I'm new to science-fiction and I'm intrigued by the consequences of "Plan B" in the popular movie Interstellar. "Plan B" means transporting a supposedly sustainable population to a habitable planet outside of our solar system because the Earth can no longer sustain life and no other options are viable.

This and this address the question of how the "Plan B" colonization would take place and how colonization can work at all. My question is about why we would colonize if it meant a substantial technological setback.

The background to my question is this: Regardless the nature of Edmund's Planet, but assuming it is habitable, what would life have been like? I'm specifically curious about the relationship between humans and the technology that got them to the planet. Would they be able to make (sustained) use of it and reproduce it locally given they have access to the materials needed within their surroundings? The transfer of knowledge seems achievable using computers brought from earth, but would they have the capacity?

Imagine, therefore, being stuck on a planet lacking the chemical composition necessary for modern technology to persist while colonists possess the full (now useless) scientific knowledge to produce that technology. It would be ironic because Interstellar's main protagonist is just that: a very well educated man forced to be a farmer. And he's not happy.

My question is therefore: Assuming the colonized planet's resources would not support continued use of modern technology, why would we establish a human colony on another planet without the continued benefit of modern technology? Why would we opt for people to be (e.g.) subsistence farmers without the means to evolve the technology (and thus the society) they once depended on?

The reason I ask is because this situation is intriguing from a narrative point of view.

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    $\begingroup$ Depends on how many colonists there are. With a million colonists it's conceivable that they will maintain modern technology. With one hundred thousand it's conceivable that they maintain 1930s technology. With ten thousand they may try to maintain 1890s technology. I have no idea what to make of a habitable "planet that due to its chemical composition does not allow for technology to evolve". $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Sep 2, 2017 at 21:13
  • $\begingroup$ I understand. But what if they don't have the natural resources to ever achieve technology that enables space travel? Maybe I'm mistaken but in my mind a planet that is habitable need not have the chemical composition to allow for the making of space ships even if the theoretical knowledge is there. $\endgroup$
    – H3R3T1K
    Sep 2, 2017 at 21:18
  • $\begingroup$ @AlexP What? One hundred thousand to maintain 1930s technology? Why would it take one hundred thousand to make 1930s tech? They had barely invented cars then. $\endgroup$
    – Braydon
    Sep 2, 2017 at 21:18
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    $\begingroup$ What's the reason the colonists would be unable to sustain modern tech: the lack of critical resources (say, rare metals) or the fact that they're too few? The question as it is doesn't make that clear. $\endgroup$
    – pablodf76
    Sep 2, 2017 at 21:40
  • $\begingroup$ The lack of resources. How is it not clear? I don't mention their number anywhere do I? How can I make it more clear? $\endgroup$
    – H3R3T1K
    Sep 2, 2017 at 21:56

7 Answers 7


Insterstellar's primary crisis is the most obvious answer to your question: to save the human race. If the options were (a) for Humanity to be erased from the cosmic narrative and (b) to colonize a planet where we would be forced back to the 1500's technologically, why wouldn't we take option B? I suspect that given Humanity knew generally about its upcoming demise, you'd have people of all walks and education lined up for hundreds of miles to get a seat on that particular bus.

It's funny how all living organisms are alike, when the chips are down... when the pressure is on... every creature on the face of the earth is interested in one thing and one thing only... its own survival. (Minority Report)

However, I can imagine other reasons.

A Peaceful Life

In your question you point out that well-educated Coop is forced to be a farmer and doesn't like it. I think you'd be surprised how many people like coop would jump at the chance to colonize a world even if it meant losing all of our modern technology. Some would do it for the challenge (see below). But many would do it for the quite life it provides.

Food for the Homeland

What if you weren't an engineer or scientist? What if the Earth's population needed food and stellar transportation became cheap enough to move the proverbial boatloads of wheat? Can you imagine the number of farmers (and non-farmers) who would jump at the chance to homestead a new world, even if it meant both indentured servitude to Mother Earth and the loss of all technology (other than what might be imported due to the transportation)?

Because It's There

Finally, humanity is generally colonial. We've migrated and expanded all our lives. We pretty much can't stand not knowing a secret or not conquering a challenge. If there was a habitable planet out there, no matter the consequence to technology, there would be someone willing to colonize it. Some might do it just to thumb their nose at the rest of humanity, but others would do it just because....

"I'm doing this because I enjoy it. Not to mention the most important reason for climbing a mountain," said Kirk. "And that is?" asked Spock. "Because it's there." (Star Trek V: The Final Frontier)

  • $\begingroup$ Thank you very much for editing my question and providing an answer. English is not my first language and my way of asking might be quirky for lack of experience with such topics. $\endgroup$
    – H3R3T1K
    Sep 3, 2017 at 5:52
  • $\begingroup$ A side note: the phrase cited from Minority is nice and is "right for the plot" scientifically absolutely false. When "pressure is on" (almost) every creature on the face of the earth is interested in one thing and one thing only... reproduce; its own survival comes second and only if it doesn't hamper reproduction, as many examples demonstrate, from salmons to mantis, leaving out almost nothing. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Sep 3, 2017 at 11:33
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    $\begingroup$ @ZioByte: Absolutely not true. Present almost any mammal or bird with a threat to life, and their reaction will be to either fight or flee, not look around for the nearest member of the opposite sex. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Sep 4, 2017 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ @jamesqf: fight or flee reaction (survival instinct) is, as you say, ingrained in (almost) all living beings, but it is triggered only if sex is not involved (or anyway impossible). Many animals (especially males) will seriously risk sudden death to reproduce (and some, like male mantis, face certain death in order to reproduce). Females have a different "programming": they usually risk much less for the fecundation act, but are not tare cases where they are willing to die to protect their children. Survival at the expense of progeny is not a trait Evolution will favor. $\endgroup$
    – ZioByte
    Sep 4, 2017 at 5:51
  • $\begingroup$ ZioByte's point is very well taken. Nearly all plants instantly go to seed when the environment no longer is ideal for growth. After all, they have no other options (neither fight nor flight). I suspect the more a creature can "think" the more it will choose between fight-flight-reproduce. Insects are on the low end of the scale, so I'm not surprised about the Mantis. However, humans? While some frat guys might use the moment to grab some quick panic sex, in reality, we'll almost never opt for reproduce. $\endgroup$ Sep 4, 2017 at 14:05

Neal Stephenson's book "Seveneves" might have some interesting thoughts on this - basically it's about the consequences of an Earth-threatening event, where humanity has to move into space to survive.

[Spoilers below]:

Given that there's a finite time before the Earth suffers cataclysmic meteor strikes, only a limited number of people can make it into space. Some are General Population from across the globe (teenagers trained quickly in a year to be able to pilot a spacecraft, but basically there just for breeding potential and genetic diversity); some are tech specialists (mining industry/genetic research/nuclear physicists/etc.); and a small minority were just already up in space at the time they learned of the impending crisis.

Things like lens grinders were shipped up (to make glasses), but enough people die that there's no-one left to operate the technology, and it's not urgent enough for anyone left to bother. [Zero gravity changes the shape of your eyes, thereby affecting your vision].

Their long-term aim is to return to Earth once it's inhabitable again, but short-term is just survival, and continuation of the human race. They end up living on a large meteor in geocentric orbit, which has some of the conditions they need (protection from radiation and solar flares, orbital stability, defense from small rocks rocketing through space). Water is needed (for drinking and for fuel in nuclear fission), so they hunt down meteorites made from ice. Trace elements (potassium, nitrates, etc.) useful for plant production and medicines are also found on the surface of the ice. Some meteors have metallic cores, so can theoretically be smelted and utilised in building structures and replacing technology.

In "Seveneves", humanity several thousand years later still hasn't got back to some technological levels that their predecessors had (e.g. mobile phones, tiny processors, and so on), but had advanced significantly in other areas that were more useful to them. So, things like spinning tori (to produce artificial gravity) became a lot more refined, as did mechanisms to transition between zero-g and environments with gravity, methods of getting between space and the Earth's surface, and genetic manipulation. Humanity ends up split into different races, each descended from an Eve (one of the 7 women who survived the cataclysm and subsequent space journey). They have different physical and psychological characteristics, determined by the Eves as they genetically modified their foetuses to adapt better to the new world, then augmented through several thousand years of breeding and genetic experimentation.

While the initial plan might be to reach another planet/return to the original planet eventually, perhaps conditions are more favourable in space, so humanity simply has to adapt to the environment there. If there was any freedom to plan destination, maybe enough research went into choosing the destination that they knew in advance that there would be appropriate resources there to enable technological innovation and improvement. Even if things went wrong though, humans are remarkably tenacious. It might take longer than expected, but they'd probably find a way to reach their eventual goal: space travel, but not as we know it.

  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to WB:SE! This answer has potential, but as it stands, it doesn't actually answer the OP's question. If the book you mention has insight, then I recommend you don't worry about spoilers and provide it. People are interested in the answer, but rarely have the time to read through a book to get it. Thanks! $\endgroup$ Sep 2, 2017 at 22:30
  • $\begingroup$ Hello K. Price, and welcome to Worldbuilding SE. You may want to review Are answers solely referencing novels/movies/etc. okay? on Worldbuilding Meta, which is where we discuss issues about the site itself (as opposed to the topic of worldbuilding). You can edit your answer to expand on it. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Sep 2, 2017 at 22:55
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you! Hopefully the edit has improved it - if not, let me know, and I'll take the answer down. $\endgroup$
    – K. Price
    Sep 2, 2017 at 23:14

All of these scenarios require a large pile of woolly thinking, or at least some startling coincidences to happen. If you can get to another planet, you have tech more advanced than ours, if you can get to another solar system then your tech is far more advanced. A colony on another world will almost certainly need advanced technology to survive, like space suits, unless the world is almost identical to earth. Ether this is made locally or it is shipped in. If high tech resources are shipped in from earth, then you are a small outpost of a thriving world, otherwise you have set up your own high tech society. It is possible that radio noise could force you to use fiber optics not wireless, or that a shortage of uranium makes fission unusable, but overall tech levels are unchanged.

If we are lucky enough to find an exceptionally habitable planet around a nearby star, we wouldn't have good reason to consider it habitable until we sent probes there. We can tell its the right temperature and as breathable air; but toxic spores, global oceans, or nothing edible are all likely options. Furthermore what technologies are required to send such an interstellar voyage. Sending such a craft at relativistic speed requires vast amounts of energy, warping space into wormholes requires even more. If you have that sort of energy then growing food with lots of bulbs, sending cargo around within a solar system or mining and refining large amounts of rock take trivial amounts in comparison. You also have advanced life support and recycling systems to support the crew for the voyage.

Faced with these technologies we would be capable of setting up a large industrial base on mars, and survive any event short of a major collision on earth. (Any event that doesn't boil the oceans and melt the crust should be survivable in a well equipped bunker or sub.) Therefor we only need to go interstellar for survival when faced with something that will trash the entire solar system, like a rouge black hole. Even in this scenario it may be wiser to pull over to an asteroid and start mining when you arrive in a new star system. The only circumstances in which this makes any sense is if a manned capsule is bolted on to an interstellar probe in a last desperate attempt to survive after the black hole is found days away, no significant planing, just YOU, MOVE, NOW. Then you need some critical component in the air system to fail just as they reach the planet (no spares or fixes), leaving them a choice of bail or suffocate.

In short we will not have to rebuild tech on an alien world unless a series of flukes forces us down the narrow line between fine and dead.

  • $\begingroup$ Corollary: if something as wildly improbable as a sudden rogue black hole on a direct collision course happens in the same geological instant humankind develops interplanetary or interstellar capabilities, it means that something with much, much more advanced capabilities than humankind made it happen. It also means that they will probably mop any survivor up with ease. So the only occasion where it makes sense for survival and has a chance to work is if a man-made cataclysm wrecks the Solar System - which implies even more advanced technology. $\endgroup$
    – Eth
    Sep 4, 2017 at 13:30

Another possible answer:

  1. One possibility used in some scenarios is that radiation, or other feature of the colonized planet, is incompatible with our technology.

  2. The possibility exists that the colonists want the simple life as mentioned elsewhere.

  3. I think you could imagine a scenario of, for example, a prison world where technology is held back and the people on the planet are kept in a state of, essentially, servitude.

  • $\begingroup$ Point 3 is most interesting! $\endgroup$
    – H3R3T1K
    Sep 3, 2017 at 5:53

Well if you have to go, like they do in Interstellar, then it doesn't matter what the price is, colonists who are trapped in a technological cul-de-sac are preferable to species extinction. Generally speaking any colony is going to take a hit on the tech front for a few generations regardless, you just don't have the total population to support higher technology, it's estimated that it takes about 300million people to maintain a single microchip factory. But unless the planet is critically short of many elements then eventually you will build a population that will grow and maintain technology sufficient to the situation, whether that looks like what we use today or not is a different story.

As a note "tech loss" may or may not occur in the first place depending how far you've gone down particular theoretical technological routes; if you have a cornucopia machine you only go backwards by choice unless the world you're on is almost devoid of key component elements like Carbon and Silicon, in which case you have bigger problems.


The reason to colonize - that is, why an individual would choose to go as a colonist - is that for most of us, living without a lot of technology is way preferrable to dying.

It's perfectly possible to live a happy life without much technology: there's evidence that people in isolated hunter-gatherer cultures are no less happy than urban technophiles, and perhaps happier. Even today, some of us choose to live without certain sorts of tech. (For instance, I've never owned a TV.)

Then there is the fact that much useful tech isn't all that technical, it's simply a matter of knowledge. For instance, sanitation & proper nutrition prevents many diseases, yet you don't need much tech for them. So if you have the knowedge in your colony's reference library, you can use whatever you need.

If your colony's small, you don't really need a major transportation infrastructure. Foot and horse work fine, and you have the knowledge to build more when it becomes desirable. And so on...

  • $\begingroup$ If you think a horse is easier to maintain than a mechanized vehicle, you don't know anything about horses. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2020 at 4:44
  • $\begingroup$ Horses are harder to maintain but the necessary resources are more available. $\endgroup$
    – arp
    Jan 15, 2020 at 4:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Keith Morrison: In spite of owning one? If you think mechanized vehicles are easy to maintain, you haven't considered what's involved. Want to do a simple maintenance task, for instance a oil change? Just go to the parts store, buy a jug of oil and a filter, and you're set, right? But you're forgetting the oil well, the refinery, the plastic jug makers, the steel, rubber, and paper that your oil filter's made of, the transport infrastructure that gets them to the store... OTOH, there's a self-maintaining population of wild horses in the hills hereabouts. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 15, 2020 at 20:30
  • $\begingroup$ And when your horse breaks a leg, just replace it, yeah? $\endgroup$ Jan 16, 2020 at 16:43
  • $\begingroup$ @Keith Morrison: Yes, sad as that may be. To replace a car (or even to repair it after a significant accident), you need mines, factories, machine tools, energy infrastructure, factories to build the tools... Indeed, nowadays insurance companies often prefer to scrap damaged cars rather than repair them. To replace a horse, you just need two horses of opposite sexes. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jan 17, 2020 at 2:43

Why would anyone ever leave the comforts of home? After all, Columbus was a Dope who should have never risked his crew's lives.

Don't look forward, look backwards. Why would people settle less-civilized areas like 40,000 BCE Iran, 10,000 BCE Alaska, 10,000 BCE Ireland, 1650 Virginia, 1850 Australia/Wisconsin, etc.?

  • Escape overcrowding -- better life for your grandkids
  • Get in on the ground floor for generational wealth
  • Escape restrictive social environments (not always voluntary)
  • Wanderlust
  • Religious freedom // the ability to negate religious freedom (An oversimplified reminder: Massachusetts was founded by people escaping religious persecution in England. The rest of the US New England states were founded by people escaping religious persecution in Massachusetts.)
  • Resource exploitation
  • $\begingroup$ None of those people intentionally decided to go technologically backward. They brought the most advanced tech they had and used it as extensively as possible. $\endgroup$ Jan 15, 2020 at 4:43

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