The poor science of the movie Interstellar

I watched the movie Interstellar today. I can’t comment on the theory of wormholes and relative time, since the physics is beyond me, but the portrayal of ecological collapse on Earth is utter nonsense.

In the movie, farming is becoming impossible. The movie never explains why; it simply shows huge dust storms and says that corn is the last crop that they can grow. It shows a neighbor burning his field of okra because it is no longer possible to grow it. First of all, corn would be one of the first crops to fail if the climate changes, because its fertilization doesn’t happen above a certain temperature and it requires more rainfall and more fertilizer than other grains. In the US, it is predicted that a 4 Celsius rise in temperature will cause a 60% loss in the corn yield, which is worse than the predictions for soy, wheat and rice, etc. On the other hand, okra is particularly resistant to high heat and drought (which is probably why it was chosen in the movie).

In the movie, there are dust storms, but the land isn’t shown in drought, so where did the dust come from? There will be more dust when farm land is abandoned, but that is a temporary effect which dissipates after wild vegetation starts to grow on the abandoned fields. It takes drought or desertification to produce dust.

In the movie, the farmers continue practicing industrial agriculture with large-scale machinery, but when the food system breaks down, one of the first things that will happen is that there will be disruptions in the distribution of diesel fuel, fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and herbicides, so that industrial farming can not continue. I have seen what corn looks like, when it is grown without fertilizers and all the other chemical inputs, but the corn in the movie looked like normal industrial corn. In the movie, they say that almost all society had to return to farming, which is what happens when industrial agriculture collapses, but they are not shown doing subsistence farming without trucks, combines, tractors, etc. In subsistence farming you have small plots and plant a diversity of crops.

Interstellar has a portrayal of life on a space station at the end of the movie. It shows wide open spaces and material abundance, when life will be cramped with limited food and water. There is no way that a space station would waste valuable land recreating a 20th century industrial corn farm, which uses 10 times the energy from fossil fuels for every calorie of food it produces. In the future, this type of farming will be considered like we today consider the Holocaust and slavery–unimaginable practices which should never be lauded or emulated. Museums today don’t portray George Washington with slaves and museums in the future won’t portray their heroes running agrochemical industrial farms.

I wouldn’t care about how a fictional movie portrays ecological collapse, except for the fact that we are facing an ecological collapse caused by climate change. Movies like Interstellar misinform us about the changes we need to be making today. The fundamental message of the movie is that there is nothing that we can do, so we need to be preparing to escape the planet and that techno-fixes like space travel will save us, rather than political mobilization and organization in mass movements to change society. Hollywood is teaching us to be passive and continue living the status quo when facing climate change.


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