November 15, 2014


Interstellar: Good Space Film, Bad Climate-Change Parable : A story about looking for a new world is more exciting than a movie about saving an ailing one. (NOAH GITTELLNOV 15 2014, The Atlantic)

Climate change is never mentioned by name in the film, but writer/director Christopher Nolan uses its imagery to define the terms of his story. Interstellar is set in a near-future Earth on the verge of total ecological collapse, with drastic changes in weather patterns and devastating food shortages driving human beings to the brink of extinction. We never learn exactly what caused this devastation (there is a vague reference to a crop disease called "a blight"), but Cooper, the tough and tender protagonist played by Matthew McConaughey, pins it on a failure of the human spirit: "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," he says early on. When he is asked to lead a secret NASA expedition to look for another planet to colonize, he gets a chance to live by those words.

Those words also serve as Nolan's plea to the Western world to invest more in research and technological invention--which means that after TV's Cosmos and this year's terrific documentary Particle Fever, Interstellar is the latest attempt to arouse interest in the sciences through pop culture. But by placing his plea in the context of our climate change crisis, Nolan has set up a false choice: In the world of Interstellar, mankind can either leave the planet behind, or it can stay here and die. The choices that humans--here in the real world--actually have to make regarding climate change and the future of the earth are much more complicated, and are nowhere to be found onscreen.

One of the nice things about reading Peter Augustine Lawler is how much of the nonsense you read on-line he's already answered for you.  So, shortly after reading the above I found the following in his terrific new collection, Allergic to Crazy:

[Tom W]olfe says NASA did have a philosopher--Wernher von Braun, whose word didn't catch on, he speculates, because he was a German with a Nazi background. But Americans are pretty open to listening to Germans (like Leo Strauss) and even Germans with Nazi backgrounds (like Martin Heidegger). So I can't help but add that von Braun's word just didn't get out.

3. Wolfe heard that word in a dinner speech and can't point us to any text. Here's my version of it: Only human beings are open to the truth about all things. Only human beings live meaningful lives. With their disappearance, the truth about Being would have no one to know it, and the universe would become meaningless matter and nothing more. So far, we're stuck in a very vulnerable position on this planet. It might be pulverized by an asteroid at any time; we might accidentally blow it up or trash it beyond repair. The sun will stop shining some day, no matter what we do. We have a duty--in the name of meaning and Being--to spread ourselves out around the cosmos, giving philosophy, as Strauss would say, the longest possible future--not to mention virtue, dignity, poetry, and (some would impiously say) God.

4. That duty seems deeper, from an anthropocentric view, than merely our duty to "the environment." No matter how well we treat our planet, eventually it will turn on us. We're getting increasingly paranoid about "climate change," forgetting that we have no "natural right" to a stable climate, one that will support lives such our ours. Surely our duty to preserve "man" is more profound than our duty to do what we can to preserve earthly nature. (The two duties are obviously not incompatible.)

God imposed a pretty hefty obligation on us when He granted us dominion over Creation, but our higher duty is obviously to Man, on particular.

N.B. The referenced Tom Wolfe essay utilizes a pluperfect David and Goliath analogy:

INTUITIVELY, not consciously, Kennedy had chosen another form of military contest, an oddly ancient and archaic one. It was called "single combat."

The best known of all single combats was David versus Goliath. Before opposing armies clashed in all-out combat, each would send forth its "champion," and the two would fight to the death, usually with swords. The victor would cut off the head of the loser and brandish it aloft by its hair.

The deadly duel didn't take the place of the all-out battle. It was regarded as a sign of which way the gods were leaning. The two armies then had it out on the battlefield ... unless one army fled in terror upon seeing its champion slaughtered. There you have the Philistines when Little David killed their giant, Goliath ... and cut his head off and brandished it aloft by its hair (1 Samuel 17:1-58). They were overcome by a mad desire to be somewhere else. (The Israelites pursued and destroyed them.)

More than two millenniums later, the mental atmosphere of the space race was precisely that. The details of single combat were different. Cosmonauts and astronauts didn't fight hand to hand and behead one another. Instead, each side's brave champions, including one woman (Valentina Tereshkova), risked their lives by sitting on top of rockets and having their comrades on the ground light the fuse and fire them into space like the human cannonballs of yore.

The Soviets rocketed off to an early lead. They were the first to put an object into orbit around the Earth (Sputnik), the first to put an animal into orbit (a dog), the first to put a man in orbit (Yuri Gagarin). No sooner had NASA put two astronauts (Gus Grissom and Alan Shepard) into 15-minute suborbital flights to the Bahamas -- the Bahamas! -- 15 minutes! -- two miserable little mortar lobs! -- then the Soviets put a second cosmonaut (Gherman Titov) into orbit. He stayed up there for 25 hours and went around the globe 17 times. Three times he flew directly over the United States. The gods had shown which way they were leaning, all right!

God, as always, chose the technologically advanced overdog as against the necessarily weak philistines.

Posted by at November 15, 2014 10:42 AM

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