What can Interstellar Teach us about the tragedy of the Commons? (spoilers)


This post will contains some minor spoilers for the movie Interstellar. If you don’t want to read any spoilers, then stop reading now.

The tragedy of the commons represents a common good that without proper communication and planning can be destroyed through maximizing an individual’s utility. What does that mean? Well, a group of ranchers are sharing a field. One of them decides to make some additional money by buying, just ONE more head of cattle. He lets it eat in the grass that everyone else is sharing. No negative impact happens, the farmers discuss the number of cattle, which they had all agreed upon beforehand to be a set number. Since he increased his, everyone else does the same, eventually the land will not be able to sustain all the extra head of cattle, and the next year cattle start to die of starvation. Creating a crash in the economy.

According to Stephen Gardiner climate change represents a tragedy of the commons. However, instead of the ranchers, we have our great grand parent’s decision impacting our climate today. Climate change effectively started during the Industrial Revolution and our actions will be impacting future generations. Since the future generation does not have a voice in the conversation, it’s hard for us to put off current needs for future needs. This is further exasperated by the fact that we cannot even work to improve conditions for our own children, let alone some faceless grand child or great grandchild down the road.

Interstellar offers a glimpse into why this is so difficult. First, there’s clearly gaps in education, Interstellar points this out through exaggerating what a lot of school boards are currently doing, they go to the extreme to say that the Apollo missions are faked as a propaganda tool to destroy the Soviet Union. Second, Matthew McConaughey is one of the few forward thinking individuals, but he knows that we are continually leaving worse and worse conditions for our children, as a farmer he can see how poorly we’re fighting the blight that is killing our crops. Third, the time dilation he experiences being close to a blackhole allows him, while he’s still young, to see the full effects of his generations decisions on his children. He’s fully impotent to do anything about it, but he knows that the choices they made have fully doomed his children. Finally and I think most impactful, is the scene where Murph dies. He sees his grand children and great grand children and doesn’t even acknowledge them. He did everything he could for Murph but had no interest in seeing how all of this impacted his’s child’s children. Furthermore, Murph didn’t seem to want him to try to bridge that divide. Rather than try to build a relationship with the world as it was she pushed him to reunite with a crewmate that came from the same “world” as him.

All of these indicate that we have a serious tragedy of the commons problem. That education is required to even have a hope to combat the tragedy of the commons for climate change. That we must figure out a way to see past the here and now and create a seriously forward looking plan. That we cannot simply rely on a few forward thinking people because even they are limited in how much they can look to the future.

This is a serious concern because we now have a leader on the environmental committee in the US congress that doesn’t accept the evidence presented by scientists. Furthermore, the fact that lawmakers aren’t scientists seems to excuse them from understanding what people are saying about climate change.

We cannot expect some “they” to come and allow us to rescue ourselves with “their” help. We have to figure this out on our own. We’re failing miserably right now.

Another book that does a good job outlining these intergernational problems is the Forever War.

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