Interstellar: A Survival Guide for the Planet?

Christopher Nolan’s latest film is an eye opener—in more ways than one.


Photo: Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros

We earthlings can learn a lot from Matthew McConaughey’s latest existential crisis. Interstellar opens nationwide tonight, and if you’re off to watch the space epic this weekend, make sure to brush up on basic physics—gravity, relativity, love(?!?)—so you can just take in the time-bending visuals and enjoy the ride. But I’m here to discuss more mundane matters: saving planet earth while we’re still on it.

The future of humanity, y’see, has a lot of near misses in this movie (and I promise not to spoil anything too significant from the film—that you won’t already read in a lot of other reviews, anyway). Here’s the basic plot: The environment gets so bad that Earth is no longer a suitable habitat for Homo sapiens. As our species hangs in the balance, a handful of amateur astronauts head off into space to find another home.

Just imagine all the things that can go wrong on an 80-something-year scavenger hunt across the far stretches of the universe. Hint: The daughter of McConaughey’s character (Cooper) is named Murphy, after Murphy’s Law. Our galaxy-hopping heroes slide through wormholes, slip into self-induced hibernation comas, battle serotonin-sapping loneliness, navigate lies and betrayals, and do really awesome things with spaceships that, to my knowledge, spaceships just aren’t meant to do. One mistake is all it takes…and blam! Extinction.

I’d rather it not come to that. So here are four lessons from the film that we might want to take into account in real life, right now. That way the existence of our species needn’t rely on a bunch of frozen eggs and sperm sitting in a fridge on a spacecraft heading straight for a black hole named Gargantua.

1. Diversify, diversify, diversify.

Interstellar doesn’t go into details of how Earth becomes uninhabitable, but there are clues hinting at a slow-motion agricultural-blight-meets-climate-change apocalypse. Peppered through the film are scenes from The Dust Bowl, a Ken Burns documentary about Americans who had to flee their homes or succumb to starvation and “dust pneumonia” in the 1930s, thanks to decades of poor agricultural practices. Something similar is happening to Cooper’s land.

Research shows that the greater a population’s genetic diversity, the more disease-resistant it will be. That goes for plants, too. On a larger scale, ecosystems made up of numerous types of species tend to be more resilient. But Cooper and his neighbors only grow corn—because nothing else will grow. Crop rotation? Nope. There’s nothing to rotate in this monoculture. Laid out on the dinner table in one scene are corn-on-the-cob, cornbread, and corn fritters. That’s not a healthy diet, and what little remains of the human population is not thriving.

2. Science! Don’t deny it.

In a world…where fear minimizes the importance of science, problem-solving skills are left untapped and everybody ends up screwed. That’s Interstellar’s world. Due to the food shortage, just about everyone is encouraged to grow crops for a living. Cooper, an astronaut-turned-farmer, is really frustrated with his new career and not happy with the anti-science education—and its “corrected textbooks”—his kids are receiving at school. His former employer, NASA, is underfunded and regarded as pointless to a society that just wants to dig in, keep their heads down, and farm, baby, farm (despite increasingly ominous dust storms).

Sound familiar? Just replace “farm, baby, farm” with “drill, baby, drill” and you get humanity’s current predicament. An unshakable faith in the burning of fossil fuels—and rejection of scientists’ warnings—promises a future full of droughts, food shortages, and refugees. But take heart! Real-life NASA is busy preparing its facilities for climate change. So when the time comes, it’ll be here to bail us out—or more likely, leave us behind.

3. Earth: Love it or leave it.

When Cooper and the rest of the Lazarus crew fly by Saturn, our solar system’s second-largest planet and its ring of ice fill half the screen. It’s beautiful—and terrifying. Suddenly my theater seat was cast into the deep darkness of outer space, and I got the same feeling I get when I swim too far from shore: Crap, I’ve wandered out of my habitat (surviving here might get dicey).

Astronomers are on the lookout for other planets that might have water, gas, and temperature levels that resemble conditions here on Earth. It’s a fascinating prospect—but one that might be light-years away. Sure, space travel has taken great strides in the last half century, and we’ve put robots on Mars, but we’re a long way from exoplanet colonies. For the time being, we, the Goldilocks of the galaxy, will have to settle for this planet. Up until fairly recently—about 150 years ago—the atmosphere was juuust riiight.

4. Evolution—it’s all about family.

What’s a star-studded blockbuster without a little drama? The tension that propels Interstellar’s plot along is, as Matt Damon’s character puts it, “think[ing] not as individuals but as a species.” Humanity’s heroes—many on solo missions with no end date—leave everything and everyone behind, aware that there might not be enough fuel for a round-trip. Their spaceships become Noah’s Arks, harboring thousands of potential test-tube fetuses.

Before sending them off, NASA vets the astronauts to ensure they have no emotional attachments. Humans, however, evolved as a social species. We don’t do very well without human contact. And although we are capable of great sacrifice, it’s usually done in the name of making sure our genetic material—our own family members, the ones left behind on a dying planet—make it to the next generation. So you can imagine what morale is like aboard the mothership.

* * *

Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” serves as a pep talk for the Lazarus crew. Their earthbound leader, Michael Caine’s character, quotes the Dylan Thomas poem a lot (too much, I’d say), but he gets the point across: Giving up is not an option.

On future Earth, unfortunately, there are no options. But right now in 2014, we have plenty. We can cut carbon pollution, farm our fertile lands responsibly, and protect biodiversity (not just our own frozen DNA). Our planet is rare, and it’s right here. Let’s rage, rage against the dying of its light.

Credit: Photo: Paramount Pictures/Warner Bros

This article was originally published on onEarth, which is no longer in publication. onEarth was founded in 1979 as the Amicus Journal, an independent magazine of thought and opinion on the environment. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. This article is available for online republication by news media outlets or nonprofits under these conditions: The writer(s) must be credited with a byline; you must note prominently that the article was originally published by and link to the original; the article cannot be edited (beyond simple things such grammar); you can’t resell the article in any form or grant republishing rights to other outlets; you can’t republish our material wholesale or automatically—you need to select articles individually; you can’t republish the photos or graphics on our site without specific permission; you should drop us a note to let us know when you’ve used one of our articles.

Related Stories