Newsletter: Thinking about ‘Oppenheimer’ as the planet feels like it’s dying

A helicopter drops water on the Rabbit fire as crews defend homes in Beaumont amid triple-digit heat on July 15.
A helicopter drops water on the Rabbit fire in Beaumont as crews defend homes amid triple-digit heat on July 15.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning. I’m Paul Thornton, and it is Saturday, July 22, 2023. Let’s look back at the week in Opinion.

Perhaps it’s fitting that during this summer of climate collapse (and if you think it’s something other than that, consider that June was Earth’s hottest on record, and that the atmosphere is warmer now than it’s been in 125,000 years), the most buzzworthy blockbuster is a dramatization of how we built the original man-made planet killer.

As documentary filmmaker Greg Mitchell noted this week in his Times op-ed article, the initial success of director Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” suggests that Hollywood is finally ready to portray the American development and use of atomic weapons during World War II as something other than an absolute necessity. Unlike past screen treatments of the Manhattan Project, Nolan’s film acknowledges that J. Robert Oppenheimer and many of his contemporaries knew they were ushering in an era where eradicating civilization had never been so easy (though Mitchell says “Oppenheimer” falls short in its failure to acknowledge what the weapons actually did to people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki).


The parallels to climate change may not be obvious to people who don’t sit around pondering the end of the world, but I see them. Both climate change and ever-looming nuclear catastrophe are willful human creations driven by “progress” — the former with scientific theory and research turbocharged by limitless wartime government resources, and the latter by oil-fueled industrialization. Both are rationalized in some circles as necessary evils — climate change as a consequence of endless convenience for the human species (read this for an example of that argument), and nukes as a guarantor of fragile world peace via “mutual assured destruction.”

The interest in “Oppenheimer” suggests, as Mitchell writes, that rethinking the need to develop atomic weapons finally has mass appeal. It only took almost 80 years for us to get to this point — and that’s for something as viscerally frightening as a nuclear explosion. In all the decades scientists have tried to focus our attention on climate change, they’ve had scary-sounding projections but nothing as visually arresting as a single bomb instantly wiping out a city.

Now, we have the kind of global heat wave that few could have envisioned even 10 years ago, and the fossil fuel companies driving this destruction are coming off a year of record profits. I wonder how we’ll be portrayed on screen 80 years from now.

Was it OK for “The Bear” to use this Jewish slur? Plenty of viewers noticed the caustic remark during the first episode of Season 2 of the hit series on Hulu, including some of our readers. Complaints about it on social media abounded, so columnist Robin Abcarian asked former L.A. Jewish Journal publisher and editor Rob Eshman to weigh in.

RFK Jr.’s left-wing appeal in L.A. is no joke. Columnist Jean Guerrero informally surveyed members at Gold’s Gym in Venice, where conspiracy theorist turned presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a regular and has recorded himself pumping iron in preparation for his campaign. There she finds an enduring appeal based on “conspirituality” — the melding of wellness and conspiracy theories — and the “allure of hyper-individualism and mind-over-body fallacies.”

Crushing medical debt is turning Americans against their doctors. Noam M. Levey is a reporter whose coverage of politics led him to understand how the erosion of trust can undermine government. Now, he sees a similar dynamic in reporting on the American healthcare system, where some cancer patients fighting nausea and exhaustion from chemotherapy must also fight medical bill debt collectors.


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Los Angeles needs a bigger City Council. Here are three ways to get it. Fifteen elected representatives cannot adequately serve 4 million residents, and recent scandals in City Hall show why. The Times’ editorial board weighs three proposals that have been floating around for expanding the City Council that deserve serious consideration, and it says that while they all have pluses and minuses, they’re better than what we have now.

Trump could soon be indicted for Jan. 6. There’s more than enough evidence to convict him. Noah Bookbinder and Norm Eisen say special counsel Jack Smith “understands the severity of these acts and will bring an indictment that is both efficient and equal to their magnitude,” and they expect that the charges will be “focused and serious.”

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