More Than Just a Climate Metaphor, ‘Don’t Look Up’ Skewers All Things American in 2021

by Keaton Weiss

Climate change isn’t a comet hurdling towards Earth whose sudden and dramatic impact hasn’t yet been felt. Rather, it’s a slow burn already underway whose effects become more and more intense every year as the planet becomes decreasingly habitable for us humans.

Because of this, Adam McKay’s Don’t Look Up doesn’t completely work as a metaphor for environmental catastrophe. It is however, an astute and scathing indictment of American politics and culture as a whole, and a biting satire highlighting the compounding institutional rot at the heart of our decline.

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After discovering a celestial body on a collision course with Earth, an astronomy professor (an unusually but effectively nerdy and neurotic Leonardo DiCaprio) and his star pupil (Jennifer Lawrence) scramble to alert as many authorities as they can about this extinction-level event.

Neither the political nor the media establishments take them seriously in the beginning. But luckily, a series of political setbacks for the president leads her to the calculation that decisive action to stop the comet could be just the Hail Mary pass she needs to reverse her plummeting poll numbers just in time for the midterm elections.

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And so, a plan is hatched to strike the comet before it enters Earth’s atmosphere, either destroying it entirely, or, at the very least, knocking it off its course and preventing it from hitting the planet.

The mission launches and appears promising, much to the relief of everyone in the situation room. Before it can be fully executed, however, eccentric billionaire and top White House donor Peter Isherwell enters and persuades the president to abort, citing the abundance of rare Earth minerals present in the comet. He suggests that rather than destroy it altogether, he and his team be allowed to mine it for its resources and break it up into small pieces that could be recovered once they land in the pacific Ocean.

Insanely reckless and patently idiotic, his idea is nonetheless embraced by the president, who calls off what looks like a successful mission and then entrusts Ishwerwell and his private company with defending the fate of the planet.

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Isherwell, played by the perennially excellent Mark Rylance, is the film’s most interesting character. He’s not a maniacally evil psychopath who knowingly endangers the fate of the world to just to pad his bottom line. In fact at one point, he even takes offense at being called a “businessman,” preferring to see himself as an almost god-like overseer of human progress and “evolution.”

Isherwell seems more interested in personal aggrandizement than monetary enrichment. He’s an emotionally detached oddball savant, barely capable of looking another human being in the eye, whose random skill set just so happens to have made him one of the richest men in the world. He’s the kind of person who, but for his immense wealth, would never be taken seriously by anyone of influence. Because of his elite status and infinitely deep pockets, however, the political class feels the need to placate him – even at humanity’s expense.

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If this sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is. Can similar things not be said for Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg? Remember when Jeff Bezos returned from outer space and suggested that we export heavy industry to the moon? Yes, that happened. In real life. Out of the mouth of a disheveled chess prodigy in Washington Square Park, this would be dismissed as delusional insanity. Out of Bezos’, it’s visionary.

Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that Isherwell’s plan is as successful as one would predict it to be in order for the film to have any real teeth (if everything worked out and we all lived happily ever after, it wouldn’t be much of a satire, would it?).

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In both the world of Don’t Look Up and our own, the grotesqueness of capitalism has been unleashed in ways that seem too absurd to be real, and has completely engulfed our political system to the point where solving any major problem – climate change, covid, or a comet headed straight for us – has become practically impossible.

For this reason, the film is less a straightforward climate allegory and more a broad condemnation of America’s overall dysfunction as 2021 comes to a close. As such, it’s easily worth the watch.

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Photo: Don’t Look Up, Netflix

The Military is Among Climate’s Biggest Enemies

by Charles Dunaway

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change released a report on August 9. The team of 230 scientists said, “Many of the changes observed in the climate are unprecedented in thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of years, and some of the changes already set in motion—such as continued sea level rise—are irreversible over hundreds to thousands of years…unless there are immediate, rapid and large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, limiting warming to close to 1.5°C or even 2°C will be beyond reach.”

As a recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out, “America can’t fix the problem alone, but the world can’t fix it without a fundamental shift in American culture – a shift away from coal, oil, gasoline and other polluting energy sources, and toward renewable ones like wind and solar.”

One facet of that necessary shift in American culture gets little attention from the media – the impact of the US military and US foreign policy on climate change.

The US military is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world. The US is currently bombing targets in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting the government of Syria, and bombing Somalia. The US is also imposing sanctions on Iran, Libya, and Venezuela. All those nations have large reserves of fossil fuels. So the US is burning fossil fuel to force nations to sell more fossil fuel to US companies so we can burn more fossil fuel.

Any serious commitment to preserving life on earth must begin with a drastic reduction in the US military and an end to the forever wars and the sanctions.

US foreign policy over the last seven decades has focused on maintaining global dominance. If rival like Russia or China is gaining too much influence in a neighboring nation, the US will use the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID to foment unrest and chaos by funding and training opposition groups. NED is currently interfering in Bangladesh, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia to counter China. They are in Belarus and every Central Asian nation to counter Russia. Regime change efforts cause resentment of US interference, and undermine the internal cooperation nations need to address climate change.

The US withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2018, and the Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile Treaty in 2019. The US signed but has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982) , The Convention on Biological Diversity (1992), and the Kyoto Protocol (2005). Of 18 international human rights treaties passed by the United Nations, the US has only ratified five. This destroys the trust needed to work together with other nations.

The US has long viewed itself as exempt from international law. All of the current US military engagements are blatant violations of the UN Charter, but you never hear that mentioned. The US, having signed the Rome Statute founding the International Criminal Court, subsequently withdrew its signature and has even passed laws authorizing the use of “all means necessary” to release any American detained by the ICC.

If the US government is serious about combatting climate change, it must give up any dreams of global dominance, stop interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, live up to its treaty obligations, and abide by international law. Ending our support for other serial violators of international law such as Egypt, Israel and Saudi Arabia would demonstrate our resolve.

America cannot curtail the worst effects of climate change on its own. It will need good working relationships with all nations. The technologically advanced nations must pool their talent and resources to find alternatives to fossil fuels and reduce their own consumption. The wealthier nations need to partner with less developed nations as they adapt to the changing environment and improve the lives of their people.

The days of America’s bullying of other nations are over. The US must lead by example, not by force. As Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.”

Photo: US Army