It will come as no surprise to regular ToS readers to learn that the biggest ‘story’ of the 21st century, or perhaps 66 million years of Earth history, is the rapidly unfolding climate emergency and simultaneous global mass extinction event, only the sixth such episode in the last billion years or so.
Yet, of the tens of thousands of films made in the last two decades, probably only two could be said to have addressed global warming head-on. The first, The Day After Tomorrow, a disaster blockbuster, was released in 2004. Two years later, Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, became a surprise hit, though as a non-fiction piece, only reached a very limited audience. We’ve had to wait till the last month of 2021 for a smash hit film taking on our (non) response to the climate crisis via the metaphor of an incoming ‘planet killer’ meteor. ‘Don’t Look Up’ has already been viewed for over 250 million hours on Netflix, which translates to around 115 million households and likely around 250 million individual viewers. It’s still number one worldwide, so these numbers are likely to rise significantly.
As this Boston Globe article put it, “Global destruction isn’t funny, but when it comes to the climate crisis, it might have to be”. In the nearly 20 years since I first became aware of climate change as our existential crisis, I have remained incredulous at how little traction it has achieved, not just in media and political discourse, but also in popular culture. Name me a decent song about global warming? (OK, there is one, by Canadian science rapper, Baba Brinkman, but I’ll lay a bet it’s never once been played on Irish radio).
There are indications this cultural omertà may be finally lifting, though it would need to form part of the storyline on Coronation Street or Fair City before you could truly say it is part of the zeitgeist of our age. Mind you, when you see the attitudes of our so-called “voice of the common people”, RTÉ’s Joe Duffy (“I am sick of being marooned on an island of vegans and Greta Thunberg fanatics”) it is clear that pale-stale-and-male attitudes and deep anti-environmental prejudices are ingrained in our society and remain heavily over-represented in our newspapers and broadcast media. The (almost invariably conservative) voices of 50-70-somethings still dominate and those of the young are marginalised and excluded.
I’ve regularly felt like screaming at the sheer wilful lunacy involved in ignoring the ecological crisis that is about to overwhelm and potentially collapse our civilisation. Maybe that’s why Don’t Look Up is such a blast: after all, if you didn’t laugh about this stuff, you would almost certainly want to cry. Here’s a piece I filed for the Business Post in late December that teases this out in more detail.
HOW DO YOU stay focused on a story that is simultaneously terrifying and, frankly, boring? This dilemma has plagued and largely defeated scientists and science communicators trying to convey the gravity of the climate emergency.
Yes, over a number of years or maybe decades, truly catastrophic changes in the conditions for life on Earth will likely unfold, but they will do so fitfully and unevenly, with some areas devastated while others seem to suffer much less. That the consequences of global heating are both complex and unpredictable only serves to deepen the public disconnect.
What if our world is ending not with a dramatic bang but instead in a billion whimpers? This may go some way towards explaining why climate change has, despite its staggering implications, failed to grip the public imagination or play much of a role in popular culture. It may be the biggest unfolding disaster of the 21stcentury, yet climate rarely features in films, plays, songs or TV soaps.
This is all in stark contrast to widespread public terror in recent decades at the very real prospect of nuclear war; the ability to viscerally imagine this horrific event is one of the key reasons the world managed to avoid stumbling into a nuclear Armageddon.
It is 17 years since Hollywood’s last serious attempt to bring climate disaster to the big screen in the blockbuster, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. This film dramatised the rapid shutdown of the Gulf Stream triggering a series of super-storms that devastate the northern hemisphere.
Were this to occur, it would play out over years or decades. For dramatic effect, the filmmakers compressed this cataclysm as somehow unfolding in the space of just a few weeks.
If only the climate emergency could be encapsulated in a dramatic single event, then perhaps it would get the attention it has so far failed to garner. And no single event is more dramatic than a threatened ‘planet-killer’ meteor or comet strike.
This very scenario was explored in 2010 by media expert Eric Pooley of Harvard University, who wondered aloud “how would news organisations cover this story?”. At the time, the world was still in the throes of the economic crash. Despite this, he argued, the media would “throw teams of reporters at it” since the race to avert catastrophe “would be the story of the century”.
Pooley’s thought experiment was inspired by frustration that, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of climate impacts capable of bringing human civilisation to an equally abrupt halt, the story of the incoming man-made meteor that is climate change rarely makes the front pages or the evening news bulletins.
Much has changed in the decade since Pooley’s paper appeared. On the one hand, the climate emergency is now tangibly impacting the lives of tens of millions of people, as seen during the dangerously hot summer of 2021. On the other hand, we now inhabit a world of fake news, where disinformation and rage have been weaponised by social media leviathans for profit. For many people, objective reality simply no longer exists and self-deception is never more than a click away.
This begs another question: in this new era of bitterly contested reality, if a meteor was scientifically confirmed to be heading straight for Earth, would we now even believe it?
This intriguing idea forms the backdrop to the newly released film ‘Don’t Look Up’, a dark satire in the mould of the 1960s classic, ‘Dr Strangelove’. Director Adam McKay called his film “the most thinly disguised metaphor in the history of metaphors”. The comet, spoiler alert, is a cosmic proxy for climate change.
He spent years trying to think of a way to tell the story in a way that would ring the alarm bells on the climate crisis, but found it elusive. “How do you tell this story, the biggest story in 66 million years?”, McKay explained. “How can we be looking at the greatest story in human history”, he added, “but most nights I’m not hearing it talked about (on TV)”.
The film (now available on Netflix, click here to view trailer) imagines the discovery by US scientists of a planet-killing comet that is due to strike in just over six months. They immediately alert the White House, only to be fobbed off by a president and staff more interested in the mid-term elections. The head of Nasa, a political appointee with no scientific training, assures the president there is nothing to worry about.
The scientists then take the story to a major newspaper, but its front page article fails to gain online traction and is quickly forgotten. Their attempt to raise the alarm on TV ends in farce, with one of the presenters jokingly hoping the comet would destroy his ex-wife’s house.
Network television’s seeming inability to take anything seriously, with every issue reduced to soundbites by the perpetually upbeat presenters is amplified by social media. The imminent impact is almost immediately pushed out of the frantic news cycle by the latest update in the relationships status of a celebrity couple.
When the White House is finally impelled to act, its attempt to intercept the incoming meteor is scuppered by a billionaire megalomaniac (a fictionalised mash-up of Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel) with a truly insane plan to turn a huge profit by harvesting the valuable metals and elements within the meteor.
In a case of life imitating art, within hours of my watching the film, news broke about the imminent collapse of an ice shelf in Antarctica that holds back the giant Thwaites glacier. “This is triggering the beginnings of a massive collapse”, according to glaciologist, Ted Scampos.
Astonishingly, the unfolding Thwaites disaster barely made a ripple in Ireland’s national newspapers. RTÉ’s news editors likewise may have found the story too terrifying-but-boring for any of its TV news bulletins.
While it is easy to laugh at the celebrity obsessed and click-chasing media, vacuous politicians and terminally distracted US public caricatured in ‘Don’t Look Up’, in the final analysis, are we really all that different?
- John Gibbons is an environmental journalist and commentator