“I’m the Protagonist”


“I’m the Protagonist”
© Kordiush


The title of my last column for the year carries a quote from the Christopher Nolan movie Tenet, like my first column in 2023 did from his other film Interstellar. Both explore the concept of a dying Earth in the future, but both do so in a very different way. 

Interstellar is all about abandoning Earth to find a new home for mankind on another planet. While in Tenet, people from the future are at war with those in the present to restore the Earth’s eco-balance.

The movie takes place in the modern day, with many generations in the future playing the antagonists. In a single, almost throwaway line we find out why: “Their oceans rose, and their rivers ran dry.” The actions and lifestyles of the present will go on to devastate the environment for future generations, and in an act of desperation, the future attempts to rewrite the past to prevent the destruction. 

Tenet raises a crucial question about intergenerational justice. It applies time travel to flip the normative narrative of the latter on its head by asking the question: What if future generations could fight back? 

The time war movie suggests that the first shots were not fired by the future but that it was the violence and outcomes of climate change in our present that forced future-us to act and to protect ourselves. Those familiar with environmental justice and its modern movements might see the future antagonists in Tenet as fighting for the right thing and the present protagonists as the true wrong-doers. 

But who is truly responsible for the environmental destruction from which future generations will most likely suffer? If time travel were possible, should people in the future have the right to go back in time to fight to preserve humans from extinction? If so, who and what should they sacrifice to do so? 

It need not be for us to ponder such ethical questions. The best way to answer these questions can likely be found in turning to the modern environmental justice movement and the ethics that activists employ in the fight for a healthy environment for those in the modern era, as environmental destruction has consequences now as well as in the future.

Tenet’s choice to interplay climate change as the reason for the future’s desire to destroy the past makes the question of its morality far more complex. It’s a reaction to a ruined world rather than an offensive aggression. Future generations fighting back might even appeal to those who view environmental destruction as the defining moral issue of the current age. If viewed in this manner, the “war” occurring in Tenet is less between the past and the future and more between environmental destructors and their victims.

To me, Tenet is science-fiction fact, so to speak. Knowing a potential future allows us to still change things in the present, so that some things might never happen. Every individual, company, organization or nation can tell itself: “I’m the protagonist” of sustainability at present, and I want to change things. This may be a good tenet in the current year coming to an end and for the beginning of 2024.

STAY SuSTAYnable!  

Apu Gosalia is a sustainability expert. He can be reached at

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