I am privileged to be able to spend my days working with scientists who want to learn how to turn their academic findings into information that the “general public” can understand and hopefully act upon. Many of the people I coach and train are natural scientists who have an up-close-and-personal view of human-caused climate change and global heating. Not only are they witness to what is happening now, but thanks to modelling, they have insights into what is likely to happen in the future. And frankly, for many of them, the future is at best worrying and at worst terrifying. They are continually perplexed at the disinterest in the problems they are uncovering by politicians, policy makers, the media, and us, the “general public*”.
I mention this because when I watched “Don’t look up” last night, I was overjoyed that someone in Hollywood had finally created a film that captured what scientists tell me that they experience. Sure, it’s a satire, but the basic storyline is one that I’ve heard time and again in my workshops and talks.
It goes like this:
- Scientists uncover something that is seriously detrimental to human beings.
- Scientists share their information with other experts in the field all over the world to make sure that their findings are correct. They do this by writing articles that are peer reviewed.
- Scientists reach a consensus about the severity of the problem. They don’t deal in absolutes, but when 97% of scientists agree that humans are causing global warming and climate change, and that this is going to have serious repercussions for us if no changes are made, then this is as close to 100% as we are going to get.
- Scientists, who are typically NOT trained in PR and media communication, are then expected to escalate their findings and if necessary, take their findings to the media.
At which point, they are:
- Ignored (because, hey, social media is so much more important, or the next elections are on the line, or look, there is some absurd influencer-come-pop-star doing something that is so much more interesting than living our own lives)
- Ridiculed for taking the science so seriously (because it may never happen, right? Don’t worry, be happy!)
- Asked for a balanced opinion (because 97% leaves 3% of room for discussion about complex topics by non-experts who offer counter-opinions based on faith, fake news, or some sort of group-think)
- Lambasted when they hold firm (because when someone is not only convinced of something but has rigorously tested facts to back up their convictions, it’s necessary to shake them down and break them)
- Turned into puppets (because scientists are among one of the most trusted groups in society according to the Pew Research center, which makes them ideal puppets for nefarious rulers and leaders who want to dupe the public)
- Excluded from the conversation (because if they aren’t willing to play the game, then they aren’t worth listening to any more)
Which results in bad things for people and planet. In the case of Adam McKay’s “Don’t look up”, a comet the size of Mount Everest hits planet earth as modelled by scientists, which causes an extinction event as indicated by scientists, and that’s the end of the earth as we know it.
What’s this “Don’t look up” all about?
The movie’s title, “Don’t look up”, references what becomes a political slogan against the scientists in the story (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio). In an effort to make the science as easy as possible people to digest, they tell people to just “Look up”. Why? Because the comet is VISIBLE in the night sky.
Nefarious politicians led by US president (played by Meryl Streep) and a social media-cum-mobile-phone entrepreneur (played by Mark Rylance) counter this sensible advice with “Don’t look up”. After all, if you can keep people looking down, focusing on the irrelevancies of life, if they don’t bother to see what is right in front of them… Well, then you can manipulate them and make money off them and keep them dumb and deaf and blind. All with their own permission.
There are parallels to be drawn
If you think that I am drawing a parallel between the movie and the challenges that we face right now with the climate crisis, you are spot on. Politicians and the media and conspiracy theorists and influencers don’t want us to look up. They want us to be so mired in the inconsequential of everyday life that we forget to really see and hear and experience what is happening right now. They want us to be deaf to the sensible advice that climate activists offer, ignorant of the solid data that backs scientific opinion, inert or even resistant to making changes that will save lives, in the next year, the next five years, the next 100 years.
They are so good at selling us what we desperately want to believe, which is that if ignore the problem it might go away, that we do exactly what they tell us to do. Unfortunately, this problem won’t go away.
In my most pessimistic moments, I think it will just get worse and worse. My friends’ children, most of whom aren’t even teenagers, may never have the experience of diving amongst colourful coral on the Great Barrier Reef because bleaching events have killed the corals. They won’t visit ice-covered glaciers in the summer months in Tirol where I live because global heating has melted them. Polar bears and Adélie penguins and leatherback sea turtles and koala bears and Atlantic cod may simply be images in books or captured in film, rather than living creatures. Never-ending political battles on the radio will focus on halting the movement of climate migrants who have to flee their homes because of severe weather events like floods and droughts and tornadoes. Perhaps they are fleeing because they are the first to run out of water.
Fortunately, I am not a scientist. Scientists are much more optimistic than I am. They see a way for humanity to make changes, to save ourselves and the planet. Some, like Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, think that the crucial thing now is act.
Now is the time to Look UP!
For me, that means that it is now more important than ever before for us to look up. Look up from our mobile phones, the political debates, the influencers, the advertising that wants us to consume eternally, the everyday niggles that take up so much of our time and energy.
Look up and see what we are doing to ourselves through the choices that we make.
Look up and see what the experts are telling us. Take time to educate ourselves a bit to ensure that their recommendations are based on scientific facts.
Look up and see what changes we can make in our own lives.
Look up and see what changes we can insist our communities and businesses and political bodies make.
Look up and see where we are.
Look up, and see where we can be, if we just do something.
Back to “Don’t look up”
I won’t offer you any more spoilers about the film. I’d suggest you watch it. See how hard the scientists work to share what they know. See how effective the powers-that-be are in playing down the bad news. And see how compliant the world is in believing the version of the facts that makes them feel happiest.
Then think about how we all act in the fact of the climate crisis, and make an active decision about how you want to respond. No response is a decision, too, and one that might not make the problem go away.
* I’ve put “general public” in quotation marks because this is an incredibly broad term. After all, the general public could be completely ignorant of the scientific research under discussion, or they may be relatively well informed, so perhaps we should stick with the unwieldy-but-more-accurate term of “non-experts”.
This post was originally posted on 30th January 2022 over at Suzanne Whitby’s personal blog.