“Earth on Trajectory to Sixth Extinction, say Biologists”

Considering the film Don’t Look Up from the perspective of higher education

This actual headline caught my eye, even though it was buried in the links of my weekly campus bulletin. In a nine-paragraph press release, I learned that University of Hawaii biologist Robert Cowie, collaborating with French researchers, had added snails and slugs to the calculation of extinction, “…confirming that we are indeed witnessing the onset of the Sixth Mass Extinction in Earth’s history” (UH News). The article gave me a feeling of déjà vu, because like millions of other people, I had recently watched the Netflix film, Don’t Look Up.

I wasn’t planning to add to the prolific commentary on the film, but the feeling was just too weird. Maybe it was the use of the word “trajectory” in the headline or the way the bulletin highlighted Dr. Cowie’s research as an example of the university’s 2015–2025 Strategic plan, which was linked with the bulletin. The strategic plan mentioned three research areas specifically: Data and Analytics, Health Disparities, and Comet Studies — no wait, actually that last one is called Sustainability and Resilience, but, you know, the film was an allegory and I’m trying to reverse the metaphor.

Don’t Look Up is a spoof meant to emphasize urgency and the need to pay attention to climate change. The plot is shallowly focused on the impact date of the comet in six months and fourteen days. But in higher ed, the “impact date” is the one thing that we like to avoid: we do the research, teach the science, and model solutions, but we really don’t like to talk about the timeline.

In the opening scene of the film, PhD candidate Dibiasky discovers the comet (while rapping Wu Tang Clan “Ain’t Nuthing ta F’ Wit” under her breath) and then her professor, Dr. Mindy, works through the math on a whiteboard. It’s definitely true that college professors have a thing for whiteboards. When Mindy gets to the end of the equation — the part that confirms certain doom for planet Earth — he stops, erases with his sleeve, and dismisses the group.

Professor Mindy calculates the ephemeris (still photo: IMDB)

“Let’s call it a night huh?” he says. “I can’t figure this one out, not tonight guys.”

Meaning: I’m going to go home and freak out and then stay up all night trying to figure out how to tell my students the next day that the world is ending. That’s what the Teaching Climate Change in Higher Education blog is all about, how faculty do that. This is a field notes blog associated with a formal research study in which I talk with faculty about how climate change is changing their disciplines, teaching, professional and personal identities. I haven’t yet interviewed an astronomer, but one of my most-read posts was about the role of pure math in a post-doom university.

Pure Math in the Post Doom University (image: Pixabay)

Post doom university — is that a thing? Not really. Because as I mentioned, the planet-killing effects of runaway climate change are a psychological blind spot that isn’t written into our strategic plans or research agendas or learning outcomes.

True, climate collapse or the Sixth Extinction will not happen in six months and 14 days, but ecological and social collapse may be coming in the too-short future. Whether we are talking 5 years or 25 or 40 is the calculation that faculty don’t like to finish. That’s why more than 600 professors around the world have signed the Scholars Warning letter which urges more open engagement with the real risks of near-term social and ecological collapse. Inside Climate Change wrote a good article about the letter — which went largely unnoticed in the higher ed sector.

Signing this letter got me labeled as a doomer with some colleagues, but there’s a big difference between a doomer and a post-doomer. The Deep Adaptation agenda is summarized in 4 Rs:

  • Resilience: what do we most value that we want to keep, and how?
  • Relinquishment: what do we need to let go of so as not to make matters worse?
  • Restoration: what could we bring back to help us with these difficult times?
  • Reconciliation: with what and whom shall we make peace as we awaken to our mutual mortality?

To me, these things are just common sense for any sane, reflective person facing an existential crisis. Post-doom, a term coined by eco-theologian Michael Dowd, is about “Living meaningfully, compassionately, and courageously no matter what.” It’s about working backwards from the worst possible outcome (think: eight degrees warming, 15 feet of sea-level rise, near-term social collapse, and government leaders bailing out on a spaceship) to arrive at research and actions from a stance of humility. That’s what it comes down to, for me.

But hey, I’m just an English teacher, what do I know about climate change? At first, nothing, but I got humble and listened to my faculty colleagues, some of whom have been pseudonymously profiled on this blog, and I read books and wrote letters and started to change everything about how I went about being an English teacher, because the times have changed and what we are teaching is not meeting the precarity of the situation, especially for young people.

College teachers definitely have a thing for whiteboards! (author photo, 2013, from a World Cafe facilitation)

Faculty are no longer knowledge experts, but knowledge brokers, translating information from multiple academic fields, while calibrating the depth and breadth of information to the Zone of Proximal Development of the students. The ZPD (pronounced zoped) is one of the first learning theories you learn in teacher school. It’s like a sweet spot for learning. If something is too hard, we give up; if it’s too easy, we tune out. So when Dr. Mindy comes to the end of that equation, he’s calculating the emotional ZPD of his proteges, while at the same time, processing his own shock. Planetary extinction is imminent — now how do I fit this into the lesson plan? For the true teacher, the two are intertwined, which means that faculty need to address their own shock and grief, and then learn strategies to talk with students about it. Maybe talking about this film could be a strategy. Maybe NOT talking about climate collapse is part of what’s causing one million students in the U.S. to not enroll in college this year. Maybe not looking up is part of a 60% increase in suicide for youth under 24 (and that was before the pandemic). Maybe it’s why we have increasing intergenerational tension.

Climate anxiety researcher Brit Wray consulted on the film, and she called Don’t Look Up “the first climate psych film”. Dr. Wray and others worked with the nonprofit Count Us In to design a mental health assessment called Be Kind to Your Mind, (see below) and some action steps for coping with climate anxiety related to the film.

I’d say, Regularly, but not Always. (screenshot from Be Kind to your Mind)

Climate scientists have mostly liked the film, although some of my climate friends have pointed out obvious critiques like the myopic focus on the U.S., and the fact that climate change is not one impact, but many over time, and that unlike a comet that kills everyone at once, climate change is already killing some people, and it is mostly not the people who caused it. Nothing caused the comet; it was a bad luck trajectory. But we all know full well by now what causes climate change. And as my friend Erik Assidourian points out, with a really cool Donkey Kong metaphor, in his most recent Gaian Reflection, climate change is really just a symptom of overshoot. And, I would add that people are not helpless and do not need to rely on governments and institutions to take action (although some more action would be nice.)

In my research on what college students know, think, feel, and do about climate change, Leonardo DiCaprio was mentioned many times by name. Students were usually referencing the 2016 documentary Before the Flood, which DiCaprio narrated, but he has been involved with many environmental films (nicely summarized here). Which is to say, that when Professor Mindy loses his shit on Sesame Street, DiCaprio is drawing from some lived experience as a climate educator.

I watched the film with friends, and with our teenaged children. Why was the film so long, I wondered? Was this a psychological calculation to force us to sit with the uncomfortable allegory? I loved Ariana Grande and Kid Cude’s corny and overblown anthem “Just Look Up” which used emotional music to allow the viewer to feel their climate feels. Music is one way I bring emotion into my courses, and I’ll be adding this one to my climate-themed Song of the Week playlist, and maybe to karaoke nights with some qualified f-ing scientists.

And as the film, and the world, came to an end, I felt my own climate grief welling up. I thought the dinner scene at the end of the film was the best part. How I wish that this is how it would all go down. I could feel that I was about to cry and make an awkward scene in front of my daughter (she was really in it for Timothée Chalamet, who added a perfect spiritual grace note to the finale). It was the quick-spliced footage of hippos and frogs and babies that got me, and then, DiCaprio’s line, “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”

He didn’t mean the wild salmon and store bought pie and dark roast coffee they were enjoying. He meant everything. As the credits rolled, I excused myself and stepped outside to cry. I missed the funny naked bonus bits after the credits, again perhaps timed to allow a little bit of stunned interior silence for the viewer before regaining the social denial that we live within.

It was past midnight, and the kids went to bed. I stayed up talking with my best friend, whom I’ve known since junior high. She knows I’m obsessed with climate change and that I’ve wrestled with depression over it. And still, climate change is not something we talk about very much. “Are you okay?” she asked.

As we talked, I finally understood why she isn’t more “into” climate change, like I am. She brought up another film, the 1997 “comedy” about the Holocaust called Life is Beautiful. She said, “isn’t that pretty much what we are doing, creating a life for our kids?” Not exactly pretending, and not quite denying climate change, but just — focusing on life, which is, still, beautiful.

I never thought about it that way.

Is that what we are doing in college?

photo: IMDB

I leave you with three quotes from Dr. Mindy, the sexiest scientist (and climate educator) around. Pure gold, these:

“Everything is theoretically impossible until it is done.”

“We need to be able to say things to each other. We need to be able to hear things.”

“We really did have everything, didn’t we?”



interviews and musings from a study about what faculty know, think, feel, and do about the climate crisis

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