Reportedly, Leonardo DiCaprio’s documentary film, “The 11th Hour,” has yet to take the box office by storm. That is a shame because it is a valuable film and everyone who can get to a theater should go and see it. However, it is not terribly surprising that it hasn’t really caught on yet, because despite its cliffhanger title, it lacks the kind of dramatic tension that pulls people into theaters. Even Al Gore’s slide show had more grab, because Gore himself is such a story – the leader cheated of his victory, come back as a prophet of the age.
But “The 11th Hour” is only one slice of a complete story. It is a parade of talking heads set in a swirling background of Koyaanisqatsi-like images of planetary beauty and destruction. Co-director Nadia Conners calls it “an experience.” The images evoke various moods: horror, sublime reverence, fear, love and longing. The speakers voice words of wisdom and profound insight into the science and psychology behind our predicament. Bioneers founder Kenny Ausubel defines the quest at the beginning: It is to understand how the two most complex systems on earth – nature and the human mind – can coexist.
If “The 11th Hour” is not a complete story, it is deliberate, because the intent is to involve and motivate the viewer as an actor in the ultimate story – a story to be written by the current generation. Throughout the film, DiCaprio as narrator returns to the idea that his generation will be the “pivotal generation” that “will heal industrial civilization.”
Joseph Campbell, in his explorations of the power of story and myth, often referred to “Star Wars” as the archetypal myth for our times. If that is so, then “The 11th Hour” is that piece of the story where Luke Skywalker encounters Obi Wan Kenobi and learns from him how to fight the Empire. If Luke Skywalker represents DiCaprio and his generation, then the more than 70 scientists, historians and thinkers interviewed in “The 11th Hour,” ranging from physicist Stephen Hawking to Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier, are a collective embodiment of the wise Jedi swordmaster.
Collectively, the words of these thinkers and activists paint the big picture of our predicament, illuminating the physical, mental and emotional destruction we experience as the planet suffers from our industrial civilization and our overwhelming numbers. We also find illustrations of how elusive the big picture is for so many of us. Wangari Mathaai, the Kenyan tree planter, says: “I keep telling people: ‘let us not destroy forested mountains. Rains will become irregular. Crops will fail, and you will die of starvation.’ The problem is people don’t make these linkages.”
Seeing the big picture is the definition of wisdom, and the film delivers buckets of it. Whether “The 11th Hour” also delivers the motivation needed to complete the story is another question.
Skywalker already had his motivation when he came to Kenobi. “The 11th Hour” offers hope and realistic solutions for those motivated to take action, but the challenge of providing motivation is perhaps the least understood aspect of the story of our survival on this planet. The film ends with Leonardo’s exhortation to his generation to take up the task of healing industrial civilization, as the camera speeds over wild landscapes seething with boiling clouds and frothing waves, and the music builds in a slamming crescendo to one final bam! that seems meant to propel you out of your seat and into action.
To me, one of the most motivational snippets from the film is where eco-entrepreneur Paul Hawken talks about the more than one million environmental and humanitarian groups working in the world today, followed by this statement from designer Bruce Mau: “It is almost as if we had distributed an ambition without ever having written it down so people all over the world knew what they ought to be working on knowing they only had one pixel in a mosaic of the image of a sustainable future.”
The idea of being a pixel in the larger collective vision is appealing. And as more people join to create the vision, more will be motivated to join.
One example of how this is happening is that DiCaprio’s film is not unique. A few weeks ago, I received a review copy of a new film called “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire,” by VisionQuest Pictures. This film carries an endorsement from Daniel Quinn, author of the prophetic eco-novel, “Ishmael”: “The two hours of the documentary are two hours that bring hope for the future of humanity by awakening and informing in the most profound yet lucid way imaginable.”
This more low-budget approach covers much of the same ground as DiCaprio’s film, including a few of the same interviewees, Richard Heinberg, Jerry Mander and Stuart Pimm. “What a Way to Go” probes more deeply into human history for the source of the problem, tracing it back to the beginnings of agriculture instead of just the Industrial Revolution. But to me, the most valuable aspect of this film is the personal and generational analysis.
The film is written, directed and narrated by a regular guy, a Midwestern Everyman named Tim Bennett. It opens with the voices of young people, talking about the future. A young man says: “My generation may be one of the first generations where a lot of us don’t die of old age, because a lot of us might not make it there…. “
The film is beautifully written and intimate, starting off with home movies from Bennett’s childhood in the early 1960s. “I was raised on stories,” he says, acknowledging the security of his world in rural Michigan steeped in the old-fashioned values of God and country, hard work and family. But as he grew, he came to realize that the story of progress he was raised on was a fast train to nowhere.
“I was born facing forward and looking upward,” he says, “but the slope ahead was the result of short-sightedness and imbalance.” We see a chart, the graph of population growth, with Tim’s birthdate marked at the inflection point in 1958, where the curve begins to shoot rapidly upward. “I was born halfway up the population explosion, in the foothills of mass extinction and on the slope of rising CO2 levels.” Being close to the same age as Tim Bennett, I can relate to his sense of his place in the dynamic of our times . As the film goes on, covering the basics of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse – Peak Oil, Population Growth, Global Warming and Mass Extinction – it asks why we don’t wake up to reality and begins to move into an analysis of the cultural trap we are in. We are captives of a false story of limitless growth, trapped in an economy that must grow or die. Cut off from nature, our culture has become a narcissistic hall of mirrors populated by infantile personalities. We are being driven mad like caged beasts in a zoo and can see no exit.
Rejecting what he calls the “happy chapter” ending, Bennett offers no solutions, no techno-fix. Instead, he offers the way of the vision quest that involves squarely facing our frightening future and choosing to meet it head on with maturity and grace. He says, “We are in a time of initiation … we need a mass initiation … a vision quest for the collective mind.”
Tim Bennett says that making the film has been part of his personal initiation. He came to this point after years of suppressing his fears about the future. For a long time, he says, “the world looked insane to me but no one else seemed to notice so I buried my thoughts and muddled on.”
Born in 1958, Tim Bennett is, like me, part of a generation that I call “Generation W,” somewhere between Generation X and the Baby Boomers. Our older brothers and sisters were the true Boomers, the ones who first broke down the barriers, did the drugs and the sex and fought in the streets to end a vicious war. In 1968, we were still carrying our Flintstone lunch boxes to grade school.
But we had our own consciousness-raising moments. In 1974, the one and only time this country has experienced gasoline shortages since WWII, I was getting my first driver’s license. The eventual end of oil was vividly in my awareness. I never forgot that, and, like Tim Bennett, was dismayed at the lack of concern all around me as time wore on and nothing was done to grapple with the problem.
Now, more than 30 years later, we are on the verge of a mass awareness of the end of oil and our whole way of life. Generation X has expressed its sense of alienation; Generation Y is taking its place as the youth whose energy will drive the future; and Generation Z still sees the world as its playground.
Leonardo DiCaprio, at age 32, is somewhere between Generations X and Y. He is calling on his generation to be the ones to “save this unique blue planet for future generations.” Throughout his film, DiCaprio refers to the 30 years we lost, not dealing with peak oil and global warming or the extinction crisis. It was my generation that was meant to tackle those problems, and many of us wanted to. But we were denied a proper initiation. Instead, we were ridiculed for our concern, repressed as citizens and reconditioned as consumers, as were Generations X and Y that came after us.
Tim Bennett is right. We need a mass initiation. All of us need to do it together – W, X and Y, the Boomers and even the “Greatest Generation,” those who are left from the WWII era.
Films like these can help. They are good to see in a theater, but may be more effective shown in small groups. Support groups are forming all over the country to help people go through the psychological process of despair and empowerment as we cope with the planetary crisis. A “Climate Change Roadshow” recently came through my town, offering information and resources for people to set up a local group.
Perhaps the most important thing that the despair and empowerment groups do is to encourage us to express our feelings, which include a profound grief at the state of the planet. When we have truly acknowledged our despair, we become initiated into the real world and maturity. As mature adults, we’ll be able to touch the earth again and look, unflinchingly, into the eyes of Generation Z.
Kelpie Wilson is Truthout’s environment editor. Trained as a mechanical engineer, she embarked on a career as a forest protection activist, then returned to engineering as a technical writer for the solar power industry. She is the author of “Primal Tears,” an eco-thriller about a hybrid human-bonobo girl. Greg Bear, author of “Darwin’s Radio,” says: “‘Primal Tears’ is primal storytelling, thoughtful and passionate. Kelpie Wilson wonderfully expands our definitions of human and family. Read Leslie Thatcher’s review of Kelpie Wilson’s novel “Primal Tears.”
UPDATE (17 Sept): Some reviews…
‘The 11th Hour’: Inconvenient truths on the environment that give breathing room for hope
Manohla Dargis, International Herald Tribune
Yeah, yeah, yeah, the environment, blah, blah, blah, melting ice caps. To judge from all the gas-guzzlers still fouling the air and the plastic bottles clogging the dumps, it appears that the news that we are killing ourselves and the world with our greed and garbage hasn’t sunk in.
That’s one reason why “The 11th Hour,” an unnerving, surprisingly affecting documentary about our environmental calamity, is such essential viewing. It may not change your life, but it may inspire you to recycle that old slogan-button your folks pinned on their dashikis back in the day: If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.
The problem looks overwhelming, literally, as demonstrated by the images of overflowing landfills and sickeningly polluted bodies of water that flicker through the movie like damning evidence. It opens with an introduction that presents the case, builds momentum with an absorbing analytical middle section and wraps up with just enough optimism that I didn’t want to run home and stick my head in an energy-efficient oven.
(17 August 2007)
Review: ’11th Hour’ force-feeds us facts on global warming
Sean P. Means, Salt Lake Tribune
The environmental documentary “The 11th Hour” presents the dangers of global climate change like so much cinematic oatmeal: nutritional, to be sure, but none too exciting to consume – even with that dreamy Leonardo DiCaprio popping up looking all dreamy and concerned.
(30 August 2007)
Ideas and Experts from the Film 11th Hour
With the help of over fifty of the world’s most prominent thinkers and activists, including reformer Mikhail Gorbachev, physicist Stephen Hawking, and Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai, “The 11th Hour” documents the grave problems facing the planet’s life systems. Global warming, deforestation, mass species extinction, and depletion of the oceans’ habitats are all addressed. Below you can read about our experts and find links to their websites.