Ditching the Manual
The surprisingly good LEGO Movie points to a future when improvisation might be the key to planetary survival.
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Illustration by Adam Lucas; made with LEGO font by lineto.
Humans have a lot of great qualities; following detailed instructions does not appear to be one of them. There’s apparently enough ambiguity in the ancient commandment “Thou shalt not kill” to justify centuries of war, murder, and genocide. Our capacity to ignore the warning about soiling the place where you sleep is sufficient to produce degradation that scientists believe will eventually cause irreversible mass extinction of life on Earth. The apparent human preference for denial over rational self-interest, or open-ended democracy over rigid dictatorship, entrepreneurship and innovation over conformity, ditching the rules in favor of adaptation and finding one’s own path—these form the mix of ingredients for the rich chaos we call civilization. No set of instructions, no answer at the “help desk.” We’re on our own.
And yet our political institutions look at something like climate change with a curious all-or-nothing approach. Scientists issue instructions for meeting strict targets to reduce pollution levels to limits we began to exceed decades ago. The developed world fights with the emerging markets about who is responsible. Environmentalists call for severe curtailment of industrial activity by mobilizing an unprecedented level of international cooperation under threat of a doomsday scenario, while deniers argue that the entire matter can be ignored or debated indefinitely without ever coming to a conclusion or taking action.
I am solidly in the camp of believers in relation to human environmental impact, and regard climate denial politics as a cynical and dangerous embrace of ignorance. But I’m also surprised that there is no intermediate pragmatic position on how to move forward. Why is there little or no call for mobilizing human activity to adapt to a changed climate? To pretend that global energy demand isn’t rising, or that the population is two or six billion less than what we know it to be, seems inflexible or simply daft—especially when adaptation is so clearly an impulse that humans seem to possess. (We survived the Ice Age, right?) What else explains the messy success of civilization? If we’re good at anything, it is making the best of available resources.
This adapt-or-die principle seems to be at the heart of the implausibly successful LEGO Movie, with the catchy theme song “Everything Is Awesome,” which just passed an awesome $400 million in gross global box office revenue. A contemporary fable of design, civilization, and architecture starring Will Ferrell—along with that notorious environment degrader, plastic—it might actually hold a key insight into human survival. That is truly awesome for a movie that I presumed would be about as pleasant as navigating over a pile of my kids’ LEGO on the way to the bathroom in the dark. But everyone adapts, even dads—that’s the new LEGO morality here.