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A recent successful film (Don’t Look up) tells what would happen if American political leaders were confronted with the imminent threat of a meteorite that could destroy the planet. Having worked on this subject for a long time, and having read many novels about it (especially the three brilliant Chinese novels by Lu Cixin known in English as The Three-Body Problem), I know that most of the scenario in this film is implausible: not only is this disaster far from being the most likely among those that threaten the existence of life on our planet, but the reaction of the American authorities to such a deadly comet, should it appear, one day far away, would not be that one; Working groups at the UN are preparing a coordinated international response and a first plan, born in Europe in the early 2000s, is being tested by NASA and the European Space Agency to deflect such an object, the result of the efforts of a formidable European team and the support of the European Union’s Horizon2020 programme.
Nor is the most interesting thing about this film the obvious metaphor for the other threats to our survival, and in particular to our environment, and the refusal of many to face them.
For me, Don’t Look up is mostly an opportunity to remind ourselves that we are sometimes like the viewer of a film who understands that these characters are making choices that will lead them to disaster, and who would like to react in their place.
This is also very often true in real life: we would like to prevent such and such a friend from choosing, or staying, with a companion whom we guess will make him or her unhappy. We would like to prevent someone from taking a decision that will ruin his or her career, business or health. We would like to prevent those we love from hiding from reality, from denying it, when there is still time to change it.
But here’s the thing: what is the reality that others are denying? It is easier to know that the other is wrong when one has access to indisputable data, like the spectator of a film, or like the historian; and it is easy to say today what one would have done in many past situations; but this retrospective knowledge is of little use: in the reality of the present time, who can claim to be knowledgeable enough to know better than the others what is good for them?
And yet this is the heart of social life: one must try to convince those whom one thinks will make mistakes that will harm them. And, above all, you have to make them behave when their behaviour affects the lives of others. This is the very definition of life in society. The question remains as to who, and on what basis, can legitimately impose changes in their behaviour on others? In democratic countries, it is Parliament, on the basis of the best scientific information available to it, that can do so; without denying reality, or inventing it.
We are far from this ideal of democratic lucidity in many countries and on many subjects.
This is particularly the problem in Europe today: with less than three months to go before elections that will determine a large part of its fate, most candidates have not presented any global vision, any programme, or any figures for their proposals. Even if efforts are made every day by all, the country is faced with immense challenges: its industry is doing very badly, its environment is deteriorating, its education system no longer meets the needs of tomorrow, its health system is on the verge of collapse, its debts are abysmal.
And it is probably because many european people unconsciously know that their future is very worrying that they prefer not to talk about it. Like a patient who knows he is doomed and does not want to hear about his impending death.
It is time to wake up. It is time to look up. It is time to discuss in depth visions for the future, programmes, projects, efforts to be made, constraints to be imposed, successes to be built.