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June 26 2022 8:51 PM ˚
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The end is near. What’s your hurry?

DOOMSDAY POP CULTURE 1
Doomscrolling through social media can be seductive when it comes to the climate crisis: It signals that we care about big problems even as we chase distractions. (Photo: NYTimes)
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I can’t say precisely when the end began, just that in the past several years, “the end of the world” stopped referring to a future cataclysmic event and started to describe our current situation. Across the ironized hellscape of the internet, we began “tweeting through the apocalypse” and blogging the Golden Globes ceremony “during the end times” and streaming “Emily in Paris” “at the end of the world.”اضافة اعلان

Often the features of our dystopia are itemized, as if we are briskly touring the concentric circles of hell — rising inequality, declining democracy, unending pandemic, the financial system optimistically described as “late” capitalism — until we have reached the inferno’s toasty center, which is the destruction of the Earth through global warming caused by humans.

This style is native to Twitter, but it has migrated to earnest slice-of-life Facebook pages, to Netflix, to books. Lauren Oyler’s coolly funny novel “Fake Accounts” begins in this mode (“Consensus was the world was ending, or would begin to end soon”) and Bo Burnham’s depressed drama-kid Netflix special “Inside” ends in it, as Burnham shrugs off the rising oceans and sings, “You say the world is ending. Honey, it already did.” And it is darkly inverted on the Instagram account @afffirmations, where new-age positive thinking buckles under the weight of generational despair, and serene stock photography collides with mantras like “I am not climate change psychosis” and “Humanity is not doomed.”

Ours is a banal sort of apocalypse. Even as it is described as frightfully close, it is held at a cynical distance. That is not to say that the rhetoric signals a lack of concern about climate change. But global warming represents the collapse of such complex systems on such an extreme scale that it overrides our emotional capacity. This creates its own perverse flavor of climate denial: We acknowledge the science but do not truly accept it, at least not enough to urgently act. This paralysis itself is almost too horrible to contemplate. As global warming cooks the Earth, it melts our brains, fries our nerves and explodes the narratives that we like to tell about humankind — even the apocalyptic ones.

This “end of the world” does not resemble the ends of religious prophecies or disaster films, in which the human experiment culminates in dramatic final spectacles. Instead we persist in an oxymoronic state, inhabiting an end that has already begun but may never actually end. Faced with this inexorable decline, the fire-and-brimstone fantasies grow ever more appealing. The apocalyptic drumbeat of social media gestures at the hopelessness of our situation while supplying a kind of narcotic comfort for it. Some plead: Just hit us with the comet already.

That brings us to the premise of “Don’t Look Up,” Adam McKay’s end-of-the-world comedy that he has said is an allegory for inaction on global warming. In it, an American astronomer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and a Ph.D. candidate (Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet hurtling toward Earth.

More chilling than this cosmic snowball is the fact that no one seems particularly concerned by its approach. Comet denialists hold rallies instructing people to “don’t look up,” but even those who accept the situation only gesture lazily at trying to stop it. A pop star (Ariana Grande) stages a grotesque benefit concert; a daytime television host (Tyler Perry) jokes that he hopes the comet takes out his ex-wife; his co-host (Cate Blanchett) is more interested in bedding the astronomer than heeding him. As she paws at him in a hotel corridor, her subconscious death drive becomes manifest, as she purrs: “Tell me we’re all gonna die!”

“Don’t Look Up” fails as a climate change allegory, because climate change resists metaphor. Even though I count among the film’s villains (all its journalists are bad), I do not feel as implicated as I should. For one thing, humans didn’t make the comet. Global warming is not approaching from space but oozing all around. My attention is diverted not only by shiny pop stars but also by taxing responsibilities and traumas, many of which are themselves related to ecological collapse. I am terrified of how global warming will affect my son’s generation, but when I learned we would need to travel regularly to a hospital as COVID spiked in New York City, I bought a car.

But the greatest liberty “Don’t Look Up” takes with its source material comes at the end: The comet hits Earth at its appointed time, at which point nearly everybody dies. It is final, dramatic, easy to understand. So, nothing like our current situation.

Global warming is what eco-philosopher Timothy Morton calls a hyperobject, a concept that is too large to be adequately comprehended by human beings. (McKay’s production company is called Hyperobject Industries.) Its scale is not just world-historical but geological, and though it is already very bad, it will only fulfill its catastrophic potential many lifetimes from now. Its effects are distributed unequally; what I experience as an ambient stressor may cause strangers to suffer or die.

Global warming suggests that humans are powerful enough to destroy the world but too weak to stop it. Though we are driven toward world-changing innovation, we are inflexible, fearful of abandoning the destructive comforts we once saw as progress: our cars, our meats, our free next-day deliveries.

Knowing all this, isn’t it about time we do something? Hmmm. “Don’t Look Up” turns on one of the most vexing aspects of the crisis: Stating the data, shouting it even, often fails to move people, though the film is largely incurious about why. One of the stories we tell ourselves about global warming is that we need only “listen to the science.” When this does not work, we are supplied with more science — more glacier drone shots, more projections of soaring temperatures, more scary stories about dead bees.

In the book “Being Ecological,” Morton calls this “ecological information dump mode,” in which an expert commences “shaking your lapels while yelling disturbing facts.” But even this seemingly rational approach stokes an irrational fantasy: that we have a certain amount of time “left” to stop global warming — just as soon as we get our heads around what’s going on.

The internet is often criticized for feeding us useless information, and for spreading disinformation, but it can enable a destructive relationship with serious information, too. If you’re a person who accepts the science, how much more do you really need to hear? The casual doomsaying of social media is so seductive: It helps us signal that we care about big problems even as we chase distractions, and it gives us a silly little tone for voicing our despair.

Most of all, it displaces us in time. We are always mentally skipping between a nostalgic landscape, where we have plenty of energy to waste on the internet, and an apocalyptic one, where it’s too late to do anything. It’s the center, where we live, that we can’t bear to envision. After all, denial is the first stage of grief.

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