The Importance of Reminding People to Look Up (Over and Over and Over Again)

I’m guessing many of you have seen Don’t Look Up, the film superficially about an asteroid that is heading toward the Earth and humanity’s ineffectual response, but in reality, a not-so-subtle allegory about the coming climate catastrophe (which, at least in comparison, looks far less horrific!).

Many climate scientists and activists loved the film and related to the utterly ignored scientists, though Megan Seibert of The Real Green New Deal Project did make the important point that as an allegory, it’s missing the point: climate change is just a symptom of the bigger overshoot crisis.

Please look up. The world (and your shoulders) will thank you for it.

But love it or hate it, this film has the potential to spark many conversations about climate change (and overshoot). However, it seems that the world (and the producers) have already moved on. Hence, this past week I wrote an open letter to the film team. I share that below, but there are two valuable lessons I want to point out right up front.

First, producing something good—whether a film, a report, a book, or eh-hem, a weekly essay—is not enough. In this saturated world, if one doesn’t actively work to spread the word, it comes and goes with barely a ripple. That certainly feels like the case with Don’t Look Up. The film team should be sparking watch parties, action campaigns, and the like, but viewers have already moved onto the next blockbuster.

When I was just starting at the Worldwatch Institute (in the early 2000s), I remember going to a talk across the street at the Brookings Institute, where a researcher discussed his work on think tanks and how they, on average, spent about 90 percent of their resources on research and just 10 percent on communications. I had been at Worldwatch long enough to see this was absolutely the case there. As soon as one State of the World report was published, researchers immediately moved on to fill out the next one. I always fought to communicate more, but being an organization in perpetual contraction, that was a losing battle. And not much has changed. Even a $75 million film (far more than Worldwatch’s income in the 17 years I was there) seems to have put far less than 10 percent—perhaps even less than 1 percent—into communicating this film. It’s like the old saying, if a product is released and no one talks about it, does it even matter?

The second lesson is that this once again reinforces the fact that we’re truly amusing ourselves to death (a growing theme on the Gaianism website). Viewers see that depicted wonderfully in this film—with characters more interested in celebrities’ sex lives than their impending doom—but we see it with this film as well. 260 million people watched this film in two weeks’ time, and there were some essays about it, a bit of social media, and then, poof, it seems already forgotten. That, frankly, is on the producers. But it is also a sign of our times. Now onto the letter:

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An Open Letter to Those Who Have Brought Don’t Look Up into the World,

Dear Adam McKay, David Sirota, Kevin Messick, Leonardo DiCaprio, Reed Hastings, and Ted Sarandos, and many others,

Almost twenty years ago, as a researcher at the Worldwatch Institute I remember receiving an advanced copy of the script of The Day After Tomorrow. The director Roland Emmerich, through a communications firm, shared this with many environmental organizations to get input, and to build the buzz and mobilize a ‘watch’ campaign. It worked: our group watched it, shared a media release about it, and built the buzz even as we critiqued the silliness of the extreme misrepresentation of the climate science portrayed in the film.

Compare that to Don’t Look Up, where the official website is the Netflix watch page. Even on Twitter, the @dontlookupfilm Twitter account is half as followed as the fan site, @dontlookupnews. Why? Considering $75 million was spent on producing this film, why not invest a few hundred thousand more to build an interactive website, create a robust social media presence, set up and promote some sort of action campaign through these, and perhaps most importantly engage environmental organizations (big and small) to have an ongoing conversation about our inability to focus on the biggest threat to human civilization and countless other species: the climate crisis (which, as noted in many interviews, this film is a thinly veiled allegory of).

A strategic investment will keep people looking up…. (Data compiled from Wikipedia. Chart by Erik Assadourian.)

Instead, it seems that the wave of viewership—as impressive as it was—has already crested and is receding, lost to the hundreds of other exciting blockbusters coming out every day on Netflix and other streaming platforms.

Truthfully, the reception of Don’t Look Up parallels the very problem shown in the film: we have hit a state of peak entertainment, where there is literally so much to watch that we engage highly superficially with all of it. And worse we are so entertained that we don’t have time to mobilize even to combat existential threats—a new twist on Neil Postman’s warning that we are “amusing ourselves to death.”

I don’t think it’s too late to remedy this situation. While the film certainly doesn’t lend itself to a sequel, a website—along with a more robust activism-oriented social media presence, and a watch and act campaign—could still be organized, especially as the buzz continues with its nomination for numerous awards. It could be as simple as watch parties where participants then write letters together to elected officials (from their mayor, to their senators and Congress members, to the president). Or even better, as this unaffiliated Don’t Look Up actions website by Count on Us proposes, fans could take all sorts of actions: from shifting their investments and their sources of energy to starting conversations with friends and sparking change at their workplaces.

Perhaps originally, your idea was to bypass the partisan debate around climate change by reframing the story around an asteroid strike (and hence a climate campaign would have been counterproductive at that point). That makes sense, but that wave is complete. Now it’s time to keep the buzz going and hopefully holding people’s attention long enough (before the next season of Succession steals it away again) to take meaningful action to rein in the apocalyptic future we’re blindly marching toward.

Thank you for creating a funny and spot-on film. And I hope you’ll keep promoting it and using it to spark climate action.

Sincerely,

Erik Assadourian

So many opportunities to use the film to persuade viewers to buy differently, to live differently, and to take meaningful climate action. (Still from “Don’t Look Up” via Netflix)

Final Thoughts

If you haven’t seen the film, it’s certainly worth watching, and making your own opinion of. And if it moves you, use it as an excuse to push yourself to make more sustainability changes. And if you see its value in sparking conversation, perhaps share a note about the film with your climate skeptic uncle and see where it leads you. Or share the open letter on social media. Or recognize and communicate the deeper point that Seibert makes that climate change is just a symptom—that overshoot is the real issue.

Overshoot is the equivalent, in Don’t Look Up terms, to having deflected the asteroid and then discovering another asteroid and another are on their way. Scientists keep diverting those but also send a ship to the source and find a giant alien is launching these asteroids at Earth. Why? Who knows. But it has to be convinced to stop (one way or another). That’s overshoot. Climate change (the asteroids) is just an outcome of overshoot. And fortunately or unfortunately we have met the alien and he is us: eight billion humans consuming beyond Gaia’s capacity and being encouraged to consume ever more by corporations, governments, and cultural and social pressures. It might actually be easier to stop one mischievous alien than it will be to shift human society.

If only we could jump over or take a hammer to this barreling barrage of problems. (Donkey Kong still, with updates)

And that gets us back to the beauty of the movie. Humanity, with its competing interests, its cultural myopia, its dominant economic philosophy that puts growth above all, will be hard to redirect from self-destruction—hopefully not in the case of a simple asteroid strike, but certainly in a multi-faceted slow acting, status-quo-disrupting crisis like ecological overshoot. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible, but it’s going to be hard—especially as we still haven’t noticed, as DiCaprio’s character notes in the final moment of the film (and humanity), “We really did have everything, didn’t we?” It is essential that we remember that, and especially that “everything” above all means a living and thriving Earth—which makes everything possible. If we can’t remember that, then we might as well keep looking down at the screens in front of us—at least for the few remaining years before those screens, and our future, become dark.

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2 Responses

  1. wornsmooth

    I agree with what I believe is your main point. Superficial involvement largely due to an overload of stimuli.

    That said, for Mankind to avoid a catastrophic die off, we probably need to change Civilization itself. William Ophuls wrote that “a genuine cure would require a revolution in human thought greater than the one that created the modern world.” Conceptually I agree with that quote. I just don’t see ‘us’ being willing to take the steps to remake our world both physically and spiritually to avoid the inevitable.
    We do have to start somewhere, and nothing positive can happen unless we change how people perceive Gaia and our place in it, so information would be step one. Part of that step is ‘how shall we Live?’ Then of course comes the hard part.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Yes, our perception of and relationship with Gaia needs to be greater than the one that created the modern world! If we can understand that we are of Gaia, part of Gaia, or even in the Hindu way, that we are part of a bigger Self, that could do wonders. IFF we applied that to how we live, govern, do business, etc. It’s hard to imagine making all the right steps in the fractured/polarized world in which we live, but if we don’t at least try, then we know the outcome.

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