Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Facing the Grief of Looking Up, Looking Forward

Don’t Look Up has been a much-viewed, much-discussed movie this month. There has been a wide variety of comments about that Netflix film both by “professional” movie critics and by amateur reviewers (like me). Unlike some of the professionals, though, I think it was quite significant. 

The Grief of Looking Up

Don’t Look Up is ostensibly about a huge (the size of Mount Everest) comet which is on track to crash into the earth about six months after when it was discovered by a grad student at Michigan State University. She and her professor seek to warn the world of the coming disaster.

Their message of impending doom, however, is not well received. The media is more concerned with the latest news about celebrities and the President is more concerned with the upcoming election and the breaking news about her own personal scandal.

Additionally, wealthy capitalists seek to take advantage of the looming catastrophe for economic gains. And then soon numerous science (comet) deniers emerge, rallying under the cry “Don’t look up!”

Even though that is what the film is about on the surface, it was produced as a satire about the current crisis of climate change (better labeled as global warming).

A large segment of society—politicians, capitalists, media personalities, and many of the general public—is like the science deniers in the film, but their rallying cry for maintaining the unsustainable present is “Don’t look forward.”

The Grief of Looking Forward

In the past couple of weeks, I have learned of, and been challenged/shaken by, Michael Dowd. A constantly evolving thinker, Dowd (b. 1958) is an American progressive Christian minister (ordained by the UCC) and an “eco-theologian.”

His recent work has been focused on the worldwide ecological crisis, which he is certain will lead to TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it).

My initial introduction to Dowd’s alarming thought was through two thirty-minute YouTube videos produced in November 2021: “Collapse in a Nutshell” and “Overshoot in a Nutshell,” both having the subtitle “Understanding Our Predicament.”

In addition, I watched (and recommend) Dowd’s 25-minute video, “Serenity Prayer for the 21st Century: Pro-Future Love-in-Action,” produced in June 2021. According to Dowd, “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” includes, or is primarily, TEOTWAWKI.

I have many questions and reservations about Dowd’s disturbing message, but what he presents is certainly something that all of us critical thinkers must take seriously—and his suggestions on how to deal with the grief of looking forward may well be very valuable for us all.

So, What Should We Do?

Whether Dowd’s dire analysis is completely correct or not, of greatest importance is to realize as fully as possible that the ecological crisis is much more critical than most people, probably including most of us, have acknowledged.

The result of unchecked global warming is not just one problem among many equally serious social problems. Indeed, it is not a problem that will likely be solved; rather it is a predicament from which there is likely no escape.

If humankind, probably in this century, will likely experience a collapse of civilization as we know it, what should we do? Dowd’s advice is to work through the stages of grief, accepting what is most probably inevitable, but still living each day with joy and thankfulness in spite of the looming doom.

He emphasizes the need for “adaptive inattention” to the crisis, seeking the well-being of people now. We can seek to be agents of calm amidst the coming chaos.

While the film Don’t Look Up doesn’t deal directly with the grief of looking forward, the final prayer at the “last supper” of several of the characters in the movie is a good one for us to pray at this critical time:

Dearest Father and Almighty Creator, we ask for your grace tonight, despite our pride; your forgiveness, despite our doubt. Most of all Lord, we ask for your love to soothe us through these dark times. May we face whatever is to come in your divine will, with courage and open hearts of acceptance. Amen.


** Even though he is an ordained Christian minister, Dowd says nothing about what Christians have affirmed for 2,000 years: the coming of a “world without end.” I am planning for my first blog post in February to be about that.


  1. Human beings have always needed ways to find serenity in the face of their own death, and one of the things that have helped with serenity in the past is to have hope that children/grandchildren/future generations will have good lives. Those who didn't have hope for the future would look to the afterlife or would find other ways to release attachment to this world.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Karen.

      Indeed, the hope for the future generations has been strong for many people, whether they believed in an "afterlife" or not. That is the sad thing about Michael Dowd's analysis: there is not much hope for a meaningful life for people on this earth--possibly long before the end of this century. So the grief I feel now--if Dowd's views are correct--is not for myself or even for my children (who may well get to the end of their natural lives before the crunch) but for my grandchildren and the two great-grandchildren whose births we are greatly looking forward to this year.

      Dowd doesn't give any indication that he believes in "the afterlife." On the one hand, it is quite commendable, I think, that people can potentially find serenity without faith in the future, either here or in the hereafter. On the other hand, though, if there is an afterlife, I think it is really sad that that seems "beyond belief" for so many people now--even for an ordained minister such as Michal Dowd.

  2. Here are comments that local Thinking Friend Anton Jacobs sent by email a little over an hour ago:

    "Your blog is quite interesting, and I appreciate your insight into the 'last supper' in the movie, which I didn’t pick up on when watching the movie.

    "I’ve not seen the videos you mentioned, nor do I know Dowd, although I’m bad at remembering names.

    "Since I’m currently immersed in the literature of fundamentalists and evangelicals, it occurs to me his message could be basically the same as that of premillennialists or amillennialists.

    "I do wonder whether what he’s doing is an ironic attempt to wake us up to do something about the climate disaster obvious on the horizon.

    "And in some ways, we could think of such a message as an insight for all of us who know we’re going to die anyway, and yet choose to live as he recommends rather than indulge our worst selfish selves.

    "Thank you for your work."

    1. Thank you too, Anton, for sending your pertinent comments.

      I hadn’t remembered seeing Dowd’s name before, either—and I am usually fairly good at remembering names. Nor had I heard of most of the people he cited in his videos. It’s a big world out there with an awfully lot of people thinking, writing, and making YouTube videos.

      Concerning millennialism: regardless of the prefix (pre-, post-, or a-) millennialists believe in the coming of an ideal future in which the Kingdom of God is clearly manifest. I don’t see any indication that Dowd has any belief whatsoever in the possibility of such a future for us humans.

      Dowd would, I think, certainly favor doing whatever is possible to push the coming end farther into the future, so he is certainly for doing things to work against climate change. But even though it may be postponed for a while, it is quite apparent that he thinks that collapse is inevitable—and there is probably not much that can/will be done now to greatly extend the time before TEOTWAWKI.

      I do think that his message of living as agents of calm and care for hurting people is a good and important one, and he seems to think (or hope?) that there will be many who will do that rather than to indulge their “worst selfish selves.”

  3. In the email by which I sent a link to this post to my Thinking Friends, I said that it was one of the most important of all the 925 blog posts I have made. Here is the response from TF Glenn Hinson in Kentucky:

    "Yes, it is one of your most important blogs, Leroy. I think we could substitute Merton’s prayer for the one with which you ended."

    Here is "The Merton Prayer":

    My Lord God,
    I have no idea where I am going.
    I do not see the road ahead of me.
    I cannot know for certain where it will end.
    nor do I really know myself,
    and the fact that I think I am following your will
    does not mean that I am actually doing so.
    But I believe that the desire to please you
    does in fact please you.
    And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
    I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
    And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
    though I may know nothing about it.
    Therefore will I trust you always though
    I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
    I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
    and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

    (From Thomas Merton, "Thoughts in Solitude," 1956)

  4. Little deep for me, but I just keep following JESUS and what the Bible tells me to do.

    1. My first reaction was: But Jesus and the Bible tells us nothing about what to do if a planet-destroying comet is about to crash into the earth or what to do if the ecosystem is about to collapse and civilization as we know it is likely to come to an end this century.

      But then I thought: Yes, we do need to do what the Bible tells us to do. For example, how important are the following words from Proverbs 3:5!

      "Trust in the Lord with all your heart
      and lean not on your own understanding."

  5. Thanks, Leroy. So many voices have been crying in the wilderness about ecological collapse, but so few have been taken seriously. As a Christian, one of my assignments is to be a good steward of the natural world. I try, but the systems operating to degrade the environment sometimes seem almost impossible to change. We'll have much to explain to our great-grandchildren. Cheers, Bill.

    1. Bill, I am honored by your taking the time to read my blog article and to post comments. I certainly agree with your comments--but I'm afraid I won't have much opportunity to explain much to my great-grandchildren. My first great-grandchild is due to be born next month, and then another granddaughter is expecting in early summer. But as I turn 84 this year, my chance of being able to explain meaningful things to them is quite small.

      But what distresses me the most is the likelihood that the end of civilization as we know it will occur before they reach my age and that there will be great suffering by most people in the world before the collapse comes.

  6. In mid-morning, Thinking Friend Jerry Jumper in southwest Missouri wrote, saying,

    "Thanks again for provoking us to think. I don't have a critique at the moment. I need to mentally digest this."

    I assume there are many readers of this blog who are in a similar situation--but later in the morning and early afternoon, I received more comments (as you can see below).

  7. Here are comments from Thinking Friend Truett Baker in Arizona:

    "I have not heard of this film, but I am dumbfounded about the possibility that it presents. I think we may have pushed God's mercy too far. I'm shocked that the public has not been better informed, but that may represent the Trump mentality that says we don't want to send people into a panic??? Maybe we need to be sent into a panic. Thanks for sharing the bad news.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Truett. I think there have been many who for a long time now have tried to inform the public about the ecological crisis, but so many people don't listen to what they don't want to hear.

  8. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago shares these comments:

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing up this issue and for the links you have provided.

    "I have not seen the movie, although I have read reviews of it. Whether one likes the movie or not appears to rest with one’s political beliefs and views about the urgency of global warming.

    "But the evidence is incontestable that the planet’s atmosphere and oceans are warming at an alarming rate. This is leading to the sixth mass extinction, deforestation, the acidification of the oceans, rising sea levels, increasingly violent storms, the shifting of the earth’s dry and wet zones, the spread of tropical diseases and insects, the desertification of many areas, and so forth.

    "And yet, as the movie points out, too many of us, and our politicians, seem oblivious."

    1. Thanks for mentioning the probability that the world is now moving toward the sixth mass extinction. I knew a little about the fifth mass extinction, which included the death of the dinosaurs, that happened about 66,000,000 years ago, I but didn't know much if anything about the prior four mass extinctions.

      I didn't read it closely, but I found this article (posted eight months ago) to be helpful:

  9. And then consider these significant comments by local Thinking Friend Vern Barnet:

    "1. Preparatory grief for the end of the world is appropriate. (I have a story about how I came to this during the Reagan years.)

    "2. Forestalling the day of doom is a duty, doing the right thing, regardless of the fruit of the act.

    "3. For me, that duty involves calling others to the sacred (what our lives depend on) as revealed in the three families of faith to address the crises in the environment, in personhood, and in the social compact -- and how these are interrelated.

    "4. The folly of the private automobile violates the sacred in all three of these domains, and the half-billion-dollar expansion of the highway system planned in Johnson County is a typical example of hastening doom. (Remarks about oil: https://cres.org/programs2019.htm#ToFRemarks)

    "5. The politics and economy of the world is so intertwined with the private automobile as a necessity for many populations, it has become a key indicator (one of a number) of our approaching collapse."

    1. Thanks for sharing these five points, Vern, all five of which merits serious consideration and discussion.

      I certainly agree with your first point, and sometime I would like to hear your story related to it.

      Concerning your second point, though, I'm afraid it is already too late to forestall the collapse of the earth's ecosystem. It seems to me that now the best we can do is to work to push the inevitable collapse as far into the future as possible.

  10. Late last night, my time, I received the following comments from Thinking Friend Greg Hadley in Niigata, Japan:

    "I feel the grief you have eloquently expressed in your last blog posting. I also saw the Netflix movie and it was a chilling satire.

    "I think you have pointed out an important part of Dowd’s thinking, which strikes me as similar to the environmentalist ways of thinking in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We were going to run out of energy and a population explosion was set to spark a world famine in which millions were expected to die. I believe the current data about global warming, of course. I am thinking that, based on faith, humanity will have to go under a bit before we are capable collectively to reach for the Hand of Christ in the storm. The Christian message is one of ultimate good news, but we are set to go through a lot of bad news of our own making until, together with our Creator, we get there."

  11. And here are splendid comments from local Thinking Friend Will Adams:

    "Thank you for the thoughtful and thought-provoking blog about civilizations overshooting their sustainability. Decades ago when I was devouring everything I could find on astronomy, it occurred to me that there is no reason that our own civilization should be any more immune from collapse than any other. And if we think millions of years into the future, there is no more reason why humans should still be here than there was 65 million years ago that dinosaurs would still be here today (even though they had already survived 165 million years).

    "Of course, maybe humans will have migrated to other planets in other solar systems, or even in other galaxies, and could survive. But looking at the long existence of nature, human existence is just the blink of an eye.

    "I have thought for a long time that humans were already past the point of no return in terms of environmental degradation. We may still be able to mitigate it, but we certainly can't stop it.

    "Fortunately, I'm close enough to my life's end that I probably will not experience the ultimate collapse. But certainly the approach of unsustainability is accelerating. In the early 1950s I taught a course in Western Civilization at Kansas University in which the first assignment was a booklet on the population explosion. I guess some students took it seriously, but not much has been done about it or about the other factors making our civilization unsustainable. I hate to sound pessimistic, but I think those authors you cite are probably correct.

    "Meanwhile I think we should all do all we can to promote the happiness and wellbeing of others."

  12. And then earlier this morning I received these comments from local Thinking Friend David Nelson:

    "Thanks for the comments about "Don't Look Up." I also found it very thought-provoking. Science fiction and parody are both used to say more about the present than about the future. Even through the final words spoken, it is a reminder that we can remain human even during crises and divisions. The 'eucharistic prayer' you quoted can become a prayer we use today. We need it."

  13. Yesterday, I posted a link to this blog article on Facebook, and today FB friend Mike Greer in Kentucky posted the following lucid comments:

    "I call it the inevitable ending to the script we human beings, not God, have written. We have passed too many points of no return. A catastrophic wave of climate chaos is now upon us. Denialism is the most common response to an existential threat for which one has no hope of resisting. Here in the West we, in our absolute commitment to the myth of the immortal and disconnected individual, cannot see how political and societal chaos now reflects the cries of all of the created world we were tasked with nurturing and living symbiotically in.

    "What I appreciate is your call to not resigning to the despair of denialism. It is obvious the human species will reap what it has sown, and we know we do not now have the power or time to reverse the inevitable. We can maintain our sense of sanity and must love those whose future we have now determined. I do weep, not for myself, but for the coming holocaust and for those who are young and will suffer unimaginable pain and trauma. I do think within the next decade denialism will be seen as impossible. We can repent, although it is too late for that as a collective species. I know others see this as pessimism. I call it facing reality. Thanks for the reminder to look up."

    1. A few minutes ago, FB friend Mike posted these further comments on Facebook:

      "The earth is speaking to us these days. Perhaps these warning signs are in fact direct communications being offered to us by our creator. We humans have never been good at listening, even to God. We have as a species profaned this creation and refused to see ourselves as guardians, protectors, or stewards of God's creation, but prefer to be its usurping overlords. It rarely crosses our minds that to destroy this creation is a mortal sin. It rarely crosses our minds that we cannot survive in an ecosystem that we are bent on destroying.

      "I live in Kentucky. What has been and is being done to the forests, the mountains, the rivers, and the air here is beyond obscene. It is suicidal. let those who have eyes to see, see. Let those who have ears to hear, hear. The earth is speaking to us and in a voice that we cannot ignore. God is speaking to us. Are we listening?"

  14. Leroy, you have inspired the Dempseys to watch "Don't Look Up!" Interestingly, it fits neatly with the book our Sunday School class is reading, Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Most of the characters in "Don't Look Up!" are doing fast thinking. The two lead scientists are doing a lot of slow thinking, worrying about data, scientific method, peer review and math. Government and business leaders are doing what I would call "jump" thinking, namely, mashing up fast and slow thinking to facilitate "jumping to conclusions" thinking. Or maybe the whole movie is just a California thing, with the la-la thinking of Los Angeles blaming the go-go thinking of San Francisco for the end of the world. We may see more on that if the 49ers follow-up on beating the Rams only to lose to the Chiefs in the Super Bowl.

    Several years ago I asked about the large electric budget for my church by suggesting we look into LED lights and solar panels. I ended up the lay leader of a new "Green Team" which has limped along exploring ideas, but not getting a single replacement LED bulb or new solar panel. Somehow, anthropogenic global warming is so problematic, even as the upcoming Chiefs' victory in the Super Bowl is so inevitable. I am back to what I have come to believe over the years, that Plato was right, and Aristotle was wrong, on a most important point. "Man is a religious animal" rather than "the rational animal." The best we can say for rational thought is that it is an acquired taste, always under threat from "common sense." When Jesus declared "Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free" (John 8:32) he was not offering cheap grace, but rather a hard, narrow path. Climate scientists are struggling on that path, trying to find a way to explain our predicament to the rest of us. First they tried the logical anthropogenic global warming. They they tried the less threatening "climate change." A few years ago Katharine Hayhoe suggested "global weirding" as a better description of what we are experiencing. Nothing sticks. So now Hollywood has tried "Don't Look Up!" It certaining captures the strange energy of "Stop the Steal!"

    Two years ago I started reviewing a climate book for my Green Team starting on Earth Day. First I did Michael Sleeth's "Reforesting Faith." He is a conservative Christian, and contributed to "The Green Bible." Then I did David Attenborough's "A Life on Our Planet." For this year I plan to do Katharine Hayhoe's "Saving Us: A Climate Scientist's Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World." She is an Evangelical Christian. Still no replacement LED lights or solar panels at church. At least when they remodeled our chapel the new lights there are LED!

    So now I learn of Michael Dowd, also struggling to spread the word. I am reminded of a Mark Twain quote, "The difference between the right word and an almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." I guess it is good news that the environmental movement has found a lot of lightning bugs! God has certainly been hurtling a number of "enlightning" bolts at us. Yet somehow we still manage to remain in the darkness. The best we seem to be able to do is to grieve our failure to communicate, much as the scientists in "Don't Look Up!" found themselves doing. At least we have company, as Jesus said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!" (Matthew 23:37)

  15. Ed Costin is a Facebook friend who was born in the same town and went to the same high school as I, but as he is much younger than I, I know him only on FB. Following my link to this blog article on FB, he wrote a long response. Ed has had bad experiences with conservative Christianity (as well as conservative politics) in our home county (and elsewhere.) The following is the powerful conclusion of the comments he posted on Facebook:

    "I know it sounds like I’m naysaying religion, but what I’m trying to do is make an appeal to Christians to START BEING AUTHENTIC CHRISTIANS!!! Authentic Christians don’t consume themselves with political issues like abortion and gay marriage, they concern themselves with helping the poor, the sick, the elderly, the dispossessed souls. And they CERTAINLY don’t oppose actions that would help PRESERVE and SAVE the beauty of the world they believe god [sic] to have created.

    "I can’t believe Christians can’t see that destroying the environment is an affront to god, an insult to his gift of life on Earth, and an existential poke in the eye to the grace and love they claim he provides for them.

    "In short, yes, we CAN do something about climate change, but it requires the acceptance of science and reality by EVERYONE, and the attitude of, 'Well, when god’s ready, I guess he’ll destroy the Earth,' is a betrayal of that precious gift of life itself."