What Don’t Look Up Teaches Us About Ourselves

What Don’t Look Up Teaches Us About Ourselves

The latest Netflix blockbuster says more about our capacity for self delusion than we realise.

The smash hit movie of the December holidays has to be Don’t Look Up, a dry disaster satire. The plot is based on the discovery of a huge comet heading directly towards Earth, which scientists call a ‘planet killer’.

The collision seems inevitable, which sets the scene for an involved and surreal interplay between the scientific and political establishments as the clock ticks down.

By now the more perceptive of you will have noticed the parallels between a killer comet and the extinction threat coming from climate change. Which of course is the point.

The satire, headed up by a posse of A list actors including Leo DeCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence, is clearly showing us how ridiculous it is to ignore the real threats from the climate crisis.

Did we totally miss the underlying premise of the plotline?

The really interesting thing has been the movie’s reception from different audience segments. The critics have generally been very flattering, although it’s clear that some media commentators totally missed the underlying premise of the plotline, either deliberately or through willful ignorance.

What Don't Look Up Teaches Us About Ourselves

Sweden’s main television channel SVT1 spent a whole show unironically discussing whether we could in fact divert a comet if it was headed to earth. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described it as ‘slapstick apocalypse’, and so on.

But even for the rest of us mere mortals, the reaction has been rather strange. The movie pitches itself on the razor thin line between in-your-face doomsterism and surreal humour, and for some people that clearly causes genuine discomfort. Not so much at the calamity our species faces, but that a piece of art is clearly shining a laserbeam of light on the whole sorry issue. How dare they remind us of the climate emergency like this?

I have talked to a few people about their reactions to the film and almost all offered some generic praise of the movie, with an unsaid ‘but’ in the background. The unspoken thought seem to be – yes things are serious, but do we really need to expose it so ruthlessly?

Not with a bang, but with a whimper?

I came away from these brief discussions feeling they thought it was ‘a good movie’ in an entertaining way, great cast and script. But they weren’t emotionally able to talk about the message of the film at all.

Too raw for those who understand the situation, too boring for the non-believers. 

We all know by now how cognitive dissonance can warp our world view, but to see it in action like this is astonishing.

A question keeps repeating in my head. ‘What normal rational species, faced with a real possibility of disaster, cannot or will not deal with the facts, even when presented as powerfully as this?” Is it collective delusion or the result of a world  battered into submission by financial and pandemic catastrophe? No energy or mental space to think about anything else?

Is this really how it might end? In the words of T. S. Elliot and Nevil Shute, ‘not with a bang, but a whimper?‘ How sad.

Getting together in our millions

Here at Ducky our whole mission is to push people gently but firmly into thinking about the peril, not as a feeble victim, but as a collective energy which can genuinely make a difference through action.

As the movie implies, grandiose billionaire inspired technical solutions are almost certainly not going to be enough on their own to prevent global climate catastrophe, no matter how many trillions are spent.

The scale of the problem is simply too large.

If we are to reverse, or at least mitigate the worst of the problem, we’re going to have to work together in our millions and do something radical. And the most obvious thing is to reduce our consumption and our emissions.

Because no matter what the media or politicians say, the root cause of global warming is the fact that our consumption is driving up CO2e emissions at a terrifying rate.

Every car, TV, pair of pants, toothbrush and tie pin we buy has an emission cost attached to it. In itself maybe trivial, but when multiplied by 7.7 billion acquisitive souls, devastating to our planet.

We desperately need to wean ourselves off the buying train and onto a regenerative economic track. And we’ve known this for decades. But the problem is we’re not keen to start the inconvenient and uncomfortable process.

I was chatting the other day to an old friend. He’s a really nice person, intelligent, insightful and decent. He’d just bought a new car, a rather large German SUV, and we were discussing why he didn’t choose to go electric. His explanation involved a lot of common sense – difficulties in charging, range issues, passenger capacity for his family and suchlike. There’s no question it would have been a sub-optimal decision to go electric in his case.

But as I thought about it afterwards, it became clear that the gist of the conversation revolved around one simple premise.

He was not prepared to expose himself and his family to any inconvenience at all. He deliberately chose the ‘business as usual’ option because the other route was too uncomfortable. And millions of people around the world are making exactly the same decision every day – choosing inaction to avoid uncomfortable change.

And unfortunately I have to include myself among that same demographic.

Am I really accepting enough sacrifice?

And surely this is the nub of the whole problem? We all know, consciously or unconsciously, that we’re facing something terrible. For example my friend and I had previously talked about climate triggered loss of biodiversity as a contributory factor in the spread of the COVID virus.

But even so, very few of us are prepared to make any significant sacrifice to help out. Until we have a significant momentum of ‘good’ people making that sacrifice, we definitely won’t get the waverers and skeptics to take the action we need to tackle the CO2 emergency.

If there’s a history to be written in the future, it will look rather pathetic won’t it? A bunch of well-meaning, sincere, but rather ineffectual citizens dithering around shopping at H&M while the comet hurtles towards us in clear sight. Yes, I’ve written words like sad and pathetic deliberately.

So what is it about us that creates this deadly inertia?

It’s not the lack of science. By now most of us know what’s happening because we can see it on news reports virtually every week, as one climate catastrophe after another devastates the planet.

And these events are no longer just in far away places. Local flooding, landslides and fires are becoming the norm on our doorstep. No wonder we’re all drinking and drugging ourselves to death to cope.

But still we resist taking action. As we saw from COVID, once we stop consuming, our CO2 emissions drop precipitately. Between 12% and 15% in 2020 by some accounts. Of course we’re now back up to ‘business as usual’, which is a shame when we had the chance to learn and change course early on. But all may not be lost.

There’s no question we’re flying less, buying less and adopting more renewable resources and habits. Sales of electric cars are booming, as is city cycling. But there’s so much more we could be doing. Simple things like using less energy at home, installing solar, buying less unnecessary stuff, driving less and suchlike.

If millions, or even billions, of us make a conscious effort to face the crisis head-on, and act decisively to reduce our individual CO2 footprint, the rest will follow. Sure the economy will take a dip as demand leeches from the system, but there’s every reason to believe that this could be counterbalanced by more sustainable economic models. The four day week, a universal basic income, increased employment in regenerative industries and services and more.

These are all things we know about and could deploy, in the same way the Marshall Plan helped rebuild the post war world.

Do we dare look up?

Instead we seem frozen in these devastating headlights, watching the comet get closer and closer. There’s a hugely poignant moment near the end of Don’t Look Up where the hero, Leo, quietly observes that ‘we really did have everything, didn’t we?

The tragedy is the fact that we could still salvage a lot of what makes our life on this glorious planet so rich and fulfilling, even if we jettison all the superfluous ‘luxury’ we don’t need.

The question is, are we collectively prepared to change direction towards a sustainable future, or will we dither around until the decision is taken away from us in the most drastic way possible? 

Do we dare look up?



Nigel Powell

International Relation Director, Ducky AS

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