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Green Is The New Black

Don’t Look Up has got people talking. But are we having the right conversations?

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Netflix released it on Christmas Eve and it’s already been streamed 152 million hours globally. Written, produced, and directed by Adam McKay (Succession) and starring a cast of Oscar-winning Hollywood A-listers, Don’t Look Up is the movie release everyone is talking about. But are we having the right conversations?

Don’t Look Up is currently in the Top 10 on Netflix in 94 countries with 152 million hours viewed, making it the #1 movie on Netflix worldwide. For those who haven’t seen it yet, the plot centres around two astronomers who discover a comet hurtling towards earth with the potential to wipe out the human race – a metaphor for impending climate breakdown. The story unfolds as Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawerence) and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo di Caprio) make their discovery, realise its potentially calamitous impacts and attempt to motivate the US government to act fast and save the planet. They come up against polarised media, public apathy, unscrupulous politicians and a bizarre billionaire who sees the comet as yet another opportunity for wealth creation. McKay is a master of satire and he has captured the absurdity of late-stage Capitalism perfectly. 

Listen to the science

It’s clear that Don’t Look Up intended to do more than sound the climate alarm – it was a critique of how we treat scientists. We are living in an age of conspiracy theories, misinformation and science denialism. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen the true consequences of disinformation spreading like wildfire online and especially on social media.

One of the key successes of McKay’s film was conveying the frustrations of the scientific community. When Kate and Randall share their deadly discovery with NASA and the US administration they are immediately gaslit by politicians concerned only with furthering their own careers and protecting their power. Meryl Streep plays a Trump-esque US president with Jonah Hill as her egotistical, shallow son and advisor. 


Writing for The Guardian, climate scientist Peter Kalmus stated that, “Don’t Look Up is satire. But speaking as a climate scientist doing everything I can to wake people up and avoid planetary destruction, it’s also the most accurate film about society’s terrifying non-response to climate breakdown I’ve seen.”

The role of the media

Prominent environmentalist and journalist, George Monbiot, expressed a similar experience to Kalmus. “I felt as if I were watching my adult life flash past me. As the scientists in the film, trying to draw attention to the approach of a planet-killing comet, bashed their heads against the Great Wall of Denial erected by the media and sought to reach politicians with 10-second attention spans, all the anger and frustration and desperation I’ve felt over the years boiled over.”

Monbiot describes how his main takeaway from Don’t Look Up was its commentary on the media. Specifically, how the media has downplayed climate change and aided the delay in climate action. When it looks clear that the government is not grasping the severity of the comet and plans to “sit tight and assess”, the duo look to the media for help. Again, they are met with resistance and apathy. TV hosts sideline Kate and Randall in favour of a celebrity breakup story and the scientists are coached to ‘keep things light and entertaining’. After Kate loses her temper, she instantly becomes a viral internet meme as media outlets brand her hysterical and crazy.

But, something was missing

I, like millions of others, sat down to watch the festive release with my family during the holiday break. Knowing the movie was about climate change, I felt optimistic about its potential to spark much-needed conversations about the crisis. And while I enjoyed it, something left me unsatisfied. 

Without a doubt, McKay successfully held a mirror up to Western, Capitalist culture. Nevertheless, while the analogy of a comet we can’t yet see on its way to destroy life on Earth served a purpose, it was an imperfect metaphor and fell short in places. There also seemed to be a lack of self-awareness in general. The movie served as a critique of US media and paralleled some of its worst characteristics. But, this Netflix-produced Hollywood movie is the US media and in true American disaster movie form, placed the US at the forefront of solving a global issue ignoring the roles of the rest of the world. 

Don’t Look Up has started a conversation, perhaps one we needed to have many years ago. Nonetheless, people are talking about the greatest challenge we have ever faced so now we need to steer that in the right direction. With that being said, I’d like to add some nuance to themes in the film where I felt it was lacking.

Climate Justice

Here’s the thing: climate scientists are not the only group who has been trying to tell us the severity of climate change and asking us to act urgently. Indigenous people have been sounding the alarm. Frontline communities have been telling their stories and asking for our support. Don’t Look Up highlighted the frustrations of scientists at not being listened to but didn’t acknowledge the frustrations of Indigenous people and MAPA who have also been urging us to act.

Perhaps hamstrung by the comet as an allegory, the film fails to advance the discourse around climate change past the basics. The narrative completely left out what is already unfolding and the unfairness of it all. While much of the Global North has yet to see any disruption in daily life, the Global South has been suffering catastrophic impacts of extreme weather events for decades.

Human extinction will not be a clean, single event. The reality is much more depressing – climate and ecological breakdown is the slow collapse of our natural world. The comet has already arrived, and there are more on the way. Corporate interests are acidifying oceans and destroying rainforests. If we don’t stop them, natural resources will reach irreversible tipping points, resulting in crop failures and water shortages. The World Bank predicts over 200 million people will be forced to migrate by 2050 because of extreme weather or the disappearance of their land.

Intersectionality

The environmental movement is often criticised for its lack of diversity. And for good reason. Green 2.0 is a non-profit organisation campaigning to increase racial and ethnic diversity within the environmental movement. Their most recent report carried out research on 80 organisations, revealing that 60% of full-time staff are white. This jumps up to 73.1% for leadership. In addition to most well-known and prolific organisations being primarily led by white people, funding for environmental challenges also tends to go to white-led groups. On average foundations gave 40% more to white-led organisations than their POC-led counterparts.

Rather than subvert this narrative, Don’t Look Up proved that we need to look at environmentalism from an intersectional viewpoint. It was not only very US-centric, but it was also very white. As time began to run out for humanity to avert disaster, the plot was interspersed with montages of people around the world. These montages featured Global South communities and Indigenous tribes. Because there was no representation of these groups in the main narrative, the montages felt tokenistic. Voices and experiences of BIPOC were left out of the plot but their images were used to evoke emotion as extinction loomed.

The stark lack of diversity in Don’t Look Up is evidence that as a movement, we have much work to do in this regard.

Are we focussing too much on science?

The message “listen to the science” came through loud and clear. However, the tone seemed to say “if you don’t listen to the science, you’re a moron”. If the film-makers intention was to persuade climate (or even COVID) deniers to rethink their stance on trusting science, it is highly doubtful it will succeed.

In another piece for The Guardian, climate justice advocate Amy Westervelt points out that asking the general public to put their faith in science they don’t really understand is unfair, and also ineffective.

“In the US, the world’s second-biggest carbon polluter, fewer than 40% of the population are college-educated and in many states, schools in the public system don’t have climate science on the curriculum. So where should this belief – strong enough to push for large-scale social and behavioural change – be rooted exactly?”

In addition, the inclination to focus on science and logic is a very Western tendency. And, there is prevailing hesitancy in white-dominated environmental organisations and institutions to include anti-racism in their work. There are still many that believe climate justice and anti-racism to be separate pursuits to climate and ecological breakdown and that focusing on those is a distraction that can slow down action. Aside from the obvious moral imperative, they have failed to see is that fighting for justice is the key to getting people to care enough to act. And we will have a better chance of winning minds if we can win hearts first.

Humanising climate breakdown

We have sanitised climate change by focusing on facts and science. If we want to mobilise more people, we need to humanise our language and reframe our position to focus on injustice, in all its forms.

Westervelt is of the opinion that “Telling people to ‘follow the science’ won’t save the planet. But they will fight for justice. The climate emergency has clear themes with heroes and villains. Describing it this way is how to build a movement…..The civil rights, consumer protection, women’s rights, anti-war and gay rights movements? Check again. All driven by moral outrage at the power being wielded by the few over the many.”

She references a Norwegian study that concluded that stories with heroes and villains had “a large persuasive impact” on readers. A study of students in six nations discovered that they were motivated to act by a justice framework. In Don’t Look Up, there were a number of villains impeding action – corrupt government, media and the uber-wealthy. However, with the comet occurring at random, there was not enough room to interrogate the true villain, those who knowingly continued to burn fossil fuels after discovering it clearly caused environmental harm. The fossil fuel industry.

Taking the conversation forward

The phenomenal success of Don’t Look Up presents us with an opportunity. So many movies and TV shows are made, streaming on a growing number of platforms so moments, where everyone is watching and talking about the same thing, are relatively rare and fleeting.

> Check out the film and talk to your friends and family about it. At 2 hours and 20 mins, the film is chock full of observations of the state of our world and can be a catalyst for many interesting discussions.

> Join the conversation online. #DontLookUp is trending as people all over the world tune in and take to social media to add to the dialogue. This is a chance to point out some of the nuances that were left out of the film and share some alternative points of view.

> Amplify BIPOC stories and voices. They do not have the influence and capital of Hollywood behind them to ensure that they are heard.

IMAGE: Photo by Austin Chan on Unsplash | IMAGE DESCRIPTION: A scene from Netflix movie, Don’t Look Up. The scene is set in a TV newsroom, with four people sitting behind a desk, a logo of the channel in the background and cameras pointing at them. Scientists Kate Dibiasky (Jennifer Lawerence) and Dr. Randall Mindy (Leonardo di Caprio) are describing their discovery of a comment heading to wards earth to two news anchors played by Cate Blanchett and Tyler Perry. 

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Leanne has worked and volunteered in the NGO sector in Asia and the UK for almost a decade. She is a proud and passionate fundraiser who is motivated by connecting people to causes that they care about and giving them the opportunity to make a real difference. Since growing up on the West Coast of Ireland, she has always been a lover of nature, especially the ocean. Her journey towards living more sustainably and consciously started slowly through an interest in minimalism, plant-based diet, yoga and the zero-waste movement. She has attempted all of them with varying degrees of success! Seeing the Extinction Rebellion April actions in London this year was the biggest wake-up call to learn the truth about the scale of the climate crisis and Leanne now considers herself a bone fide, but imperfect, environmentalist keen to share the infinite benefits of slowing down and living more mindfully with anyone who will listen!

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