“We actually live in a quantum world, and once we fully grasp that, nothing will ever be the same again.”
Hollywood is one of our most powerful myth-making machines, with movies working best when they immerse us in the stories we are concurrently telling ourselves about ourselves. At their best, movies can act as catalysts for sudden shifts in social conscience and collective consciousness. Just to cite one example, “To Kill a Mockingbird” helped change the way most white people thought about race when it was made into a movie in 1962. A more contemporary example is “The Matrix” (1999), which shifted the way we relate to the dominant paradigm.
As a climate psychologist, I along with some of my colleagues have felt the Earth shifting a little bit under our feet since Adam McKay and David Sirota’s movie “Don’t Look Up,” along with the Christmas comet, streaked into public view a few weeks ago. After watching the movie myself, and being profoundly moved by the last supper scene, I went onto FB and saw that “1.4M people are talking about this.” I immediately thought of the 2017 publication of “Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells in NY Magazine, which was read by millions in just a few weeks. Except that with this streaming movie, we’re actually talking about well over 100M views
in the first weeks!
As someone with a degree in communications who has long monitored media with a view towards understanding our collective climate dysphoria, I can attest to the ‘sea-change’ in the way we relate to the climate crisis that was catalyzed by Wallace-Wells’ hard-hitting article. In the immediate aftermath of its publication, Greta Thunberg’s lonely protest caught the world’s attention, Extinction Rebellion took over the streets of London, declaring a climate emergency, and there was a concordant shift in the tone of the reports coming from the UN’s IPCC.
One of the people who contributed to previous IPCC reports, and who is now co-chairing the IPBES transformative change assessment, is social scientist and IPCC Nobel laureate Karen O’Brien, from the University of Oslo. In her shape-shifting new book about “quantum social change,” You Matter More Than You Think
(2021), O’Brien asserts that “the energy embedded in quantum metaphors may be critical to improvising social change in an entangled world.” One of the metaphors she cites is “quantum leap,” which is directly relevant here to the kind of shift in collective climate consciousness we saw with “Uninhabitable Earth” — which coincidentally inspired
McKay to make this movie. As O’Brien explains, citing physicist Karen Barad’s work:
“[Q]uantum leaps occur in liminal or in-between spaces that have no direct correlates in our classical conceptualization of reality. Perhaps this ‘space between things’ transcends our individuality and is about connection. Whether we refer to this liminal space as [I/we] or [whole/parts], it can be a powerful source of quantum social change.”
In this context, the many attempts to review McKay’s movie as a movie, rather than a phenomenon, ring hollow. The true relevance of this artistic endeavor is that he and Sirota, working with two of Hollywood’s most socially conscientious stars, have created a powerful counter-cultural statement that taps into something deep in our collective psyche. And they just may succeed in shifting the way we relate to the climate crisis, which is clearly their intention.
There is quite a lot being written about the many-layered messages and takeaways from this startling film, though really not much in the way of consensus at this point. That’s probably a good thing. As Joan Didion observed: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” And the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves predetermine our actions. McKay himself points out that “when it comes to climate change, we are all in the writers’ room right now, deciding how the story unfolds and how it ends.”
So just as we couldn’t have predicted the Children’s Movement emerging in the wake of Wallace-Well’s “Uninhabitable Earth,” so it is folly to predict what might yet emerge from the liminal space of active social dialogue that has been opened by “Don’t Look Up” (DLU). That being said, I have two perspectives to offer on this movie.
As a long-time, frustrated climate activist, the most obvious point of DLU was, perhaps, the most overlooked: we have been looking to all the wrong people and institutions to solve this problem
. As at least one other viewer, sustainability expert Lisa Mazzon, succinctly noted
“Applying a ‘we’ against ‘them' dichotomy to the climate crisis will not bring us one inch closer to solving it. Any movie or article which wants to convince us we are dealing with a lack of knowledge or disbelief in science, is leading us deeper into the problem… [T]he ultimate polluters of this climate crisis are me, you, and our lifestyles… We are the cause and so [are we] the solution.”
We’ll circle back on that false binary. As a climate psychologist, I was ‘struck’ by the more subtle and salutary storylines from DLU. Of all the lol lines in the movie, and there are many, the one I laughed at hardest was when President Orlean, played breezily by Meryl Steep, responds to the scientific certainty of a direct strike by exclaiming: “You cannot go around saying to people that there’s a 100% chance that they’re gonna die! (nervously chuckling) You know? It’s just nuts.” She then attempts to dismiss the messengers, who, as her narcissistic son points out, are not from an Ivy League school. The direct pivot from death-denial to attacking the scientists is revealing.
Of course, there is a 100% chance that we’re all “gonna die.” But Orlean is nonetheless right - in our death-phobic culture
, there is a social taboo against talking about the end of life with such matter-of-fact certainty (as a hospice provider, I’ve noticed this taboo even for people who are clearly dying). Death used to be much more a part of life in our world, but overwhelmed by industrial warfare and Hiroshima
, and concurrent with the Great Acceleration (the root of our current crisis), we decided to institutionalize old age and medicalize dying, further succumbing to the grand delusion that we now controlled Nature. Is it any wonder, then, that faced with an existential threat like global warming - which reveals how little control we actually have - people don’t really want to hear about the radical changes to our way of living the urgency of this existential crisis demands?
Which is the whole point, it seems, of America’s performative culture that is skewered by the script writers in DLU, devastatingly depicted by the morning news hosts who insist on putting a banal spin on the news of a planet-killing comet hurtling towards Earth. There is great irony, of course, in a satire of performative culture by some of our culture’s greatest performers, just as there is irony in being directed to a website
with suggestions for altering our lifestyle by the uber-rich jet-setter Leonardio DiCaprio. These ironies may detract from, but in no way should diminish, the salience of this critique.
The performative nature of our culture is rooted in the empty solipsism of the 1980s, the very time when we learned of global warming, and metastasized with reality-TV (“Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous”), 24-hour news and its opinionated format (“Morning Joe”), and social media (Kardashians!). Andy Warhol must have had internet influencers in mind when he predicted that in the future, everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. The reason performative culture makes it so difficult for us to respond to the existential threat posed by our lifestyle is not the obvious one; that is, that it is endlessly distracting. Rather, it’s the way we may mask and perpetuate the underlying, monstrous pretense of modern society.
Just as McKay says, we are all writers now, so we are all performers immersed in this performative culture. We play along at the cost of our lives. What is the shared pretense that underlies all of our performances of our roles in the world? It’s the notion that we have things under control. That somehow, things will work out. Command and control - the pretense of oppressors. It is full of hubris, of course, precisely because we are not in control, as Covid reminds us daily, and there is no happy ending to this unnatural, contrived story.
But still - STILL! - we continue to do what we’ve always done, sustained by this “cult of personality,” this performative culture. We play by the rules of society’s game until we finally realize that there are no real winners in this game. Hopefully, enough of us come to that realization before it’s too late, as it is for Dr. Mindy when, at his last supper with family and friends just before the moment of impact, amidst a stream of heartbreaking video snippets of bees, babies and polar bears, he ruminates plaintively: “The thing of it is, you know, we really did have everything, didn’t we? I mean, when you think about it.”
To his credit, DiCaprio devotes a great deal of his time, energy and resources on pursuing climate solutions, especially the One Earth approach
of ecological recovery, and he ad-libbed that concluding line as a personal statement. We really do have it all. And that’s the problem. Because we can’t just live forever with an assumption that things will work out in the end. We are the comet this time. Our lifestyle as a shallow performance of life - not the real thing at all. We are the problem, and we are the solution. It’s our choice - not that of our political leaders, their corporate overlords, or our techie gatekeepers.
As climate futurist Alex Steffen recently put it
, this human agency requires us to be present for our own lives - and, I would add, mindful of our own mortality - rather than acting out the lives others would have us live:
“[I]t’s important to live when we are. Being native to now, I think, is our deepest responsibility in the face of all this. And being at home in the world we actually inhabit means refusing to consign ourselves to living in the ruins of continuity, but instead realizing we live in the rising foundations of a future that actually works. It may be a fierce, wild, unrecognizable future, but that doesn’t mean it’s a broken future. Indeed, it’s the present that’s broken beyond redemption. When it comes down to it, humanity’s discontinuity is made up of billions of personal discontinuities. Facing our own discontinuity forces the reality of changes that we desperately want to think of as ‘out there’ into our own work, our own lives, our own homes, our own hearts. Even this, though, can be liberating.”
And thinking that making radical changes to our lifestyle won’t matter raises another important quantum metaphor O’Brien places at the heart of social change. Just as with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle
, “individuals are analogous to both
waves.” In other words, local actions have nonlocal impacts when they’re part of a “social wave function” like equity, diversity, or sustainability. Quantum leaps tend to arise from states of maximum chaos, where a new order suddenly coalesces out of the kind of intolerable disorder we observe in society today.
Upwards of seventy percent of us are ready to make changes in our lives in response to climate chaos - which represents a sea-change in itself - but are not sure what changes to make. That is a giant social wave function just waiting for the right catalyst to collapse into transformative changes. What might that social wave, so full of unrealized potential, look like when it finally collapses? And might it collapse before our global economy collapses? Before we reach the ecological tipping points by which Gaia collapses in on herself (and us)?
That is the terrifying liminal space we inhabit.
Like the nascent Anthropocene, this so-called “information age” is still in-formation. As Austrian mystic Thomas Hübl maintains, it is our own unresolved experience of trauma in relation to this larger existential crisis that blocks the free flow of information. When we unblock that flow, by first acknowledging and then resolving the underlying traumas, then we free up energy to integrate the knowledge being imparted to us by the larger living organism of which we are all integral parts.
As interdisciplinary systems thinker Mark Skelding suggests, we’re all part of a feedback loop
in Gaia’s ‘psychosphere’ by which she monitors, signals and manages her state of equilibrium over time. As sentient nodes within that living system we cannot help but experience her distress signals, though at present we still tend to pathologize them as symptoms of purely personal distress (e.g., “eco-anxiety”). As Skelding points out, “if we applied this approach to riding a bicycle we would constantly dismiss the pull of gravity as some sort of personal failing – and end up in the ditch with monotonous regularity.”
When we instead open ourselves up to receiving feedback information, whether at the scale of a bicycle or a planet, we come into fuller understanding and alter our behaviors accordingly. When we can do this in the context of the [I/her] Gaian relationship, it looks like changing the habits by which we inhabit the biosphere, and we enter into healing relationship with the larger organism at the “local” (ecosystem) level. This in turn contributes to a cumulative, non-local social force that helps in freeing up the flow of information to other individuals and systems as well.
This is not mere social theory - it is the observed, organic reality of what is transpiring all around us. It may still seem obscure only because the cresting social wave function has yet to collapse. At the level of the particle (us), the individual cells in Gaia’s immune defense system have yet to cohere into an effectual critical mass. But inexorably, like a streaking comet, that is the direction in which climate trauma is compelling us to go.
At least, that’s my climate story, and I’m sticking to it! As McKay says, we’re all script writers for this new climate story. It’s time we all began exercising some artistic license. As O’Brien concludes:
“[W]hen we act in the moment, with an awareness and an intention that is based on the recognition that [I/we] are connected, we create space for new possibilities to emerge.”
We humans are not meant to have it all. We are, instead, meant to heal, to become whole, not just as a species, but as a planet. Systemic change is a transformational, not a linear, process. And we each have a role to play in that transformation.
We have one decade. Don’t look away.