[Editor’s note: This is a version of an article published in the Out of Frame Weekly, an email newsletter about the intersection of art, culture, and ideas. Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Friday.]
Remember Don't Look Up? You know, the apocalypse-comedy/climate-change satire that was reviled by critics and yet won a Best Picture nomination and became Netflix's most-viewed original film of all time?
It trended on Twitter this week because of a tweet drawing comparisons between the movie and a recent UK television interview with environmentalist Miranda Whelehan. But the comparison is not as favorable to the "Just Stop Oil" activist as her supporters think.
Don’t Look Up (2021) pic.twitter.com/wLKTotPV5U— three steaks pam (@alexandrakuri) April 11, 2022
On Monday, Whelehan went on Good Morning Britain, where host Richard Madeley questioned her about sit-in protests that blocked traffic and occupied oil depots to urge the government to stop new fossil-fuel investments. Madeley asked her whether disruptive protests may turn off citizens who would otherwise be sympathetic to environmentalism.
"I don't think any of us want to be disrupting people's lives," Whelehan answered, "but I think given the science and the things academics are saying about what oil is causing around the world and in this country too, this is the level of action that needs to be taken."
"But you'd accept, wouldn't you, that it's a very complicated discussion to be had?" Madeley then said. "This 'Just Stop Oil' slogan is very playground. [...] It's quite childish."
Whelehan responded by saying that "the answers are very simple" and re-emphasizing that "we are on the road to climate catastrophe."
The internet criticized Madeley for "bullying" and "climate denial." People also compared the interview to a scene in Don't Look Up in which two scientists (Jennifer Lawrence and Leonardo DiCaprio) go on a morning show to talk about a comet about to hit earth, but the hosts brush off their warning.
Madeley may have come off as condescending, so Whelehan's frustration is understandable. He complained that the "Just Stop Oil" slogan turns a complex issue into a simple tagline, but for better or worse, that's what all slogans do.
But when it comes to his broader criticisms about climate activists' tactics and goals, he's right, and Whelehan did little to refute him.
So folks have been comparing the weird @GMB morning show interview with the climate activist in the UK with *that* scene from #DontLookUp.— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) April 13, 2022
So we at the @MehdiHasanShow put them side by side & the results are.. astounding. Reality mirroring art!
It Is Complicated, Actually
Climate change, like all policy issues, is, in fact, complicated. There are many costs and benefits that must be weighed against each other.
This is not to say that we should not reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There are changes we could make to reduce carbon emissions without hurting the economy, and alternatives we could move to, but those alternatives have not been put in place yet. In the case of nuclear energy, a safe, reliable, and zero-carbon energy source, activists like Whelehan actively oppose it.
As such, to "just stop oil" without first making alternatives available will lead to disastrous consequences. We must consider these immediate harms as well as the long-term harms of climate change.
Even only taking environmental concerns into account, issues are never cut-and-dry. How do reduced carbon emissions from hydroelectric dams weigh against damages to local habitats from their construction? In the words of economist Thomas Sowell, "There are no solutions; there are only trade-offs."
This was *two weeks* ago. pic.twitter.com/MtnPVpzQpx— Drew Holden (@DrewHolden360) March 9, 2022
This Is Your Brain on Activism
Madeley also suggested the protests and their extreme demands would hurt Whelehan's cause rather than help.
She said that extreme action helps "raise awareness" of climate change. But it is not clear that this "awareness" makes environmentalists look good. Anyone who believes the cliché that "All publicity is good publicity" should not be in the field of publicity.
It is likely that disruptive protests, riots, or even peaceful demonstrations that are perceived as radical can turn people against the cause that they are seeking to help. Some historians believe that left-wing riots in 1968 scared voters into re-electing President Richard Nixon. The stereotype of vegans as being extreme may have something to do with organizations like PETA and their shock-value stunts. Activists like Whelehan help give environmentalists a similar bad reputation.
The fact that protests can backfire is true regardless of what the aim of the protests are. The trucker protest against vaccine mandates evoked mixed reactions from the Canadian public, with 68% supporting the police or military breaking up the convoy by force.
It's not enough for activists to draw attention to themselves and demand change. They have to actually persuade people who disagree with them and address their legitimate concerns.
It is too common for activists of all stripes to only see their side of the issue and demonize everyone they disagree with as illegitimate, nefarious, or bigoted.
As Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson said on a recent podcast: "The thing about activism is that it's almost always predicated on the idea that you're right, you're morally superior, and you've identified the people who are wrong. And to me, that's one step away from mob."
This self-righteous certainty is exactly what Whelehan demonstrated in her interview, brushing off Madeley's questions to just repeat her talking points. People are right to compare it to Don't Look Up, but not for the reasons they think. When DiCaprio and Lawrence's characters got so upset with their interviewers that they started screaming, the audience is supposed to sympathize with them, but they also make themselves look crazy. It's not easy to communicate with your opponents, and you may want to disregard them, but that doesn't change anyone's mind.
Other people are not passive listeners you can expect to preach to. They are human beings you must understand and communicate with.— Out of Frame (@OutofFrameFEE) April 11, 2022