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Leo DiCaprio Takes Up Where Al Gore Left Off in New '11th Hour' Environmental Documentary

DiCaprio's <i>11th Hour</i> is a powerful documentary that makes the case that our way of life is totally at odds with the sustainability of our planet. But the film needs the Hollywood star to draw a lot more publicity to it.
 
 
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Three-time Academy Award-nominated movie star Leonardo DiCaprio and his filmmaking partners, Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, have done us a great favor. They have assembled an incredible array of passion and brainpower in their stirring documentary, The 11th Hour, to teach us just about every thing we need to know about the fate of planet Earth -- how bad things are, and what we can do to reverse the effects of humanity's rapid devastation of this planet.

The filmmakers have culled 90 minutes of brilliance from approximately 150 hours of interviews of the best of the best -- the rock stars of ecology, public policy, social critique and visionary philosophy. They have done a magnificent job. The 11th Hour is a first-class overview of the technology, the politics, the consequences of corporate and consumer behavior, and the aspirations and means to fix the mess we humans have created. As DiCaprio says, "We wanted to present the experts and have them carry the narrative of the film ..." which they do extraordinarily well. The film is great-looking as well, as the interviews are interspersed with scenes of contrasting beauty and environmental victimization -- dizzying montages, barren forests, beautiful seas, mudslides and clubbed baby seals, all set against a vast array of consumer images.

Are we at the 11th hour?

The "11th hour," of course, refers to the last moment when change is possible before it's too late to do anything. And the obvious message of DiCaprio's film is that we residents of planet Earth have reached a tipping point in terms of how we live and the impact we impose on our ecosystems. And for this reason, The 11th Hour is at times not easy to watch or come to terms with. It is a challenging, sometimes overwhelming experience that explores both millions of years of the Earth's existence in all its complexity, and the immediate present and the enormous impact human behavior is having not just on the planet's climate systems, but on our oceans, our air quality, our forests and the communities we live in.

Green Day Rock Star Billie Joe Armstrong captures the importance of the film nicely:

"The 11th Hour is intense. It tells us the truth that nobody wants to hear: that human beings, especially greedy corporate executives and their politician cronies, are responsible for putting our planet in serious danger. If things don't change soon, life on Earth may not survive. It has to be this generation that breaks the chain between the polluting corporations and the crooked politicians, this generation that changes its habits so there's something left for other species and the people who come after us.

"There is hope. We can make changes in our everyday lives, and most of the technology we need to move forward, we already have today. What we really need is the leadership, and the will, to change."

What shines through 11th Hour overwhelmingly is the warmth, charisma, caring and unbelievable wisdom of the diverse collection of talking heads in the film, and that goes for DiCaprio as well. Leo plays a key role of intermediary in the film, stepping in to summarize and clarify, and he even occasionally holds corporate America's feet to the fire. He does a convincing job, even though he appears far less harrowed than he was in his brilliant role as an undercover cop barely surviving in Boston's criminal underground in Martin Scorsese's recent Academy Award-winning film The Departed .

I wondered whether DiCaprio would hold the worst of the environmental offenders accountable. DiCaprio was a little reticent at a press conference before the film's opening in Los Angeles on Aug. 10, where he stated flat out, "It is not the point of the film to make people stop consuming." DiCaprio's hope for 11th Hour was that it would make people to vote with their dollars and push corporate behavior to become more environmentally responsible.

Our wasteful consumption

But it seems clear from the film that if we just started "buying green," behavior that DiCaprio hopes that 11th Hour will promote, we are not going to make the difference necessary to save the planet for the coming generations. We've got to tackle the issue of consumption head on. Betsy Taylor, founder of the organization Center for the New American Dream, says in her appearance in 11th Hour basically that the American way of life is about working really hard for long hours, making money and going out and buying things, and then starting over and repeating -- a system totally at odds with the sustainability of our planet.

DiCaprio's co-directors were a bit more willing to talk about the issue of consumption at the Los Angeles press conference. Nadia Conners said, "The film is not a blame thing, but we really have to be concerned about the disposable nature of our daily lives." And Leila Conners Petersen, Nadia's co-director and sister, also spoke directly to the issue of wasteful consumption. Illustrating this point, the filmmakers proudly displayed their generic water bottles, which contained safe and very drinkable tap water. Slashing the consumption of water bottles is a good place to start: 25 million water bottles tossed away each day. According to the Earth Policy Institute, and as the " Think Outside the Bottle" campaign of Corporate Accountability International emphasizes: "American demand for bottled water consumes more than 1.5 million barrels of oil annually just to make the bottles, enough to fuel some 100,000 U.S. cars for a year. Add to this the green house gases emissions from the long-distance transportation of bottled water and you have a clear illustration of what rather simple behavior changes on our part can do to reduce unnecessary waste.

In her public statements on 11th Hour , Leila Conners Petersen explained, "When we started the project, we wanted to take a 'big picture' look at how humans have related to the Earth and take stock of the state of the planet. It seems obvious now, but I was surprised to find out that humans are facing an extinction crisis along with all other life. In fact we are the most vulnerable. We learned that the Earth is going to be fine. It is we human beings who are in big trouble." And Nadia Conners added, "We tried to go for a basic idea: that the Earth is only so big -- there are limited resources here and our population keeps growing and putting demands on the planet that can not be fulfilled."

In his appearance in 11th Hour , author and Air America Radio talk show host Thom Hartmann sums up the staggering rate of our recent population growth:

"Finding coal here, and a little bit of oil there and between that and the agricultural revolution, slowly our population crept up until we hit our first 1 billion people. Our second billion only took us a 130 years. We hit two billion people in 1930. Our third billion took only 30 years, 1960. It's amazing when you think about it. When John Kennedy was inaugurated, there were half as many people on the planet as the six billion there are today."

And as the human population grew, the trees disappeared: "Seventy countries in the world no longer have any intact or original forests," says Tzeporah Berman, program director for ForestEthics a> in the film. "And here in the United States, 95 percent of our old-growth forests are already gone."

The effects of massive deforestation are widespread, but they are still not well-understood, as Wangari Maathai, who won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize for her work with the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, explains in 11th Hour . "In my own part of the part of the world, I keep telling people, 'Let us not cut trees irresponsibly. Let us not destroy especially the forested mountains. Because if you destroy the forests on these mountains, the rivers will stop flowing, and the rains will become irregular, and the crops will fail, and you will die of hunger and starvation. Now the problem is, people don't make those linkages."

It's a political problem

At the Los Angeles press conference, Kenny Ausubel, writer, thinker and founder of the successful Bioneers gathering of visionary thinkers held each fall in Marin County, Calif., (a number of the interviews for the film were shot there), made a crucial point about how saving the environment is a political challenge. Ausubel, who also helped the filmmakers in their selection of experts, said that the first problem we have to face is "the delusion that we are separate from nature" -- essentially that we cannot begin to address our environmental crisis as long as we operate with fundamentally wrong assumptions.

One of the tensions in 11th Hour is about how to effect real change. Individual action such as refusing to buy bottled water is important, but the film makes clear that our problems are so daunting and systemic that only when governments and corporations make drastic alterations in policy can we have any confidence that the Earth's rapid decline will be stopped and hopefully reversed for future generations. And what is underscored in 11th Hour is that there has been total failure at that level: The Bush administration has been a colossal disaster for the environment, and oil companies like Exxon Mobile have worked assiduously to distort the public debate on climate change.

It is depressing to consider that despite the awesome brain power and warnings of 11th Hour 's experts -- including Nobel Prize winners Stephen Hawking and Wangari Maathai, David Orr, design guru William McDonough, Paul Hawken, Michael Gelobter, Bill McKibben, who is organizing global protests on the climate crisis, David Suzuki, Oren Lyons, peak oil expert Richard Heinberg, activist Diane Wilson, and many dozens more -- they have very little power collectively at this moment in history compared to the dominance of conservative dogma and global capitalism's need for an increasing glut of advertising and consumption.

In the Los Angeles press conference, DiCaprio referred several times to the "powers that be," seemingly hoping "they" will take care of things. But let's face it, as someone at the press conference argued, "these people are not going to go away quietly." But let's face it, "they" are not going to go away without a fight. Many are hopeful that political circumstances will change in 2008 and that the next election may will mark the end of this era of conservative anti-environmental politics, ushering in a new awareness of what is necessary for there to be a future we can look forward to. The ideas presented in 11th Hour are a marvelous blueprint for future elected officials and citizen movements to embrace. But as many have learned over and over, elections can have a way of not turning out how they expected, so organizing has to go forward, as if everyone in power must be pushed hard.

The reality is that Leonardo DiCaprio, with his talent, celebrity and ability to influence popular culture, is himself part of "the powers that be." If marshaled effectively, DiCaprio could probably exercise more influence than all the experts in 11th Hour . As U2's Bono has shown, if you are serious, persistent and audacious, you can get the ear of governments and multinational institutions.

DiCaprio is smart and well-informed enough to hold his own if he chose to take his environmental cause to a higher level -- and he would likely bring a lot of Hollywood along with him. And he is certainly aware of the impact Hollywood stars have had on social causes in the past; he recently told the press that "if you look back to the peace and the civil rights movements, there have been people in the industry that have been at the forefront of that." One thing DiCaprio could try is pushing for a presidential debate dedicated to environmental issues, following up on the recent Democratic debates focusing on labor and gay and lesbian issues.

Making the environmental crisis a priority

Unfortunately climate change and other environmental issues are way down on the list of the priorities of American voters. A 2005 survey of 800 registered U.S. voters, commissioned by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University, found that 79 percent favor "stronger national standards to protect our land, air and water," with 40 percent strongly favoring them. But only 22 percent allowed their environmental concerns to significantly influence their choice of candidates in federal, state and local elections. In focus groups, the environment ranked last out of nine leading political issues, trailing the economy and jobs, healthcare, Iraq, Social Security, terrorism, education, moral values, and taxes -- in that order. Only 10 percent of voters identified the environment as one of their top concerns, compared to 34 percent for the economy and jobs. "

Though it's a big first step for him, DiCaprio must know that just making and releasing 11th Hour isn't enough to make a big dent in the priorities of American citizens. Remember how many speeches and presentations Al Gore gave over years that led to the making of An Inconvenient Truth and all the public events Gore was involved with after its release to make it a big success? The 11th Hour is a more complicated and ambitious effort; certainly a worthy successor to Gore's film, but a fraction of An Inconvenient Truth 's audience size will watch 11th Hour unless there is a barnstorming effort on behalf of the film and its message. Will DiCaprio step up to the plate and follow in Gore and Bono's footsteps and use his megaphone to tell "the powers that be" to make substantive change and rally millions of young people to make the demands that will protect their future? He certainly has the means to do it.

Reviewers are already connecting 11th Hour with Gore's highly successful An Inconvenient Truth . After all, it was DiCaprio who presented Gore with his Academy Award for the documentary and joked about him running for president a few months ago. Collecting $49 million at the box office, An Inconvenient Truth is the third-highest-grossing documentary film to date in the United States after Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. Moore's SiCKO now ranks fourth with $23 million as of Aug. 12. These kind of numbers at this point are very lofty goals for 11th Hour , since it does not have the hype of the Weinstein publicity machine as the Moore documentaries have had, or the relentless promotion that Gore gave for An Inconvenient Truth and the eponymous book, which hit No. 1 on the New York Times paperback bestseller list .

But in fact, 11th Hour is both a natural successor to An Inconvenient Truth , and quite different. In journalist Kelpie Wilson's interview with Nadia Conners, the co-director explains where her work departs from Gore's:

"Our films are totally different -- we contextualize environmental problems so that you come away with a greater understanding of how and why we got here -- an essential component to understanding how to reverse the damage that has created our problems. Additionally, we deal with global warming only for seven minutes out of 90 -- the rest of the film examines the state of environmental degradation and ecosystem collapse as a symptom of a larger problem, which we see as the industrial revolution and the way our culture relates to the planet as a resource to be consumed. Our film is a journey through man's relationship to the planet -- how we got to this critical point -- the forces in our society that are stalling us, keeping us here -- and the hope for the future. We focus the entire last third of the film on solutions."

Why interview neocon James Woolsey?

One dissonant note in the film is a prominent role played by James Woolsey, former CIA director. Woolsey, a long-time conservative Democrat who served in Republican administrations, is notorious for his almost fanatic advocacy of invading Iraq right after the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11. At that point many of us thought he was just nuts. But little did we know that he was the harbinger of the disastrous policy that now has us so badly and deeply stuck in the Iraq quagmire more than four years later. Woolsey is an environmentalist of sorts, because he thinks that dependence on foreign oil is a huge national security risk. But I wish the filmmakers had chosen other conservative environmentalists with better public credibility than Woolsey's. The war he so badly wanted has caused incredible environmental destruction in Iraq, and sucked up hundreds of billions of dollars that could haven been used to save the globe, not destroy it.

But let's not end on a sour note. If it gets the publicity it deserves, The 11th Hour could easily serve as the classic primer to help students of all ages learn everything they need to know to save the planet. The filmmakers expressed hope that all 150 hours of the interviews would be posted on the web. Let's hope that happens -- it would be a huge service to schools, universities and the rest of us.

Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.