GOLDBERG: Sci-fi worthy of Malthus

Scarcity rules the silver screen, but ingenuity rules the real world

Question of the Day

Is it still considered bad form to talk politics during a social gathering?

View results

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 fiction-wise. In “The War of the Worlds,” H.G. Wells had Martians coming to Earth to quench their thirst. The extraterrestrial lizards (cleverly disguised as human catalog models) 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, just as “real” Champagne must come from the region that bears its name. Though I have no doubt that Earth women really are the best, the logic of evolution suggests that compatibility issues for aliens would be a hurdle not even Match.com could overcome.

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). Who knows? Maybe we’re delicious.

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 and 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 — like the horrendous remake of “The Day the Earth Stood Still” — based on the Malthusian assumption that resources are finite and that if we keep going the way we are, the Earth will be “used up” (to borrow a phrase from the opening monologue of the canceled cult sensation “Firefly”). Either that, or we’ll be invaded by aliens who appreciate our stuff more than we do.

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.

This 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 (ironic, given the politics of his film “Avatar”) and some Microsoft and Google billionaires, has its sights on several rocks worth anywhere from hundreds of billions to tens of trillions of dollars. These are just the chunks scattered around our orbital backyard and near enough to exploit with existing technology. There are also plenty of balls of ice out there that might be convertible into fuel for further space exploration.

Thomas Malthus and his intellectual descendants saw humans as voracious consumers of finite resources, like a “virus” devouring its host, as Agent Smith says in “The Matrix.” But humans are better understood as creators who have consistently solved the problems of scarcity by inventing or discovering new paths to abundance. As the now-deceased 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 Cliches: How Liberals Cheat in the War of Ideas” (Sentinel HC, May 2012).

Comments
blog comments powered by Disqus
TWT Video Picks
You Might Also Like
  • Maureen McDonnell looks on as her husband, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, made a statement on Tuesday after the couple was indicted on corruption charges. (associated press)

    PRUDEN: Where have the big-time grifters gone?

  • This photo taken Jan. 9, 2014,  shows New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gesturing as he answers a question during a news conference  at the Statehouse in Trenton.  Christie will propose extending the public school calendar and lengthening the school day in a speech he hopes will help him rebound from an apparent political payback scheme orchestrated by key aides. The early front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination will make a case Tuesday Jan. 14, 2014, that children who spend more time in school graduate better prepared academically, according to excerpts of his State of the State address obtained by The Associated Press. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

    BRUCE: Bombastic arrogance or humble determination? Chris Christie’s choice

  • ** FILE ** Secretary of State Hillary Rodham testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the deadly September attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador J. Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

    PRUDEN: The question to haunt the West

  • Get Breaking Alerts