Scarier Than Fiction

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[The following blog includes a mention of assault.]

‘Don’t Look Up’: Real-world scientists comment on new movie’s climate message (phys.org)

Working on new graphics for my Twitch channel this past weekend — finally leaning more into the chill vibes I want to put out (and so desperately need right now) — reminded me a lot of when I did website design work in the 1990’s, and that’s probably a very good thing for my mental health. There will always be a part of me that wishes I hadn’t been forced to put college on hold for all those years, but I can’t deny that for all the negative situations I was burdened with during that time, there was a certain carefree spirit in the air that stands in sharp contrast not only to the present day, but even the years before and after that era. It was that weird interregnum between the end of the Cold War and the start of the so-called War on Terror, and without a Big Enemy to focus on (as much as conservatives tried to insert the Clintons into that spot), it was much easier for a lot of us to focus inward. I still think that’s the reason why so much of the art of that era — music especially, but film and other creative media as well — was so spectacular. That period coincided with the years of my life when I was going to be drawn to deep introspection anyway, so despite the hardships I endured back then, I still have a lot of fond memories of those years.

Given the freedom that many people experienced in the nineties, it’s no surprise that it was the contemporary peak of the environmental movement. When you’re not constantly worried about losing your job, or catching a fatal illness, or being on guard against the Big Enemy, it’s just a lot easier to care about the hardships of people halfway across the world, or what kind of planet will be left behind for generations to be born long after we pass away. Personal worries can always vary widely, but broader societal worries definitely seemed to be at a nadir in America in the 1990’s, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that environmental and similar movements grew at the same time.

In a lot of ways, I consider environmentalism to be the issue which is most important to me; I certainly do a lot of retweets and Facebook shares about environmental news, although my own direct involvement in these spheres has always been minimal. I just wasn’t born with a gift for science, and whatever interests I might have had for science were beaten out of me — in one case, quite literally — when I was younger. In the current climate here in America, though, it’s hard to avoid prioritizing education above all else, because people won’t listen to scientists, or ignore the ludicrous conspiracy theorists out there preaching denialism, unless they’ve been taught the critical thinking skills necessary to weigh evidence and come to informed conclusions on their own. Needless to say, those of us who are sticking around in education have our work cut out for us in that regard.

The first reviews of the new movie Don’t Look Up that I saw, from professional reviewers who must have gotten advance screeners since the reviews came out before the film’s public release, all seemed to focus on how cliché they thought the film was, and how its overarching message of the dangers of people not heeding the warnings of scientists was so on the nose as to be fantastical. I’m not exactly a film person, so I don’t think Don’t Look Up would have stayed on my radar for that long under normal circumstances, but given the politicians and such I follow on social media, I was deluged was more reviews of the film from actual climate scientists soon after it released. In contrast to the initial round of criticism from media critics, who pounced on what they said were unrealistic depictions of the broader public not heeding the warnings of climate change, the actual climate scientists were in near-universal agreement that Don’t Look Up was pretty much spot-on in this aspect.

Granted, this isn’t my first exposure to this kind of reaction. As a creative writing student, I was often cautioned to avoid taking it personally if my instructor or another student read something I wrote about an event I actually experiences and then responded with words to the effect of, “There’s no way something like this could ever happen.” It’s advice that I’ve passed on to my students as I’ve taught creative writing as well, and I could go on and on about the whole “stranger than fiction” trope, but there’s a huge difference between someone not believing a story from your childhood and someone not believing the growing dangers of climate change. Multiply those deniers by several million, and add in the structural frameworks that keep encouraging people to disbelieve the mounting evidence that we’re already in the first years of a climate catastrophe, and the critical panning of Don’t Look Up quickly turns from a small annoyance to a huge sign of something fundamentally broken in our society.

It’s horrific enough that the willful ignorance of science has exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic to the point it’s at right now, but for those of us who can survive the illnesses out there, we’re hurtling at breakneck speed towards widespread ecological disasters that could easily mess our lives up much worse than the pandemic has so far. That would be bad enough in and of itself, but the fact that we’re now in a situation where accurate depictions of the dangers of our current path are getting brushed off as so much “unrealistic writing” is deeply disturbing on too many levels to count. The people who will inherit this planet from the rest of us aren’t actors in some yet-to-be-made Hollywood movie; they’re real people who will have very real needs for a habitable planet, and unless we start immediately taking those needs with as much urgency as they deserve, then we’re writing the epitaph for that planet with our actions, and that epitaph will be written far more poorly than the worst film ever.

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