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

Robert Juliano

I don’t know if this movie was intended to be an allegory of human-caused climate decline (I prefer this term to climate change in that the latter can refer to changes in climate that occur naturally), and I really do not care whether it is or is not such an allegory. However, it is very much worth reflecting on the parallels between the challenges faced by climate decline and those in the movie. And to consider such parallels, it is worth doing some legwork as to the real problems facing the understanding of and the development of solutions to climate decline.

One challenge, of course, is the exceedingly short lifespan of the human species. It is incredibly difficult to think on the scale of hundreds of thousands or millions of years. It is also very difficult to interpret the massive amounts of data that we have from things like deep ice core samples which can give us clues as to what the climate was like over vast distances in time. Many arguments between well-intentioned highly intelligent scholars precisely revolve around the interpretation of this data. Then there is the complexity involved in terms of developing a cause/effect interpretation on climate. It is quite unclear whether this is the best lens with which to use, and even if it is, the challenges are massive. Even using some of our greatest tools such as massively parallel supercomputing with possible AI support, it does not account for the incredibly large number of intricately complicated interactions necessary to form reasonable hypothesis on the human impact on climate. And then there is the challenge of employing a purely rational interpretation of the problem of climate decline, one in which it is easy to demand hard-and-fixed answers – binary yes or no – to the questions being posed and the solutions being offered.

All of this makes it incredibly easy to form divisions into how we look at our present circumstances and makes it exceedingly difficult to come to some sort of consensus. There are many diverse interests at stake and an immense history of and momentum behind the structures of power and influence that are currently in place. Crucially, it is clear that intellect alone will not be enough. It is worth noting that there are even claims, some made in good faith, some not, which hold that science itself is incapable of developing a cause/effect model for or interpretation of our climate and thus we cannot at present properly evaluate human behavior’s influence on climate.

Thus, even with respect to science alone, we find ourselves to be in extremely difficult circumstances. Now add to this so many of the other aspects of human life which pose challenges to seeing that a problem exists, fully understanding the problem, appreciating and valuing the problem, and making the difficult choices which could involve both short-term and long-term suffering with absolutely no guarantee on whether those choices will lead to the improvement of the situation.

In my opinion, the parallels between the movie and real life are not the coming catastrophe (comet vs. climate destruction), but in how much similarity there is in the challenges of even seeing that a problem exists and getting the right people to develop and implement solutions in the context of incredibly powerful and diverse interests which stand in the way. In the movie, the problem is quite simple – there is a comet verified using the scientific method and whose path can be determined through science and mathematics. The problem in the movie is far simpler to identify than that of human-caused climate decline. But even with a far simpler problem to identify, the challenges that are present in the movie completely overwhelmed them, and they are the same or similar challenges which are currently present with the far more nebulous problem of climate decline, it being far easier to ignore because of its nebulousness (is that a word?).

The movie has been criticized for practically bashing the viewers head with a sermon. But I am quite sympathetic with such “bashing.” Here, I recall an event a couple of years ago when Senator Diane Feinstein was confronted by young teenagers regarding climate decline. In contrast to the politicians, scientists, etc., it was the children who showed, in my opinion, the proper urgency of the problem – the understandable panic due to the tepid and self-serving approaches currently being taken.

The movie also shows another parallel – that of the challenges of communicating the problem to a widely diverse audience who may not share the same technical background to understand the problem and who do not want to hear the dire implications. In the past, I have been frustrated at how the description of human-caused climate decline has been dumbed down. But now I am somewhat more sympathetic. From a certain perspective, the urgency of the problem and the great urgency of a solution to that problem is not compatible with a slow nuanced debate on the existence of that problem, a debate which could go on indefinitely.

In my opinion, it is wrong to look at the problem and solution to human-caused climate decline in terms of a hero myth. There will be no heroes here. If there is to be a solution, it is likely to be brutal and cause extreme suffering for prolonged periods of time, suffering that could last for a number of generations. Far better would be to imagine the solution as the Goddess Kali at whose hand one is dismembered, but by whose hand one is put together again having a better sense of what is important and who is stronger because they have survived.