/ 12 January 2022

‘Don’t Look Up’ but do look out, here comes Shell

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Seismic explorations for new oil and gas resources are going to escalate in the years to come. (Paul Botes/M&G)

The Netflix film Don’t Look Up is about the prospect of another mass extinction event on planet Earth after two scientists spot a 10km-wide comet on a collision course with our only home. (It has happened before. Ask Graeme Addison. He lives in the crater it created).

The satirical drama of Don’t Look Up is all about what happens in the six months before the fireworks begin. Various plans are made. Corporate greed and media mania collude to try and, well … capture the comet. It proves harder than capturing the state.


If you don’t want to know how it ends, STOP READING NOW and go and watch the film to see which plan works.

Sharon and I watched the film synchronistically before we had heard the outcome of the court action to interdict Shell’s seismic exploration along the Wild Coast. Shell’s plan failed there for the same reason that the plan to turn the comet into a valuable mineral resource also failed. The mindset behind Shell was the same mindset behind the failure of the corporate plan, to save humanity from the comet. The only difference is that Shell’s plans for the Wild Coast failed before the catastrophe happened, because Sinegugu Zukulu, Sustaining the Wild Coast and the Amadiba coastal residents stopped them in their tracks.

As a consequence, I am looking forward to the sequel to Don’t Look Up.

It should be titled Don’t Look Down.

Here is the basic plot line:

A remnant of homo sapiens survives the impact of the comet that creates another mass extinction event on Earth.

They survived because they had taken shelter in deep cave systems within the Earth’s crust. After the dust has settled, they emerge from the Earth, conscious that we do not — and never have — lived “on” the Earth. We live “in” the Earth’s ecosystems and have evolved from within them.

They become the new “indigenous people” and recognise that “the cosmos is not a collection of objects. It is a community of subjects”, as cosmologist priest Thomas Berry taught. They use technology, but do so deeply conscious of the need to use it to promote a mutually enhancing relationship between the human species and the planetary community. Not the “mind over matter” Enlightenment/Cartesian bullshit.

Matter matters.

The “we live on the Earth” mindset is the ontological root of our problems today, and exemplified by the likes of Elon Musk, Geoff Bezos, Richard Branson and Yusaku Maezawa, the Space Billionaires club. In Don’t Look Up they are represented by a robot-like billionaire entrepreneur archetype Peter Isherwell (played by Mark Rylance) to effectively rule the world by wielding his wealth over power (represented by a Trump archetype played by Meryl Streep as US president Orlean).

Interestingly, a few years ago, when the controversy over Shell’s plans to frack the Karoo for shale gas was still raging, I was sent by Sustaining the Wild Coast chair Sandy Heather to challenge Shell at a forum hosted by the Gordon Institute of Business Science. The affable Bonang Mohale, then chair of Shell Africa, was on the panel, which was focused on whether the merchant banking industry saw much long-term investment and exchange value in bringing shale gas to the future.

Mohale explained that Shell’s business model was not based on short-term quarterly results and the vagaries of passing political, economic, environmental or social sentiment and agendas. “We act according to long-term future scenarios to anticipate energy needs way into the future,” he argued. “If we failed to do that, we would be failing society as a whole.”

When question time came my hand shot up.

“Mr Mohale, in your long-term planning and exploration research, has Shell perhaps found another planet in close commuting distance to Earth, that has both a significant surplus of biodiversity as well as a scarcity of atmospheric CO²? If so, that could solve both our problems. Our surplus atmospheric CO² is putting our biodiversity at ever-increasing risk, with mass extinction of species now inevitable because of catastrophic climate change because we have overaccelerated the natural carbon cycle, which is having knock-on effects on life cycles and ecosystems. So, if another planet exists nearby, we could do a mutually beneficial trade? Their biodiversity for our surplus CO². That would surely interest merchant bankers, wouldn’t it?”

Of course the question was rhetorical.

“Yes, I get it,” he said. “The problem of externalities.”

I thought that was funny. But nobody laughed.

The extractive mindset tends to solve problems by externalising the unintended and “unavoidable” consequences on those who have lesser or no power: women, the poor, vulnerable ecosystems, and so on. The state is supposed to support and protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged. It has been doing the exact opposite in South Africa for two decades.

During cocktails afterwards Mohale came up to me, respectfully acknowledging that I had got people thinking, and invited me to meet for coffee sometime in his office so we could further reflect on the issues.

I suggested that he rather come and join me on trip to the Wild Coast, so I could introduce him to my friends Sinegugu Zukulu, Samson Gampe, Nonhle Mbuthuma, Mashona Wetu Dlamini, Siyabonga Ndovela and the Amadiba community. “If you can convince them that fracking is a good idea, there is no need to try to persuade me. This is not about me. It is about us. All of us on planet Earth.”

He loved the idea. Agreed.

I have been waiting for the right moment.

Now that Shell has been given a “klap” by those very people (except uTata Samson Gampe, who has since gone to his ancestors) and has been forced to halt its seismic exploration off the Wild Coast, I think the moment has arrived.

How about it, friends?

We can make a film about his visit: Do Look Out.

This is an edited extract of an article posted on John Clarke’s Facebook page