TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Interstellar and the Environmental Crisis

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar paints the portrait of a brave new time in the future when we will finally cut the shackles attaching us to our dying home planet and embrace our nomadic nature. Having turned the earth into a gigantic dust bowl, where the soil is increasingly barren and the air unbreathable, we will move on to greener pastures, in the shape of as yet unpolluted planets in faraway galaxies. After all, why shouldn’t planets be more like paper tissues—one soiled and tossed, another one already on the way?

Hollywood has a long history of churning out movies about space travel motivated by resource depletion. In Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996) a group of vicious aliens arrives in our solar system with the sole purpose of obliterating humanity and taking control of the earth’s water and food reserves. The more recent Oblivion (Joseph Kozinsky, 2013) offers a striking visual depiction of resource harvesting by aliens, with giant tanks hovering above the earth’s surface and slowly sucking out the oceans’ water. So what’s new about humanity’s search for a replacement for our old and exhausted planet in Interstellar?

For starters, Hollywood has traditionally not looked kindly upon resource-hungry species looking for another abode. Typically, they are ugly-looking, greedy aliens who covet the earth, while dismissing the strong ties binding humanity to its home. Failing to take human determination to protect the earth into account, aliens are usually defeated in cinema and forced to retreat back into the somber, dead worlds they came from, leaving the blue planet to the loving care of humankind.

This I-love-my-planet approach to the earth is all but absent from Interstellar. Regarded as little more than a doomed, empty shell, the earth is happily ditched by its inhabitants once they collectively manage to get their feet off the ground and into space. The film’s protagonist, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), certainly cannot wait to board his fancy spaceship and take off to distant galaxies, leaving behind his two children and the corn plantation he used to tend. In a revealing dialogue, he chastises those who believe in humanity’s role as caretaker of the earth and praises human beings’ calling as adventurers and explorers. For Cooper, we are nomadic by nature, permanently on the lookout for a better place under a different sun.

What is more, we are led to believe that humankind will repeat past mistakes in its newly found abodes. When Cooper is reunited with his daughter aboard a space station near Jupiter, we find that humans have minutely reproduced in this substitute setting their living conditions on earth: the exact same sprawling suburbs, large monoculture plantations, and, we might guess, a wasteful lifestyle. We are faced with the nightmare scenario of imagining all human colonies in space as carbon copies of the American Midwest from where Cooper came. Planet after planet, we will deplete other worlds of their vital resources only to proceed with our voyages of exploration. To put it bluntly: humans are the latest incarnation of the greedy aliens, covetously on the lookout for planets upon which to unleash their destructive way of life.

Needless to say, Interstellar‘s portrayal of humanity’s nomadic future beyond planet earth has long-ranging repercussions for the ways in which we interact with the environment. If we consider the earth to be a transient dwelling place and not our permanent residence, why should we bother taking care of it? Who is willing to work to improve a leased apartment or, better yet, a cheap motel room, knowing that you will soon move to a different, hopefully better, address?

The current environmental crisis—from the mindless contamination of the earth’s atmosphere, oceans, and soils with life-threatening chemicals to the imminent danger posed by climate change to most living beings on the planet—can be traced back to the mindset that fueled Interstellar‘s plot. We are unwilling to change our lifestyle and to take environmental degradation seriously because, in the back of our minds, we still hope against hope that there could be a miraculous solution to the devastation we have brought upon the earth. We dream about starting afresh on another, pristine, earth-like planet that we can proceed to exploit with as much gusto as when we destroyed our homeland.

But what if Interstellar is wrong? Maybe Cooper, the hard-boiled farmer-turned-space-pilot, was mistaken in his assessment of humanity’s calling. What if being human means, first and foremost, to be a living being on earth? What if the notion that humans should move from planet to planet, locust-like, on a perpetual quest for yet another space to colonize and exploit, is what got us into our current environmental trouble in the first place?

One of Interstellar‘s most disturbing elements is the obsession of all its characters with the survival of the human species. Cooper and his team have enough frozen, fertilized eggs in their spaceship to reboot the species and firmly plant the human race in another galaxy. Yet, in this modern-day version of Noah’s ark, non-human animals and plants are conspicuously absent. Besides condemning all life on earth to its sad, deadly fate, our explorers consider humans to be the only living inhabitants of the blue planet worth saving. Animals and plants are nothing more than expendable commodities to be discarded, together with the earth itself, when a shinier, more appetizing planet looms on our time-warped horizon.

If you were an evolved, hyper-intelligent alien, looking on from high above at humanity, what would you think? How would you rate our pathetic dreams to live on by perpetually destroying spanking new worlds for the thrill of adventure? Would those pitiful human beings be deemed worthy of survival?

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