📆 June 25, 2023 | ⏱️ 4 minute read

Re: Don't Look Up

The movie “Don’t Look Up” is about “two low-level astronomers who go on a giant media tour to warn humankind of an approaching comet that will destroy planet Earth”.

It’s a metaphor for how humanity is currently reacting to the climate crisis, but I think it’s also a metaphor for how we’re reacting to every existential crisis we’re facing: extremely disproportionate underreaction. We are living in a global culture of avoidance, pretend, and denial around these issues.

Forget about the politicians. They don’t care because many of them can afford to buy their way out of the problem until they die of old age. When I talk to everyday people about the danger of artificial intelligence or the climate crisis or nuclear weapons, people who could actually be affected, they don’t really seem to be emotionally integrating the seriousness of the problem. It’s so exhausting when almost every person I talk to about these issues just comes back at me with jokes, sound bites, crazy conspiracies, or fatalism.

Whenever people react this way, I start to see the movie “Don’t Look Up” more like a documentary where I’m one of the very few sane people who can have adult conversations about these topics rather than resorting to psychological defense mechanisms like avoidance “I just try not to think about it.” or denial “It’s not happening! Hoax!”

Some people say I’m wrong, that people are integrating this information. They just don’t think about it as much as I do. Really? People are integrating it? Okay. Then why do they still talk about retirement or making long term investments as if they’re certain civilization will still be here in the distant future? Please explain that to me.

I’m not arguing that one shouldn’t make long term plans. I’m just asking why people aren’t factoring in the possibility that existential threats may make those plans less sensible. Shouldn’t young people at least consider the possibilities that humanity will have destroyed itself or civilization will have collapsed by the time they would have retired so that they can enjoy that money now rather than wasting it on a future they won’t have? These are very practical considerations.

If people are integrating these possibilities in their lives, then why are so few people factoring in these risks into their decision-making? Many young would-be mothers have decided against having children because they’re afraid of the quality of life their child would have given climate change. But other would-be mothers, the vast majority, aren’t even considering that possibility. Shouldn’t they?

Another piece of evidence I have that people aren’t integrating existential risks into their lives is that there’s a very peculiar phenomenon happening with the reviews of “Don’t Look Up”. People are leaving comments saying that they dislike the movie without giving any reason. Imagine looking up clips of a movie just to comment about how much you dislike it. What would motivate someone to do that as opposed to, I don’t know, just not watching it?

There’s a simple explanation:

“The truth hurts.”

Movies like “Don’t Look Up” hold up a mirror to our species, and that doesn’t jive with the avoidance strategy people are using as a psychological defense mechanism. They feel hurt by the movie because it doesn’t permit them to continue living in a fantasy where they can pretend nothing is happening, so they attack it with negative reviews, but they can’t say why they don’t like it because then their avoidance would become self-evident. They don’t even have the self-awareness to realize they’re practicing avoidance.

I believe these negative reviews can also be explained by the fact that people use mindless consumption, gaming, media, movies, etc. to distract themselves and this movie invades their distraction space, forcing them to self-reflect instead.

I’m not asking people to worry about these issues on a daily basis or get depressed over them although I do think that’s more useful than avoidance and denial because it can motivate action. I understand not everyone is in a position to make a difference though. I’m just asking people to be honest with themselves. If you’re not able/motivated to do anything about societal issues, just say so. It’s understandable.

But please, don’t lie to yourself and others, saying that making any effort is futile before you yourself have even tried. Don’t make intellectually impoverished arguments about why there’s no need for you to do anything. Don’t deny that it’s happening. Don’t quip about it or make jokes as a thinly veiled coping mechanism. Just be a damn human being, admit we’re in a sad situation, and have some empathy for your fellow humans who do choose to live in reality and face the facts.

Is that really too much to ask?