Don’t Look Up?

First and foremost, this film is entertaining, and appears useful in providing ‘Hollywood’ credence to the severity of our predicament. For those of us immersed in the world of climate and collapse activism, it is also potentially cathartic in its witty satire of the idiocracy we encounter everyday – be this the insanity of infinite growth on a finite planet, the corruption/incompetence of decision-makers, fantastical techno-fix offered up as ‘solutions’, or knee-jerk responses to the idea that civilisations do, inevitably, fail.

Watch Don't Look Up | Netflix Official Site

Yet, this satire is a double-edged sword. If the meteor is a metaphor for climate change, then Don’t Look Up understands climate change as an external threat and not one in which we (the affluent west) are complicit. As Jeff Gibbs, Planet of the Humans, says, the meteor is us. In denying the true nature of our predicament, the derision of those who refuse don’t look up or who find looking sideways more meaningful is not useful. It appears likely to alienate rather than convince people who are not already aware and active.

In this movie, the populace and all power (political parties, corporations, and media) are a blurry blancmange of idiocracy. There are no alternative politics on offer other than a misapprehension of science as ‘truth’ and scientists as ‘truth-tellers’. As the IPCC’s clumsy modelling and promotion of fantastical techno-fixes exemplifies, this is not how science and scientists actually function.

Many argue that we need systemic and radical economic and political change to address climate change and collapse. The film makes no meaningful contribution in this regard. In fact, it does a pretty good job at maintaining the status quo. Rioting by informed and disgruntled citizens is depicted as part of the problem and is instantly quelled. A star-studded rock concert fronted by scientists is depicted as significant and meaningful, but it is unclear why and how.

Interestingly, the main scientist in Don’t Look Up, played by Leonard DiCaprio, was, in part, inspired by Professor Michael E. Mann. This certainly explains a few things! Mann has cultivated a celebrity status in climate science, arguing that the ‘solution’ to climate change is, ultimately, political. Yet, he offers no overt political remedy beyond following and acting on his worldview: that climate change is fixable and the global modern techno-industrial status quo can be maintained through a transition to renewables and electrification; and, that informed and concerned activists who recognise and act on the true nature and severity of our predicament are part of the problem and should be censored.

Overall, we found Don’t Look Up very entertaining and cathartic, but largely meaningless in terms of real, radical change.

3 thoughts on “Don’t Look Up?

  1. This analysis is mostly inaccurate. Correct, the meteor metaphor is imperfect because it likens climate change to an external threat, whereas we are responsible for climate change. This also prevents the film from addressing systemic problems that caused the threat initially. However, the same systemic problems are addressed anyway because they also cause society’s failure to solve the problem, as with climate change.

    The article claims that because the story denies the true nature of the predicament (i.e., how systemic problems caused it), deriding those who don’t acknowledge it is unhelpful. This is false in at least 3 ways: (1) The cause of the problem is not the only truth about it needing recognition in order to address it well; first, the severity of the problem itself must be recognized; (2) As with climate change, the same systemic problems (e.g., corrupt elites, capitalist values, media misinformation & distractions) prevent people from recognizing the emergency and cooperating to deal with it; and (3) derision is unhelpful regardless of whether or not the first cause of the problem is understood.

    No, there isn’t a “blurry blancmange of idiocracy”; it’s not hard to discern different kinds of social problems leading to folly (e.g., corrupt and selfish leaders; vain and greedy technocrats; media corporations mandated to entertain; reporters focused on career ambitions; people in general misled to prioritize economic concerns and individualism, distracted by hedonism or self-gratification).

    Yes, no alternative politics seems presented (e.g., socialism or post-growth economics). But this is a SATIRE of our follies in the face of an existential threat, hopefully helping some people to recognize them. It’s not meant to advocate any particular social change as a solution, and it’d take a different kind of film to do that (which would likely also reach a smaller audience if it were clearly advocating something like “left-wing ideology”).

    No, the film does not falsely present science as “truth” and scientists as “truth-tellers.” It shows scientists to be humanly flawed and confused by society’s values just as others are. Dr. Mindy struggles with anxiety, communicates science badly, exhibits scientific “reticence” to make dramatic statements, and is tempted into an affair with an attractive TV personality. At first, he also mistakenly accepts and supports the claims of Isherwell that his plan to mine the comet is “sound science”; the later, after other scientists working on the project are fired for questioning it, Mindy worries that it it’s not peer-reviewed and becomes skeptical also. The scientific process is corrupted by business interests, admiration for a rich technocrat, and the accepted “sense” of pursuing profit. On the other hand, Dibiasky communicates badly because she’s too emotional, driven by the urgency of informing everyone of imminent danger. But she fails to realize the problems with communicating honestly and factually to a society conditioned to receive news as entertainment–with a report of a global emergency preceded by celebrity gossip, then presented in a bantering way as just interesting science news. Her dire warnings and criticism of the hosts’ levity ends her chances of appearing on the show again. On the other hand, Mindy’s calm manner and comment Dibiasky should’ve taken Zanex wins approval and return visits. The media won’t allow an emergency to be treated as a real emergency; it’s just another news story and actually LESS interesting than sports or celebrity news.

    The IPCC’s conservative models and acceptance of nonexistent techno-fixes seems represented by Mindy’s acceptance of Isherwell’s project to mine the comet. Other scientists we hear of who question this project could represent scientists who question the IPCC and plans for net-zero emissions by 2050 (e.g., Kevin Anderson, Peter Wadhams); and Mindy later joins their ranks, finally getting emotional like Dibiasky on the morning talk show and telling the truth upsettingly. Dibiasky is another truth-speaking scientist and is also identified with Greta Thunberg. But there’s no suggestion that scientists in general are “truth-tellers”; we see they can be corrupted and misled.

    No, the film does not do “a pretty good job of maintaining the status quo” (i.e., accepting the socio-economic system). Clearly, that system is a target of the satire in various ways, as already mentioned. Amidst talk show banter, Evantee teases her co-host Bremmer that he’s “such a capitalist”; the president a technocrat funder; and Isherwell deliberately sabotages efforts to stop the comet in order to increase his business profits. And the public lets these things happen, accepting the social system or opposing it only in ineffective ways (e.g., individual efforts to “spread the truth” via social media, disorganized local riots, and large organized events with celebrity support). The film shows the problem of awakening and mobilizing a society of people confused by the hedonistic values and many distractions of capitalist consumer society.

    No, rioting is not “depicted as part of the problem.” That assumes the perspective of Dr. Mindy and Dr. Oglethorpe at that time is correct; but both then mistakenly accept the corporate-directed project of mining the comet. In fact, Dibiasky’s response about that is more correct, expressed when she tells people in the bar that diverting the comet was cancelled in order to make a rich technocrat even more disgustingly rich. Rioting was the right reaction, but it still couldn’t achieve anything and was too easily quelled as you say.

    No, the rock concert is NOT “depicted as significant and meaningful.” You again entirely miss the targets of satire. The concert is a ridiculous attempt to use capitalist pop culture to bring about social and political change. Of course it’s “unclear why and how” this can be significant because it can’t be. It’s just a big feel-good event so people with the the same concerns can delude themselves and feel hopeful. Pop culture entertainment is basically a trivial distraction from important realities and social issues, as shown by the dramatic reunion of the 2 singers on the talk show upstaging the report about the comet. So having a concert to raise awareness about an existential threat means attempting education and political organization through a medium that trivializes the whole issue, reducing it to entertainment and emotionalism. Also, the effect on politics could only be very indirect–through moving people to take some other direct action maybe, which isn’t even explained or shown. Meanwhile, the supporters of the corporate agenda have their own concert to reinforce their feelings and values, showing the problem of social bubbles.

    No, Mindy’s character is NOT like Michael Mann in the way you describe. He’s only similar to Mann in being a public spokesperson who often appears in the media and, like others who get interviewed, in Di Caprio’s words, “[tries] to be media-savvy and not politicize the issue but just try to articulate the facts the best they can.” As mentioned already, Mindy’s character changes from at first accepting corporate “science” to later questioning it and then declaring on TV that the president is lying, etc. Characterizing him as just supporting a political solution (or market solutions, like Mann) is false and oversimplified.

    As probably happens with all misinterpretations, you are forcing your ideological assumptions onto the film–in the case of Mindy, interpreting that his supposed acceptance of political solutions represents the delusion “that climate change is fixable and the global modern techno-industrial status quo can be maintained through a transition to renewables and electrification.” No. When he accepts the corporate plan, only acceptance of the status quo is suggested. The idea that renewable tech can only be a way to perpetuate the status quo is your assumption. Anyway, Mindy is deluded at this time, and he later realizes Isherwell’s project is unsound and tries to expose it as dangerous. This could be interpreted in various ways, including criticizing the net-zero goal, market mechanisms for achieving it, carbon capture tech, and/or plans for using aerosols in the upper atmosphere to deflect sunlight. I doubt mining the comet was intended to represent that all renewable energy tech is a fraud, but it could be interpreted that way too.

    No, Mindy’s character does not suggest “that informed and concerned activists who recognise and act on the true nature and severity of our predicament are part of the problem and should be censored.” How could he represent that when he becomes one such activist along with Dibiasky (who is like Thunberg)? How could the film suggest that such people “should be censored” if it satirizes the ones who censor them?!

    You seem to be twisting the facts of the film and their meaning to make your points.

    Quote source:
    https://www.newsweek.com/leonardo-dicaprio-sweet-guy-michael-mann-scientist-dont-look-role-1664590#:~:text=Randall%20Mindy%20in%20the%20Netflix,they%20have%20known%20one%20another.

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  2. Sorry, I noticed a couple of typos in the last post. I meant to say “then later, after other scientists…” (not “the later”), and “the president takes orders from a technocrat funder” (not “the president a technocrat funder”).If you can correct it, please do.

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