“Interstellar”, the 2014 global blockbuster movie by Christopher Nolan is a feat of intellectual and strategic thinking. The movie follows the adventures of three astronauts whose mission is to find a viable planet for humankind, while people on Earth are struggling with the rapid decay of the biosphere and the increasingly dangerous effects of climate change.
In fact, this movie addresses the political and existential issues of what is to become of humanity once the climate change crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the energy and minerals crises will have been firmly and clearly interlocked for two dozens years from now. This nexus of “socio-bio-vital crises” is very smartly used by Christopher Nolan to elaborate a vehicle for a new kind of strategic warning communication.
A warning: From “sustainability” to “survival politics”
“Interstellar” is not only Hollywood entertainment, but also a massive “thought experiment” in communication of strategic warning. In this case, the notion of “strategic warning” reveals the depth of its function by helping the spectator to experience the emotion and unease of witnessing what could be the fate of humankind when its most basic life conditions are being taken into a spiral of fatal degradation, in less than a lifetime.
The “strategic warning dimension” of this movie is supported by the way the likelihood of the collapse of conditions of life in America is projected and tested upon different timelines, in order to reveal political and strategic impacts.
The systemic degradation impacts as much the natural world, through the death of vegetation as the artificial human environment, due to the lack of basic resources. This is showed, for example, when vehicles powered by gasefiers, cross dying cornfields. The convoy of trucks and cars leaves a small town because of the state of permanent “dustbowl storm” consequent to the destruction of topsoil.
In other words, we are shown the world of the “post-car culture” (Mike Davis, City of Quartz, excavating the future of Los Angeles, 1990), brought by the definitive rarefaction of oil, or at least cheap oil (Michael Klare, Rising powers, Shrinking Planet, 1988), while the “die-off” of soils and plants goes with the failing first of wheat and okra crops, then of maize, which so became the last support for mass food-producing, all other cereals having failed.
It could be remembered that the start of the sedentary sequence of human history started with the invention of agriculture. The failing agriculture can thus only lead to a massive “failed history” (Jared Diamond, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee, 1992).
In this depleted and fundamentally impoverished world, governments have focused all the remaining resources on agriculture, to the point that they are now too poor to even wage war in the way inherited from the industrial revolution, the nineteenth, twentieth and beginning of the twenty-first century. They have, officially, demilitarized themselves, to the point that, instead of “official war”, it could be said, by misquoting Carl von Clausewitz “agriculture has become the continuation of politics through other means” (Carl von Clausewitz, On War).
So, in a world totally dependent on its own agricultural resources, the dying of vegetation is tantamount to total collapse (Edward Wilson, The Future of Life, 2002). If “Interstellar” stopped only at that, it would already be a very important work in strategic anticipation, because it shows what a very large array of scientific works warns about: the consequences of the crisis of the current “climate change/biodiversity/top soils/ water” nexus.
We already have existing instances of such impacts, with immense continental “dead zones” due to the interaction between the induced consequences of badly thought agricultural development and climate change. For example, the destruction of the Aral Sea, because of past Soviet agricultural ambitions, has dire biological and human, social and political consequences. The draining of the Aral Sea has led to the atmospheric diffusion of huge quantities of salt, which sterilizes an immense region between Uzbekistan and Iran (Valantin Ecologie et gouvernance mondiale, 2007).
In the US, California is experiencing the worst drought in its history. The latter has now been almost ten years long, and it leads to the return of dustbowls, the multiplication of giant wildfires, as well as to water tensions (Melissa Gaskill, “Climate Change Threatens Long Term Sustainability of Great plains“, Scientific American, Nov 17, 2012).
The movie deepens its status as a “strategic warning experience” by confronting the narration with the issue of time. In effect, it does not propose a “snapshot” of the coming collapse, but it develops along the timeline of an eco-political collapse that deploys itself during more than thirty years, thus following the principles of dramatic narration and of the elaboration of strategic warning scenarios (Hélène Lavoix, Improving the impact of foresight thanks to biases, 2013). And so, we follow the psychological evolution of Murphy, the hero’s daughter, who accuses her father of having “left them to starve and suffocate”.
This accusation encapsulates one of the extreme effects of the current massive injection of carbon in the atmosphere, which not only destroys the very conditions of agriculture and land vegetation, but also acidifies the ocean (Callum Roberts, The Ocean of Life, 2012). In turn, a massive die off of the marine flora could be induced, when one knows its extremely important role in maintaining the current chemical atmospheric equilibria (ibid).
Thus, this movie is a real strategic warning scenario, with all its crucial components. Under the guise of fiction, it anticipates the way our society could “choose to fail”, in the words of Jared Diamond (Jared Diamond, Collapse, How societies choose to fail or survive, 2005).
An alternative response: From “survival” to “sustainability in a new age of extremes”
“Interstellar” does not only warn about the ultimate strategic risk, but also provides a way out of the critical situation in order to answer the crisis it warns about. The way in which, in the movie, the whole political system is centered on agriculture and food production shows its only focus is now strictly organized around materialistic survival, by trying to avoid mass hunger. This goal has become the end of the system in itself. It banishes the possibility of a future, which wouldn’t be dominated exclusively by the preservation of the very fragile present conditions.
This stark warning imposes a new “categorical imperative”, if more than just survival is to ever exist again, which is nothing but the reinvention of the future through space exploration (William E. Burrows, This New Ocean, 1998).
However, this new and “space age” comes after alluded wars during which “bombing from space” was used, then had to stop. Indeed, the militarization of space and the operational uses of space power (John Pike, Eric Stambler, Space Power interests, 1996) on a continental war scale were brought to a dead-end for the very simple reason that, in a time of extreme basic resources depletion, modern industrial war has no more use. Indeed, survival absorbs all the resources necessitated by modern technological warfare.
This proposition is nothing but a giant leap in strategic thinking: “Interstellar” goes as far as proposing that space exploration and exodus in space are the reinvention of politics, outside of the original “polis”, that is to say inhabited Earth.
By doing this, Christopher Nolan is proposing a way forward that has been lacking in strategic thinking since the sixties and the development, on the one hand, of nuclear strategic thinking and, on the other hand, of futurist thinking opened by the remarkable works of Dennis Meadows and the Club of Rome (Dennis and Donnella Meadows, The Limits to Growth, 1972 and updated version of 2012). The former were establishing that nuclear war would destroy infrastructures and deeply damage human life conditions (Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon, 1983), while the others demonstrated how economic growth would deplete world resources, which would have similar effects for the future of humanity.
Since then, the emergence of the multipolar world has triggered a new space race, centred on China and India, as well as a new nuclear arms race (Paul Bracken, The second nuclear age, 2012), but nuclear war remains an intellectual and strategic dead-end (Luttwak, Strategy: the logic of war and peace, rev. 2002). In answer to social, economic and environmental conundrum, there has been a remarkable implementation of the “sustainable development” (UNEP, Our Common Future, 1987) school of thought, but sustainable development is, before all, an exploration of methods and experiences to prevent the worst path of social/economic/environmental degradation or to reorient collective destinies while it is still possible.
“Interstellar” suggests that sustainable development, or any other approach for supporting human life, cannot anymore be implemented in a world that is too depleted, while political authorities have been so traumatized by recent and “too extreme” wars that the latter has been identified as a counter-productive tool of preservation, contrary to millennia of political history. Nevertheless, these conditions make even more necessary to open the future, through a new alliance between science, space, generations and vision.
In fact, “Interstellar” shows us that it is possible to invent the future and, in the same time to intervene on it. To do so we must accept what it tells us of the coming “end of growth” through the “end of resources and life”, while space exploration may very well hold the key to the challenge to our survival and life through new possibilities.
History gives us a powerful example of that kind of evolution. The Cold War history (1947-1991) has been dominated by the “balance of terror” created by nuclear deterrence. Nevertheless, this “non-strategy” (Luttwak, ibid) became politically unacceptable between the end of the seventies and the middle of the eighties, as evidenced by a series of movies, going from the “Planet of the apes” series to the terrible “The Day after”, which depicts the day-to-day life in a little town of the Midwest after a nuclear exchange. More than symptoms of change, these movies helped societies and political authorities to understand but also to represent to themselves, at an existential level, what “the end of history” really means (Valantin, Hollywood, the Pentagon and Washington: The Movies and National Security from World War II to the Present Day, 2005). During the eighties, These movies fueled both the collective protests against the nuclear arms race and the political will of Ronald Reagan to end the nuclear stalemate (Frances Fitzgerald, Way out there in the Blue, Reagan, Star Wars and the end of the Cold War, 2000). This evolution was a strong support to US and Soviet policies for veering off from nuclear deterrence during the Reagan/ Bush/Gorbachov years.
In fact, this shows us that movies play an important role not only in the political history of the twentieth and the twenty-first century, but also play an important role as a strategic warning vehicle.
However, contrary to the “nuclear warning” movies of the eighties, “Interstellar” starts with the end of hope, and, through strategic warning and presentation of a response alternative, shows that bending the future for the better is still possible. In that way, it goes to the very essence of strategy.
Dr Jean-Michel Valantin (PhD Paris) leads the Environment and Security Department of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. He is specialised in strategic studies and defense sociology with a focus on environmental geostrategy.
Featured image: Nothing stands except the tattered American flag in an area looking like a war zone. This area in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma was devastated by an F-5 Tornado with winds up to 230 miles per hour. The area of destruction was 1 mile wide and left a path of destruction 19 miles long by T Sgt Bill Kimble, Public domain photograph from defenseimagery.mil.