on cheating on his wife, eating and drinking:

Beard was not wholly skeptical about climate change. It was one in a list of issues, of looming sorrows, that made up the background to the news, and he read about it, vaguely deplored it, and expected governments to meet and take action. And of course he knew that a molecule of carbon dioxide absorbed energy in the infrared range, and that humankind was putting these molecules into the atmosphere in significant quantities. But he himself had other things to think about. And he was unimpressed by some of the wild commentary that suggested the world was in peril, that humankind was drifting toward calamity, when coastal cities would disappear under the waves, crops fail, and hundreds of millions of refugees surge from one country, one continent, to another, driven by drought, floods, famine, tempests, unceasing wars for diminishing resources. (17-18)

Beard is the head of the research center in Britain, although he has not published any new reports since his award winning “Beard-Einstein Conflation” on photoelectricty. When Beard’s latest wife, Patrice, caught him cheating on her she saw fit to have affairs of her own, first with gardener, Tarpin and then with Beard’s newest colleague, Tom Aldous. When Beard finds Aldous in his house in compromising attire, his already touchy opinion of Aldous goes from bad to worse. Beard confronts Aldous and then in a scene that should have been in a Final Destination movie Aldous accidentally kills himself. Beard is able to frame Tarpin for the murder as revenge for Tarpin’s affair with Patrice. Beard is also able to steal Aldous’s research on artificial photosynthesis and claim it as his own. Aldous’s theory uses Beard’s conflation theory so it is the perfect crime, or so he thinks.

Beard quickly becomes a “climate change convert” and one of the biggest names in solar energy. Beard travels around the UK to give conferences to businessmen in the energy industry to try to convince them to back alternative energy research. He tries to sway them with the idea that alternative energy research will one day make them a fortune, a thought that I had not considered until I read this book. The primary argument against taking steps to combat global warming is not that that it doesn’t exist, but rather that the economy is in too poor of shape to focus on it at this time:

“The planet,” he said, surprising himself, “is sick.”…

“Curing the patient is a matter of urgency and is going to be expensive— perhaps as much as two percent of global GDP, and far more if we delay the treatment. I am convinced, and I have come here to tell you, that anyone who wishes to help with the therapy, to be a part of the process and invest in it, is going to make very large sums of money, staggering sums. What’s at issue is the creation of another industrial revolution. Here is your opportunity. Coal and then oil have made our civilization, they have been superb resources, lifting hundreds of millions of us out of the mental prison of rural subsistence. Liberation from the daily grind coupled with our innate curiosity has produced in a mere two hundred years an exponential growth of our knowledge base. The process began in Europe and the United States, has spread in our lifetime to parts of Asia, and now to India and China and South America, with Africa yet to come. All our other problems and conflicts conceal this obvious fact— we barely understand how successful we have been. So of course we should salute our own inventiveness. We are very clever monkeys. But the engine of our industrial revolution has been cheap, accessible energy. We would have got nowhere without it. Look how fantastic it is. A kilogram of gasoline contains roughly thirteen thousand watt-hours of energy. Hard to beat. But we want to replace it. So what’s next? The best electrical batteries we have store about three hundred watt-hours of energy per kilogram. And that’s the scale of our problem, thirteen thousand against three hundred. No contest! But unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of choice. We have to replace that gasoline quickly for three compelling reasons. First, and simplest, the oil must run out. No one knows exactly when, but there’s a consensus that we’ll be at peak production at some point in the next five to fifteen years. After that, production will decline, while the demand for energy will go on rising as the world’s population expands and people strive for a better standard of living. Second, many oil-producing areas are politically unstable, and we can no longer risk our levels of dependence. Third, and most crucially, burning fossil fuels, putting carbon dioxide and other gases into the atmosphere, is steadily warming the planet, the consequences of which we are only beginning to understand. But the basic science is in. We either slow down, and then stop, or face an economic and human catastrophe on a grand scale within our grandchildren’s lifetime.

And this brings us to the central question, the burning question. How do we slow down and stop while sustaining our civilization and continuing to bring millions out of poverty? Not by being virtuous, not by going to the bottle bank and turning down the thermostat and buying a smaller car. That merely delays the catastrophe by a year or two. Any delay is useful, but it’s not the solution. This matter has to move beyond virtue. Virtue is too passive, too narrow. Virtue can motivate individuals, but for groups, societies, a whole civilization, it’s a weak force. Nations are never virtuous, though they might sometimes think they are. For humanity en masse, greed trumps virtue. So we have to welcome into our solutions the ordinary compulsions of self-interest, and also celebrate novelty, the thrill of invention, the pleasures of ingenuity and cooperation, the satisfaction of profit. Oil and coal are energy carriers, and so, in abstract form, is money. And the answer to that burning question is of course exactly where that money, your money, has to flow— to affordable clean energy…You, the market, either rise to this and get rich along the way, or you sink with all the rest. We are on this rock together, you have nowhere else to go …” (170-173).

Of course Beard is not able to convince most of the businessmen. However, I still the think argument might have some merit. As always, readers with thoughts on this, please comment.

Many years later, Beard has developed his own solar power plant in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Beard receives a visit from a lawyer on the eve of his opening ceremony. The lawyer claims that Beard stole his research from the late Tom Aldous. The lawyer warns him not to continue with the press event and Beard brushes him off:

“Well, on behalf of Sir Jock Braby and the National Center for Renewable Energy, I want to put it to you one last time. If you agree to call off tomorrow’s media event and agree to revisit the patents situation, you’ll find us sympathetic collaborators who will certainly find a role for you in the development of a technology which rightly belongs to the Center. If not, then our first move will be to go to court to freeze all exploitation until this matter is resolved” (316).

Unfortunately, this is where self-interest fails. The National Center for Renewable Energy, where Beard used to work, wants to patent for Aldous’s research so that they can have the money and the recognition. What Beard did was illegal of course, but right when progress in alternative energy is finally being made, it is snatched away. To make things worse, Tarpin, who has finally been released from jail, smashes to solar panels in Beard’s plant:

“Someone’s taken a sledgehammer to the panels. They’ve gone down the rows and taken them all out. Shattered. We’ve lost all the catalysts. Electronics. Everything.”

There was no taking this in properly. Beard pushed his plate away. Builder’s work. What would Barnard have needed to pay Tarpin? Two hundred dollars? Less?

“What else?”

“We won’t be meeting again. I don’t think I could bear the sight of you, Michael. But you might as well know, I’m talking to a lawyer in Oregon. I’ll be taking action to protect myself against what are rightfully your debts. We, you, already owe three and a half million. Tomorrow’s going to cost another half million. You can go down there yourself and explain to all the good people. Also, Braby is going to take you for everything you have and ever will have. And in the U.K. that dead boy’s father has persuaded the authorities to move against you on criminal charges, basically theft and fraud. I hate you, Michael. You lied to me and you’re a thief. But I don’t want to see you in prison. So stay out of England. Go somewhere that doesn’t have an extradition treaty.”

“Anything else?”

“Only this. You deserve almost everything that’s coming to you. So go fuck yourself.” The line went dead. (322-323)

The point of this novel in terms of the energy narrative is that there is corruption whenever energy is involved. People are ultimately more concerned with themselves than they are with the environment, so even something as characteristically pure as sunlight can really be just as dark and dank as oil. However, I am going to make a great emotional and sentimental plea and say that it doesn’t have to be that way if we can find that our self-interest aligns with preserving the environment that gives us life.


Energy narratives found in this movie: life=energy, environmental degradation and destruction, corporate ruthlessness, nomadic existence.