I had the chance last night to see an advance screening of Leonardo DiCaprio’s new film, The 11th Hour, a documentary about our environmental crisis and what we can do about it. I had the good fortune of going with Dave Gardner, founder of Save The Springs, one of the most progressive urban growth control groups in the US. Dave is also a film maker by profession, and is working on his own related documentary, Choking on Growth: Our Misguided Quest for Prosperity.
Not great, but…
The 11th Hour uses snippets of interviews with a variety of experts to highlight several of the key facets of the ecological decline with which we’re faced. It also provides a vision of an ideal, waste free, renewable energy future, and some consideration of the mindset which got us into this mess.
It’s a good, but not great documentary, in part because it lacks the intellectual honesty to touch more than momentarily on population growth despite the scientific consensus concerning its central role in our ecological plight. This is no surprise; it’s in line with most environmental discussion in today’s media.
It does a little better with the problem of economic growth, featuring Herman Daly making the key point that the economy today is set up to grow indefinitely while the biosphere remains the same size. It fails, though, to drive home the point that economic growth must be addressed as a key driver of ecological degradation, or to call for action such as a transition to a steady state economy.
I think it’s worth noting as well that it neglects to spell out clearly the the range of realistic future scenarios we might face given different sorts of responses to the challenges at hand. Instead, it merely conveys a sense that things will be horrible, possibly ending nearly all life on Earth if we don’t act as soon as possible. If we do act now, the message is that we should be able to avert that cataclysm and end up with an appealing, ecologically sound society. Nothing in between. Yet something in between seems more realistic, at least for some extended period of time. Something about that would have added real substance to the film.
…Definitely worth seeing
With those criticisms out of the way, I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by The 11th Hour. I’d had the impression this would simply be a film about climate change, but it’s actually tries to tackle our ecological challenge as a whole, a subject that to date has been frustratingly under-covered by the media. 
The experts interviewed range from David Suzuki to Herman Daly, Paul Hawken, Richard Heinberg, Bill McKibben, Stuart Pimm, and many others. It’s largely the same format used in a film like the brief (and excellent) one on mass extinction by the Species Alliance. It’s effective, though it runs more information past the viewer than I think most can take in. A second viewing might make sense for anyone to whom the subject matter is new. The experts speak from the heart, and speak persuasively on a range of important topics. They’re well worth hearing.
So why does the film only touch briefly on population growth and avoid it completely when discussing solutions? I’d like to hear what DiCaprio or others involved with the film would say, but for now I assume it’s because it’s a controversial topic and many environmentalists feel unequipped to counter effectively the usual criticisms of those who insist we should not bother dealing with it. I’ve written about this before. In fact, it is currently the focus of two or three pieces I’m working on. I remain both bewildered and intrigued by this stance on the part of those who hope to help humanity avert catastrophe. Its hard to grasp the messages of Bartlett, Catton, Wilson, Rapley, Smail, Ehrlich, or others and still think we have much chance of achieving sustainability if we do not include population among those problems to which we attend. Moreover, given a little thought, it’s not actually so hard to refute effectively the arguments of population deniers. Environmentalists should take a deep breath and start doing so.
Much the same could be said for the failure on the part of most environmentalists to point to the fundamental conflict between economic growth and ecological sustainability (or to the relationship between economic growth and population growth). Instead the talk is usually about how profitable corporations can be by going green. It’s an attempt to solve our ecological dilemma by adapting to the status quo instead of challenging and changing it.
Still, The 11th Hour is well worth seeing and I would recommend it to anyone. Those uninformed about environmental issues should be awakened by it, and those well informed will want to see what it has to say. If it gets wide distribution it has the potential to catapult the global ecological challenge into mainstream awareness. That would be a contribution of historic importance.
 There is another, smaller budget film, What a Way to Go, which takes on much the same topic, but which I haven’t yet seen. On the basis of this review by Jan Lundberg, and the film’s inclusion of people like Daniel Quinn, I suspect it captures the nature of our ecological dilemma more fully than The 11th Hour. If I get the chance, I’ll see and review it here before long.
I have high expectations, as well, for Dave Gardner’s film, as Dave is one of those who grasps the aspects of the problem on which The 11th Hour falls a bit short.
Image source: The Wikipedia article on the film, which includes the full explanation for why this use should qualify as “fair use.”