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ON 29 January 1964, the Stanley-Kubrick-directed movie Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb opened in US cinemas to both critical and popular acclaim.
Set at the height of Cold War tensions, the film is a dark and sarcastic comedy about a commander of a US Air Force Base, General Jack D Ripper, who diverts his B-52 bombers from airborne alert to an attack on the Soviet Union with nuclear weapons. This threatens to set off a doomsday device which endangers all life on the surface of earth.
The movie’s popularity was evidence of changing attitudes toward atomic bombs and the concept of nuclear deterrence. Dr Strangelove was followed by a string of releases through the 1970s and 1980s, with nuclear terror as the central subject or background theme.
All of this helped to fuel a worldwide anti-nuclear movement, which in turn generated a larger audience for anti-nuclear culture; this then strengthened the momentum, all in a virtuous circle. In other words, it is plausible to argue that the human race avoided atomic Armageddon – in part – because we spent lots of time imagining it through the fantasy world of film and so were motivated not to experience it in reality. Art imitating life was enough for us to want a life that did not imitate art.
Returning to Dr Strangelove, Kubrick deployed satire – the use of humour, or ridicule, to expose people’s follies – throughout his story-telling. This is designed, of course, to make the viewer laugh. It is argued that when people laugh together – in a darkened cinema, for example – it gives them perspective, relief and, most of all, a semblance of community.
Research has shown that humour can lower our defences and make hard truths easier to hear. Moreover, this same research argues that comedy can offer access to complex issues, commonly dissolves social barriers and routinely encourages message sharing.
Hold that thought, but Don’t Look Up
Nearly 60 years after the release of Dr Strangelove, another darkly satirical film, ridiculing the folly of humankind, has been released to critical acclaim. It is already Netflix’s third-mostwatched film, and their most successful project ever.
Titled Don’t Look Up, the story starts with the discovery of a new comet by two astronomers, who soon calculate it is following a trajectory direct to Earth and will cause an extinction-level event for the entire planet in a little over six months’ time.
For the rest of the movie, the two protagonists travel to Washington DC and try – with the help of others – to convince those in charge to do something about it. The problem is probably solvable, if the world unites together to fix it. Unfortunately, nobody wants to listen.
Taken literally, the movie is about a huge comet, of a similar size to the one that hit the Gulf of Mexico circa 65 million years ago and wiped out threequarters of all species on the planet – including the dinosaurs – heading toward Earth. This is not, however, a film about how humanity would respond to a planet-killing comet. It is, instead, a film about how humanity is responding to planet-killing climate change. Satire abounds throughout the movie, with the director – Adam McKay – clearly relying on this humour to make hard truths easier to hear.
Comedy and tragedy – two sides of the same coin
The Paris Agreement, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are just three examples of internationally recognised bodies, or protocols, advancing the conversation around the environment.
Yet, despite all the work they do, scientists continue to warn that the Earth system is breaking down with breath-taking speed. Climate specialists are increasingly vocal that the public in general, and world leaders in particular, underestimate how rapid, serious and permanent climate and ecological breakdown will be if humankind does not mobilise resources in the size and scale required.
Our ‘carbon budget’ is being depleted fast and researchers continue to ring the alarm bell. Recent news flow around the Thwaite’s Glacier in Antarctica is one such example. The glacier is one of the largest of its kind – similar in size to the UK – with one third of it consisting of large floating ice platforms, or ice shelves. The mighty glacier appears to be undergoing dramatic, accelerating change and scientists are concerned a 45-kilometre-long segment could shatter within the next next three to five years.
This shelf currently prevents the enormous glacier from slipping into the sea. If it were to shatter, huge amounts of glacial ice would end up melting into the water. This would be enough to increase global sea levels by over half a metre. If this then triggered a chain reaction of glacial melts, the resultant rise in sea levels would probably be catastrophic, with the island of Jersey very vulnerable to the impact this would have.
There is clearly no funny side to what a tragedy this could be. The ‘no one is listening’ message conveyed in Don’t Look Up reflects the public communication task facing the scientific community. Even for those governments committing to net zero – with ours in Jersey being a commendable example – galvanising change, through an engaged public, still seems some way off.
Perhaps now is the time for us locally to consider humour as part of an effective environmental messaging strategy? If done well, it will get us considering the one subject we should all be talking about and ignite that semblance of community that humour has been proved to engender.
Alternatively, the message should be Do Look Up, and pray.