Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do.

Source: AP Photo/Paramount Pictures

'Interstellar's' Guide to Fixing Our Climate

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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I finally got out to see Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar” last weekend, and I enjoyed it immensely. Yes, Hans Zimmer’s score was maddeningly intrusive, and there were plot holes galore, but the film taken as a whole I found remarkable.

Alas, not everyone had as much fun. In particular, some climate-change activists came away annoyed. There wasn’t “a single semi-coherent statement ... about climate change throughout the movie,” warns Eve Andrews at Grist’s always lively Green Screen. Adds Noah Gittell in the Atlantic: “For those who care about climate change, the film feels like a missed opportunity.” The characters, he complains, “do not talk much about their mistakes on Earth.”

With respect, these criticisms miss the point. What makes “Interstellar” so enjoyable -- endless physics lectures  and all -- is its boundless optimism. In its testament to human ingenuity in the face of disaster, the film is admittedly of the older school. No character offers portentous words about the foibles of mankind. No superhero pops up to defeat the villain; there isn’t even any villain, unless one counts the schoolteachers who don’t believe the moon landing took place.  (We’re told along the way that nature itself isn’t evil. Whew.) Yes, there is an alien race involved, except that -- no, no, the rest is a spoiler; let’s keep it under wraps.

True, the characters don’t talk about who ruined the planet or what could have been done to stop it. Instead, “Interstellar” reflects a perhaps fading American faith in science as a tool to solve the world’s least tractable problems -- science as what Frankin Roosevelt's science adviser Vannevar Bush called “the endless frontier.” If a problem exists, so the story once was told, we will invent the technology to fix it.

Scant decades ago, people believed that pollution would always get worse, not better, that the nation’s rivers and lakes were doomed, that the air would never be clean. But the water and the air are cleaner than they’ve been in a century, and the rate at which the U.S. pollutes is falling. In the U.S., acid rain is very nearly history. (And it didn’t cost that much.) All of this happened because of improved technology.

This isn’t a paean to markets or small government. All the problems of the commons are yet with us, and none of this grand environmental progress would have occurred absent extensive regulatory intervention. Companies were forced by law to develop technologies to reduce their pollutants to levels they’d argued were impossible to reach.

Can we invent our way out of the future harms that our changing climate is thought likely to cause? Maybe; maybe not. I can understand the argument that optimism is unfounded. Climate change isn’t the same animal as pollution.  I cannot understand the argument that optimism is morally wrong. And, certainly, it makes little sense to criticize scientists who are trying to find a way to fix it.

The New Yorker magazine tells the story of a 2011 experiment by British climate scientists to find a cheap and easy way to disperse atmospheric sulfur dioxide, rendering it less harmful. Critics attacked the work, and even managed to get the experiment postponed. Among the reasons: “the fear that even to consider engineering the climate would provide politicians with an excuse for avoiding tough decisions on reducing greenhouse-gas emissions.”

This reasoning seems inside-out. The more urgent the crisis, the broader the many fronts along which it should be attacked. Climate change should never be viewed as principally a goad to broad bureaucratic action; rather, broad bureaucratic action should be viewed as one among a menu of potential solutions to a growing threat. Optimism is a belief that the possible can become the actual. I like the way tech guru Marc Andreessen recently put it: “My presumptive tendency, when I’m presented with a new idea, is not to ask, ‘Is it going to work?’ It’s, ‘Well, what if it does work?’”

That’s what “Interstellar” is about: not “Should we search for technological solutions?” but “What if we did?” Nolan’s point isn’t that our only hope is to move humanity off the planet; his point is that we mustn’t abandon faith in scientific advance as we ponder the survival of the species.

Contra some celebrants on the right, that faith doesn’t transform “Interstellar” into a rebuke to climate activists. One can hardly miss the film’s subtle message that the Earth is a fragile place, where humanity’s seemingly settled expectations might be inverted at any moment. And subtle is good: Witness the comically bad climate science in the message-heavy “The Day After Tomorrow.”

Not everything has a technological solution. Hatred, prejudice, ambition, heartbreak, loneliness, ennui: Religion has never been able to wring these flaws from the human fabric, and neither will science. Maybe we will never invent our way out of climate change either. But we just landed a spaceship on a comet, an engineering feat of no small difficulty. Were the news media less distracted by a shirt, we might this very moment be gazing heavenward in awe.

Gittell’s essay on “Interstellar” concludes with the lament that the film “is clearly more interested in looking forward than to the past.” He adds: “Nolan fails to look inward and uncover the flaws and solutions in humanity; instead, he prefers to gaze up at the stars and fantasize.”

To which I can only reply: Even for some of us who believe in the reality of climate change, that’s not a bug but a feature.

  1. Is it just me, or does anyone else find it peculiar that nobody would have briefed the mission commander on, for instance, the name of the black hole toward which the ship was headed? And given that everyone on the flight was a scientist or an engineer, why were they constantly explaining physics to each other?

  2. And, speaking of plot holes, if the nation’s schools are producing farmers rather than engineers, where does NASA’s hidden base get all the sleek computers and the well-trained geeks to operate them? And if, on the other hand, there are secret universities somewhere still churning out scientists and engineers, why are a rapidly aging Michael Caine and a wounded Jessica Chastain the only people available to “solve” the crucial gravity equation? Maybe the nation’s few theoretical scientists have all been snapped up by private industry, to solve agricultural problems? If so, they’re not doing a very good job.

  3. As the American Association for the Advancement of Science notes, what makes climate change different is an important technological difficulty: “The effects of CO2 emissions cannot be reversed from one generation to the next until there is a large-scale, cost-effective way to scrub carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.” But it’s still a technological difficulty.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net