There’s more than one comet
Don’t *just* look up. Look sideways too
Don’t Look Up, the hilarious and sobering star-studded movie about two scientists trying in vain to warn humankind of a huge comet hurtling towards Earth, takes political satire into new territory: climate change. The asteroid is an obvious metaphor for runaway anthropogenic global warming, and the astronomers’ failure to convince the world to take decisive action has clear parallels with the scientific community’s struggles against climate denialism. But the film irks for several reasons.
Don’t Look Up is highly entertaining. The combination of existential fear with meme-era humour (plus some stellar A-list performances) makes for compelling viewing. The film skewers the polarisation, superficiality, vanity and cynicism that pollute the collective discourse.
Blockbuster comedies are not supposed to be taken too seriously. But Don’t Look Up is a comedic vessel for a serious message: that we have lost the ability to talk coherently about climate change, which is undermining a coherent response. This deserves scrutiny.
The subtext has gut-wrenching cut-through, but there are limits to how far the metaphor can go. The comet presents a singular threat that soon becomes unmistakably visible to even the most ardent deniers. Attacking the threat does not require upheaval of entrenched economic systems, nor does it ask middle class voters to change their consumption-oriented lifestyles or mindsets. Compared to climate change mitigation, it would probably be quite easy to broker a global consensus to destroy an Earth-bound comet.
The film’s implicit message — that humanity is wilfully ignoring a real and imminent threat out of greed, ego and malice — presents us with a stark choice: act decisively or face certain death in the very near future.
This premise reflects how climate narratives are being overly-simplified. Vested interests on all sides are playing down the risks attached to their preferred pathways. Difficult discussions around imperfect solutions and trade-offs are being turned into adversarial zero-sum exchanges. There is too much dogma and not enough nuance in energy and climate discourse.
The film’s depiction of a venal Trumpian administration in the White House and its MAGA-esque support base is hilarious. It also confirms the film’s alignment with Hollywood’s liberal political convention. This makes it easy to create amusing caricatures of political opponents and ‘right versus wrong’ narratives that don’t do justice to the complexity of reality.
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This is fine for a couple of hours of escapism. But if the film’s creators intended us to take their ‘climate = comet’ message to heart, then remember that our messy world faces many threats that all deserve our undivided attention. Climate change, and specifically carbon dioxide, has captured a lot of bandwidth – to the detriment of other emergencies.
There is, so to speak, more than one comet on collision course with Earth. Worse still, the comets that are closest to impact are not often the ones everybody is talking about.
Loss of habitat and biodiversity don’t get enough airtime. Deforestation, destruction of wild lands for agriculture and industrial over-fishing are all pushing the world towards ecological collapse. As energy investor and author Brendan Long writes in his debut book Fire: The Story of Humanity & the Story of our Earth, as Written by Flames, the threat of global warming to wildlife is “insignificant” compared to habitat loss.
This is confirmed in scientific literature. The ground-breaking planetary boundaries framework, developed by Swedish professor Johan Rockström, identifies biosphere integrity as one of two earth systems in a ‘code red’ critical state of destabilisation resulting from human activities. The other is biogeochemical flows (which pertain to the phosphorus and nitrogen cycles).
Two others are within the yellow ‘zone of uncertainty’ – meaning there is still time to act, albeit not much. Those boundaries are land-system change (relating mostly to climate impacts arising from loss of tropical forests) and climate change itself. While global heating accelerates habitat and biodiversity loss, it is absolutely not the primary driver of the sixth mass extinction event that we are currently living through.
As we head into 2022, a number of other menacing smaller asteroids are hurtling worrying close to Earth too. Governments cannot seem to muster an appropriate response to the Sars-Cov-2 coronavirus, meaning poorer healthcare, more supply chain misery and travel restrictions for everybody. A worsening global energy crisis is pushing consumers in Europe and Asia into energy poverty, exacerbating inflation and the ballooning debt crisis.
Meanwhile, economic injustice and disparities in living standards have never been as big or as ugly. The ruthless efficiency of the global financial sector’s chronic misallocation of resources is being laid bare for all to see. All of this is ratcheting up the risk of social unrest and political upheaval.
Fortunately, none of these threats resemble an actual asteroid. They were all created here on Earth, so can be fixed here too. There is no countdown to a sudden final moment of impact, meaning the struggle never really ends and every action matters. The degradation of our quality of life will be punctuated by moments of high drama such as popular uprisings, devastating weather events or military invasions, but overall it will happen gradually.
As the sun rises on a New Year that promises to be just as fraught, unpredictable and chaotic as the previous one, the best advice I can muster is this: threats abound from multiple angles of attack. Myopic obsession with just one threat risks being blindsided to others. Take a broad view and consider the potential for unintended consequences. Don’t just look up. Look sideways too.
Seb Kennedy | Energy Flux | 31st December 2021