Interstellar’s Missed Opportunity

Interstellar disappointed me. Not that I dislike technology or space exploration, in fact I’ve made my living as a tech entrepreneur. I’m even a limited partner in a space-focused venture capital fund. But Interstellar missed a huge opportunity.

In the movie, a blight is destroying nearly all the world’s food supply. Only two crops remain: okra and corn. But what is a blight, anyway? And where did it come from?

The movie never specifically says where the blight came from but I knew the most likely cause. Did anyone else?

So I went looking and found an Interstellar wiki created by fans of the movie. Where did they think the blight came from?

Their speculation was disheartening. The most popular guess was that the blight rode in on a meteor from outer space. Or the second most plausible scenario, according to these fans, was that the blight originated on Earth as a mutation caused by toxic waste.

Oh brother.

What none of them realize is that the most likely cause of the catastrophic blight scenario in Interstellar, is us.

Not sci-fi us, not future-us, current us. Because what too few seem aware of is that humans have been routinely unleashing blights on our food supply for at least the past few hundred years.

A blight is what caused the Great Famine in Ireland, causing at least a million deaths due to starvation and malnutrition.

And today’s potato supply is under constant attack too by worms called nematodes. The standard practice for battling them is to shock the soil to death with chemicals, which is still “working”… for now.

A so-far unstoppable blight is currently besieging the world banana supply, too. And there are thousands of less famous cases.

Blights aren’t limited to individual crops either: the world’s bee population is currently collapsing too, threatening our fragile food system broadly.

And the primary cause? The normal, everyday practice of industrial monoculture.

The agricultural practice of industrial monoculture, depicted so clearly in the movie, is the leading cause of blights. And it’s the way most food is produced today.

Industrial monoculture means that instead of cultivating the thousands of different foods that have evolved on this planet, we whittle things down to a mechanically efficient, shippable, packageable, tradable few.

Image by Andrew Fogg under a Creative Commons License.

Industrial monoculture means that instead of protecting and living alongside the innumerable interdependent life forms supporting our planet, we deem them extraneous to our supply-chains and elusive to our barcodes, and so destroy them and their habitat to make way for commodity crops.

Our species began doing this in pursuit of efficiency, standardization, and profit. And for a while it seemed to work, making many goods plentiful and (apparently) cheap.

But there’s a cost we have been failing to account for: lost biodiversity. And when you lose biodiversity, you get blights.

When a single species, like corn or wheat, is proliferated excessively — when the other, seemingly extraneous, species in nature are destroyed — the remaining species will always have the same weaknesses, meaning they can all be destroyed by the same thing. And this weakness will not go unnoticed. Another organism will ride in and have a literal field day. And when it does, we call it a blight.

It is precisely this loss of biodiversity that leads to the Interstellar scenario. And it is precisely the concept of biodiversity that the movie never once even nods to.

Interstellar could have made a plug for biodiversity and warned of the ills of monoculture. But instead Interstellar offers us this message:

– Blights just mysteriously happen

– The Earth may one day succumb to one

– Good thing we’ll solve a time-traveling equation that gives us a chance at starting over (on a new already-dead planet)

Interstellar could have shifted the world’s consciousness and woken people up to our disastrous behavior. It would only have taken a few lines of smart dialogue. Imagine if someone in the movie had said:

We screwed up. We chased profits and simplistic efficiencies and ignored the complexity of nature. We ignored biodiversity. We couldn’t figure out how to buy or sell ecosystems and so forgot about them.

Instead the movie wastes our time with a contrived tension between farmers and engineers. “We need more farmers, not engineers,” says one character.

Do we?

The truth is, we don’t need any more of anyone who doesn’t understand ecosystems and the deleterious impact of our way of life on them: Engineers, farmers, movie-makers, and all of us in our roles as consumers too.

Most of today’s Earthlings remain ignorant about biodiversity and bereft of ecosystem-thinking. And for the sake of GDP and a “dollar menu”, we are setting things up for a real blight that may one day be our real doom.

Without derailing the primary plot, Interstellar could have enlightened us, spurring the masses to change our ways. It might even have boosted box-office revenue by connecting the plot to the real world in a timely and visceral way.

Interstellar blew that chance, leaving many a space-fan to continue imagining blights hurtling toward earth via meteor — when in reality the blights are arriving here and now, landing by saucer on our tables.

My guess is that the makers of Interstellar brought nearly all the right people to the table: talented people acting, doing special effects, filming, writing. They probably even had a few monoculture farmers and physicists, just to make sure everything looked real. They just forgot to involve anyone who actually knew anything about nature.