DON’T LOOK UP directed by Adam McKay – THE UNSEEN ACADEMIC
As some of you may know I am currently undertaking a creative writing PhD with the catchy title Navigating the mystery of future geographies in climate change fiction.
This involves reading and watching a lot of climate change fiction (cli-fi) and the Fantasy-Hive have kindly given me space for a (very) occasional series of articles where I can share my thoughts and observations.
This time, I’ve turned my attention to the excellent recent Netflix release, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up.
Nearly two decades ago the iconic The Day After Tomorrow (TDAT) first brought a cinematic lens to bear on the developing field of climate change fiction (cli-fi). In Don’t Look Up (DLU), Hollywood has taken another paradigm shifting lurch forward in the representation of the impending climate catastrophe and humanity’s stumbling response to it. As with TDAT, DLU telescopes the decades long challenge of the climate crisis into a timescale that satiates audiences’ craving for narrative immediacy. While TDAT compressed its flipping of the world’s climate past an irreversible tipping point into a three-day white-out in the Northern Hemisphere, DLU uses an impending extinction level event of a comet impact in six months as an allegory for climate change. Both films share some features, not least the political resistance to accepting the reality of the threat.
However, DLU has absorbed and portrays many of the additional issues that have faced those pressing for climate action in the 18 years since TDAT first got people talking. While critics have decried DLU for an alleged misfiring message that patronises and alienates its audience, those critics should perhaps remember, they are not the film’s target audience. Every protest movement attracts resistance from its contemporary establishment which feels protest is only acceptable if it comes in a form that offends no-one, changes nothing and so can be comfortably ignored. DLU’s greatest offence is perhaps that people are watching it and talking about it and about climate change from a new perspective.
There is much that the film does right and to great comic effect even if – given the contemporary experience of a fact-denying, evidence-free, political and epidemiological dystopia – DLU tends to draw more smiles of grim recognition than outright belly laughs. In parts, it is just too real to be funny. However, despite its many brilliances there are constraints of form and plot which mean some key issues still evade DLU’s withering satire. I’d like to consider what the film does well and also where it still falls short of the admittedly impossible task of depicting the totality and complexity of the unfolding climate crisis.
Through its scientific protagonists, Randall Mindy and Kate Dibiaski, the film accurately holds up the naïve inarticulacy of science in the media maelstrom and how this contributes to the scientific consensus being side-lined. The gawky awkwardness of the unsavvy pair extends even to their appearances with Dibiaski’s self-cut fringe and Mindy’s shaggy beard. Media platforms that crave pithy certainties from heroic individual celebrity scientists in simple two-sided presentations, struggle to deliver the reality of the dull rigour of scientific method and peer-reviewed findings. Danger also becomes hard to sell because our present lifestyle feels so comfortable and permanent that we can’t readily comprehend its vulnerability to climate change. The media, at the very heart of the “we’re OK” delusion, as depicted in DLU by default works on a “but it’ll all be all right in the end” setting. You would think that the tumult of the pandemic would have shattered that illusion and exposed us to the real risks of deep and unavoidable societal change. However, the pandemic has instead seen a rehearsal of exactly the same science resistance, misinformation and inept political response that the climate crisis has encountered. Covid is a mock exam for the climate crisis and we are failing it badly. Some anti-lockdown groupings are now looking to pivot to a similar “save the economy” based anti-climate change action agenda. The parallels between our faltering hamstrung responses both to Covid and to climate change are shocking but far from accidental.
When the president’s son and chief of staff Jason Orlean makes a reference to “our scientists” – the film highlights how the natural caution of the majority of the scientific community is used against it. Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway in Merchants of Doubt chronicled how superannuated or fringe scientists are invited and funded to deliver authoritative pronouncements that deviate from the consensus or are on areas way out of their area of expertise. Strident but un-peer reviewed pronouncements can travel twice around the world before the scientific consensus has got its boots on.
In DLU the positional authority of the head of NASA gives weight to her pronouncements, but it turns out that her scientific area of expertise is not in Astronomy. In the climate and the covid crises superficially authoritative but experientially misplaced “experts” have been repeatedly deployed not to disprove the scientific consensus, but simply to sow doubt and confusion for the public. They present an illusion of a credible alternative science narrative that panders to and supports our powerful desire to “carry on as normal.” Paranoia, gullibility and a predilection for conspiracy theories feeds off that bait of “doubt and uncertainty” like a shoal of piranhas. That confusion is enough to prevent action. It is enough to help sustain the unsustainable status quo, and sustaining the status quo has been the commercial imperative since the tobacco industry first sought to bury the health risks of smoking.
This play repeated in several environmental and health crises since, is seen also with covid. In the Great Barrington Declaration, the flawed concept of herd immunity was trumpeted under the sponsorship of a right wing libertarian think tank. The superannuated scientists involved espousing fringe views based on shoddy research were serving political agendas for political and commercial masters. Oreskes and Conway highlighted how the cadre of rent-an-expert scientists moved seamlessly from one issue they knew little about to another through the last decades of the twentieth century. DLU illustrates this recycling of cherry picked “experts” when the Head of NASA forced at one point to resign in disgrace as the scapegoat for the administration’s culpable inactivity, nonetheless reappears later in the film rehabilitated and readmitted to the corridors of power and influence.
The film also skewers the political and media fuelled faith in technological solutions and the fantasy of the hero entrepreneur. Rebecca Willis in Too Hot to Handle; the Democratic challenge of climate change, pointed out how we are led to believe that technology will solve climate change. It’s like believing that we don’t need to press the brakes on a bus careering towards a cliff-edge because we trust the entrepreneur on the back seat to design and install some operational wings. In the character of Peter Isherwood, DLU combines aspects of Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs into a persona physically resembling Andy Warhol. This composite entrepreneur with his incredibly complex plan of comet fragmentation, mining and exploitation is a cypher for all the greenwashing promises of the climate crisis sceptics – the contention that carbon-capture or atmospheric seeding can enable us to continue gorging our society on fossil fuels without consequence. The ultimate mechanism of failure of Isherwood’s “plan A” illustrates how the problem is not the invalidity of an individual concept, but the impossibility of upscaling it to the required level of scope and reliability. For those of us living in Northern Ireland, this almost religious invocation of technology by politicians with no relevant expertise or understanding sounds horribly familiar. For years we were told that technology would provide “alternative arrangements” that would avoid the Brexit inevitability of a customs border either in the Irish sea or on the island of Ireland. Again, the parallels between that fallacious Brexit faith in technology, and the equally dubious Climate crisis trust in technology are not a matter of simple coincidence.
With its portrayal of a Trumpian brand of American politics, through President Janie Orlean, DLU highlights the twin difficulties Climate Change faces in gaining the necessary political traction to instigate action, those of political timescales and political funding. In a world driven by febrile social media activity, where the way to avoid the consequences of last week’s scandal is to bury it under next week’s even greater scandal, DLU highlights how the duration of political concentration has shrunk even shorter than the usual length of an electoral cycle. Instead, politics on both sides of the Atlantic, has shrivelled down to the micro-timescales of political media management which are the exact antithesis of the scale and length of vision needed to address the climate catastrophe. President Orlean switches between rejecting and then embracing the reality of the comet threat, but in both decisions is driven by purely domestic considerations of political survival. (One might wonder how far the UK covid strategy is driven by the current prime minister’s need to satisfy rebellious Tory back benchers and preserve his personal position rather than safeguard public health.)
However, the next twist in DLU’s plot reflects the other invidious factor influencing contemporary political decision making. The entrepreneurial Isherwood, through his generous funding of Orlean’s party, is given a totally unjustified access to and influence over the political decision-making process. This leads to the abandonment of one plan to save the earth in favour of another riskier one of Isherwood’s design that promises untold wealth from the “mined” comet. Throughout the pandemic in the UK we have seen highly profitable contracts given, without due diligence, to risky ventures that happen to have links with and/or be donors to the Tory party. The way that DLU highlights how the wealthy seek to exploit a crisis to profit and become even more wealthy rings far too painfully true. We see too the impact of the way Joe Manchin has been funded and supported by the fossil fuel industry in how he has obstructed the relatively modest steps to address climate change proposed by his democratic party president. It is ironic that those who praise the efficiency of the private sector in allocating its funds to secure the best commercial outcomes, somehow think those same organisations’ investment in politicians and political activity is a purely philanthropic gesture with no expectation of enhancing their own position through political leverage and power.
Through Isherwood’s intervention, DLU also highlights how the narrative of catastrophe can be manipulated by those who seek to personally profit from it. Imminent disaster is rebranded as economic opportunity. In The Green Market Revolution, foreworded by the deeply disingenuous Daniel Hannan, a battery of right-wing libertarian essayists try to suggest how the Free Market can not only solve the environmental challenges but bring profits to all. It is ironic that arch-Brexiteer Hannan in his foreword talks about the clean rivers we were (at the time) enjoying in the UK, as though these were a consequence of a benevolent free market, and yet through the “freedoms” his Brexit has won these rivers are now clogged with human sewage. DLU, with our protagonists meeting apathy and resistance from people deluded into believing the comet will bring them jobs, sharply pinpoints the current climate crisis pivot that the Green Market Revolution epitomises.
The shift is now from denying climate change is happening to accepting it but insisting that raw unregulated capitalism is best placed to protect us by capitalising on it to the benefit of everybody. Thus, these first shoots of the “climate change could be a good thing” narrative are beginning to force their way into the public domain, testing the waters of public opinion and softening people up for unspeakable. What we have seen in public pronouncements by right-wing libertarians on many issues appear to be deliberate attempts to stress the Overton window with outrageous statements beyond the pale of acceptability. Such pronouncements may not move the window all the way, but they provide a jolt to it and the window settles in a new and slightly more extreme position. Through the pandemic we have been “jolted” from seeing 20,000 UK deaths as a worst-case scenario, to 150,000 deaths being normalised. We have gone from clapping (but not improving the pay) of NHS workers to demonising them as lazy idle buggers taking holidays in a pandemic, and accepting as valid opinion leader articles that argue “is it worth saving the NHS?” DLU’s portrayal of how people can be manipulated into believing they might benefit from a disastrous comet is not too far from the truth in the insidious twisting of opinion by those who really could (and do) profit from disaster.
There is, of course, one last thing that the film does brilliantly and that is in the design of its title. Humanity seems to have a psychological preference for accepting simple lies over complex truths, for believing in salvation through individual heroes of an entrepreneurial elite rather than social and political collaboration in a global team effort, for trusting statements of immediate and unwavering certainty rather than the iterative processes by which science refines, corrects and improves its understanding of what is happening. As with many academic fields, scientific conclusions cannot be reduced to the pithy three word slogans so beloved of modern politics – the emotive but misleading power of “Get Brexit Done,” the simplicity of “Build Back Better,” or – more hopefully perhaps “Security, Prosperity, Respect.” In the tradition of simple lies Trumping complex truths, the absurdity of climate crisis denial is epitomised in the film’s catastrophe denying movement and its three-word slogan “Don’t Look Up” that encapsulates the wilful blindness of populism.
However, there are things the film didn’t do so well – or couldn’t do so well. Within the comet allegory, an external natural event over which we have no control, there is no direct parallel to be drawn with the self-inflicted catastrophe of the climate crisis. The comet is not the fossil fuel industry and it has no lobbyists to argue on its behalf. The industries that created the climate crisis have at their disposal substantial reserves of wealth, influence and motivation to seek any means possible to enable them to continue doing the damage. It is incredible that reports suggest 2022 may see the highest ever coal consumption. The largest lobby group at Glasgow’s climate conference was the fossil industry, which still receives millions of dollars a day of subsidy and continues to have far greater access to and apparent sympathy from ministers than the renewable energy industry. There is no analogue in DLU for the way those who caused the crisis continue to have too loud a voice in how to resolve it.
Also, the crisis of a comet that is an undeniable agent of change cannot easily convey the forces of conservatism controlling much of the media. The proponents of conservatism (small government and supply side reform aka deregulation and removal of social and workplace safety nets), delivering their messages through shady but well funded think tanks, have secured unjustified access to political influence and presentation in the media as “independent expert voices.” (My favourite is the Taxpayers’ alliance, a self-professed grass roots organisation which has been strangely silent on the squandering of billions of UK taxpayers’ money on arguably corrupt crony contracts). Conservatism, in its extreme libertarian form, seeks to preserve, profit from and indeed increase global inequality. Poverty is policy. Keeping people poor keeps them fearful and easily duped into scapegoating and demonising others even poorer and more desperate than themselves. Such libertarian voices present themselves as champions of the everyman and cynically frame measures of public or environmental health and safety as attacks on individual freedoms and prosperity, yet they are anything but everyman, and their astro-turfed grass roots organisations have anything but the public interest at heart. There is no simple allegory that DLU can harness to illustrate the invidious libertarian influence on the debate. The billionaire editorial control of the media is not depicted in the film. Instead, the TV presenters are seen as entirely their own agents delivering deliberately light entertainment, rather than promoting someone else’s agenda of duplicitous lies be it climate change denial, anti-vax messages, allegations of electoral fraud, or the patently absurd suggestion that Brexit was ever a good idea, and that Boris Johnson is anything other than a lying charlatan.
It may seem extreme, but these ideas have a common foundation in an outright libertarian agenda where the commercial influence of a transnational elite is used to override the interests and independence of what were always fragile democracies. It’s an agenda set out in The Sovereign Individual by William Rees-Mogg (Jacob’s father) and building on the notion of heroic individualist capitalism depicted in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, a deeply flawed vision of how government regulation fetters capitalism’s true potential for improving the lot of everyone, or at least those who deserve to have their lot improved. You don’t have to scratch too deeply into modern political discourse to find the libertarian ideal of a deregulated dystopia where the property accumulating ultra-wealthy profit from the indentured service of people sold a lie of freedom with a side serving of hate, while not realising that everything of real value has been taken from them. In short, a vision of global capitalism in its final tyrannical form. We can already see that Brexit libertarians, the covid deniers, the lockdown sceptics are poised to pivot to attacking climate change with exactly the same tried and tested fear-mongering messages of economic damage and loss of individual freedoms. The same people who pushed the lies that smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer, fossil fuels don’t cause acid rain, passive smoking isn’t a health risk, climate change isn’t real, masks/vaccines/lockdowns don’t work are now poised to tell us that climate change is real but only they can solve it. As James Doohan as Star Trek’s Scotty once (nearly) said, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me eight or more times, shame on me.”
These visions profit from what seems to be a weakness of our species, that we are ill-suited to coping with the complexity of the world we have created and the dangers we have caused. We see this in our preference for individual led stories, we need an everyman to guide us through the narrative, we do not have a hive mind. The news media understand this and frame their stories around individual icons to stimulate our empathy and engagement. But the challenge for all of us in cli-fi, be it film or books, is to break out of the bonds of realist literature and effectively convey the epic scale of the global catastrophe we face. It is what I like to describe as the Tardis conundrum, to tell a story that – through its individual focus – appears small on the outside but – in the extent of the themes it covers – is much bigger on the inside.
Don’t Look Up is a painfully sharp offering that aims to resolve this paradox. Yet it has also attracted the kind of criticism that every progressive voice faces. You are protesting too rudely, you are protesting too much, you are upsetting the people you need to enlist. The impact of cli-fi in film and literature remains uncertain. Schneider-Mayerson’s studies of readers’ responses to cli-fi suggests that they are unpredictable and that any shifts of attitude towards climate change are small and fragile. Portrayals of dystopian futures like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (is it even cli-fi?) are criticised for engendering feelings of hopelessness and depression rather than political and individual engagement in the issues.
The question remains, how does cli-fi best stimulate action? In particular, how does it stimulate action that goes beyond the deliberate distractions of personal responsibility and on into demands for wider political action and corporate accountability? A classic climate denial tactic is to launch accusations of individual hypocrisy “Did you use a car to get to the studio today?” within a wider strategy of putting the scientists and the activists constantly on the defensive. This shouting “squirrel” type of deflection leads us away from the imperative that governments must take national action and global corporations must be held to account. The fossil fuels must stay in the ground. Subsidies to fossil fuel companies must end. Climate damaging companies must not be supported in managing their image through greenwashing activities, sponsoring public works, and buying politicians. Protest that does not make people uncomfortable is not doing its job, and it is shocking how there are people in power who have benefited from the protests of previous generations yet are still poised to stifle and supress the power to protest for the current generation.
No film can encompass the totality of climate change and the problems of the compromised political, media and commercial responses to the threat, but Don’t Look Up is the best effort yet. While it may not directly stimulate the action we need, it has at least stimulated the precursor to action – People are talking about it.