He’s told us not to blow it


By Mary Odum

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.

Gauld-just-jealousCultural 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.

Tom Gauld cartoon
Tom Gauld cartoon

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 Martian

burytroublesdirtThe 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.

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

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).

doomerhumorneednatureThis 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

  • I highly recommend

    Darn… I was hoping to miss it, but on your recommendation, I’ll reconsider…

  • tom

    Great title! I very much think the movie is a ‘systems’ movie. It has everything for systems people . It is Biosphere II on Mars. It teaches us about limits, about the
    real requirements of life, and (should) suggest the great work that
    nature does to sustain us on Earth. Look at all Watney must do, and the
    various energy sources that he has to tap to stay alive. Look how it
    makes us think about air, humidity, sunlight, microorganisms,
    temperature, what else, bunches of stuff! I liked your point near the
    end about the fragility of advanced technology and the hierarchy that
    supports it. Very nice.

  • Brian

    @Mary and Tom , funny how once your eyes are opened to systems thinking and Odum’s macroscope, you can’t stop seeing it everywhere. Mary’s posts on the latest pop culture space movie always makes me smile, because I find solace that I am not the only one trapped into this mode of thinking. For me it is pop songs, since I can’t find time to get to the movies.

    • Once you see it, you can’t go back. Pop songs are powerful. Starman has the same Leap and Circle and Yearn notes that Somewhere Over the Rainbow uses (the octave jump in the first two notes). Both songs are talking about leaving and returning to a home with a disturbed environment (Oz and Kansas), and so on. Powerful feelings elicited by those two notes. Watch the 5 minute clip at the link that explains it. Even Gaynor’s I Will Survive mentions spacemen. Music is powerful stuff.


      Watch it, Jan, I hope I didn’t ruin it for you. I read the book first, and it only helped in some of the technical pieces of the movie, rather than spoil it.

      Yes, all the ecological services that are provided by the biosphere, that limit what Watney can do in a survival situation, make it so exciting, and prevent him from making a long term go of it on Mars. It’s not sustainable without Mother’s work, which we believe is unnecessary in our digital world.

      • Stefeun

        Thank you Mary,
        love Ziggy Stardust ; btw, no mention of any spiders, on Mars..?

        just a little remark about your comment above: I don’t like very much the expression “ecological services” (that are provided by the biosphere).
        It can too easily be viewed as anthropocentric, and suggests an intentionality that doesn’t exist in real world. Our dear greedy friends could be tempted to value these services, in the purpose to make money out of that. They actually have been trying for some time:

        “Earth Index is published in the financial sections of newspapers around the world to put nature on the stock exchange, with price for bees, fish and more”

        See also:

        I know this is certainly not what you meant, but unfortunately I haven’t any ready phrase for replacement.

        • Stefeun, you are right, thanks, and I keep using dated terms that have power over us. I’ve been meaning to come up with something else, besides just calling her Mother Nature. Services is descriptive, but laden with symbolism. Words are powerful, yes. Perhaps we can come up with something better?

          HT Odum had to keep changing his terms for net energy and emergy as society changed and people either compromised the labels by using the term but watering it down with redefinition, and/or when he refined the science. Fossil fuel work equivalents, coal equivalents, solar equivalents, embodied (and net) energy, transformation ratios, and finally emergy. The term embodied emergy was my favorite, but it got absconded with by some Russian scientists who put a whole different meaning on it, so HT had to move on with the label. I still use the words embodied energy sometimes, because it is so descriptive of what we are talking about. I wish he had stuck with that term.

          • Stefeun

            Maybe something like “withdrawal”..?

            The basic idea is that the economy is a (small) part of the Nature, not the other way round. They’re giving money a power that it just can’t have, since Nature cannot be included in any artificial (manmade) construction.

            Moreover, it’s not Nature providing us with services, rather it’s us taking for our survival/benefit, from some points in the natural cycles, wether organized structures (raw food: vegs, meat) or waste (oxygen). Just like any other species (albeit not at same degree).

            We’re not enjoying gifts that would have been put there for us, instead we’re mining our environment, in a way that can be harmful if too intensive. And that’s actually what we’re doing: destroy our real capital, actively and increasingly.

          • Stefeun

            A good article about that, by Christopher Ketcham:

            Just a short quote, that summarizes it all: “Consider that the president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy today, Mark Tercek, is a former managing director and partner at Goldman Sachs.”

            I found out it’s a deeper and older trend than I thought; see http://www.millenniumassessment.org/en/index.html
            “The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment assessed the consequences of ecosystem change for human well-being. From 2001 to 2005, the MA involved the work of more than 1,360 experts worldwide. Their findings provide a state-of-the-art scientific appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide, as well as the scientific basis for action to conserve and use them sustainably.”

  • David MacLeod

    Thanks, this movie is now on my radar to watch soon. Your description reminds me of the Marian Zimmer Bradley sci fi books in her Darkover series, where a spaceship from earth is forced to land on an unknown planet with limited resources. Half the crew is valiantly trying to harness their scientific know-how and trust in technology to repair and escape, while others explore and attempt to adapt to the reality of conditions they find themselves in, and to maintain resilience and sustainability.

    Here’s another pop song:
    What goes up
    Must come down
    Spinnin’ wheel
    Got to go ’round.

  • Early thinking (1963) on the subject suggests how Odum’s thinking on energy basis evolved. And the arguments remain sound for all of our high tech wishes and hopes for the future on earth.

    “Some fallacies in previous estimates of the solar energy required to support a man in space are described: A. the incorrect use of theoretical reversible high efficiencies for computing potentials in defiance of the great body of empirical data on the moderately low efficiency of successful self maintaining ecosystems; B. the omission of the energetic costs of the accompanying species necessary for stable chemical cycles and system maintenance; C. the neglect of the high trophic position of man and the necessity of heat losses during food chain transfers to him.”