Science

Don’t Look Up, the movie that looked the other way

The case seems solved. A biting fable about a childish society, unaware of the dangers that threaten it, Don’t Look Up (Adam McKay, 2021) hides the danger of climate change behind the cosmic accident. As the physicist and philosopher of science Etienne Klein tirelessly repeats with his melodious voice, it would be enough to listen to the scientists for everything to turn out better.

Our societies, it is true, spin bad cotton. When you’ve got your nose in the handlebars of everyday blindness, watching you scratch the mighty or mock the latest incarnation of capitalism, disguised as an avatar of Elon Musk (played by Mark Rylance), is fun. That’s what movies are for, right?

I, too, was relieved to see the Trumpification of leaders generally portrayed as the saviors of humanity pointed out. I also laughed to finally see caricatured the embarrassing electrified greenwashing industrialist and supporter of the colonization of Mars, extolled by the weeklies of bourgeois reason.

But since everyone, looking up, sees the climate emergency under the meteor, shouldn’t we also question the strange choice to resort to metaphor? In 2021, to talk about global warming, why do we still need to talk about something other than global warming?

Certainly, cultural productions are used to these diversions whose function is to put us face to face with what escapes us. The memory of the extinction of the dinosaurs should serve as a lesson. Look for! Look up, damn it! And we can see the success of this simple slogan many times.

Maybe a little too much. Contrary to the lesson of the film, for two years, the management of SARS-CoV-2 has been carried out effectively with an eye on epidemiological indicators. Trump himself has largely unraveled due to his chaotic handling of the pandemic.

However, despite our biological knowledge and great therapeutic successes, such as the ultra-rapid development of vaccines, the day-to-day discovery of the effects of a new virus places science at its limits. It is very possible that governments take more into account the advice of specialists, but these are not unanimous, change according to observations and may even be ineffective. Without offending Etienne Klein, the Covid has not finished surprising us.

This is the first issue of Don’t Look Up, telling us not so much about the science or how it actually works, but more about the dreamy authority on a comic book science, who would always have all the right answers. . In the film, the doctoral student and the professor are less scholars than whistleblowers. And the fact that it seems quite normal to us that they find themselves the next moment in the Oval Office in front of the President of the United States is a legacy of disaster movies, without the slightest connection with the laborious journey of producing scientific consensus.

A science of cinema is what logically responds to a catastrophe of cinema. The most arguable choice of the film is to have preserved the quintessential model of disaster management in Hollywood: the inescapable and, so to speak, biblical danger of the near-Earth meteor. Armageddon (Michael Bay, 1998) or Deep Impact (Mimi Leder, 1998) have explored the variants of a cataclysm that has the characteristic of placing the United States in a position of sole resource, through the peaceful instrument of a science that generously extends its benefits for all mankind, while remaining under the control of the American administration – NASA.

This legacy of the Cold War, a reminder of the most spectacular engineering successes of the 20th century, is now facing unexpected competition from billionaires imbued with images of space conquest. Today it is Elon Musk’s rockets that are used to reach the ISS, and we can see as a kind of internal reckoning in the history of American culture the fate of Don’t Look Up to this stowaway of a prestigious history .

But climate change is not a natural disaster, nor a one-off event whose progression can be measured with the certainty of celestial mechanics, much less a threat that can be resolved in an office by a few powerful people who are sure of their good rights, outside of any democratic debate. As the recent book Criminals Climatic by journalist Mickaël Correia (La Découverte, 2022) reminds us, which describes the strategies of the three largest companies that emit greenhouse gases, global warming has very human causes. Its main leaders are not distant enemies, but are among the actors best integrated into the economic system of our democracies.

This is why it is irrelevant to reduce the reception of the climate challenge to a drama of beliefs. If politicians oppose such resistance to the idea of ​​radical changes, it is not – with few exceptions – because they do not believe in rising temperatures, but rather in preserving the conditions for growth, the vital engine of the economy.

Don’t Look Up’s caricature of a public debate poisoned by denial fits the general idea that the threat of calamity causes panic among populations. This would have deserved a better theme in the script, because the film that invites us to look the truth in the face… is itself looking the other way. The choice of the cosmic metaphor is cautious, so as not to offend the producers or the public. Not talking about global warming is therefore a way of admitting that the subject is scary.

It is not certain that this approach to the problem is the most convincing. The fear raised by the prospect of climate change results both from the multidimensional scale of the phenomenon and from the breadth of efforts that are needed to change its course. Instead of mocking the supposed stupidity of our contemporaries, facing this fear is, in the opinion of whistleblower Greta Thunberg, the first step on the road to resilience.

The authoritarian response that has accompanied the Covid crisis so far shows the impasse of management dictated by urgency. Instead of relying on a hypothetical government of academics, the climate challenge instead suggests a return to a more effective practice of democracy. In fact, it is the observation of inaction that has led militant movements to preempt governments, to fuel public debate, and to impose change through changes in behaviour.

Cultural productions have a crucial role to play in putting this on the agenda. What the Don’t Look Up sidestep shows is that we’re still at the beginning of the process. To consider global warming, we will have to invent the right stories, confront the specific characters, the timescales, and the complexity of the effects involved in this new story. Honestly, we’re just waiting for that.

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