“What would happen if every human suddenly disappeared?” asks an animated video that I found my six-year-old watching on YouTube Kids. Its answer: “The earth’s climate will start to recover from the damages caused by human activities. . . . Without humans, our planet would ultimately be fine and thrive.”
That sort of anti-humanist, apocalyptic nihilism, usually related to environmentalist fearmongering, has become all too common in our culture.
Clearly we have some serious environmental problems we need to fix. Let’s start with the context. Nearly eight billion people on the planet all want to eat, have a pleasant place to live, dress in functional clothing, stay warm in winter and cool in summer, have good medical care, travel, recreate, and, in today’s world, connect digitally to global networks of trade and communication.
Hence, people use a lot of energy. We need to use far more energy to lift everyone out of poverty and to continue to improve people’s lives. And mostly we’ve been burning fossil fuels to get the energy we need to live and thrive. A side-effect is that we’ve pushed a lot of additional carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, and, in the coming decades, global warming will impose serious damage, as we’re already starting to see. That’s a hard problem, and a key part of the solution is to switch to carbon-free modes of energy production, which I am confident we will do.
No sensible person believes that global warming threatens to destroy the entire planet, cause the extinction of all life on earth, cause the extinction of human life, or cause the fall of human civilization. Anyone who suggests otherwise is a science-denying fearmonger.
So, of course, the new hit Netflix film Don’t Look Up, written and directed by Denver native Adam McKay with a story and production credit to Denver activist David Sirota, likens global warming to a giant comet that threatens to instantly wipe out all life on earth.
To belabor what to any sensible person is obvious: The threat of climate change is nothing like that of an extinction-level comet or asteroid. The magnitude of potential harm, although large and very serious, is radically lower.
Unlike the burning of fossil fuels, which has enabled billions of additional people to live, and to mostly live radically longer and better lives, there is no upside to a comet collision. We need to transition away from fossil fuels; we need to avoid comets entirely if we can.
Whereas the destruction of a large comet collision is instant and catastrophic, the harms of global warming accrue over many decades and can be addressed over many decades. And, whereas by definition we could not recover from an extinction-level collision, we can and will take steps to reverse the problems of global warming through carbon capture and other technologies.
Brilliant satire regardless
All that said, Don’t Look Up is a great film that I very much enjoyed despite its shark-jumping indirect environmentalist fearmongering. Taken on its own terms, as a dark comedy about humanity facing what really is (in the story) threat of immediate and total destruction, the film brilliantly satires human irrationality and moral weakness. McKay is the Jonathan Swift of our age. (Spoiler alert for comments that follow.)
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence brilliantly portray the lead characters, astronomers who discover the comet and heroically seek to get people, including the Trump-like president, to take the threat seriously. Yet DeCaprio’s character has his own failings, as he gets caught up in the excitement of prestige and for a time covers for the president and cheats on his wife with a high-powered but shallow journalist. Eventually he rediscovers his backbone.
The film thrashes both our superficial social-media culture with its emphasis on stupid “memes” and celebrity gossip and broadcast news journalism with its frequent focus on the glamorous and the salacious. In the film, a celebrity breakup and reunion often generates more attention and news than does a planet-destroying comet. When Lawrence’s character, exasperated by the lack of focus, loses her cool on national TV, the story becomes her outburst rather than the substance of her warnings.
Aside from the magnitude of the threat, Don’t Look Up more closely parallels the pandemic than global warming in some ways. Donald Trump, betting that ignorance is bliss, really did make light of the pandemic and hamper testing early on. (Thankfully, Trump also promoted vaccines both as president and more recently as a private citizen.) Many people spread and believed bogus claims about various treatments and conspiracy theories about the pandemic and vaccines.
Government is not our savior
However, in an important respect, Don’t Look Up parallels neither global warming nor the pandemic, and that is in its adulation of state bureaucracy and demonization of business leaders. In the film, the president, finally having come to her senses, is all set to launch space vehicles to save the planet from the comet. In the film, government has no problem pulling off a successful campaign. But then the Evil Businessman convinces the president to call off the campaign so that he can blow the comet into pieces and capture its valuable minerals. Of course he fails and the earth blows up.
This is where the film devolves into leftist propaganda. Government is the savior, and the only thing stopping Big Government from solving all our problems, which it easily could do if we’d just elect socialist-Progressive overseers, is Evil Business. But should we expect any better, given that Sirota is an editor-at-large with the openly socialist Jacobin magazine? Perhaps if Sirota would bother to Look Up he would observe that, in the real world, socialism has resulted in the most bloody regimes in human history—Chairman Mao is the worst mass-murderer of all time—and continues to devastate countries including North Korea and Venezuela.
In the pandemic, although government did have some successes in spurring production of the vaccines, overall the government massively failed in its response to Covid. Federal bureaucracies actively hampered efforts to build a testing infrastructure, initially gave the wrong advice on masks, and outlawed the vaccines for months when they could have been safely distributed much earlier. Far from saving us from this crisis, the federal government in many ways actively took the side of the virus. Yet socialists such as Sirota systematically refuse to Look Up to compare real-world government to their dogmatic utopian fantasy of government.
Meanwhile, Big Business for the most part came through the pandemic with flying colors. Thanks to computer and internet industries, millions of people could productively work from home rather than gather at an office. We could shop online and watch TV and movies online without swapping as many germs. Businesses ramped up production of protective gear and the like. Although long hampered by federal bureaucracy, eventually private businesses began churning out rapid tests. And, of course, major pharmaceutical corporations produced the Covid vaccines and new treatments with breathtaking speed. Yet socialists rarely Look Up to observe the real-world benefits of capitalism.
In terms of climate change, the open aim of many socialists is not to hasten the transition to fossil-free energies but to use climate change as a pretext to destroy the free market. If we actually lived in a more-capitalist society, rather then in a bureaucracy-heavy mixed economy, we probably would have made the transition to nuclear energy decades ago. But “Green” activists in collaboration with Big Government put a stop to that, causing our continued reliance on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, business executives such as Elon Musk have pressed ahead with solar energy and electric cars, albeit with substantial government assistance. I readily concede that government plays an important role in a capitalist society to regulate pollution, which is why I advocate a Carbon Compensation Fund to account for the harms of global warming.
In terms of risks from comets and asteroids, I concede that NASA has taken the lead in addressing the problem. Even there, though, NASA relies heavily on otherwise-private businesses to build the sort of space tech necessary to detect and potentially divert dangerous space rocks. Although this may illustrate a larger need for government than many conservatives and libertarians admit (I’m not sure about that), the message that government is our savior while business is inherently evil clearly does not fit the data.
I wholeheartedly agree with the basic message of the film Don’t Look Up: We should strive to see reality for what it is using reason, observation, and the scientific method rather than succumb to irrationalism, dogmatism, escapism, tribalism, or conspiracy mongering. I only wish the makers of the film would more consistently follow their own advice and just Look Up.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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