Going Green with Devin Greene: The Science of the Apocalypse

Mar 28, 2015 by


Interstellar posed a lot of interesting questions, and it turns out some scientists take these questions as seriously as potheads do. What are some of the real threats to life on Earth? Where do we go when life here becomes unsustainable? What happens if our Earth gets stale, and we have to bail?

The webisode above lays out some of those possibilities. Unfortunately, most of our “contingency plans” are either too futuristic, too expensive, or too insane. Recreating the atmosphere on Mars so humans can breathe on it? That could take thousands of years. Looking for habitable planets around other stars? Even longer. But protecting ourselves from ecological disasters and developing strategies for adapting to hostile environmental conditions here on Earth, that’s something we can start doing right now. So here’s a breakdown of three threats — all featured in the movie — that scientists and policymakers are actively addressing to prevent Armageddon.

Threat No. 1: Drought

Any readers from California? You’re probably tired of hearing about drought, because 2013 and 2014 were two of the driest years in California’s recorded history, continuing the worst drought there in 1,200 years. According to one NASA scientist, “The state has about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs. And it’s not just the Golden State. According to the National Drought Monitor, nearly 60 percent of the United States is currently experiencing moderate to exceptional drought conditions. For farmers, that means tighter restrictions on water and a more expensive final product. How do we continue to meet the food demand without completely depleting our water supply?

One solution is the resurgence of dry farming, a series of techniques dating back to Native American tribes in the Southwest, who survived for hundreds of years on land that often got less than 10 inches of rain a year. Dry farmers collect moisture every time there’s a storm, and use it during the dry season. They cover plants with mulch to preserve a protective layer of soil. They terrace the edges of their plots to prevent runoff. None of this is as high-tech as the space pioneering featured in Interstellar, but watch how quickly people will start adopting these preservationist strategies when they’re forced to — like the government putting serious caps on water usage.

Threat No. 2: Dust

Many years ago, in high school, students were forced to read a book called “The Grapes of Wrath,” which barely featured grapes or wrath and seemed to be all about a turtle crossing the road. Also the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. That was definitely in there, too. The Dust Bowl refers to a time when extreme droughts ravaged the country, creating huge dust storms and a public health crisis, while forcing countless farmers to leave their homes to seek more fertile land.

That might sound familiar. Add to that anthropogenic climate change, which creates drier, hotter conditions in many places, and you’ve got a disastrous cocktail. Fortunately, we have some tricks up our sleeve that ol’ Hoover and FDR didn’t have. Along with soil conservation techniques, irrigation systems and greater plant diversity, we also have drought-resistant plants. Genetic modification, the splicing of genes to improve crop yields, is already being used to make cereal crops like maize and wheat more efficient with water. I’m aware that by mentioning GMOs, I run the risk of being choked out by someone’s patchouli-soaked dreadlock, but all signs seem to point to more innovation and adoption of GMO plants as demand increases and growing conditions worsen. Many of these technologies are still in their infancy and many of the business practices associated have serious human consequences, but volatile conditions often require pinpoint solutions, and more and more scientists and farmers are jumping on the GMO express. More scientists means more innovation; more innovation means more food security. The end times are full of trade-offs.

Threat No. 3: Blights

Remember that “Grapes of Wrath” lesson back in high school? You might have learned about the Irish Potato Famine the very same year. It killed approximately 1 million people by decimating potato harvests, the staple food for poor Irish citizens at the time.

Why aren’t blights like that still happening? The answer to that can’t really be pinpointed to a single silver bullet. One of the reasons movies aren’t written about real-world blight response is because it’s “integrated,” meaning there isn’t a single solution, a simple story to tell. The greater diversity of crops helps. Globalization helps: If a fungus kills a whole country’s crop yield, neighboring countries can fill some of the demand. Cross-breeding and genetic engineering help by allowing us to better select for hardiness. Import controls also help. The USDA, for instance, has established comprehensive regulations and policies for the import of plant products that pose a high risk to U.S. agriculture. A lot of things can cause a blight: pests, fungi, bacteria, viruses, parasites — so preventing them requires a lot of different strategies.

So there you have it, we either keep Earth habitable with some serious efforts here and now, or we can leave our destiny in the hands of Matthew McConaughey. The choice is yours. Alright, alright, alright.

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