Hopefully you’ve seen the recent movie, The Martian, a film directed by Ridley Scott and adapted from the online book by Andy Weir. If you have not seen the movie or read the book, both of which I highly recommend, there will be some spoilers for the movie in this post. The movie is wonderful, featuring Matt Damon playing Mark Watney, an astronaut-botanist-mechanical engineer, “sciencing the shit” (literally) out of extreme survival in a hostile environment while accidentally left behind on Mars.
Cultural memes in art, music, and literature indirectly reflect what’s happening in society before our conscious minds do. The explosion of zombie movies and science fiction about intrepid survivors either abandoning Earth for new planets or struggling to get back to Earth suggests that subconsciously, we know we are beyond our limits and headed in the wrong direction on this planet.
Mainstream cultural memes derived from this movie suggest the power of human technology and inventiveness through know-how and persistence. NASA may have used this movie as a rallying cry in support of more funding in general, and funding for longer-range space travel specifically. Good luck with that. It is no accident that space travel in the US peaked with the US oil peak in 1970. Viewed from my perspective of the world in descent, the movie represents something different that probably hasn’t already been said, at least in the US, where Americans’ manifest destiny still reigns supreme. I’m not sure what Andy Weir’s intentions were, beyond telling a ripping good survival yarn, but I see this movie as a symbol of what happens when we venture to the limit of what is sustainable, using extreme technology and energy. When we venture beyond the energetic limits of what is sustainable, bad things are guaranteed to happen. When they do, cascading reactions and a vacuum of Nature’s support systems for our basic needs (soil, water, air, and food) create an extreme situation where high-tech systems will not work, and we must revert to jury-rigged lower-energy tech from an earlier time to get by in an extremely hostile environment that lacks Mother Nature’s supports.
“LOG ENTRY: SOL 14 I got my undergrad degree at the University of Chicago. Half the people who studied botany were hippies who thought they could return to some natural world system. Somehow feeding seven billion people through pure gathering. They spent most of their time working out better ways to grow pot. I didn’t like them. I’ve always been in it for the science, not for any New World Order bullshit. When they made compost heaps and tried to conserve every little ounce of living matter, I laughed at them. “Look at the silly hippies! Look at their pathetic attempts to simulate a complex global ecosystem in their backyard.”
― Andy Weir,
The low-tech devices that Watney falls back on to save his life include basic farming skills, recycling and humanure, although his potato diet is heavily supplemented by intensively fossil fuel-based freeze-dried foods . . . and ketchup. Watney uses a homemade sextant and celestial navigation to travel, and communicates with Earth by scavenging a 1990s-era camera, using ASCII and morse code and then a radio from a defunct Pathfinder lander and Sojourner Rover. Following permaculture principles, Watney catches and stores energy by relying heavily on solar panels, and creatively recycling a small radiation source to heat the Rover. There’s even a scene where prosaic duct tape saves the day. Watney meets his social needs with very stale pre-recorded sit-coms. And NASA staff bypass digital maps for an old-fashioned poster-map of Mars on the coffee-room wall when they need to reorient to discuss the big picture. Watney has to sweep his solar panels by hand, and his travel in a solar panel-charged Rover is delayed by a regional dust storm. In order to get off the planet with a limited amount of fuel, Watney has to strip the launch vehicle into a pared down rag-top convertible with a tarp for a nosecone. High-tech equipment fails, and is abandoned, in favor of lower-tech fixes that do not need the energetic support to work.
Thermodynamically, however, the movie does not really hold up to close scrutiny. The main issue is that the energetic basis of getting a big crew to Mars for a long-term mission is not supportable. As Watney says in the book, “Damn you, entropy!” Other issues relate to human health. Radiation exposure during long-term space voyages and prolonged stays on Mars with its thin atmosphere are not addressed. Toxic perchlorate in the Martian soil that Watney grows potatoes in is not addressed. Weir admits that splitting hydrazine to make water creates too much heat that was not accounted for in the story. And the first windstorm crisis that sets up the plot is probably not supportable on a planet with negligible atmosphere (0.6% of Earth’s atmosphere).
This movie tells us that advanced technology, supported by a very high emergy basis, is fragile and difficult to support on its boundaries. The movie also tells us that the further we climb in the energy hierarchy, the more important Nature becomes to fall back on when the chips are down. And the movie describes the heroic energetic costs to save one person who has traveled far beyond the borders of sustainability.
Even the music in this movie pumps to a retro theme. The Martian wields his old-fashioned technology to a peppy disco beat, albeit reluctantly (Disco sucks!), with an anchoring theme of I Will Survive (Gloria Gaynor, 1978). The only song in the movie that is not disco is David Bowie’s Starman. The repeating chorus of that song, which has the main idea, or big picture, asks us not to blow it, as a message of hope for the young. But only if we shift our cultural models now. This movie suggests how vulnerable we are to problems and what responses are possible when we keep moving into overshoot and crises begin to accelerate into catastrophes. But the movie is also about the resilience of the human spirit, if we are flexible and open to change.
Starman waiting in the sky
He’d like to come and meet us
But he thinks he’d blow our minds
There’s a starman waiting in the sky
He’s told us not to blow it
‘Cause he knows it’s all worthwhile
He told me
Let the children lose it
Let the children use it
Let all the children boogie
― chorus, Starman, David Bowie, 1972