‘Don’t Look Up,’ hyperobjects, and how to make people look up

[Editor’s Note: This is a transcript of this podcast episode produced through the help of an A.I.-powered automatic transcription service. Although A.I. will one day take over the world, as of now it sucks as a transcriptionist so please excuse the many typos and mistakes.]

“I don’t think you understand the gravity of the situation. I’m trying to articulate it the best I can.” Dr. Randall Mindy, Don’t Look Up 

“A hyper object is a thing so vast in both temporal and spatial terms that we can only see slices of it at a time.” Timothy Morton, Being Ecological

hello. I am the Pop Mythologist and This is the End, but only if you look up,  so yes, as you can probably guess today, we’ll be talking about the Netflix film Don’t Look Up starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence written by Adam McKay from a story by Adam McKay and David Sirota and directed by Adam McKay..

Adam McKay also co-wrote and directed The Big Short from 2015, which was about the 2007, 2008 financial collapse, a different kind of end of the world, which was also a brilliant and important film. And I feel like if Adam McKay keeps this up, he is going to become the preeminent filmmaker who’s documenting collapse in our time through fiction.

Usual spoiler warning, unlike on other episodes where the spoilers, if you can even call it that, tend to be very subtle, today there will be definite spoilers. So do watch the film before. And by the way, if you want to read a really good review of the film, head over to our blog, pop mythology.com and in the movie section, check out the review by my friend and colleague Jess Kroll. it’s a really good review. All his reviews are terrific. And I think movie buffs who like reading reviews will definitely enjoy. Okay. Don’t look up. Wow. Where do I even begin with this film? It’s definitely one of my favorites to come along in a while. It’s genuinely laugh out loud funny. And tragic and scary.

And for anyone who feels frustrated by the lack of action on climate change, it’s a very cathartic experience. At least it was for me. There’s just so much that could be said about this movie and is being said via media commentary and on various discussion forums. And all of it is very, very valid. Because there are so many different ways we can approach this movie and I can’t cover them all in just one episode,

so instead of trying that, I’m going to focus on one aspect. That’s not directly vocalized in this film, but that it brushes on implicitly. And that’s this whole question from the perspective of the protagonistsof why don’t people seem to understand this threat that we’re trying to warn them about. Why don’t they seem to care?

 Why aren’t they taking it seriously? Right? Because ever since the two heroes realize at the beginning of the film, that the comment is headed for earth, they spend the entire rest of the film, trying to get people to a understand the nature of the threat B take it seriously. C,mobilize appropriate action, which almost happens, but then gets hijacked by corporate interests, disguised as phony rhetoric about human evolution and all that bull crap. Which, by the way, I guarantee you, we’re going to see more and more of in real life rhetoric designed to exploit people’s concerns about climate change.

But at the end of the day, that are really intended to make as Jennifer Lawrence, whose character Kate Dibiasky puts it, quote a bunch of rich people, even more disgustingly rich in quote. So back to this question, why don’t people seem to get it right? To explore this question. I’m going to draw from a fantastic book that I highly recommend everyone read.

It’s called. Don’t even think about it. Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change by George Marshall. It’s kind of cool because the title of his book seems to kind of compliment the title of the. Don’t look up, don’t even think about it. Of course. Any similarity is coincidental because this book was published in 2014, so power to put together a list of like the top 10 or top five books about climate change, don’t even think about it would definitely be on that list and it would rank pretty high. This is because I think it’s simply one of the most important books out there on climate change for the simple reason that it understands and explains why no amount of scientific data.

Facts and figures is going to make people understand the existential threat of climate change. And the reason is that there are a number of evolutionary traits that we humans have that once served us well before. That’s served our ancestors pretty well, but now with our uniquely modern problems, these evolutionary traits leave us ill-equipped to understand how and why climate change is such an existential threat.

And it also makes us ill-equipped to feel the emotional motivation that human beings need to take action. This doesn’t mean that we can’t understand climate change. And it doesn’t mean we can’t take action. Both are very possible. But to reach critical mass, we need to essentially hack certain aspects of our own human nature.

Without this no amount of screaming at the top of our lungs on live TV that we’re all going to die is going to reverse the tendency towards inattention and inaction. So in his book, George Marshall gives many reasons why the human brain is poorly evolved to understand climate change.

They’re all compelling, but because I can’t cover them all in a half hour, I’m going to pick and discuss a small handful that I think are maybe the most salient with respect to the movie. And I hope that this will be enough of a teaser so that you go read the book. It makes a great compliment to the film. Trust me. 

Just a quick disclaimer, here, the core concepts are borrowed from Mr. Marshall’s book, but I add my own spin examples and reasoning to it. So I don’t purport to accurately represent all of Mr. Marshall’s feelings on the matter. I’m rather freely and openly adding my own voice and opinions into the discussion.

All right. So one way that humans are ill-equipped to understand why climate change is. Is that our brains evolved to register threats that are number one, concrete and observable through our five senses. Number two that are immediate and by immediate, I mean, the threat is right here right now.

Number three, it’s unambiguous, meaning that the threat is very clear. There’s no doubt. So for example, for our ancestors, The threat, might’ve been certain kinds of wild animals, or it might’ve meant people from a different clan or tribe, but in either of those cases, if they meant you harm, then the threat was very concrete.

You know, like a saber tooth tiger about to pounce on you is very concrete. It’s very immediate. The tiger is not later, the tiger is right here and right now, and it was usually on ambiguous as well. I don’t think you’d look at a saber tooth tiger and think, oh, what a cute tiger. Maybe if it was just sitting there spacing out and not looking at you, that’s one thing, there’s some ambiguity there, but if it’s looking at you in a certain way, you know, it’s not here to play and you’re immediately shifting into fight or flight mode, most likely flight, unfortunately from a cognitive standpoint, climate change is none of these things.

I mean, not. Okay. So it’s not immediate in time or place because it’s spread out geographically over the entire world, which most of us can’t see or experience except indirectly through the media, which is a whole other can of worms. Given the current distrust of the media. That’s. Climate change is awful.

Spread out over a very long time. And because we’ve evolved to be short-term thinkers, which again, made sense to our ancestors. It’s very hard for us to register a threat that is stretched out over years and decades. Although as tipping points are passed and exponential growth kicks in, things will start getting faster and faster.

And before we know it, it’ll be like the movie. Don’t look up when people are literally able to see the comment in the sky coming at them. But obviously by that point, it will be. So climate change is not immediate. It’s also not concrete. It doesn’t have a definite physical shape or form. There are manifestations,  but there are many of them.

And that confuses. And it’s not an ambiguous meaning, even though scientifically we know it’s happening, many people still disagree with how do we interpret events that are related to climate change and there’s enough ambiguity to make that possible. So like going back to the saber tooth tiger again, I don’t think anyone would say, well, maybe it just wants to be.

But that kind of differing interpretation is possible with climate change. For example, if you have a series of winters that are getting warmer and warmer, and then suddenly you have a winter that’s crazy cold, then you’ll have people who say, see nothing wrong. Even though that too is part of climate change. And it’s why author Thomas Friedman has argued for the use of the term global weirding instead of global warming, not a problem related to the way our brains work is that people are averse to making sacrifices or accepting a cost. Especially if those sacrifices are very concrete, such as downgrading, our consumer’s lifestyles, we’re averse to accepting a concrete core.

To mitigate what seems like a long term ambiguous threat that’s far away. And that people don’t feel certain about. Like, what if it doesn’t happen that I made that sacrifice for nothing. Even worse. What if I made that sacrifice and others didn’t and on top of that, the threat doesn’t even occur. So we’re already averse to loss, but the idea of a concrete loss for the sake of an ambiguous benefit far in the future, combined with an uneven distribution of personal sacrifice.

This would not be seen positively in most people’s cost benefit analysis, which is why we have the phenomenon known as the tragedy of the car. Another problem is that we’re wired and conditioned to identify threats in the form of living sentient beings, whether that’s a hungry, wild animal or a rival tribe, we don’t know quite what to make of threats that are not living beings, who either, if it’s an animal wants to eat us, or if it’s a rival tribe wants to kill us.

So it can take over our food or territory, climate change doesn’t want any of those things. It doesn’t want anything, period. It just is so it’s capable of destroying us and it will, if we. But there’s zero malice. And we don’t know quite what to make of that. It’s one of the reasons that people are more afraid of foreign terrorists, who hate them for their freedom or immigrants who want to take their jobs.

Then the things that really kill them, such as heart disease, alcohol processed food, car accidents, and things like that, or the things that are really taking their jobs such as AI and autonomy. Next, we have a kind of a two brain system, the rational brain and emotional brain, the rational brain is great at helping us figure out how things work and all that kind of stuff.

But the emotional brain plays a much bigger role when it comes to motivating us to take action and traditionally way too much of climate science messaging has been focused on appealing to the rational. In more recent years, there does seem to be more messaging that tries to appeal to the emotional brain, but it still falls short understanding how human emotions are tied into things like their identities, their values, their tribal groupings, which can be anything from your political party, your religion, your occupation, your geographic location.

Like do you live in a big city or a small countryside town and all the main. Stories narratives and values that are woven into these identities. And this is why who tells the messaging, how they tell it is way more important than what they tell. In other words, there’s a place for facts and figures. But when it comes to the difficult task of getting people to look up, so to speak and to recognize thread and to take action, that all that rational stuff is powerless.

We need the right kinds of stories and we need the right kinds of people telling those stories and the right kinds of ways. And that’s where we start getting into this question of, well, what can we do about all. And I’m going to talk about that. But before I do, I also want to bring in here, something that was mentioned in one of the quotes that I open today’s episode with. Which is the concept of the hyperobject. 

Now you might recall from the opening credits and don’t look up that hyper objects industries was the production company for the movie. The term hyper object was coined by professor of English at rice university, Timothy. And after hearing what I say, if you want to read more about it, there are articles about it on the internet, just search for hyperobject.

And there are also a couple of books written by professor Morton that I’ll link to in the show notes. What professor Martin calls a hyper object is anything that is massively distributed in time and space relative to. And it’s so massively distributed that it’s impossible to see everything all at once.

And unfortunately, like I said earlier, the kind of threat we’re good at responding to are the things that we can see. All at once a great example of that professor morning gifts from pop culture. And they actually use a lot of examples from pop culture in their writing, which of course is something that I love to do as well.

So professor Morton, if you’re listening to this by any chance, I would love to interview some.  . Anyway. So the example that they give is being inside the giant worm in the empire strikes back. You can’t see the entire worm from where you are, because you are literally incited and you’re surrounded by it.

But because you’re incited, it just looks like you’re on some asteroid or something, but then it starts digesting you. That’s a hyperoptic. Hyper objects that are also non-local and any manifestation that is local is not the actual hyper object itself. 

So, for example, natural disasters are often localized manifestations of climate change, but they are not climate change itself. And this is part of what makes it so hard for people, uh, to, to grasp and to make the connection. Professor Martin also writes that if you are someone who is able to understand hyper objects or at least certain hyper objects, then you’re ethically obligated to care and to try and do something about it, be it climate change,  the collapse of democracy,  or say the persisting and omnipresent legacy of slavery in the U S another huge hyper object that I won’t go into here, because that would take us down a different rabbit.

Just one more example of a hyper object. And this one has really been in our face for the past two years. And that is COVID, which is so vast and has so many interlinking dimensions that ripple outward in so many directions that the true scale of a threat is difficult to grab. And instead, people just tend to fixate on isolated, fragmented pieces of it instead of the big picture, which again, just massively spread out over time and space.

And despite it being so pervasive and affecting every aspect of our lives, just like climate change, it’s not concrete. It’s not immediate unless you or a family member is sick. It’s not an ambiguous and it’s not an enemy that we’re good at recognizing. So it’s easier and more gratifying to project our frustrations onto other people because people are an enemy we can recognize.

Okay, so that’s hyper objects. And again, I’ll leave links in the show notes where it can read more about it. If you’re interested, let’s now transition to talking about what we can do about all this. And once again, I’ll be drawing from George Marshall’s book. Don’t even think.  Basically all the actions begin to involve helping more people realize the true urgency and scale of the threat to bypass that part of their brains, that by evolutionary design is not wired to understand or take action against the threat of climate change.

And it’s all about the way we approach the messaging and communication. So to make this more fun, I’m going to refer to some examples from don’t look up  in,  uh, in terms of the ways the protagonists were doing it wrong, even though with some of these things, they kind of didn’t really have a choice. but I’ll use those examples.

And then I’ll talk about what I think might be more effective based on the ideas of George Marshall.

So you have professor Randall minting, and KTB Husky trying to warn the world about the comment that’s going to strike the earth in six months. Now, in this case, there really is no other way to frame the threat other than to speak in terms of the future, because the comment doesn’t harm anyone on earth until it.

But with climate change, there is more than plenty that is happening right now. That is already severe enough. We don’t need to wait any longer for things to get any more severe. I mean, literally just days before this recording colorado had its worst wildfire in history. So with any messaging that’s intended to reach what you might call, the more resistant audiences, climate change messaging needs to frame it as a threat that is right here and right now, and minimize any kind of future focused messaging such as.

In five or 10 years, you know, yada yada, or if we don’t do XYZ within 10 years, then yada, yada, that there’s a place for that kind of feature centered messaging. I know for instance, it seems to be effective for me, like the thought of, oh man, we’re going to hit 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next five years, you know, and that’s future focused.

and you know, again, that may work for some people,  But evolutionarily, it makes more sense for it to not work for most. It just still feels too far off. And I know that sounds kind of crazy, but again, it’s just kind of how our brains work, because I can assure you that far ancestors for whom surviving to day was the big challenge.

Five years was a long time, you know, and again, and don’t look up, I know that the characters didn’t really have a choice with. Comment because it’s not like the comment was destroying buildings while it was still in space. So they can really have a right now focused message as much. But with climate change, things that are already happening right now are terrible and scary enough.

And we just need to find ways to bring that home for people in present focused message. The next point, which is kind of related to the one I just made. Is that something that may work better to reach resistant audiences is focusing not so much on climate change per se, and the solutions for climate change such as reaching net zero or whatever else but.

Instead, maybe focusing more on natural disasters and approaching the whole issue from the angle of disaster awareness and disaster preparation and using this as an indirect roundabout way to reach more people and then maybe gradually help them to understand that the threat of possibly losing their homes, uh, facing financial ruin.

Of the local economy being hurt  or of God forbid of losing loved ones due to a lack of preparation, that, all that stuff that is climate change, maybe you don’t even use the term climate change for reasons. I’ll get into 

and also de emphasize talking about climate change in terms of things like ethical responsibility. We’ve been trying that, not just for the climate change, but with COVID. And is it working  next? People don’t like change and change is often experienced as a type of loss. Our sense of loss tends to be more focused on the past that, on what we might lose in the.

So, for example, the job you lost five years ago affects you more emotionally than the potential loss of your house five years in the future. So again, and don’t look up DB AUSkey and Dr. Mindy keeps saying things like we’re all gonna die. We’re all gonna die in six months. But then in that scene, when DB AUSkey goes home to her parents, her parents say we’re for the jobs, the comment we’ll provide.

And then the dad talks about how the community has already lost too much. It doesn’t go into details, but I took that to mean that maybe their town had experienced job loss, the disappearance of a certain company or industry. So that’s past loss and they’re more focused on that past loss than the future loss, six months later of their lives.

so another potentially effective framing approach is to frame climate change. Or rather climate action as a way to restore something that was lost and to reverse the undesirable change. For example, that’s one of the ways that the pro Brexit messaging campaign was so successful at first, they used the slogan take control and the public response was.

And then they changed it to take back control the added one word that made it be more about restoring what was lost in the past and reversing the undesirable change that occurred in the past. So with climate change, the things you could talk about are restoring economic prosperity of your town, your state, your.

Restoring values that people feel have been lost, restoring community, you know, talk about the things that the demographics of the people you’re trying to reach care about. What are they care about? Don’t talk about what you care about. Seek first, understand what these folks care about and find a way to center your climate change messaging around those.

Next we need to better understand the power of story.  In the end, the reason that people do anything is because of story, a story that they’re telling themselves, a story that’s been told to them that they’ve come to embrace or some combination of these things, but people do the things they do because of some kind of story.

So for example, I am against the mandating of vaccines and mask wearing because for me, they represent government tyranny. The government is the villain and I, as the hero am going to fight for freedom by resisting these men. . Everyone on the political spectrum does this in their own way. This isn’t to say that stories are bad, they just are uh, the defects can be bad.

Yes. But the stories themselves, the act of storytelling, it just is it’s, it’s a human thing.   And so if we can understand that. We can stop trying to pummel people with facts and figures and find ways to tell more compelling stories that move them.

And that’s what professor Mindy and DB ASCII and their allies don’t do. And don’t look up despite their heroic efforts, they didn’t tap into the power of story. And who in the film did tap into the power of story it was present or lean in her administration. It was when they sent or almost sent Ron Perlman’s character into space on that.

That was going to be a story about the great American hero saving the day and tell a better story came along. And that one was told by the billionaire and CEO of bash Peter issue will when he takes this reckless plan to harvest the comment and make it be all about human evolution and all that. He’s telling a great story.

Compare that to the boring non-story of professor Mindy and DBS. Can you just spouting facts and repeating that we’re all gonna die? We’re all gonna die. That’s not a compelling.  Because it’s all about storytelling. We also need to be more conscious and deliberate about the elements of the story. Meaning for example, the actors and characters who are playing their parts in this story and here by actors, I don’t mean Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence.

I mean, actors in a figurative. And if the actor delivering the message, isn’t a trusted actor, then no matter how passionately did deliver that message, they won’t have credibility with people. So who are DBS key and professor Mindy, what roles are they playing? Which actors are they? They are the scientist.

The problem is that too many people in our society don’t trust scientists anymore. And this is due to a variety of complex reasons, but to make a long story short because of this credibility loss in the eyes of many people, scientists are always going to be fighting an uphill battle to get people to listen.

The same goes for journalists and added to the fact that people don’t trust scientists and journalists is the fact that the scientists and journalists aren’t effectively employing the power of story instead of just trying to use logic and reason. Well, actually let me revise that. So some journalists are using the power of story and very well, , but, uh, Referring more to straight news, which is written the way it is and deliver the way it is because it’s straight news.

That’s how it should be. But nevertheless, again, it doesn’t tap into that emotional brain that people need to feel motivated to take care. So what could professor Mindy and DBS have done instead? Well, let’s use vaccines as an example, with the anti-vaccine movement as represented by concerned parents, let’s say when you have scientists assure those parents that vaccines are safe, a big portion of them won’t trust them. And who would those parents trust?

More other parents, parents trust parents who are one of them. So when you have parents come on a daytime talk show, for example, and give an emotional testimony about how their child got brain damage. After getting a measles vaccine that is going to move a lot more parents than the scientists who with a very cold or detached demeanor says that vaccines are.

The point here isn’t to disparage either the scientists or the parents. The point here is simply that in an emotional story told by someone that people trust will in many cases, motivate them more 

Than a non-emotional reciting of facts and figures by someone they don’t trust. I E a scientist or journalist. So. What Mindy and DBS key and the allies could have done was to find allies who did have credibility with the people there were trying to reach.

And that depends on the specific group, because it’s going to be different depending on the audience. For someone like DB Husky’s parents, a better actor would have been someone more like themselves, for example, in the year 2013. And this is real life it’s real history,  fragments of a meteor struck and arrogant Russia causing numerous injuries.

So you get someone who was injured in that area. Preferably someone who’s conservative and in the same age group, as DB parents, and you have them tell an emotional story about getting injured and saying things like I’ve seen what it’s like when an asteroid or a meteorite hits the earth and believe me, you don’t want a comment of this size hitting the earth.

Something like.  There’s one last point from the book that I want to share. And then beyond that, I’d really just encourage you to read the book because it’s really good. And as mentioned, I think it’s one of the best books on climate change. The last point has to do with the power of something that DBS key professor Mindy don’t realize until the very end of the.

And that is the power of religion, specifically religion as the ultimate cultural expression of the type of story and narrative that I talked about earlier that touches the emotional brain and motivates people to take action in ways that an outside observer or non-believer would say is. Now don’t misunderstand.

I’m not saying religion is irrational.  In fact, my own position is that religious behavior is actually very irrational and it’s also an expression of the way our brains are. But if you’re a non-believer and you see, for example, a Muslim fasting, not even drinking water from dusk uh, sorry, from Dawn till dusk every day for a month.

Yeah. That can look irrational to you. And when you see a renunciant who becomes celebrate and gives up a very powerful human drive and source of pleasure. Again, a concrete sacrifice for the sake of a future payoff that from other people’s point of view is uncertain. Yeah. That can also seem irrational.

That is exactly what we need people to be doing with respect to climate change. Again, climate change, not concrete, not immediate, not unambiguous. And so if you tell people that that have to expend considerable. Make considerable sacrifices, concrete sacrifices for something that’s in the future and not definite, at least for them, that seems irrational to them.

So how do we get people to do that?  Well, we can try to learn from really. And study what it is about religion that can get people to do tremendous things and make tremendous sacrifices for the sake of things that are not concrete, not immediate and not unambiguous. So while this is a complex issue, I do think a big part of how religions can get people to do that is by providing something that makes it worth that constant.

Sacrifice.  And that is a sense of purpose and meaning, which is what religions are very good at providing. And that is what PBS ki and professor Mindy get from that scene. At the end of the film, when despite not showing any tendency towards religious behavior throughout the film, with the exception of DBL skis boyfriend, despite this, they do something arguably erratic.

In the final hour, these non-religious folks lock hands and they pray.  And it’s because of the sense of meaning this act provides in a moment when they really, really. So  I’m not saying necessarily we use religion overtly, although that’s also a possibility.

It’s about learning from the social and psychological phenomenon. That is religion. Okay. We’re almost at the end of this episode so I can’t get into all the ways that we can learn from religion as we take on the biggest existential crisis of our times. But maybe.

Use religion directly to make climate change a sacred journey for people. You know, for example, like God is entrusting you to be the caretakers of his creation, because I guarantee you just like the power of story in general. If we don’t use this, others will, they might say things like what’s happening is God’s will, it’s just like the rain for 40 days and nights. He is punishing us for our depravity or whatever, you know, so we might as well just let it happen. Climate change has already been politicized enough. Now how about we spiritualize it and stuff?

Not for ourselves necessarily, but for those who would resonate with that kind of messaging, again, we can’t keep making it be about ourselves and what we’re interested in and what matters to us, make it be about what matters to other people.  The last thing I want to say about don’t look up is this in that scene at the dinner table, at the end is a group of people who realize that they tried their best, did everything they could.

And now with a comment, literally moments away, there was nothing left to do, but try to enjoy the final moments that they had with each other. Now in online communities, such as Reddit, I often see people posting. Well, at this point, the end is really inevitable. So all we can do is just enjoy the time we have left.

With respect to this movie specifically, I saw a couple of posts along the line of, I just saw don’t look up and I don’t see the point in trying anymore. Now I want to respond to that. My friends, we are not there yet. We have not earned the right to sit back and say, okay, that’s it. We’re done. We tried.

Let’s just enjoy the time we have left Kate.  Dr. Mindy, Dr. Oglethorpe. They earned that, right? We have not, not even close. So if you’re experiencing difficult feelings, If you need to have a moment, then allow yourself that moment to feel those feelings, ask for support, engage in whatever healthy coping mechanisms that can help you.

But once that moment passes, it’s time to get up and get back to work and just like our heroes. And don’t look up, you won’t be alone. Okay. We’ll do it together. Thanks for list. Until next time I am the pop mythologist and this, this is not the end.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.