The flap about space travel

By Mary Logan

Why is the movie Gravity so scary to some people, and why are people in both sciences and the humanities discussing the movie in a focused fashion, picking at its details? I would argue that the movie Gravity serves as a metaphor for a shift in world views about what is possible and sustainable in terms of our high-tech society. The discussion here of space travel allows me to continue my fall theme of illustrating emergy principles using science-fiction blockbuster movies. The movie also provides an opportunity to illustrate the emergy basis of space travel, and to suggest a metaphor between the failures of technology in the movie and the unsustainability of our modern civilization. Spoiler alert: If you haven’t seen the movie Gravity yet, there are spoilers ahead.

The astronomical emergy basis of space travel

Many people from different disciplines are discussing the issue of space travel and the movie. The flap about space travel started even before the release of the movie Gravity, with a reference by Kevin Carson to Buckminster Fuller’s optimism about the future of space travel. One point that Carson highlighted was the potential benefit of satellite technology in a sustainable future, as a much more efficient and effective means of communication than transoceanic cables:

“The classic example, from Buckminster Fuller, is replacing a transoceanic cable system embodying God only knows how many thousand tons of metal with a few dozen communications satellites weighing a few tons each” (Carson, 2013).

Low Earth Orbit Space Junk, via ESOC
Low Earth Orbit Space Junk, via ESOC

Our earlier assumptions about how energy flows through society and what the real energy basis of an object or process is can create blind spots. What is the real emergy basis of a network of satellites? The network is supported by the research and advanced tech wisdom of an advanced country that can put satellites in orbit. A country’s satellites are supported by intensive research, a highly educated work force, a advanced system of manufacture, a wealthy government with surplus energy (proxied as funds) to direct to exploration, along with the sheer volume of waste heat coming out of the tails of these rockets, and the continuing surplus energy to support these systems. Contrast that with a boat laying cable, and one begins to see the difference in complexity and energy hierarchy between the two. The former is not sustainable without sustained energy inputs at the previous level, in addition to increasing maintenance, cleanup demands, and energy inputs, which become an extra burden as time goes on, since pollution increases over time. Who absorbs the other costs of high-tech pollution over time as overshoot creates more and more pollution? What we see with Fukushima, space waste and elsewhere is that eventually a failing government without resources to deal with it is left holding the bag. Or we muck things up even further in the case of climate change and our “solution” of geoengineering. Eventually Mother Nature is left to clean up the problem over a long period. A model run below from Limits to Growth (1972) illustrates the problem of pollution when we try to rely on intensive technology as the solution to our energy woes. The frame on the right below illustrates what happens to society when we attempt to solve problems through extensive use of technology. A. Perez-Carmona from Meadows et al., 1972 LTG A. Perez-Carmona from Meadows et al., 1972 LTG

Intensive technology requires the intensive use of energy. In descent, the energy inputs to space travel become too costly relative to other more basic needs in other parts of the system. In the United States, what’s NASA’s budget like these days–how much longer can our bankrupt country afford space exploration? There’s no such thing as a free lunch, and embodied energy is more than just the weight of metal. It is a common blind spot. If we don’t see the true energy basis of things, we can believe that tech is free–our minds play leapfrog over steps in the energy hierarchy and don’t see the energy memory or emergy basis. Until recently, many people viewed space travel as the future of civilization. Because of this energy-blind hope for future space travel, Odum took the time to calculate the emergy basis of space travel, and to compare it to a simulated closed system, Biosphere 2, to suggest what is necessary for colonization of space.

Human Emergy Support (Odum, 2007, p. 211)
Human Emergy Support (Adapted from Odum, 2007, p. 211)

In the table above, standards of living are estimated from the annual emergy use per person. The Empower density in the second column is the total annual empower in flow of solar emcalories per year divided by the land area. The empower share in the third column is the annual empower in solar emcalories per year divided by the human population. This measure serves as an index of real wealth. Rural people who have low density but who are supported by diverse ecosystems may have empower share that is as high as those people in enriched economic centers. People living in crowded areas without resources have little real wealth. Because of high-quality fossil fuel support, people in the United States experience much higher empower flows. The Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona was a closed system similar to a space capsule, except the support systems were close by on earth.

“The emergy of support required per person in a space capsule is many times higher than that on Earth and much more than can be obtained from solar energy captured by a space ship. Emergy required for support in the NASA Skylab was 94,000 times larger than required for a US citizen on Earth . . . The emergy required to operate the rainforest life support area in Biosphere 2 was 2,300 times larger than that used by the natural rainforest from which many trees were seeded. . . Without energy reserves societies are limited by the dilute nature of solar energy, which has to be concentrated many times to support high-transformity humans . . . The emergy required for astronauts in space is too large for self-sufficient space colonization” (Odum, 2007, p. 215).

Anxiety of the technophiles?

The recent comments by David Brin (author of The Postman and other science fiction) and Neil De Grasse Tyson about scientific errors in the movie are focused on close scrutiny of small details in a work of fiction, suggesting a narrowed perceptual field, perhaps, from the technophile scientists who have a vested interest in high-tech space travel. The focus on details suggests a blind spot about the big picture for space travel. According to Brin:

“Now… if only we take the hint.  Stop the petty squabbling over picayune inanities that enemies of civilization want us to fight over. Resume being a forward-looking people who take seriously our duty to future generations.  And who see the universe as beckoning us. Forward” (Contrary Brin, October 9, 2013).

I guess that must make me an enemy of civilization, then. I must also be excluded from the list of Very Serious People, because I consider that our duty to future generations is to leave an ecologically sound planet that future generations can exist on. All of this high-tech optimism regarding space travel flies in the face of the true emergy basis of a person in space. Other barriers to a beckoning universe besides an astronomical emergy basis include an admission this month from NASA that the danger of excessive radiation exposure during prolonged, manned space travel, even to nearby Mars, remains “the elephant in the room.”

Movie as metaphor

The movie Gravity can be viewed in many ways as a metaphor for the unsustainability of modern society. The movie spoilers begin below, so if you haven’t seen the movie, you might want to stop reading here.

  • The many views of earth as a small blue marble in the background heighten our understanding of the fragile nature of the biosphere–this phenomenon has been described by many astronauts (see the movie at the end of this post). Perhaps the most important reason for space travel is the ability to see the earth from the larger scale, holistically
  • Along the way, the astronauts experience mortal limits to the most essential basic need that is fundamental to life–oxygen
  • There are themes of death and rebirth for Bullock’s emotionally and physically disconnected character
  • The increasing impacts of pollution are a big part of the plot—space junk sets up and continues the plot mechanisms in the movie several times, as the gift that keeps on giving
  • The astronauts are helpless and vulnerable in space—the only way to get down alive is to leapfrog a chain of failing, exploding refuges, from a failing space shuttle, to one space station, to another failing space station, ending in decaying orbital trajectories of various space stations, astronauts, and abandoned space junk burning up on reentry in a fireball of atmospheric drag. What better metaphor for our unsustainable high-tech society than this scenario? As nonrenewable energy production wanes, much of our high-tech society will either decay slowly over time, or increasingly burn in quicker conflagrations of war and other forms of destruction. Our two choices in our high-tech society are to continue to attempt to use technology to ramp up empower (the maximization of power flow) or to contract gracefully within the limits of energy descent. As the movie illustrates, the effects of the space-junk-by-products of high-tech society–its pollution–become a cascade of failing systems that endanger life
  • That even a single member of the space team survives (Bullock’s character) is fairly miraculous. The closing shots of the movie show her clutching terra firma in the glorious mud of some un-named beach. What is the eventual outcome for a society that is overly dependent on highly transformed technology in an increasingly dangerous environment?
  • The astronauts aloft are heavily dependent on digital communication with ground control for support, which is cutoff for almost the entire movie. Bullock’s character evokes helplessness and loneliness at the personal scale as a result, which is reflected at the larger global scale as our blue marble floats behind her within a vast backdrop of space. The movie mirrors the tenuous nature of our digital second life in modern society, and feeds into our anxieties about losing touch in a society that is already disconnected physically and spiritually from its environment and from each other
Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1560s
Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558

The movie Gravity serves as a metaphor for our unsustainable society. Space travel is a symbol of the most extreme desires of our high-tech society, and the movie echoes the classic parable of the Fall of Icarus. Icarus displayed hubris by overextending his technology–wings made of wax–by continuing to travel closer and closer to the sun. The waxed wings allowed him to go too far, positioning him too far from earth’s support, and unprotected from a strong, undiluted energy source. He kept flapping his wings until the wax was gone, and he was only flapping his bare arms. Our society is like Icarus. Each step we take in over-extending our technology at this point, which requires additional steps away from our environmental support system, adds to the empower needed to fuel our future, exposes us to additional dangers from pollution, and takes away from our ability to sustain. Adding layers of technology to an already unsustainable system is an analogy to an environmental vampire, sucking the blood from our biosphere.

The movie suggests a possible direction for our high-tech society as its orbital trajectory fails during energy descent, complicated by too much pollution. In the future, we may no longer be able to view space as the last frontier, attainable through intergalactic space travel. I would like to know if any of this was going through Alfonso Cuarón’s head as he directed this movie. Does the chatter about this movie show unseen blind spots and denial of a looming cultural shift in our WEIRD world view? There seem to be a lot of elephants in the room these days.

Header Art by Ben Whitesell, and the 19-minute video below from Planetary Collective is well worth your time

  • Brian

    I think complexity is my new least favorite word, right up there with renewable and sustainability. The way people use it so strips the meaning out of it and it is a red herring. To use these words at this point is to allow a fallacious frame work to dictate your argument, which no matter how good you make the arguement you will then lose. Odum (EPS, pg 369):
    “The more diversity there is in the biochemistry, the more special the abilities there are to generate products and mineralize wastes. As long as there are complex ecosystems, humans are protected. Diverse ecosystems are each human’s diversified life support. Ecosystems take the toxins first, and often plant and animal populations are killed. As long as complexity remains, there is some protection for people.” Space based travel is not very complex, it is an independent system relying on a set of not very complex or organized set of information that is out of line with long term energy flows, which do not protect humans very well. In fact else where Odum suggests that when humans can actually point out complexity they are really just staring at the few pieces of a not very complex system. Or at least this is what I have understood him to mean. I would love to be wrong. Thoughts?

    • Hi, Brian, I’m glad you asked this question, since I started to talk about Biosphere 2 in this post, but then decided to keep the science to a minimum, since this is a movie review :-} You’ve given me an opportunity here to loop back around to Biosphere 2. The first link is from a 1996 paper by Odum on “Scales of Ecological Engineering,” which describes the Biosphere 2 project in great detail, describing diversity within the dome using his favorite, simple measure, and especially the problem of oxygen depletion in the first year, and what he learned about the interactions of soils/limestone/carbonates, plant density, and the O2/CO2 balance, and how it applies to paleobiogeochemistry of earth. The paper really addresses your question, so it is worth accessing. It is also germane to people interested in climate change.

      From the intro to the paper:

      “Ecological engineering operates in those scales of size and time where most people do not believe there are many scientific principles. Because humans are in this scale, they see so much detail that they can not see the organization and often seek non-scientific theories for what happens. Others, including me, believe that all scales of size and time operate according to the same common designs with common principles.

      By this view, the noisy detail we see around us is the trial and error process of finding what works best, and what works best can be found from scientific principles. Trial and error efforts to find the maximum performance are aided by variation and choices provided by the dynamic oscillations of the smaller scales. Horgan (1995) quotes many scientists who believe some scales have more complexity than others. My view is that all scales have the same complexity, but that humans perceive less as they look towards smaller or larger scales than their own realm. Does the ratio of variance to the mean tend to be constant? Progress in science has been faster at the scales where overview models were encouraged because the complexity was less visible. Mathematical models of ecosystems started with plankton ecosystems where it was easier to see less and think simple as compared to forests where the complexity was visible and intimidating” (Odum, 1996, p. 1).

      The second link is an aside, today, with some interesting background on another sci-fi author, Phillip K. Dick, whose adoption of a non-WEIRD perspective in his novels may have been in part due to his broad exposure to literature from other cultures.

      • Brian

        “Horgan (1995) quotes many scientists who believe some scales have more complexity than others. My view is that all scales have the same complexity, but that humans perceive less as they look towards smaller or larger scales than their own realm.” I was going to add this quote when I said “Odum suggests”, but this is my point in its entirety. Complexity is a red herring. So why do we keep bringing it up? Why is it so powerful to believe we/our technology is so complex? When we go to the doctor, we don’t want to hear her tell us our immune system is too complex, we should only fear it if she told us it was too simple. Doctor Odum to patient, “Your society and technology is too simple. You need ecology.”

        • Brian

          Put another way, where are our Von Neumann probes? Where is our technology sufficiently complex at enough/multiple scales to be running around the planet or universe self replicating? Talk about space travel or laying ocean cables seems meaningless without understanding how complexity is being affected at all the different levels. In space there is little chemistry, little biology, and little geology and the industry necessary to support it consistently ruins complexity at those levels on earth. To say complexity, as it currently is being used, reinforces the human scale view. The exact thing Odum seems to be trying to get us to look beyond.


            Von Neumann probes–which Brin also wrote about in his latest book Existence–the idea that we create self-replicating spaceships that take on a life of their own to travel outside our solar system, and replicate using resources from other planets, thus extending our reach, with space robots.

            If I understand what you’re saying, yes, we would need a beachhead in space, space colonization, which is unsupportable given the huge level of support required just to put a man in space. Plus a lot more energy and advanced technology many steps over and above what we have now. That space colony in Elysium, for example, which was another glaring hole in the movie, given the degradation on earth, and lack of energetic support. (They filmed the earth-bound scenes in Elysium in the world’s second largest garbage dump in the world, which is in Mexico City.) This is another illustration of the energy hierarchy. Unless you have a magic cache of fossil fuels to pair with lower quality energies, along with a functional environmental base (sound ecosystems), the level of advanced technology needed is unsupportable–too many trophic levels beyond what we have now. We would need many planets to contribute to the support of that kind of technology.

            And now I’m doing the same nit-picking as the other authors/script writers I was projecting onto, but at least the nit-picking is from a big picture perspective, illustrating systems principles. And I’m not sure I’m getting your point, either.

          • Brian

            What I am trying to say is that I see self replication is complexity at multiple scales working together. Life is the convergence of complexity at chemical, biological, ecological and geological scales. We view our technology and see complexity at our scale but fail to see if it reinforces complexity at the other scales. A Von Neumann probe would have to also work at all the scales of life on earth and more (cosmological). This will be my last time bringing up this subject. I used to believe in complexity being our problem a la Tainter, but after reading Odum I no longer saw it as a problem. You still seem to think complexity is a problem, which makes me believe I misunderstood and I am trying to figure out where I am wrong. Sorry if I am ruining what is just a movie review. I did enjoy it.

  • I confess I haven’t seen the movie yet, but am having trouble suspending disbelief.

    My amateur understanding of orbital mechanics says that space debris is a non-problem in almost all cases.

    If something explodes or is struck by a kinetic object, parts of it will accelerate and parts will decelerate in the orbital plane. These parts will then ascend or descend to different orbits, and thus will not be a hazard.

    Bits of objects that leave the orbital plane in such a way as to have the same orbital velocity will intercept the original orbital plane twice each orbit. These could be an impact hazard, but an unlikely one; only debris emanating in a disk tangent to the original orbit will be a hazard, a very small percentage of the debris that is sent into other orbits.

    The only way to “catch up” to something in your orbit is to accelerate into a higher orbit and then decelerate back into the original orbit — or the opposite: decelerate into a lower orbit, then accelerate back into the original orbit. This would require a source of thrust, which debris assumedly lacks.

    So this notion of the killer space debris has me very bothered. Please tell me things didn’t go “boom” when they exploded in space! That always destroys suspension of disbelief for me, almost as much as sparks coming out of electronic gear. (What, do they lose the concept of fuses and circuit breakers in the future?)

    I’m afraid I’m not a very good sci-fi movie audience.

  • John Salmond

    A superb analysis, especially the section “movie as metaphor’ that exactly captures my reaction to the movie. As soon as I got home from viewing it I hunted the web for someone who shared my reaction, and it took a while to find that at least one did.

    I believe (hope?) this film could become an emotional rallying point for what I hope is the coming climate revolt as the people of the world take direct action to bring our ruling groups to their senses on this issue.

    May I mention a superb book “Requiem for a Species” by Clive Hamilton for a well-researched and thoughtful survey of the scientific, social, cultural, political and especially psychological issues that have brought the planet so close to catastrophe

    • Hi, John, thanks for the kind words. I am not a movie critic, but one of the goals of this blog is to bridge science and the humanities. CP Snow (1959) said that the schism between the two would be a serious hindrance to solving our societal problems. So thanks for that appreciation. When I saw the movie I did not immediately recognize all of the metaphors. It was not until several days later that I woke up at 4 am with many of the pieces loosely connected in my head–the writing flowed out in about 2 hours.

      I see a sea change in societal views–we appear to be returning to a societal focus on the earth similar to what was felt in the early 1970s. I will check out the book. If you liked this post, you might be interested in another one I wrote, here:

  • John Salmond

    Also, it is an old idea that art can often say much more than the artist consciously knows, and this is surely a case in point

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