Having worked full-time to limit the ongoing climate catastrophe for the last ten years, I was deeply disappointed in the new movie, “Don’t Look Up!” It is a funny bit of social satire and certainly worth watching if you already pay Netflix to distract you from reality. However, I had been told by other climate activists that this movie would make a difference to our movement. I can’t imagine how.
As an angry, anti-war, combat veteran of Vietnam, I quit teaching at MIT’s business school in 1982 to work full-time in the movement for peace and social justice. Over the last 40 years, I have helped found, fund ($30 million worth) and lead local, state and national organizations, mostly pretty radical. We have had some successes, among them, helpng 13,000 people get arrested to stop US nuclear weapons testing, making all state elections in AZ publicly funded and getting my new home County outside DC to declare the first climate emergency in the world.
Over those years, like many others, I have come to believe that reversing the already awful climate catastrophe—or making any other significant social change–will require at least four things:
1. Informing many more people about the problem.
2. An intersectional, mass, disruptive, deeply-democratic movement of Non-Violent Direct Action.
3. A new, egalitarian society, not based on profit-making, consumption and economic growth.
4. Empowering many more people to help make those systemic changes—and change personally to lifestyles emphasizing connection over consumption.
The movie fails on all four counts.
First, as to problem identification, the movie never mentions climate change—even in a catalogue of catastrophes–relying on the metaphor of an approaching asteroid. It skewers billionaires, technological-fixation, the Trump family and Trumpism, social media, celebrity-focused, corporate-media and lots of other social phenomena all of which do make fighting climate change difficult. However, there are enough dissimilarities between the two threats: visibility, certainty, deadline, etc. to weaken the analogy. Good art; poor social change.
Second, it virtually ignores social movement building. The movie’s theory of change appears to be that if enough people understand some of the social dynamics preventing action on climate chane or any impending threat, they will figure out how make the changes needed, either in those contributing dynamics and/or directly with the particular threat, in this case, to the climate. The movie provides no way for someone to get engaged with the enormous, existing climate-justice movement—not to mention all the organizations and movements dealing with the contributing dynamics, e.g. media, economic inequlaity, progressive politics. No websites, no email addresses. In the movie, the two stars appear at times to be working in some movement organization, apparently newly formed, enough to chant: Look Up! and there are scenes of people rioting and spontaneous destroying property—no marches, sit in, teach ins, or organized social media platforms. For all my criticisms of Al Gore’s organization, at least he set one up!
Third, the movie uses straight capitalism to make social change–a doomed effort as always. Netflix gave $75 million of our money mostly to the two stars. Now, I don’t know about Jennifer, but Leonardo gives a lot of money to fight climate change, so some of it will cycle back. But, somehow, I thought this was an effort by liberal, committed celebrities to tackle this problem. Yeah, no salaries—or maybe just enough to pay their entourages—give a bunch to the movement. But, no, pay your monthly Netfix, sit in your home, get distracted, get reminded of some of our society’s general shortcomings. Pass the popcorn. Change the channel.
Finally, in contrast to movie watchig, I try and put as much emphasis as possible on peer support in social change. I learned my lessons dealing with the addictions I brought back from combat. If people are to get over the passivity taught in our schools, religions, every aspect of our society, it is not enough to give them a new insight or perspective and hope for the best. If we want them to resist the pressure to consume more and more useless, addictive stuff, they need ongoing support.
I realize that many of us contribute different pieces to the process of social change. However, if people simply watch this movie in the isolation of their own homes, with no one to connect the dots to existence of the climate catastrophe, to the depth of the systemic change required to deal with that catastrophe, to the radicalness of the nonviolent tactics required, to the multitude of organizations already in action and to the need for social support in making those changes, this movie doesn’t contribute a damn thing.
If you would like to support BIPOC youth doing local organizing here outside DC—or in your community–based on these four principles, please email me at: MOCOGNDInterns@gmail.com