It’s not easy to make sense of what’s going on in the world at present, whether it’s the night’s television news garnished with the sociopathic excesses of authoritarian leaders staring down a deadly pandemic or just a sudden belligerence on island beaches between those who will naturally pick up every shred of jettisoned plastic and jet skiers blazing noisy trails of fossil fuels.
Pandemics, as the New Yorker noted half way through last year, have a tendency to wreck havoc – and to open minds. The coronavirus, for all its destruction, could offer a similar opportunity for radical change, it said, quoting Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Institute of the History of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University who compared Covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.”
Within the next 100 years, feudalism fell, the social relationship to death changed, Catholicism’s influence declined and the Renaissance transformed art as we know it, she said. Similarly, the 1918 Spanish ‘flu began a transformation that assured widespread access to social welfare, medical assistance and public sanitation.
For a lively canter through all of the ills of later-day capitalism and its interface with politics and power, Adam McKay’s recent Netflix movie Don’t Look Up has much to recommend it. For the uninitiated, it’s an allegorical tale about a couple of scientists who discover a planet-killing comet due to arrive at Earth in six months. And counting.
Air-head US president Meryl Streep is assured by astronomy professor Leonardo Di Caprio that the probability factor for an extinction-level event is 97 percent.
“Not absolutely certain then.” We will “sit tight and assess,” she says, one eye on the intervening midterms and the other on her Silicon Valley whizz-kid campaign donor’s risky plans for harvesting the comet’s rare metals.
Along the way to reaching the president, and in the Daily Rip’s national talk-show broadcast ruled by its attention-deficient co-hosts (including a mesmerising Cate Blanchett), Di Caprio breaks down and rages in tears at the obtuseness and trivia, a performance that real-life climate scientists and activists have claimed for themselves.
“Watching Don’t Look Up made me see my whole life of campaigning flash before me,” said Guardian columnist and lifelong climate activist George Monbiot. “I’ve broken down on television too, trying to explain the horror of the climate crisis to those who wield power and do nothing.”
It happened on a live Good Morning Britain broadcast soon after the Cop26 climate conference in Glasgow. With the least serious of all governments failing to rise to the most serious of all issues, he says he tried, for the thousandth time, to explain what we are facing, and suddenly couldn’t hold it in any longer.
He still feels deeply embarrassed about it. “The response on social media, like the response to the scientist in the film, was vituperative and vicious. I was faking. I was hysterical. I was mentally ill. But, knowing where we are and what we face, seeing the indifference of those who wield power, seeing how our existential crisis has been marginalised in favour of trivia and frivolity, I now realise that there would be something wrong with me if I hadn’t lost it.”
Don’t Look Up also shines a spotlight on the danger of allowing politicians and business interests, rather than science and democratic citizens, to run the show when it comes to threats to the human species, brilliantly spoofed in the form of Silicon Valley wunderkind Peter Isherwell. He speaks in a hesitant mix of tech jargon and portentious New Age enlightenment but has discovered that the doomsday comet contains “$32 trillion worth of materials” essential to the manufacture of smartphones and computers.
Before you know it, he has convinced the president to abandon NASA’s mission to save Earth by blasting the comet off course with nuclear weapons. Instead, the federal government partners with Isherwell’s company, BASH, in a scheme to break the comet up into manageable pieces so that it can be stripped of its precious resources.
With the streaking comet by now clearly visible in the night sky, ‘Don’t look up’ protest banners appear in the streets and the comet becomes a hero to the American right. “We’re for the jobs this comet will provide,” intones one character as Isherwell waits patiently for the space rock to line his pockets.
Far-fetched? Maybe not. I’ve been wondering for some years why real-world tech billionaires like Elon Musk – once something of a hero figure – should be bent on terraforming Mars for a wage-slave colony mining minerals while leaving an already-terraformed blue-green Earth, in all its magnificent intricacy, to burn.
It seems as if saving the human species from impending extinction might be extraordinarily lucrative. With virtual reality filling in the gaps. • Liz Waters