Don’t Make Me Watch: The new climate film celebrates malpractice martyrdom and enviros of all stripes are cheering it on

Megan Seibert | March 31, 2022 | Leave a Comment

The original article appeared on Medium on January 22, 2022

I had to force myself to watch Don’t Look Up. It was painful. Just as painful as it’s been to watch the litany of reviews extolling its virtues, with one righteous climate scientist and environmentalist after another claiming to identify with the valiant yet unsuccessful fights put forth by the film’s heroic characters.

Of course, this was all predictable. Which is why I tried to avoid watching the movie and remain in a bubble of detached bliss, protected from the nonsense I suspected would ensue. But still – surely, I thought, more people than just me and a few comrade-in-arms would see through the misplaced self-indulgence. Mainstream enviros would have their congratulatory field day, yes, but surely there’s a strong contingent on the fringe who saw what was plainly obvious to me and my small posse? Perhaps this is a cathartic clarion call to that silent contingent.

As heroic as climate scientists and climate activists are often made out to be, the trouble is that most of them are barking up the wrong tree. 

They’ve made the wrong diagnosis and are offering up a snake oil cure – a cure that’s not only totally detached from biophysical reality, but that would actually make the real problem worse. Even the few who grasp what that real problem is still mostly don’t understand its full implications and are offering up incomplete or altogether off-the-mark solutions.

So, let’s start with the diagnosis. We have no hope of fixing a problem or curing a disease if we don’t fully, accurately understand it. 

The diagnosis sold to the public by mainstream enviros (this includes climate scientists, climate activists, and the environmental community at large) is climate change. Climate change, we’re told – and as most of the public is convinced – is the fundamental problem facing humanity, the existential issue of our time. If we don’t address climate change, mean surface temperatures, and extreme weather events will make much of the planet uninhabitable for humans.

As to the cure, mainstream enviros tell us that the way to address climate change is through a Fourth Industrial Revolution. We need to replace all (or some? – enviros seem uncertain on this) fossil fuels with clean, green, environmentally friendly, zero-carbon energy sourced by solar panels, high-tech wind turbines, hydropower, and nuclear (but again, enviros are torn on which of these are actually “clean” and therefore acceptable). 

We need to electrify everything, we’re told since these miracle technologies only generate electricity. To do these two things, we need to embark on a WWII-style build-out. All we need is for governments to wake up and take action and for capitalists to realize all the profits waiting to be made from building the new stuff. Then, boom: existential crisis solved. Catastrophe averted. In short: isolate the sole problematic variable in the system, replace it, then tweak the other variables so they can interface with the new one. But the system can remain as it is. All we need to do is switch out parts, making them greener and fairer.

Wait a minute! If we sober up and sleep it off, we can shift gears and think anew about this half-baked fantasy with our big boy and big girl pants on. Returning to the diagnosis with our fresh perspective – and new pants. Any systems thinker, like any good doctor or healer, can see that climate change is only one symptom of a greater disease. What about all the other life on the planet we’re killing off? What about rampant pollution – of all kinds, everywhere? What about water scarcity and all the soil that’s being blown away and washed to the sea? And all the social dysfunction and upheaval and dissatisfaction? There’s a common thread to all of it (including climate change), and that thread is ecological overshoot. Our real problem. Overshoot is a basic ecological phenomenon that occurs in Nature and is taught in any ecology program. 

It can also be deduced from common sense. It happens when plentiful resources enable a species to grow exponentially to the point where its then excessive size outstrips resource production and the ability of its surroundings to process its waste. The susceptible population then crashes (i.e., there’s a massive die-off) – perhaps even abetted by disease and/or predators – and the habitat is then able to regenerate slowly over time. Overshoot can happen to any species under “the right” circumstances. 

It’s happened again and again throughout documented human history, and it should be no surprise that we’re in the midst of yet another “boom and bust” cycle right now – an unprecedented one because of the sheer power of our technologies, made possible by a one-off inheritance of fossil fuels to extract resources, multiply our numbers, and prodigiously generate waste.

Hence, the underlying crux of our intertwined social-ecological crises: there are too many of us, consuming and polluting too much. 

Climate change is just one of many pollution problems. But it isn’t the problem – it’s a symptom of the underlying problem. Which leads to the truly effective cure. If overshoot – too many of us consuming and polluting too much, all enabled by fossil fuels – is the problem, then the solution is pretty simple (theoretically speaking): bring down our numbers and lessen the demands we’re placing on the planet by ceasing fossil fuel use. In other words, orchestrate our own “bust” before Nature does. Why? Because we can do so humanely and with less suffering, if we choose to, rather than Nature’s bust, which will be painful and chaotic.

Now, here’s the rub. This sounds rather lovely, what with its timelessly appealing message of living in harmony with the Earth (except to those who have started hurling the predictably ludicrous buzzwords of eco-fascist, racist, misanthrope, totalitarian-lover-who-wants-genocide, etc., etc. Let’s not engage with their juvenile absurdity). 

But what would it actually look like in practice?

Even those who grasp overshoot as the underlying problem don’t always understand the full implications of what it will take to respond effectively and within the bounds of reality.

An honest, sober assessment of overshoot leads to the unavoidable conclusion that:

  • Modern techno-industrial civilization exists only because of fossil fuels and will cease to exist without them. What lies ahead isn’t merely an issue of tweaking the system – of electrifying and ‘greening’ everything or just lessening our impact. What’s before is that our entire way of life is built on a finite energy source for which there are no quantitative or qualitative replacements. Once that energy source ceases to exist (whether we choose to stop using fossil fuels or we run out because the remaining reserves are too expensive to tap), so too will the system itself. But this is a good thing because as we all know, the current system is broken and toxic. We want something entirely new (and viable) to rise from its ashes.
  • What’s being sold as renewable energy technologies aren’t renewable or sustainable. An abundance of evidence supports this commonsense assertion for those who wish to seek it out. (My organization is a great compendium of this information, both our own analyses and those of others). This means we have to get real about what actually constitutes renewable energy. There are the basics: woody biomass, passive solar, simple mechanical power generated from wind and water, and human (possibly animal, if we so choose) power. And then there’s the cutting edge, that which we can rediscover and discover anew: reconceptualizing what energy means, moving beyond the limited mechanistic and digital domain.
  • Responding to overpopulation goes way beyond stopping continued growth or having smaller families – it means getting down, as rapidly and of course humanely as possible, to the one billion or fewer people that can actually thrive sustainably and in material comfort without fossil fuels and everything they unsustainably enable.

In short, there are roughly three main camps. The first camp is people who think that climate change is the problem who shout “Climate change! Governments need to act!” by which they explicitly or implicitly mean building solar panels and wind turbines and EVs and the like. It’s easy to “get” climate change. It’s an entirely different matter to see the bigger picture within which it rests and understand what will actually alleviate it and what will actually – perhaps even counterintuitively – make it worse. People in this camp have the wrong diagnosis and the wrong cure.

The second camp is comprised of people who get overshoot, whether to some degree or fully, but who still advocate for what I call faux renewables, who don’t go all the way on overpopulation or even touch it all, or who still advocate for some form of tweakerism. Saying we need de-growth or less consumption doesn’t cut it if you’re still advocating for/abdicating on these things. Recognizing that faux renewables aren’t sustainable – and are in fact harmful – but still advocating for them, whether as a permanent solution or a bridge or in small amounts, also doesn’t cut it. Understanding that planetary boundaries have been exceeded but thinking that overpopulation isn’t a culprit or that faux renewables wouldn’t exacerbate it, or that more recycling (aka a “circular economy”) is the answer, doesn’t cut it either. This camp has, for the most part, the right diagnosis but, for the most part, the wrong cure.

And finally, there are those who get overshoot and the trifecta: that faux renewables are faux, that a sustainable population is one billion or less, and that modern techno-industrial life is impossible to maintain without fossil fuels. Right diagnosis, right cure.

Don’t Look Up implicitly paints people in the first camp as heroes – people who are giving us the wrong diagnosis and proposing the wrong cure yet are lamenting that what they’re saying is falling on deaf ears. Even people in the second camp, who can see past the narrow lens of the climate-only diagnosis, are identifying with the film’s heroes simply because they’ve been shouting from the rooftops, seemingly unheard, about some aspect of our predicament. 

But shouting from rooftops isn’t enough. We need to be shouting about the right things. Particularly when so much is at stake. The problem with the movie is that it celebrates martyrdom for the wrong cause; it celebrates malpractice on a grand scale. If you identify with martyrdom, that’s fine (though wearing it on your shirtsleeve probably isn’t the best look), but identifying with mis- and even dangerously-guided martyrs? That’s just about as topsy-turvy as the film’s bass awkwardness: the very insanity it laments is, ironically, precisely what it embodies.

Megan Seibert is a systems thinker who founded The REAL Green New Deal Project in response to the overwhelmingly short-sighted rhetoric about energy and sustainability, filling a need for sober analysis and bold truth-telling. Her eclectic professional path includes horse packing in the wildernesses of Montana and Wyoming and working in the environmental and defense sectors. She has an M.S. in Systems Science/Environmental Management from Portland State University and an international studies B.S. with core STEM from the U.S. Air Force Academy. A bridger of opposites, Megan holds together the rational and intuitive, the analytical and creative, and the likelihood of a dark future with the faith that it need not be so if only we commit ourselves. After a 15-year yoga practice and being exposed to Eastern philosophies in graduate school, she began exploring shamanism, animism, astrology, and teacher plants.

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