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The Big Short: A Climate Parable

We can imagine a Jenga game labeled with all the things that make civilization possible. Instead of A, B, AA, etc the blocks could say things like,  “wheat yields,” “water access” “public health” and so on. When the climate crisis damages too many of these, the whole tower will fall: civilization itself will collapse.

On December 11, 2017, writer and director Adam McKay tweeted that we need a WWII scale climate mobilization to his almost 1 million followers.

 McKay directed The Big Short: one of the strongest climate films to come out of Hollywood.  Ok, I know The Big Short isn’t technically “about” the climate crisis, but hear me out: 

  1. The Big Short confronts the climate crisis more explicitly than most movies do. For example, Brad Pitt’s character, Ben, believes societal collapse is imminent and that “seeds will become new currency.” In the closing credits we see that Dr. Michael Burr, the genius behind shorting the housing market is now trading in just one commodity: water. The implication is that some of the most prescient forecasters in the world are also foreseeing massive environmental collapse.

  2.  But more importantly, the Big Short is basically a parable about the climate crisis. For this reason, it has been on The Climate Mobilization’s “Recommended Films” list for years. A small group of people know that imminent collapse is coming and hardly anyone, and no institutions, believe them. In the “Jenga scene” banker Jared Vennett illustrates how fragile the housing market truly is (as well as how callously racist the culture on Wallstreet can be). When you pull out too many rungs, the whole thing comes crashing down.

    We can imagine a Jenga game labeled with all the things that make civilization possible. Instead of A, B, AA, etc the blocks could say things like,  “wheat yields,” “water access” “public health” and so on. When the climate crisis damages too many of these, the whole tower will fall: civilization itself will collapse.

  3. Finally, The Big Short illustrates how  it feels to understand that a crisis is coming while most people and institutions are blithely optimistic, continuing with business as usual.

Paul Gilding described this feeling in 2009:

It’s like belonging to a secret society. Conversations held in quiet places, in cafes, bars and academic halls. Conversations held with furrowed brows and worried eyes. Conversations that sometimes give you goosebumps and shivers, and a sense of the surreal – is this conversation really happening? This is what it’s felt like over the past few years, to spend time with some of the world’s leading thinkers and scientists on issues around climate change and sustainability. In public this group generally puts a positive, while still urgent interpretation of their views… But in private, often late at night, when we reflect on what we really think and wonder if the battle is lost, it’s a different conversation. The talk goes to the potential for self-reinforcing runaway loops and for civilization’s collapse. We discuss geopolitical breakdown, mass starvation and what earth would be like with just a few hundred million people.

The characters in The Big Short struggle with the social, personal, and professional consequences of predicting collapse. Their jobs are threatened and they are mocked, “They call me Chicken Little, they call me bubble boy,” Vennett says of the professional disdain he experiences for telling the truth about the coming housing crash.

People who tell the truth about the climate crisis and advocate for emergency climate mobilization understand the social costs of being outside the norm. We have made many family members, dinner party guests, and dates uncomfortable. We have experienced alienation, and relief at finding fellowship with others who understand the truth and are dedicated to solving the crisis.

Profiting from vs Preventing Collapse

The characters in The Big Short sought to profit from the coming collapse. Imagine if instead the forecasters had started organizing and getting the best progressive politicians to recognize the danger of the financial collapse and start introducing policies to reign in these financial institutions before it was too late?

That’s basically what we at The Climate Mobilization are trying to do. We could seek personal profit — shorting insurance or agricultural futures, perhaps, or buying land in Siberia. But instead, we are focused on preventing collapse.

Now we are working locally, getting Climate Emergency Declarations passed in California, and all over the country—declaring a climate emergency and committing the city to reaching zero emissions at emergency speed. Because of the efforts of our organizers and partners, more than 22 cities in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have done so, with London declaring Climate Emergency and committing to reaching net zero emissions by 2030 in December.

In Los Angeles, we have supported the introduction of a motion calling for a Climate Emergency Mobilization Department — a city department that would oversee the rapid transition to zero emissions, as well as spread the need for emergency climate mobilization to people and other government bodies.

Seeking personal profit would be absurd, because ultimately the climate crisis threatens us all. The stakes of the housing bubble pale in comparison to the climate stakes. The only safety, the only profit, will come from preventing the Jenga set of human civilization from falling down. We want to cancel the apocalypse, and we know the only way to do that is through an all-hands on deck climate mobilization that brings America, and then the world, to zero emissions at emergency speed, and draws down excess greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

Check out The Big Short to get a good picture of the eerie feeling of knowing collapse is imminent while everyone is acting normal. And then please consider organizing with or financially supporting The Climate Mobilization. 

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Kristen Cashmore

Senior Director
Kristen brings more than 25 years of social justice advocacy to Climate Mobilization. Her previous positions at human rights, public health, environmental justice, and clean energy organizations inform her work with the variety of stakeholders she is engaging with to bring an accelerated response to the climate emergency. Kristen earned a BA in Peace and Conflict Studies from UC Berkeley, where she was a teaching assistant in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Malik Russell

Communications Director

Malik leads Climate Mobilization’s press and communications strategy. He formerly served as Communications Director for the NAACP. He is a journalist, author, community-based educator, and former lecturer in the Department of Strategic Communications at Morgan State University. The former editor of the Washington Afro-American newspaper, he has worked as a journalist in the Black Press for over two decades.He has a BA in American history from Brandeis University and earned a Master of Public Administration degree from Baruch College in New York, where he was selected as a National Urban Fellow.

Ezra Silk

Deputy Director

Ezra is co-founder of The Climate Mobilization and Climate Mobilization Project. He authored The Climate Mobilization’s Victory Plan, an influential exploration of how the federal government can organize and implement a mobilization to save civilization from the Climate Emergency and ecological crisis. This document directly shaped the demands of the Extinction Rebellion movement and the Green New Deal framework. Ezra was also a lead author of the climate emergency declaration resolution introduced in Congress in July 2019. A former newspaper reporter, Ezra has a BA in history from Wesleyan University.

Matt Renner

Executive Director of The Climate Mobilization

Matt has worked as a nonprofit executive in clean energy, climate policy, and journalism for over a decade, focusing on the near-term social and economic impacts of climate change. He leads organizational expansion and works closely with the communications and organizing teams. Matt earned a BA in political science from UC Berkeley, where he was deeply inspired by the work of Professor George Lakoff.

Laura Berry

Research & Policy Director

Laura brings over a decade of experience to Climate Mobilization in climate advocacy, organizing, research, and policy. She has worked on climate, environmental, and sustainability issues from local to global scales with organizations including the Stockholm Environment Institute, the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, and 350.org. She is passionate about deepening democratic engagement in response to the Climate Emergency. Laura has a BA in human ecology from College of the Atlantic and an MSc in global environment, politics, and society from the University of Edinburgh.

Rebecca Harris

Organizing Director

Rebecca leads Climate Mobilization organizing efforts. Along with a history of social movement organizing, Rebecca he has worked as a journalist covering equity in Chicago public schools. Most recently, Rebecca worked as Development and Communications Manager at Latino Union of Chicago, an immigrants’ and workers’ rights organization. She is a 2017 graduate of the Reframe Mentorship in strategic communications and a 2019 participant in the Anne Braden Organizer Training Program.

Marina Mails

Operations and Community Manager
Marina manages operations and volunteers for both The Climate Mobilization and Climate Mobilization Project. She brings broad experience working in non-profit organizations, health care settings, and running her own private counseling practice. Before joining Climate Mobilization, Marina maintained a practice focusing exclusively on climate-related emotional coping, helping people make bold choices for lifestyle and professional change in response to the Climate Emergency. She has a bachelor’s degree in political science and Spanish from Wake Forest University and a Masters in Counseling from UNC Greensboro.

Sydney Ghazarian

Digital Organizer
Sydney leads digital strategy for The Climate Mobilization and Climate Mobilization project. She is also a founder of National Democratic Socialists of America Ecosocialist Working Group and worked to establish climate as a primary focus of the American Left. Sydney has previously worked in journalism and in academic research. Sydney received her bachelor’s degree in Psychology from the University of California San Diego.

Cris Lagunas

Strategy Director

Cris is helping to grow the Climate Emergency Movement by supporting creative campaigns and extending the reach of the movement’s message. Cris is a co-founder of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, an organization dedicated to using direct action tactics to expose, challenge and dismantle the immigration detention system.Cris got his start in organizing when he was 15 years old, getting involved in a local group of fellow undocumented youth.

Margaret Klein Salamon, PhD

Founder and Board President

Margaret is the founder of The Climate Mobilization (TCM) and Climate Mobilization Project (CMP) and helped catalyze a worldwide climate emergency movement through her work with both organizations. Margaret now serves as Climate Awakening Program Director. She is the author of Facing the Climate Emergency: How to Transform Yourself with Climate Truth (New Society Publishers, April 2020) and several influential essays. She is also a member of the Climate Emergency Fund’s Advisory Board. Margaret earned her PhD in clinical psychology from Adelphi University and a BA in social anthropology from Harvard. Though she loved being a therapist, Margaret felt called to apply her psychological and anthropological knowledge to solving the Climate Emergency.

AriDy Nox

Organizational Development and Engagement Manager
AriDy brings creativity, enthusiasm and a tremendous capacity for organization to her/their role, assisting the executive director with travel, communication and fundraising. AriDy Nox is a multi-disciplinary black femme storyteller and social activist. They have served as a national representative for The Young Women of Color Leadership Council, the Millennials of Color Leadership Bureau, and held writing positions with Advocates for Youth and RH Reality Check. She has worked as an administrative and executive assistant for a myriad of organizations including the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at Tisch School of the Performing Arts at NYU, the Youth Engagement Fund and the Community Resource Exchange.