Interstellar

“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”

Although the movie Interstellar was released in theaters last November, its message is timeless. I only just watched this Academy Award-winning film, directed by Christopher Nolan, and was blown away by the astounding visual effects, acting, movie score (who doesn’t love Hans Zimmer?), et cetera. Yet one aspect of this movie trumps all the others: the film’s plot, the glimpse it provides of our planet’s bleak future, is unfathomably plausible.

If you have not seen this movie, don’t worry — there are no plot spoilers in this article. The movie, starring Matthew McConaughey, takes place in a 21st century earth where humans have completely exhausted all natural resources, and exploration and technological advancements cease to exist because they are deemed impractical and inefficient. McConaughey is a former pilot and NASA astronaut, but lives as a farmer to raise his two children because the demand for food is so high. Crop blight has caused global civilization to “regress into a failing agrarian society”; blight is a plant disease that is a rapid and complete chlorosis, browning, and death of plant tissues, and has historically contributed to the Irish Potato Famine and a severe loss of corn in the U.S in the 1970s.

Granted, this is a highly imaginative science-fiction film, but how conceivable is the movie’s setting? Will standardized schooling start specializing American children to work in different economic sectors? Can professional sports be reduced to  non-marketed, non-televised events in high school arenas? Should history’s successful explorations and monumental discoveries be re-painted as tales of inefficient, wasteful shams? Interstellar poses many questions about the future of modern society, and while most of these scenarios are extremely exaggerated hypotheticals, the climate’s harm to crops and the agricultural industry is far from myth or sci-fi.

In 1997, NASA released a study on the increasing prevalence of dust storms. In “Desert Dust, Dust Storm, and Climate,” they reported that airborne dust particles are problematic because they alter the climate by intercepting sunlight intended for the earth’s surface. These dust aerosols shade the earth from the sun’s radiation, and in many places in the Northern Hemisphere, temperatures at the surface often reduced by 1 °C during this decade. Lofted into the air by wind-erosion of dry, loosely-packed soil, the dust aerosols form clouds that deter sunlight, leading to the cooling of the surface below. At the time the article was written, about half of the dust in the atmosphere was likely caused by human activity, demonstrating that climate change is not just the phenomenon of global warming, but cooling as well – in general, more extreme temperatures worldwide.

Dust clouds and storms are often caused by low vegetation cover and disturbance to soil surfaces, which are results of drought, according to U.S. Geological Survey research. The state of Arizona experienced severe dust storms in 2011 and 2012; dust storms are dangerous, often causing motor vehicle crashes and chronic asthma. Dust storms are highly prevalent in drought years and less frequent in years with greater precipitation. High vegetation cover means a low risk of dust storms because more particles are trapped, the soil surface is covered, and there’s a high wind reduction – the soil surface is intact. With low vegetation cover, the opposites are true, and thus there’s a high risk of dust storms.

The current California drought has been compared to the climate preceding the 1930s Dust Bowl; it’s believed that the same atmospheric condition that caused the country’s worst-ever drought in California in 1934 has also influenced the state’s 2014-2015 drought. And not just Arizona and California are affected by dust storms and drought: the National Resources Defense Council found that 1,100 counties (one-third of all counties in the contiguous U.S.) face higher risks of water shortages as a result of climate change. Lower rates of precipitation not only cause droughts and less vegetation, but also more frequent wildfires and dangerous water shortages. Fewer amounts of water can concentrate contaminants “such as heavy metals, industrial chemicals and pesticides, and sediments and salts.” Thus, water supplies are less potable, overall drinking water supplies decrease, crops yield less, and food security suffers — all scenarios that occur in Interstellar. 

Our world is far from the apocalyptic dystopia that the U.S. becomes in Interstellar, but don’t McConaughey’s character’s words ring true? “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” While we still live in an age of exploration and technological pioneers, why can’t we also look down at the ground we walk on and have concern for the dirt beneath us and the air we breathe? We live on a perfect planet, and Interstellar tries to tell us that we probably will not find any other home like it. Thus, we must care for what we have before it’s gone.

© Rissponsible Living, 2015

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