On the Importance of Looking Up

The new Netflix film “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of people talking.  It is a black comedy, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Meryl Streep, and Jennifer Lawrence. It’s about corporate greed, bureaucratic incompetence, and the apocalypse.  Its bleak conclusion gets you thinking about the dangers of power, narcissism, and willful ignorance. 

The movie’s fans see it as a cautionary allegory about climate change, science denial, and clueless amateurs running the government.  Some worry that its gloomy ending may encourage despair.  Others hope it will be a call to action. 

Reviews of the film reflect our polarization.  Conservatives claim it is another example of Hollywood preaching a liberal gospel.  One critic in the National Review suggested it is the worst film of 2021.  He lambasted is as a “better-than-you comedy” that “reveals the nastiness of liberals.”  Another critic in the Washington Examiner said it was a “lazy anti-Trump comedy.” 

More subtle criticism came from New York Magazine, where a sympathetic commentator accused the film of oversimplifying the climate crisis.  He said liberals “need to stop telling themselves self-flattering fairy tales.”

I suppose the point is that we are all in this together.  Narcissism and stupidity cross party lines.  Hollywood is part of the problem.  The film seems to recognize this.  It shows how the cult of celebrity corrupts everyone, even the neurotic scientist played by DiCaprio. 

At any rate, this is an allegory, not a documentary.  Allegories simplify reality. They tell memorable stories that get people talking.  In this regard, the film succeeds.  It provokes conversations about life, death, politics, and American culture. 

This conversation should extend to the very idea of “looking up.”  The film’s title calls to mind Plato’s famous “allegory of the cave.”  In Plato story, we are prisoners chained in a cave.  We are not permitted to turn around and see reality.  Even when we are set free, most of us refuse to turn around. Plato suggests the masses would go so far as to kill truth-tellers and educators, who like Socrates are trying to get us to look up.

Plato’s allegory is about willful ignorance. Plato warns that most people don’t want to know the truth.  We deliberately choose not to look up.  We are happy with our illusions.  We don’t want to confront reality.  We keep our heads down, preferring slavery over enlightenment.

In the film, this idea becomes the slogan of the political party led by Streep’s character, President Orleans.  The party encourages people not to look up at the comet hurtling toward earth.  This is a parody of our culture’s struggle with science denial, “fake news,” and “alternative facts.”  It also implies authoritarianism.  “Don’t look up” also means “mind your own business” and don’t criticize the elites.

The philosophical solution to all of this is the pursuit of wisdom.  We ought to look up.  It won’t be easy or comfortable.  We may discover things that confuse us or make us unhappy.  But it is better to live in the light than in the darkness.

One of the questions raised by the film is whether you would want to know how and when you are going to die.  The scientists in the film know the exact time of the apocalypse.  And there is a supercomputer using big data to predict how people will die. 

What would you do with this knowledge?  Would knowledge of your death cause despair?  Would you prefer to remain in ignorance about your death?

A modest hopeful appears toward the end of the film when DiCaprio’s character responds to knowledge of his death by changing his life.  He refutes the computer’s prediction about his death, thereby reclaiming some modest dignity.

This is the kind of dignity that knowledge provides.  When we look up and confront reality, we can take charge of how we live and how we die.  To live in ignorance is to live as a prisoner.  The truth sets us free. 

Knowing the truth won’t change the indifferent reality of the cosmos.  Knowing the truth won’t stop a comet or cure you of Covid.  But knowledge allows us to live responsibly and, if necessary, to die with dignity.  It is tempting in a crisis to bury our heads in the sand.  But wisdom is only available to those who look up.

Defusing Covid Anxiety and Climate Worry

Fresno Bee, December 19, 2021

COVID restrictions are coming back. And climate change is wreaking havoc. It is easy to get depressed.

New categories of psychological affliction have appeared. Worries about the climate generate “eco-anxiety” and “ecological grief.” And “COVID anxiety syndrome” has emerged. A recent New York Times column maintains that COVID anxiety is plaguing the globe.

Political dysfunction contributes to despair. The scientists know what we ought to do. But politics prevents us from doing it. Vaccines and masks are refused. And the oil pushers keep us addicted to fossil fuels.

Growing anxiety is especially hard on young people. A new UC Berkeley grad was recently quoted as saying that health crises and climate catastrophes have led her to not want children. She said, “it would be wrong to bring someone into that chaos, without their consent.” I’ve heard similar sentiments from my students.

This is a sad result. Young people are typically a source of optimism and energy. But today’s youth are afraid of the future.

In response, we might point out that the future has always been scary. My generation grew up during the Cold War. Many of us expected nuclear winter to destroy life on earth. Nuclear weapons remain an ominous threat to humanity. But as you grow older, you learn that each generation has its crises.

You also learn that solutions to big problems require painstaking and tenacious effort. Social change does not happen overnight. The American revolution lasted seven years. It took another four score and seven years to abolish slavery. We are still working on racism and inequality.

Realizing that history moves slowly can alleviate angst. A culture of instant gratification fuels anxiety. If we don’t get what we want, we freak out. But history is not like DoorDash. It moves at its own pace.

Patience is especially important when dealing with epidemics and diseases. Colds and flus have to run their course. Immunity takes time to develop. It helps to know that prior pandemics were not cured overnight. The Spanish flu epidemic of the early 20th century blazed for at least two years. The Black Plague ravaged humanity for decades in the middle of the 14th century. It continued to recur for centuries.

The Earth’s climate unfolds across even larger time scales. The Earth was once covered with ice. At other times, it was much hotter. What’s “normal” for us is not what’s normal for the Earth.

Humans thrive under present conditions. But homo sapiens only emerged a few hundred thousand years ago. Our species will go extinct, like most other species. That’s just the way it goes. It doesn’t help to fret about it.

But it does help to recall how resilient and adaptable we are. Our ancestors left the warmth of Africa and migrated across the globe. When we encountered cold climates, we invented clothing and furnaces. When we settled in hot, dry places, we invented irrigation and air conditioning. We’ve visited the ocean’s depths, Mount Everest, and the moon. We also invented vaccines and solar panels.

We’ll adapt to COVID-19 and to the changing climate. Yet those adaptations are at the level of the species. Our individual choices matter for our personal survival. But evolution does not care about our individual choices. So don’t waste too much energy worrying about the survival of humanity or civilization.

In general, it’s wise to stop fretting. It is not healthy to dwell on disaster or ruminate on impending doom. The ancient Stoics advise us to stop worrying about things that are not in our control. The climate, the pandemic, the political world, and the course of history are simply not up to me.

This does not mean we should stop being prudent. Choose wisely with regard to your own body and behavior. Wear a mask. And get vaccinated. But stop fretting about other people’s choices. And lower your expectations about a return to “normal,” whatever that is.

Rocket Man Morality

Fresno Bee, October 17, 2021

When Captain Kirk made it to space, I was driving past a panhandler. The Gil Scott-Heron song, “Whitey on the Moon,” came to mind. We’ve got poverty and pandemics. But Shatner’s riding a rocket.

I say this as a fan of “Star Trek” and William Shatner. I’ve cheered on the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. I’ve even enjoyed Shatner’s campy spoken-word recordings — including his bizarre rendition of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.”

But “Star Trek” sold us a fantasy. They forgot to tell us that only the rich and famous will go where no man has gone before. The rest of us will be stuck in traffic, while poor folks beg for cash on freeway off-ramps.

Of course, Shatner can do whatever he wants. Rich old men have the right to burn up their money with rocket fuel. One part of this story is about Shatner’s health and longevity. At 90, Shatner is the oldest person to go into space. It’s amazing that a nonagenarian can blast into orbit. Good for him that he is sturdy enough to ride a rocket.

But in the background of Shatner’s triumph are tragic inequalities. Rich people live long, healthy lives. Poor people do not. A report from before the pandemic indicated that rich American men live an average of 15 years longer than poor American men.

The whole Earth is afflicted by similar gaps. World Bank data show that in “low income” countries, life expectancy is 64 years, while in “high income” countries, it is 81. It doesn’t seem right to fling old geezers into space while people are dying down below.

So, while I’m a Shatner fan, I also want to say shame on him — and on the idea of space tourism. This is conspicuous consumption run amok. The Earth and its humans need help. But the rich are riding rockets.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard rocket latest space passengers from left, Audrey Powers, William Shatner, Chris Boshuizen, and Glen de Vries raises their hands as they talks about snake bites during a media availability at the spaceport near Van Horn, Texas, Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2021. (AP Photo/LM Otero) LM Otero AP
Read more at: https://www.fresnobee.com/opinion/readers-opinion/article255018227.html#storylink=cpy

Those rockets emit massive amounts of pollution. The atmosphere is already full of heat-trapping gases. A tourist flight into space leaves a carbon footprint up to a hundred times worse than an ordinary airplane flight.

In case you were wondering, a ticket into space costs about $200,000. It’s obscene to spend that kind of money on a few minutes of weightlessness and the bragging rights you get from becoming a rocket man.

Despite the cost, the space tourism industry is planning to grow. The ultra-wealthy are doing fine and getting richer. I’m sure the wealthy will keep the rockets busy. There are plans for hundreds of rocket flights per year.

The wealthy will survive the climate crisis without much problem. Rich people already generate more carbon emissions than poor people. The rich will ride out the climate storm in air-conditioned summer homes, while the working poor and the homeless suffer under the heat.

It is probably too late to restrict the space tourism industry. If Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and others are prevented from launching their rockets in the U.S., they would just launch them abroad.

That’s where shame comes in. Instead of celebrating space tourists, we should say, shame on them. Rich people should be embarrassed to ride on rockets. It would be better for the rich to donate their 200K to a homeless shelter. Let’s praise them when they do that. And let’s shame them when they binge on rocket fuel.

We also need to question the fantasy that Hollywood has sold us about space. There is no home for us in the stars. Elton John’s vision is more realistic. He said, “Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids; in fact, it’s cold as hell.”

To his credit, Shatner described how the rocket flight humbled him. He said that from the rocket’s window he saw “the vulnerability of everything.” That’s important. But you don’t need to ride a rocket to understand that our planet and our neighbors are suffering.

The “Star Trek” fantasy assumes we are wise enough to venture to the stars. But until we fix this world, we have not earned the right to leave it. Scotty can’t just beam us up. There’s nowhere else to go. Every rocket man must land again on this fragile crust and drive home past the haunted and the homeless.

Solidarity as a Moral Value

Fresno Bee, September 19, 2021

Solidarity is an important focal point of morality. Solidarity involves empathy and emotional connection. But it is not merely a feeling. It is also the understanding that social problems require cooperative solutions. These days many of us feel fragile and insecure. Solidarity offers something solid and enduring in benevolence, justice, and concern for the common good.

The United Nations just published a report described as a “wake up call” for global solidarity. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns that people are turning their backs on trust, cooperation, and multilateralism. He says, “Humanity’s welfare depends on solidarity and working together as a global family to achieve common goals.” Solidarity arises when we understand that “no one is safe until everyone is safe.”

This echoes the teaching of Pope Francis, who published an encyclical last fall, “Fratelli Tutti,” which basically means that we are all brothers (and sisters). Some want to build walls and retreat into isolation. Francis encourages us to do the opposite. Instead of withdrawing, we should reach out. The pope says that the path to peace and flourishing requires a “global ethic of solidarity and cooperation shaped by interdependence and shared responsibility in the whole human family.”

The COVID-19 pandemic reminds us of our interconnectedness. The virus spread globally. New variants emerge among the unvaccinated. As long as some remain vulnerable, we all remain vulnerable.

The war on terrorism provides another example. Terrorists hiding out in Afghanistan masterminded the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks were a response to American interventions in the Middle East in prior decades. The war on terrorism extends across the globe, involving many allies. It has had far-reaching impacts. We still stand in irritating security lines at the airport. And now we must welcome refugees fleeing Afghanistan.

Or consider climate change. As individuals, we go about our own business, burning fossil fuels. But those individual choices heat up the atmosphere. The result is fire and smoke in California, horrific hurricanes, and rising sea levels that will swamp island nations.

Our struggle with racism provides yet another example. The repercussions of slavery and Jim Crow continue to ripple across our social and political landscape. Historical injustices give birth to contemporary dysfunction. Police brutality in some American cities sparked a global movement against racial injustice.

These examples show that each is connected to the other. If you pull one thread of the social fabric, it changes the whole cloth. We are networked and interdependent. Global and historical interconnections define who we are and what we can become.

Now some people do not like to admit this. They refuse to accept our interconnectedness and insist on living in stubborn isolation. The lonely hermit is a symbol of this kind of refusal. Others draw lines of solidarity that are narrow and exclusive. Some focus on solidarity within their families or within a neighborhood. Others focus on racial solidarity or national solidarity.

Most religious and moral traditions imagine a broader circle of solidarity. Calls for brotherly love spread globally. The parable of the good Samaritan is not only about solidarity with a suffering neighbor. It is also a call to view the world as our neighborhood.

There are remaining difficulties. Solidarity gives us an orientation. But it does not tell us exactly where to go or how to get there. The issues of climate change, racism, terrorism, and the pandemic are complex. Solutions are also complex and evolving. But any viable solution must bear witness to suffering wherever it is found and grow networks of cooperation that are large and inclusive.

When we affirm solidarity we acknowledge that solutions for social problems cannot focus on “us” in opposition to “them.” Any long-term and stable solution to our problems must move beyond “us” and “them.” In solidarity, each of us comes to see that we are responsible for the other. In an interconnected world, what happens to the other impacts me. And my choices and behaviors have ripple effects that extend beyond me.

These ripples fortify us in the face of our common fragility. Life is precarious. But we do not suffer alone. There are problems to be solved. We solve them by opening our doors and reaching out our hands.

The Dream of Leaving Earth

Humans need to care for Earth before blasting off to Mars

Fresno Bee, June 23, 2017

As this planet overheats, some people are planning to leave. Billionaire Elon Musk wants to start colonizing Mars. He imagines 1 million people migrating to the red planet within 100 years.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies

Musk argues that we should become a “multiplanetary species.” He says that there are two paths that humanity can take. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event … The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multiplanetary species.”

The most likely extinction event is global warming. An asteroid could wipe us out – or a deadly virus. But climate change is already happening, posing a threat to the human future.

Global warming gives us a reason to worry about the ethics of interplanetary colonization. Until we can prove that we are able to care for this planet, we have no right to colonize another. Until we evolve ethically, we ought not leave this planet and destroy another. The colonizing impulse is connected to the hubris that created the climate catastrophe.

We are living through the hottest years on record. Deadly heat waves have killed tens of thousands of human beings. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will contribute to 250,000 excess deaths per year. In addition to the heat itself, risk factors include malaria and other diseases exacerbated by climate change.

But we mostly ignore this. Malaria and hyperthermia don’t make headlines. Perhaps we think common-sense measures provide adequate solutions: drink plenty of water and use mosquito repellent.

The problem is that the poorest people do not have access to clean water or mosquito repellent. The laboring masses live and work outside in the elements. Most of the people who will die from the changing climate are in countries we don’t care about – in Africa and Asia.

Americans will be the last ones affected. We can simply crank up the AC, sip icy beverages and avoid mosquitoes by staying inside. But many humans don’t have such luxuries.

It will be the rich few who will venture off planet, seeking a new start on Mars. Musk wants to get the price of a Mars trip down to around $200,000. At that price, affluent Americans can save or borrow to get on board.

Such a trip is beyond the wildest imagination of those living on $2 per day. But those impoverished people are the ones least able to cope with the world we’ll leave behind.

This is a question of what we call “environmental justice.” Environmental justice is concerned with the fair distribution of environmental benefits – and harms. It seems especially unfair for rich people, who already burn more than their fair share of carbon, to head off planet, leaving behind a ruined world inhabited by poor people with no hope of departure.

Planetary escape is a fun summer fantasy: a diversion to chew on while fishing in a cool mountain stream. But our extra-planetary fantasies should not distract us from the stark reality of the present. Global population is increasing. Fragile earth resources are overexploited. And the climate is heating up.

A harbinger of our hot future is seen in California’s fisheries. California trout, salmon, and steelhead are threatened by increased heat, which changes river flows, even in wet years. Combine the heat with overfishing and increased need for water for agriculture and you’ve got a recipe for fishery collapse.

An old adage about eliminating poverty says, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The problem is that this assumes that there are fish left to catch.

This is also a problem of the Mars dream. There are no fish on Mars. And no flowing water. Musk suggests that life on Mars would be “quite fun.” But human happiness occurs within our ecological niche. We have evolved in a Goldilocks world. It is not too hot and not too cold. It contains clean waters abundant with fish.

The Goldilocks days may soon be ending. Our ethical task is to fairly distribute harms and benefits on this hot, crowded planet, while preserving an inhabitable world for our grandchildren.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article157750589.html