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Reflection: What 'Don't Look Up' teaches us about government, the environment, and COVID-19

Efran Menny breaks down the new Netflix hit and how it informs the global response to various health concerns in the modern age.

Editor's note: This article contains spoilers for the film in question.

The new Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” has been causing a lot of chatter since it was released in early December. Though holding a lackluster 55% Rotten Tomatoes score (and 50% on Metacritic), it has garnered several high-profile nominations in the early period of awards season.

Starring Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio as Dr. Randall Mindy and Jennifer Lawrence as his PhD student Kate Dibiasky, the story follows them as they discover a massive comet coming directly toward earth. As a result, the two go on a journey of educating an indifferent public and the White House about the country’s soon-coming fate.

Since the film’s release, discussions on social media and social policy have revolved around the real-world implications of how to address global warming. Leonardo DiCaprio has said the film was originally a metaphor for the climate crisis, but COVID-19 gave the science denial in the film an additional parallel.

Because we are wrestling with these two large-scale threats to our planet, “Don’t Look Up” offers an insightful glimpse regarding where we are currently in our efforts to curtail both—and what we must do to overcome the odds.

A Slow Response

“Don’t Look Up” demonstrates what happens when the government responds to serious threats with inaction. When presented with the facts about the 100% certainty of the pending cataclysmic Dibiasky Comet, the president calls the news politically inconvenient for midterm season, recommending they “sit tight and assess”—which frustrates Dr. Mindy and his colleagues.

To further show their apathy towards apocalyptic doom, both officials list other catastrophic events that they have heard come and go such as droughts, loose nukes, and economic collapse. To them, the comet is just another issue that’s temporal and fleeting in our world.

When we think about pressing existential problems such as the climate crisis, we must scrutinize the actions of the government. Specifically, what steps have been taken to combat the aggressive and looming threat of global warming. Climate change isn’t something that’s subject to change. In fact, there’s an overwhelming (and credible) consensus on the topic.

Even so, despite this massive acceptance in the scientific community in recent years, the Trump administration took significant steps to erode and diminish previous efforts to safeguard environmental quality and combat climate change.

According to the Brookings Institution, with actions like withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, weakening restrictions on methane emissions, and deregulating crucial aspects of fossil fuel usage, the former president made our nation increasingly indifferent towards fighting this dire threat.

The Biden administration, on the other hand, has affirmed its commitment to the Paris Agreement, which is a major step toward changing the narrative. Biden has also created targets that address the climate crisis and champion clean energy. To avoid making the same mistakes seen in “Don’t Look Up”, we need consistency in our government. The unfortunate reality of a “party of science”, and other partisan polarization of trust in scholarly expertise, must end.

Wrong Priorities

In the film, the president eventually comes around to the severity of the situation, and the government spearheads a campaign to stop the comet from striking the planet. But just when you wanted to see their passive embrace turn into action, the government drops the ball again: with guidance from tech-savvy guru Peter Isherwell, the president is convinced that the comet has valuable minerals worth trillions, so they reverse their course of action.

With this new direction, they create a fresh public campaign that eases public perception and champions the wondrous social reforms that will come from the minerals—like jobs, eradication of poverty, and biodiversity.

This reminds me of the real-world tug of war on fossil fuels and alternative energy. It seems like the global community has good intentions to commit and reduce emissions, but the current demand for supply outweighs the trajectory to fulfill such crucial promises.

According to Stephen Nalley, Acting Administrator of the US Energy Information Administration (EIA):

“Even with growth in renewable energy, without significant policy changes or technological breakthroughs, we project increasing energy-related carbon dioxide emissions through 2050.”

Nalley’s comments reveal a grim future for our common home. We no longer have time to maintain the energy sources of the past and squeeze profits for the future. The climate crisis demands fidelity to wide-scale reforms for our everyday life and radical political action to transform how we live.

No Vision

From Dr. Mindy’s point of view in “Don’t Look Up”, America is spearheading the efforts to thwart the comet’s destructive path. The film mentions the US government primarily, with brief references to the international community and their assistance with stopping the comet. A loose and fragmented response to an apocalypse catastrophe. You would expect more collaboration, but unfortunately, we don’t get a full-blown global effort.

Likewise, when we examine global efforts to curtail the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s clear that every country has its own unique policies, procedures, and vaccine distribution. We have also heard that a central issue preventing a unified strategy is the inequality of vaccine access.

The World Health Organization set a goal to have 10% of each country's population vaccinated by the end of September 2021, but 56 participating countries—mostly in Africa and the Middle East—did not meet the target. Higher-income countries like Australia or Canada, on the other hand, have enjoyed strong vaccination rates.

According to recent figures, nearly 870 million vaccine doses will be held in high-income countries by the end of 2021. By redistributing those excess vaccines to lower-income countries, wealthier nations could demonstrate that they truly want to assist with ending this pandemic. The global community can take significant strides with a collective effort to ensure no country is left behind.

Avoir, Avoir

In a somber ending, Dr. Mindy, his family, and his research colleagues accept their fate: the comet will strike the earth. As they enjoy their last meal and reminisce, the setting shakes, and the walls shatter with debris blowing everywhere.

As the viewer, I was left with sadness and anger. Sadness because billions of lives perished unnecessarily and anger because of the level of indifference and science denial that caused the planet’s obliteration. I love the earth. Everything the planet has from its wondrous landscapes to its breathtaking scenery; the planet has many awe-inspiring sights.

I only hope that art and commentary like “Don’t Look Up” rejuvenate our resolve to become better stewards of the abundance of resources God has given us, for the betterment of humanity and our common home.

Efran Menny is a husband, father, and small-time writer. He’s a passionate educator, student of social work, and host of the "Saintly Witnesses" podcast.

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