Sci-fi worthy of Malthus
In the new sci-fi movie “Oblivion,” Earth's most precious resource is Tom Cruise. But running a close second (spoiler alert) is water. Aliens want it. All of it.
This is old hat, science fictionwise. In “The War of the Worlds,” H.G. Wells had Martians coming to Earth to quench their thirst. The extraterrestrial lizards in the 1980s TV series “V” came here to steal our water too — though they wanted it in part to wash down the meal they intended to make of us. In the more recent “Battle: Los Angeles,” pillaging Earth's oceans was the only motivation we're given for why aliens were laying waste to humanity.
The first problem with this plot device is that it's pretty dumb. Hydrogen and oxygen are two of the most common elements in the universe. An alien race is savvy enough to master interstellar travel but too clueless to combine two Hs with one O to form H2O? C'mon.
At least in “Mars Needs Women,” the precious resource in question — Earth girls — by definition can be found only here. In “To Serve Man,” the famous “Twilight Zone” episode, the motivation was far more plausible: They wanted to eat us (“To Serve Man” — it's a cookbook!).
One rule of thumb in sci-fi is that the aliens are really us too. They reflect a good trait in humanity — think E.T., Spock or Mork — or a bad one. That's why writers recycle ancient human motives — the desire to plunder, colonize, rape, enslave — as the motives of futuristic aliens.
That's all fine. But science fiction is also supposed to raise ambitions for what humans can accomplish. And in that, Hollywood is failing.
For a while now, filmmakers have been churning out fare based on the Malthusian assumption that resources are finite and if we keep going the way we are, the Earth will be “used up.”
The pessimism is infectious. Physicist and sci-fi nerd Stephen Hawking recently argued that maybe we should hide from aliens lest they rob us blind. When Newt Gingrich proposed a base on the moon, everyone guffawed as if such an optimistic ambition was absurd.
The obsession with “peak oil” and the need to embrace “renewables” because we're running out of fossil fuels is another symptom of our malaise. Fracking and other breakthroughs demonstrate that, at least so far, whatever energy scarcity we've had has been imposed by policy, not nature.
Which gets us back to outer space. In our neighborhood alone, there are thousands of asteroids with enormous riches — in gold, platinum, rare earth metals, etc. Planetary Resources Inc., an asteroid mining firm started last year by director James Cameron and some Microsoft and Google billionaires, has its sights on several rocks worth anywhere from hundreds of billions to tens of trillions of dollars. And these are just the chunks scattered around our orbital backyard and near enough to exploit with existing technology.
Thomas Malthus and his intellectual descendants saw humans as voracious consumers of finite resources. But humans are better understood as creators who've consistently solved the problems of scarcity by inventing or discovering new paths to abundance.
As the late anti-Malthusian hero Julian Simon said, human imagination is the ultimate resource. Unfortunately, that resource is dismayingly scarce these days, in Washington and Hollywood.
Jonah Goldberg is the author of “The Tyranny of Clichés,” now on sale in paperback.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Duquesne University football player died by suicide
- Steelers not limiting themselves in free agency
- Rossi: Pirates must pay for Mr. Right
- National Weather Service predicts up to 7 inches of snow before Sunday night
- Under Rutherford, it’s been a sizeable shakeup for Penguins
- Burnett’s farewell tour wishlist has just 1 item: Pirates World Series
- Toyota Mirai to run on hydrogen fuel cells, widen green-vehicle divide
- Coyotes proliferate despite year-round hunting
- Winnik impresses Penguins in first workout
- Penguins’ Kunitz makes a dream come true
- Arrogant media elites mock Middle America