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It’s okay to look up

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I am told I should look into filing a copyright claim against the Netflix movie Don’t Look Up, since I wrote a version of it in my 2015 book, The Consciousness of Sheep, and for exactly the same reason:

“We’ve all seen this movie before: A giant asteroid is heading straight for us, and it looks like a big one. Although somewhat smaller than the rock that wiped out the dinosaurs – together with 90 percent of life on Earth – this one could well destroy human civilisation. If it hits a landmass, it will spew pollution into the upper atmosphere. This will initially produce a global ‘nuclear winter’ in which temperatures plummet and plant life withers as sunlight is blocked out. Those of us that survive the impact will face starvation as harvests fail. In the longer-term we face runaway global warming as the gases trapped in the upper atmosphere act like a blanket to prevent heat radiating into space. Even if the asteroid hits an ocean, things may not be much better. Super-size tsunami waves will sweep around the planet wiping out 70-90 percent of the World’s cities and causing massive damage to infrastructure. The water vapour that erupts into the sky is three times more powerful a greenhouse gas than the carbon dioxide that humanity routinely pumps into the atmosphere. This, too, threatens runaway global warming…

“What would we humans do if this was for real?

“The decision to act now should be obvious except for two compounding factors. First, governments in the modern world tend not to trust the people. So they have been trying to keep the lid on the whole thing while telling the population to carry on with business as usual. Indeed, many politicians and bureaucrats are themselves happy to reach for any information that appears to show that the problem might not be as bad as first feared. But with so many amateur astronomers monitoring the skies, and with several whistle blowers on the inside, sooner or later, news of the asteroid is going to enter the public domain. This gives rise to the second compounding factor – the role of mass (and increasingly, social) media. Most journalists and editors are lazy (Twitter and Facebook posters even more so). They are not going to do a lot of research for themselves. Rather, they are going to turn to ‘experts’ to get the story. But the ‘experts’ they tend to turn to are the ones working within government. And while these will not deny the risk, they will want to put a positive spin on the story to show that they are in control. Like everyone else, journalists and editors will experience a condition that psychologists call ‘denial’. This happens to people when the situation they find themselves in is too traumatic for their minds to process all in one go. Someone who is in denial will search for someone – anyone – who will tell them that the trauma is not real. So journalists and editors will also turn to that small group of scientists who claim either that the asteroid story is not true, or that it is not serious.

“To the public, mainstream media offers a dangerously reassuring picture of the predicament. In the interests of ‘balance’ almost as much weight is given to the minority of scientists who don’t think there is a problem as is given to the 90 percent who say we need serious action now. At the same time, official government scientists hide any worries they have out of a misplaced belief that the people will panic if we are told the truth. Instead, they give the impression that government is taking appropriate action (even though government scientists and policy-makers are struggling to understand the problem let alone come up with a viable solution).

“So the public are left to carry on with business as usual. For how long? At what point does the public get restless? At what point do we down tools and take to the streets to demand that our leaders take action? Twenty years before the asteroid hits? Fifteen years? Ten years? Five years? One year? Six months? A week!?”

In the movie, a PhD candidate (Kate Dibiasky-Jennifer Lawrence) discovers a giant comet headed straight for planet Earth.  After checking the calculations with her professor (Dr. Randall Mindy-Leonardo DiCaprio) the pair take to the airwaves in a vain attempt to warn humanity of the fate that awaits us if we fail to take action.

That the comet is a metaphor for climate change should be obvious to all but the most brain-dead viewer.  And the stereotyping of the various actors who now come into play is equally blunt.  Self-absorbed media presenter Brie Evantee-Cate Blanchett is the embodiment of an industry that no longer deals in facts and reason, but cares only for attention and immediate gratification – no wonder the mainstream media panned the movie.  Meanwhile the President – a female version of Donald Trump (President Orlean-Meryl Streep) is too wrapped up in poll ratings and concerns about the mid-terms to worry about a comet wiping out all life on Earth.

Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe-Rob Morgan is the stereotypical NASA scientist who’s been warning successive administrations of the risk, and even has a plan to overcome it… if only we act early enough.  But he lacks the political clout and the media presence to win the day.  And so Dibiasky and Mindy are enlisted to raise public awareness via the media.  Kate Dibiasky refuses to compromise and gets to play the role of media crazy woman, whose warnings are too alarmist – she ends up being carted off with a hood over her head by the FBI – while Dr. Randall Mindy is gradually sucked into the Washington swamp, eventually becoming President Orlean’s science advisor.

Finally, President Orlean is persuaded by the poll ratings to launch a mission to divert the comet from its collision course with Earth.  But even as the rockets are on their way, big tech godzillionaire and implied paederast Peter Isherwell- Mark Rylance – an amalgamation of Musk, Gates and Zuckerberg – arrives to use the weight of his campaign donations to call a halt to the mission.  The comet, it turns out, contains trillions of dollars’ worth of rare minerals; enough for everyone to get new mobile phones… think of the jobs!  Instead of diverting the comet from its collision course, Isherwell’s plan is to use new technologies to fracture the comet into smaller, manageable chunks which could then be safely landed and recovered from the Pacific.  Predictably – as with the hyperloop and solar roof tiles – the technology fails to live up to the hype.  The comet remains intact, and the destruction of Earth is inevitable.

Eventually, the comet is visible to the naked eye, prompting the scientists to urge people to “just look up.”  Soon various media luvvies are signalling their virtue by joining the just look up campaign.  But soon enough a Hollywood stereotype of the pro-Trump deplorables rallies behind the slogan “Don’t look up” as a final act of denial as the facts become obvious.  Eventually, even the deplorables turn on the Trump-Orlean administration when one of their number accidentally looks up and can no longer deny what is plain for everyone to see – “they lied to us…”

The heroes of the film have one last meal together as the comet hits Earth, sending a destructive shock wave around the planet.  The media people get blind drunk.  Orlean, Isherwell and several hundred unsavoury billionaire types take a big tech rocket to another Earth-like planet… where they are quickly devoured by the dinosaur-like inhabitants.

Entertaining though the film is – and no doubt many bright green woke types will have nodded sagely throughout – its crude stereotyping serves to obfuscate a far more profound predicament than anything so straightforward as being hit by a passing space rock.  Superficially, the media may be venal and presidents vainglorious. But administrations grapple with a whole host of crises – of which climate change is but one – with little noticeable success.  Since the early 1970s, when the collapse of the Bretton Woods monetary system was followed in short order by the first oil shock, ushering in the period of deep stagflation, governments across the developed states have been grappling with the Limits to Growth – the recognition by every branch of academia except the economists that infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible:

The Limits to Growth was the outcome of the early computer modelling which evolved into the modelling of such things as climate change – but not economists’ modelling of the economy – today.  What it showed was that if industrial civilisation continued to grow, consume and pollute in the same way, then we would experience a collapse around about now.  Note that climate change is just one element of this.  Resource depletion, food shortages and economic collapse may each be as damaging in their own way.

Since, time and again, economists have turned out to be idiots, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that “the economy” is unimportant.  We witnessed this at the beginning of the pandemic, when concern about the economy was equated with turning a blind eye to the premature death of millions.  But collapsing supply chains and the failure to invest in the recovery of such things as oil and gas, thereby sending prices into the stratosphere and turning an inequality problem into a full-blown crisis, demonstrate the importance of the “real” economy.  We all too easily take for granted the near miracle of light being available at the flick of a switch or clean drinking water appearing at the turn of a tap.  But remove these and such things as food from supermarkets or affordable domestic supplies of electricity and gas – as is now happening – and the death toll rises once more.

Those deplorables who are portrayed as imbeciles in Don’t Look Up are actually the growing part of the western population which has witnessed the disappearance of prosperity ever since the first oil shock.  Back then, of course, they were a small enough minority that they didn’t matter.  But after decades of neoliberalism and since the 2008 crash and the years of austerity economics which followed, they are approaching the majority and, as Brexit and Trump demonstrated, they are a significant voting bloc.  And while their ranks may include a minority that denies that climate change is happening, the majority appear to take climate change as seriously as their liberal-left opponents – both groups just do denial differently:

“If we broadened the debate just a little bit, however, we would see that most liberals have just moved a giant boat-load of denial down-stream, and that this denial is as harmful as that of conservatives.  While the various aspects of liberal denial are my main overall topic, here, and will be addressed in our following five sections, they add up to the belief that we can avoid the most catastrophic levels of climate disruption without changing our fundamental way of life.  This myth is based on errors that are as profound and basic as the conservative denial of climate change itself.”

It is the way that liberal-leftists – mostly drawn from the university educated, professional-managerial class – seek to distribute the cost of responding to climate change which fuels pro-Trump/Farage support from a shrinking working class and growing precariat which sees all too clearly yet another version of socialism for the well off paid for with eco-austerity for the rest of us.  And what makes this all the harder to bear is the fact that the techno-utopian Green New Great Reset being peddled as the saviour of our way of life is a non-starter.  It is one thing to ask millions of people to go hungry and cold in pursuit of a genuine solution.  But what is on offer is no more than one final imperialist binge on the part of the global elites before industrial civilisation crumbles to dust.  And if crumbling to dust is where we are headed, there are many more egalitarian ways of getting there.

This is the false premise behind Don’t Look Up – the assumption that if only more of us are aware of the problem, there will be an off-the-shelf solution to save the day.  In a more realistic movie, just at the point when everyone is distracted by the imminent arrival of a comet, Earth would be blindsided by an equally likely repeat of the 1859 Carrington event.  Back then, the massive solar flare which hit the Earth produced little more than a good lightshow.  Today, a global population whose life support systems depend upon increasingly fragile 24/7/365 electricity supplies would be catapulted back to the stone age in a matter of hours during a similar event.  And as the ongoing covid pandemic has reminded us, there are many more potentially extinction-triggering events and processes than climate change and solar flares to worry about.  And as with climate change and solar flares, the truth is that while we may be painfully aware of the threat, we lack the material means to save our civilisation… and those things that we are doing to maintain infinite growth on a finite planet can only make the coming collapse even worse.

As you made it to the end…

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