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Are People in Denial?
My quick thoughts on societal decline.
“And so it seems to me that we exist in a state of extreme psychological denial—people recognize on some level what’s ahead, but they pursue their life goals and adhere to a form of magical thinking in which they think that somehow their wealth and success will magically shield them from what’s ahead.”
“So eventually, people will witness the consequences of this carbonization event and will say to themselves: ‘Why did I think that these consequences wouldn’t apply to me and to my family? Why did I think that there was a magical shield that would protect me and protect my family? How did I expect all of this to work out?’”
“So I think that it’s better to ask people: ‘Based on your own self-interest as you yourself define your self-interest, how do you expect this to work out? How do you expect the world to look in 2060 or 2070 or 2080? And how do you expect to shield yourself and your family from the world?’”
The movie Don’t Look Up is satire. But speaking as a climate scientist doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.…
The Earth system is breaking down now with breathtaking speed. And climate scientists have faced an even more insurmountable public communication task than the astronomers in Don’t Look Up, since climate destruction unfolds over decades—lightning fast as far as the planet is concerned, but glacially slow as far as the news cycle is concerned—and isn’t as immediate and visible as a comet in the sky.
Given all this, dismissing Don’t Look Up as too obvious might say more about the critic than the film. It’s funny and terrifying because it conveys a certain cold truth that climate scientists and others who understand the full depth of the climate emergency are living every day. I hope that this movie, which comically depicts how hard it is to break through prevailing norms, actually helps break through those norms in real life.
I also hope Hollywood is learning how to tell climate stories that matter. Instead of stories that create comforting distance from the grave danger we are in via unrealistic techno fixes for unrealistic disaster scenarios, humanity needs stories that highlight the many absurdities that arise from collectively knowing what’s coming while collectively failing to act.
We also need stories that show humanity responding rationally to the crisis. A lack of technology isn’t what’s blocking action. Instead, humanity needs to confront the fossil fuel industry head on, accept that we need to consume less energy, and switch into full-on emergency mode. The sense of solidarity and relief we’d feel once this happens—if it happens—would be gamechanging for our species. More and better facts will not catalyze this sociocultural tipping point, but more and better stories might.
It’s certainly true that the film got a lot of negative reviews—here are some negative comments from Rotten Tomatoes:
“This isn’t just a noble failure, it’s a flat out bad film, an attempt to address a very real planetary crisis in the simplest and most misguided terms.”
“Nobody likes to be hit over the head with anything. The first hour was promising, but it quickly became repetitive & verbose. Don’t Look Up is not nearly as shrewd nor smart as it obviously thinks it is.”
“[The premise is] squandered in a slapdash, scattershot sendup that turns almost everyone into nincompoops, trivializes everything it touches, oozes with self-delight, and becomes part of the babble and yammer it portrays.”
“Don’t Look Up is a blunt instrument in lieu of a sharp razor, and while McKay may believe that we’re long past subtlety, it doesn’t mean that one man’s wake-up-sheeple howl into the abyss is funny, or insightful, or even watchable.”
the film “is more subtle than it looks at first” and “negative reviewers have missed some of the most critical parts of the point it is trying to make”
critics “get the message of the film backwards”
the film has “great faith in humanity, and cynicism only about the institutions we have built and the particular people who hold power”
the reviewers “who think the film’s messages are Obvious seem to have missed that the ‘tech solution’ to the comet is a clear commentary on geoengineering”
the film “shows us an America that was perfectly prepared to come together to stop the comet, and where people are angry when they find out that their lives are being put at risk in order to protect the future profits of cell phone manufacturers”
the film isn’t “telling Americans they will die because of how much they suck”
the film “says that we could solve our problems”
the film “does depict a successful plan for stopping the comet that nearly works”
the film “is an exhortation and a warning, not a work of misanthropy or nihilism”
the film shows “how the super-rich see their first priority as escaping the fate they have inflicted on the rest of us” and “reviewers have not really noticed” this point
the film makes a “number of interesting and important observations” that are “easy to overlook but useful to understand for dealing with the crises of our own time”
a major point in the film is that “when things are matters of life and death, we need to treat them as such”
society should “have a discussion about how we can avoid the very real tendencies that the film illuminates”
In fact, “Don’t Look Up” includes a direct critique of itself. At one point, Lawrence says, “Maybe the destruction of the entire planet isn’t supposed to be fun. Maybe it’s supposed to be terrifying.” In a long monologue toward the end, DiCaprio tries to explain, “Not everything needs to sound so goddamn clever or charming or likable all the time. Sometimes we just need to be able to say things to one another. We need to be able to hear things.”
I didn’t find Don’t Look Up at all cinematically impressive or at all worthy of cinematic comparison to Kubrick’s 1964 masterpiece Dr. Strangelove.
But I think that Robinson hit the nail on the head in his article when he wrote that we should put aside cinematic criticisms and approach this film as an intensely serious political document that seeks to save humanity from destruction. So that’s how we should measure this film’s success—can this film exert enough pressure on the media and on elites and on citizens to make some sort of difference?
We should all of course hope that this film will spur discussion and exert pressure and make a difference.
In a sense, global heating snuck up on us in a stealthy manner. It’s true that scientists warned about the problem for decades:
But as late as 2010 the conversation was—at least for me personally—very abstract, whereas today the conversation is the furthest thing from abstract:
“We’ve Failed Our Planet. This Is an SOS.” (13 December 2021)
“Postcards From a World on Fire” (13 December 2021)
“What’s the EFFECTIVE Way to Discuss Climate?” (3 July 2021)
We can see the cliff, and we will fly off the cliff soon, and we know what will happen once we take flight off the cliff’s edge:
The basic facts are brutally clear, more so with each passing year. They are laid out clearly enough in the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, released on August 9. In brief, any hope of avoiding disaster requires taking significant steps right away to reduce fossil fuel use, continuing annually with the goal of effectively phasing out fossil fuel use by mid-century. We are approaching a precipice. A few steps more, and we fall over it, forever.
Falling off the precipice does not imply that everyone will die soon; there’s a long way down. Rather, it means that irreversible tipping points will be reached, and barring some now-unforeseen technological miracle, the human species will be entering a new era: one of inexorable decline, with mounting horrors of the kind we can easily depict, extrapolating realistically from what already surrounds us—an optimistic estimate, since non-linear processes may begin to take off and dangers lurk that are only dimly perceived.
It will be an era of “sauve qui peut”—run for your lives, everyone for themselves, material catastrophe heightened by social collapse and wholesale psychic trauma of a kind never before experienced. And on the side, an assault on nature of indescribable proportions.
All of this is understood at a very high level of confidence. Even a relic of rationality tells us that it is ridiculous to take a chance on its being mistaken, considering the stakes.
But as I discuss in my piece with Paul Jay, the situation prompts the question as to how billionaires think that this will all turn out for them:
“ICEBERG AHEAD” (9 November 2021)
And Jay and I discussed billionaires—what about normal citizens?
It’s a strange psychological situation—millions of people want to pursue their careers and build wealth and raise fantastic families, but millions of people must also recognize at some level that their wealth won’t be able to protect them or protect their families from:
the “material catastrophe” ahead
the “social collapse” ahead
the “wholesale psychic trauma” ahead
the stampede and panic and disorder ahead
And so it seems to me that we exist in a state of extreme psychological denial—people recognize on some level what’s ahead, but they pursue their life goals and adhere to a form of magical thinking in which they think that somehow their wealth and success will magically shield them from what’s ahead.
But there isn’t any magical shield that will protect people from what’s ahead—this is magical thinking that has no basis in reality.
So eventually, people will witness the consequences of this carbonization event and will say to themselves: “Why did I think that these consequences wouldn’t apply to me and to my family? Why did I think that there was a magical shield that would protect me and protect my family? How did I expect all of this to work out?”
My impression is that people don’t respond well to moral arguments and don’t find moral arguments interesting—I’d be happy to be proven wrong about that, but that’s my impression.
So I think that it’s better to ask people: “Based on your own self-interest as you yourself define your self-interest, how do you expect this to work out? How do you expect the world to look in 2060 or 2070 or 2080? And how do you expect to shield yourself and your family from the world?”