By Adam McKay and Dr Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
As a scientist and a movie maker, we both once naively assumed that data and storytelling would converge to help prevent the imminent collapse of our habitable climate. Fire tornadoes, mega hurricanes, biblical floods, fossil fuel companies misleading the public and gambling our lives for huge profits – of course, such apocalyptic imagery would lead to gripping newscasts, dramatic interpretations, and stirring speeches from our leaders, sparking action at every level of society.
After all, the real-life story of the climate crisis makes even the wildest, biggest-budget film like Don’t Look Up seem like a charming EM Forster adaptation. But does this story-of-all-stories get wall-to-wall news coverage? Nope. Not by a long shot.
Despite a horrifying parade of extreme weather events fit for an apocalypse film, only 0.4% of corporate news airtime in 2020 was about climate. According to a recent study by MediaMatters, corporate news coverage of the climate catastrophe plummeted by 53% in 2020 compared to 2019. Even before the pandemic, across the entirety of 2019, major networks devoted less than four hours of coverage total to the greatest threat to life on Earth in 65 million years, since the asteroid that took out the dinosaurs.
Clearly we need to reassess how we’re communicating this massive story. So, Don’t Look Up tries to do something that perhaps doesn’t feel natural with a story as dark as climate change: make the audience laugh. Because when people laugh together it gives them perspective, relief and, most of all, a semblance of community. This is not conjecture. Research shows that humor can lower our defenses and make hard truths easier to hear.
Hopefully comedy can help elucidate how our culture of swipes, clicks and likes is taking us further and further away from the one subject we must talk about.
Corporations, advertising and PR firms are turning even the most basic exchange of information into a sales pitch or “brand enhancement” and it’s put us in a very dangerous place. What better way to rob this constant churning wall of spin, coercion and success porn than by simply laughing at it? FDR once said: “There’s no better way to disarm the Devil than by pointing out his fly is down.” (He didn’t really say that, but how cool would it be if he had?)