I think we already know, but now Netflix has turned it into a metaphor in this new movie, Don’t Look Up.
(I think the gag about the government putting a bag over your head is part of the metaphor.)
I watched it last night, and I liked it in a grim, cynical, we-are-so-fucked sort of way. The story in the movie is about our response to learning that a planet-killing comet is going to smash into the Earth in six months, which is a nice, sharp, discretely bounded example of a catastrophe, so it does differ from our current situation where the oncoming catastrophe is messy and slow. It makes no difference, though, since we’d probably react to either kind of disaster with ineffectual denial. (Probably? In the case of our current situation, definitely.)
McKay’s film succeeds not because it’s funny and entertaining; it’s serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy. It’s a cautionary tale about the climate crisis stitched together by McKay’s signature biting humor. That’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
As we look toward the next decade — a critical decade from the standpoint of averting truly catastrophic climate change — we need more unconventional endeavors like “Don’t Look Up” to communicate the perils of climate inaction. Scientific research, on its own, will travel only so far (until scientists distill a 900-page report into a 90-second TikTok). Science isn’t finished until it’s successfully communicated.
As Beth Osnes, associate professor of theater and environmental studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, said, “Climate change isn’t a laughing matter, but sometimes you have to laugh at your pain to get to a solution.” So let’s stop to have a laugh or two. And then get on with the work at hand.
I think he’s right, but we also have to appreciate how hard it’s going to be. The movie made that obvious: even when our doom was obvious, when there was a comet hanging in the sky, there were still people scheming to use it for political gain or corporate greed. The signs and portents of our troubles are all around us, yet we still have conservative think-tanks denying the need to take action because it might interfere with corporate profits, and we have a political party that’s raison d’etre seems to be about disenfranchising the citizenry because they might vote against greed and exploitation. What is the work at hand? It’s not just doing good science, it also seems to require crushing a corrupt political party, replacing a negligent one, and dismantling all of capitalism. It’s all a bit overwhelming.