Permission to Panic – Movie Review of “Don’t Look Up”

When Greta Thunberg said “I want you to panic” to world leaders in Davos, Switzerland on January 25, 2019, the mainstream press and the chattering class shrugged.  Some city councils passed Climate Emergency Resolutions.  And climate change rolls on.  Panic is hard to sustain. Solutions are complex.  We want to believe that someone is in charge, and knows what they are doing.  For us activists, it is also painful to recognize that we know what to do but we can’t get anyone to listen to us or do it.  The difficulties in climate communication play out in a humorous way in a movie released on Netflix last month called “Don’t Look Up.”

Filmmaker Adam McKay got the idea for the movie after reading David Wallace Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth. McKay began working with David Sirota, a political activist and investigative journalist, who worked with the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 and has a political newsletter.

Following in the cinematic footsteps of Dr. Strangelove and Idiocracy, McKay and Sirota have created an allegory about climate change as if “an asteroid were headed toward Earth and no one cares.” It struck a chord with climate scientists and activists, the modern Cassandras.

Climate scientist Peter Kalmus said it’s “the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.”

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann who could be seen as a model for Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, wrote in the Boston Globe, the movie is “serious sociopolitical commentary posing as comedy.”

David Roberts called it the best climate movie or art ever, even better than Ministry for the Future, which Roberts said had a great 1st chapter but after that was just lightly fictionalized white papers.

Like the scientists in Don’t Look Up, real-life columnist for the Guardian George Monbiot also broke down on live TV when talking about the failure of the UK at COP26.  He notes that the movie draws attention to media fixation on “vacuous gossip about celebrities and consumables that takes precedence over the survival of life on Earth.” Monbiot said the movie reminded him that the global response to the 2008 financial crisis was swift, but for climate, well, we’re still waiting, and he asks, “why do nations scramble to rescue the banks but not the planet?”

While watching the movie, I wrote down some notes, including,

I prefer my fiction fictional.
I like dark humor, but wow this is dark.
Mass extinction is not acceptable dinner conversation. How can we get our message across with being frowned at as “such a downer”?

The movie points out the bubbles that the 1% and political-media-industrial complex live in, and how, as cognitive scientist George Lakoff puts it, if new information doesn’t fit the frame, the facts bounce off.  That’s why the press is more likely to put the debate over a controversial Supreme Court nominee on its front page than the extinction of thousands of species, or even the destruction of the whole planet.  The movie reveals our culture’s short attention span, and the vapid positivity of the social media meta-verse.

In the movie, the billionaire character’s priority is continuous economic growth over the survival of the planet. In the real world, corporations pay lip service to caring about the climate while their dollars continue to support the status quo. The movie can also be read as an allegory for anti-science reactions to COVID-19, or denial of the Limits to Growth (first pointed out 50 years ago, and then largely ignored by mainstream economists and society at large).

Leonardo DiCaprio’s character is a bit like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the hero of the fight against COVID-19. But in the movie, the political establishment tries to digest him, making him moderate his views, express optimism that the comet-denying Administration will take sufficient action, and even indulge in an extramarital affair (the corruption of fame and access to power – or as one my mentors once called it, “the marble and the mahogany”).  His fellow scientist, played by Jennifer Lawrence, has a series of mental breakdowns leading to her being mocked on social media, but it is cold comfort when she is later proven correct in her predictions.

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Is climate change really as dangerous as an asteroid? On a long term scale, if the Earth becomes like Venus, then yes.  But in the short term, it will affect the poor and people in the tropics, in drought affected areas, or those vulnerable to other weather-related impacts and at low sea level much more.  You can already see this even in wealthy countries where people have lost their homes in fire-prone areas, or to tornadoes, hurricanes, etc.

In the short term (the next 40 years), upper middle class and wealthy people will probably avoid the worst impacts, or be able to rebuild their homes. But the natural world will face unimaginable losses (here’s the downer part):

  • Elephants, tigers, coral reefs, things we talked about as normal as children and hoped to tell or even show our children, may be gone.
  • At least 23,000 species are threatened with extinction, including 22% of mammal species, 14% of birds, 29% of evaluated reptiles, as many as 43% of amphibians, 29% of evaluated fish, 26% of evaluated invertebrate animals, and 23% of plants.

That is the moral aspect of climate change. We are impoverishing the world for our children and their children and it will not recover for tens of thousands of years.

There are four scenarios, outlined by Australian ecologist Tim Flannery that could portend an even worse fate:

  1. Shutdown of the thermohaline cycle, if the movement of hot ocean water at the tropics toward the pole where it’s cooler shuts down.
  2. Forests drying out, imagine the Amazon turning into kindling.
  3. A sudden release of methane clathrates, pressurized methane trapped in tiny ice crystals in the permafrosts in Siberia and the deep ocean.
  4. Deep ocean anoxia, or a lack of oxygen at the bottom of the ocean, which could lead to a bloom of hydrogen-sulphide-spewing bacteria

If any of those four things happen, then yes, climate change is like a “planet killer” asteroid, and Greta is right, we should panic!  But we also need determination, and we need to focus on solutions. Those solutions need to treat the causes and systems, not just the symptoms (here’s the part where we come back up from being down).

At Feasta, we propose changing government policy to focus on well-being, not ever-increasing Gross Domestic Product (a failed indicator that ignores environmental impacts and social aspects).  We also advocate for CapGlobalCarbon, a citizen’s movement to form a Global Climate Trust. The Trust would set a global cap on carbon, based on science, and return the revenues raised from upstream fossil fuel producers back to people as a climate dividend. The cap would be reduced each year, and lower income people would come out ahead (the dividend would be greater than the increase in what they pay for fossil fuels).  Over time fossil fuels will be phased out, and alternatives will become more affordable.  The best part, is that everyone would know that there is a level playing field, that we are all in this together, and that, yes, someone is in charge!

Feasta’s 2021 Annual Report just came out, showing what we are doing to try to change the situation and get people and policy makers to, as the movie would say, “look up.”  Feasta’s latest revision of our Theory of Change has now been posted as well.  Once people “look up” and see there is a problem, they can insert themselves somewhere in the flow chart and start working to implement the solutions listed there.

Towards the end of the movie, as activist fatigue sets in, Leo and Jen’s characters nod to each other a small comfort: “At least we tried, we tried really hard.”  Let’s win so that we don’t have to say that.

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