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Reply To: Don’t Look Up: The Doomsday Dilettante,” with mythologist Norland Téllez”


Thank you Robert, so glad you decided to join our COHO on Don’t Look Up. As always, you provide great nuance in handling the topic. And I am in full agreement with what you’ve said, to begin with, that we should first all challenge the conventional language. You are absolutely right, that “climate change” makes one think we’re only talking about changing weather. I like your suggestion of calling it instead something like anthropogenic climate decline. Others have suggested human-caused “climate chaos” which also captures the true meaning.

I also sympathize with your sympathy for the urgency of the matter, which those kids in the video you shared certainly grasped. In response, Feinstein could do nothing but wield her authority over them like a cudgel “to put them in their place,” flashing her credentials of an old-standing guardian of the status quo.

Acknowledging the urgency means that despite the “nebulousness” of climate science— the fact that it works through statistical analysis and modeling rather than linear cause-and-effect predictions— there are enough concrete markers of empirical evidence to warrant such urgent action. We can see these effects all arounds us; from a certain point view, the evidence is overwhelming—like a comet about to hit earth.

Notwithstanding the complications, we should all be sympathetic to a certain measure of oversimplification in order to take action, as we’re dealing with an existential threat and not just another story among others.

As I think of the logic of this problem, I am always brought to a point of reflection about creativity. Whenever I am engaged in my art, when I’m drawing or painting no less than when I write, the challenge is always the same: to make things as simple as possible. The world is infinitely complicated, never to be fully grasped, but our image of the world, if it’s going to mean anything, must be made simpler than the world is. For this is the precondition of being in a position to say something about it and issue a response.

This “alchemical” reduction of the primal matter of the Real, the massa confusa at the start of the Opus, may have something to do with the creative instinct that likes to make order out of chaos. But it is also a property inherent in the functioning of human understanding as such.

And speaking of chaos, is it not the implications of chaos theory and statistical analysis that make climate science so difficult to understand? I’m not even going to pretend that I fully grasp it myself! Nevertheless, with respect to this issue of knowability, I think the film still provides nice parallels.

For although it was known with an almost 100% certainty that the comet would smash into earth, this knowledge remained obscure to the general public.  Because it was not directly visible, the existence of the comet could be ignored, even by government officials. Precluding direct observation, the comet was like the arcane knowledge of experts locked away in their ivory towers, looking at a dot in the sky. But that is exactly what everyone saw the night the comet became visible in the sky.

This is a great analogy of the difference between empirical knowledge and myths or stories. What begins as a dot in the sky is not just another story. Where stories try to give meaning to a life, science studies precisely what is perfectly meaningless, the “accidental” nature of Nature, the nature of what simply is, irrespective of any human meaning or purpose. The comet hurling towards the earth has no particular meaning; it means nothing at all; it is completely non-essential. It simply is on a collision course with Earth.

Although much simplified, this is a fundamental analogy of our knowledge of human-caused climate decline. From the moment it becomes a verifiable scientific fact, the phenomenon still requires a little faith to grasp. But in a media space and culture where this type of faith and trust on authorities has eroded so much, scientific knowledge comes to be regarded as one more “myth” among others. Although this is a fashionable belief in many “spiritual” circles around myth, it can be extremely dangerous, as the film suggests. For when the critical line between empirical knowledge and belief/faith is no longer recognizable as such, when everyone is content with private truth (i.e., ideology), we wind up in a culture of mendacity, a “post-truth” disinformation culture where myths proliferate without bounds. Such a loss of the common logos of self-understanding, or the proliferation of “personal mythologies,” so the film seems to say, which has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, is a very serious existential threat.

The movie shows us that such a flippant attitude towards scientific knowledge, the very lack of rationality, flawed and limited as human beings are, nevertheless leads to disaster. Our inability to grasp basic facts and truths in the face of impending disaster will come to bite us in the end, when it is too late. For the moment that you can “see” the comet in the sky, banking on irrefutable sense certainty, it means we have already failed.