Not literally, but figuratively. Sorry for the clickbait title.
First of all, if you haven’t watched this movie yet, don’t read further until you do. It’s on Netflix and it’s excellent. The rest of this post assumes you’ve seen the movie.
What I mean is the premise of the movie is real, thematically, right now, in reality. What’s different are the details which, to be fair, are significantly different.
Our global civilization is currently, non-metaphorically, in real life, facing an existential threat – it’s just not an asteroid (at least that I know of). But we are facing something just as potentially deadly – the Metacrisis.
What is the Metacrisis?
The Metacrisis is the sum of a large number of crises that are all bearing down on us. A non-exhaustive list includes: climate change, desertification, soil loss, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, polarization of society, wealth and income inequality, collapse of the financial system, peak oil, AI, bioweapons, water scarcity, pandemics, and nuclear war. There are, of course, more.
This is obviously a very different threat than the one in ‘Don’t Look Up’. Probably the most significant difference in the natures of the two different threats is how deterministic they are. In ‘Don’t Look Up’ the threat is very deterministic, i.e. it’s eminently clear how and when the threat (asteroid) will appear. This is due to the fact that the motion of large bodies in space is very well understood and the math of physics can make extremely accurate predictions thereof. In the movie they were able to determine precisely when and where the disaster would strike with extremely high confidence (99.78% or whatever it was) more than 6 months in advance.
The Metacrisis is an entirely different animal. Most, if not all, of the crises that compose the Metacrisis arise from complex systems, each with many variables, interdependencies, and feedback mechanisms that may or may not be well understood. These complex systems in turn interact with each other, introducing yet more interdependencies and feedback mechanisms. Covid provides a perfect example to illustrate what I mean.
A virus led to the shutting down of businesses, which led to people not working, which led to stimulus checks funded by central bank money printing. All of the above impacted the supply chain causing serious disruption. Supply chain disruption combined with vast money printing has led to inflation, which is causing economic hardship on people. Attempting to control the virus led to most nation states adopting totalitarian control measures, causing many people to lose trust in institutions and polarizing society even further. While covid itself is mostly in check, its consequences are still rippling through society and will likely be doing so for the foreseeable future.
Putting aside the likelihood that covid was the result of a lab leak, there is a constant probability of a new pandemic occurring at any point in the future. But we have no idea of knowing what that probability is. What are the chances of a new pandemic arising in any given year? 1%? 2%? No one knows. We have no certainty around this question. But we do know that the probability is non-zero, and likely to increase as we reduce natural habitats and continue to engineer viruses.
What all this means in practice is that the Metacrisis is far too complex for us to have high certainty of any of the details. There’s no way to predict with any degree of determinism how the details of these issues will play out. We’re stuck with educated guesses.
This being the case, we can still use an understanding of probability, history, and trends to make a prediction that points to a strong likelihood (so strong that I personally consider it a certainty): that global civilization as we currently know it will not make it to the end of this century. This idea has come to be known simply as Collapse.
The collapse of past civilizations has long fascinated historians. I found the eponymous book by Jared Diamond to be very well thought out and educational. Over 30 different civilizations have arisen and then fallen. Collapse is a constant.
The general trajectory of all of these civilizations is establishment, concentration of material wealth and status in an elite, over-exploitation of the environment, human population exceeding carrying capacity of the environment, and then civilizational collapse as the environment can no longer support the number of humans living there. The Fall of Rome is a literal textbook example.
What makes our civilization unique is that it’s the first global civilization. Globalization and capitalism have tied the entire world together into one civilization, what Immanuel Wallerstein calls a world-system. This has a few implications for the discussion at hand.
First, our civilization is able to draw on more resources than any previous civilization by orders of magnitude. In doing so it is quickly running through the once abundant natural capital that our beautiful planet was blessed with. Just as spending more than you make depletes your savings account, consuming more resources than nature produces causes them to run out. This is why the fisheries have disappeared, why the rainforest is getting cut down, why we’re likely in peak oil, and why we’re constantly losing farmland to cities and deserts. This is obviously not sustainable.
What ‘not sustainable’ means is that it cannot continue indefinitely. You can’t eat fish that aren’t there, nor dig for oil that doesn’t exist. As abundant as Earth is, it is not infinite. It has limits. And we have crossed them. A reckoning is unavoidable.
Second, what caused our current civilization to become global is that it is predicated upon growth. Economic growth is what allowed our civilization to subsume or outcompete rival ways of life. Our entire global economy is inexorably dependent upon constant growth. Yet it is now that same growth that threatens everything. It is an impossibility to have infinite growth in a finite system. This is why technoptimists talk about colonizing Mars. The only way to keep the current socioeconomic order in place is to expand our civilization beyond the limits of our planet. The only alternatives are to switch to a non-growth based society or collapse.
Lastly, that our civilization and its collapse is different than the collapses of all past civilizations in an extremely significant way – they were all localized civilizations while ours is global. The fall of Rome didn’t impact the Mayans, nor did the failure of the Mayans influence the Inuit. Easter Island’s collapse impacted only Easter Island.
This is not true of our global civilization. For better and for worse we are all in it together now. There will be no escaping the global collapse unless Elon Musk successfully colonizes Mars. We have been given a little preview of this with the current Pandemic. While some issues will remain local, as our world grows evermore interconnected local issues will increasingly ripple out to effect the whole world, the consequences of which will send out their own ripples in turn. The bigger they are the harder they fall, and no civilization has ever been as big as ours.
Don’t Look Up
This finally brings us to the genius of Don’t Look Up. Jared Diamond, in Collapse, proposes a roadmap of factors contributing to failures of group decision making at the societal level.
Reasons a society may fail:
1. Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives
2. Failure to perceive a problem when it does arrive
3. Failure to even try to solve a problem once perceived
4. Fail at attempt to solve perceived problem
This rubric gives us a wonderful lens with which to compare Don’t Look Up to our real world.
Failure to anticipate a problem before it arrives
The fictional world of Don’t Look Up and our real world both successfully clear this first hurdle. The young grad student discovers the asteroid 6 months before it is due to strike. Numerous forward thinkers are sounding the alarm that our society must make radical changes or face the existential threats of the Metacrisis.
Failure to perceive a problem when it does arrive
This is where things start to get good.
Don’t Look Up
When the scientists first tell the President of the US about the asteroid they are dismissed. Then when they go on national TV they are once again not taken seriously, dismissed, and even mocked. The movie doesn’t go into why this is, leaving it to the viewer to speculate. However Diamond makes his own speculation that I find quite compelling:
The final speculative reason that I shall mention for irrational failure to try to solve a perceived problem is psychological denial. This is a technical term with a precisely defined meaning in individual psychology, and it has been taken over into the pop culture. If something that you perceive arouses in you a painful emotion, you may subconsciously suppress or deny your perception in order to avoid the unbearable pain, even though the practical results of ignoring your perception may prove ultimately disastrous. The emotions most often responsible are terror, anxiety, and grief. Typical examples include blocking the memory of a frightening experience, or refusing to think about the likelihood that your husband, wife, child, or best friend is dying because the thought is so painfully sad.
For example, consider a narrow river valley below a high dam, such that if the dam burst, the resulting flood of water would drown people for a considerable distance downstream. When attitude pollsters ask people downstream of the dam how concerned they are about the dam’s bursting, it’s not surprising that fear of a dam burst is lowest far downstream, and increases among residents increasingly close to the dam. Surprisingly, though, after you get to just a few miles below the dam, where fear of the dam’s breaking is found to be highest, the concern then falls off to zero as you approach closer to the dam! That is, the people living immediately under the dam, the ones most certain to be drowned in a dam burst, profess unconcern. That’s because of psychological denial: the only way of preserving one’s sanity while looking up every day at the dam is to deny the possibility that it could burst. Although psychological denial is a phenomenon well established in individual psychology, it seems likely to apply to group psychology as well.Jared Diamond, Collapse
Because the possibility of a planet destroying asteroid was so terrifying, both the President and the nation simply didn’t even consider it. It was dismissed out of hand because it was too incongruous with their worldview.
Even more ludicrous yet all too real is the campaign later on in the movie extorting people to ‘Don’t Look Up.’ The willful, even proud, ignorance really hits home in this day and age. The existence of an asteroid became a battleground of the culture war, instead of being left to astrophysics as would be rational. But we humans are not rational as much as we like to pretend we are.
The Real World
Hopefully the parallels to our world and the Metacrisis draw themselves, but just to be thorough let’s look at just one example, climate change.
Just as people in the movie denied the existence of the asteroid, many people in our world deny the existence of climate change. Corporations with large financial interests in a fossil fuel economy actively fund misinformation, seeking to establish room for reasonable doubt in the narrative.
In a different vein, how many of the crises I named earlier as components of the Metacrisis are you familiar with? Being ignorant of an issue guarantees that we can’t perceive it. And what we don’t perceive we can’t attempt to address.
Do we see the asteroid coming towards us or are we just not looking up?
Failure to even try to solve a problem once perceived
Don’t Look Up
The movie has a mixed record in this regard.
They set up the first mission to destroy the asteroid, but call it off at the last minute when it becomes known how much valuable resources it contains. So this kinda counts as an attempt, but also doesn’t.
Then a coalition of non-US countries attempt their own mission, but fail at launch. It’s unclear why, but sabotage is hinted at. If it was sabotage, then once again it kinda counts as an attempt but also doesn’t. This could also be considered a failed attempt though.
The Real World
Earlier I mentioned climate change deniers, but they’re low hanging fruit. Instead let’s look in the mirror.
How energy intensive is our lifestyle? How often do we fly on a plane? How often do we drive in our cars? How far away does the food we buy come from? How much plastic do we throw away?
We might say that we recognize climate change is a real threat, but do our lifestyles reflect our words? What are we doing personally to address the various threats of the metacrisis? Are we trusting in our competent leaders to identify and solve the problems for us?
Fail at attempt to solve the perceived problem
Don’t Look Up
In the movie the one real attempt to break up the asteroid fails due to technological failures, the robots don’t launch correctly nor do they work correctly. But this is cutting the world of the movie too much slack.
It’s worth pointing out that the aborting of the original mission could also be counted as a failure. The state was captured by an elite, who placed his potential to make more money above the well-being of the entire planet. I think it’s very fair to consider this a failure of our group decision making processes known as government and capitalism. The same argument applies if the failure of the non-US countries’ attempt was in fact sabotage.
It’d be easy to blame Isherwell as a bad actor, but that’s letting us off too easy. Rather than blame Isherwell as a scapegoat, I think it’s far more productive to examine how an Isherwell ever came to be in the first place. The fact that our society and institutions are constructed in such a way that someone like Isherwell can amass that much power and influence in the first place is a far more interesting place of inquiry for me. It’s also worth pointing out that pretty much the only way to amass that much power and influence is to be a sociopath, and that society rewards, conditions, and trains sociopaths to rise to the top of the power hierarchy.
One of the primary contentions that I espouse is that our current institutions are not just no longer serving us, but are actively harming us. I think the movie very eloquently makes the case that it is the fault of society as a whole that it was unable to stop the asteroid, a case worth considering as we reflect upon our own world.
The Real World
Luckily our asteroid is still many years away. The threats of the Metacrisis are still just that – threats – and not foregone conclusions. It’s still not too late to prevent the worst of them. The question is, will we look up?