Impressions of The 11th Hour

The 11th HourBy John Feeney:

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. [1]

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.
[1] 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.”

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17 responses to “Impressions of The 11th Hour

  1. Your comments are spot on, John! There was a moment in The 11th Hour where a renewable energy promoter mentions the millions of jobs that would be created in converting the world away from carbon-based fuels. There is some truth to that, and it’s a great way to sell the solution to capitalists, I suppose. But, in my humble opinion, any environmentalist who touts job creation as something good probably fails to understand fully the problems presented by our current economic system which focuses on job growth, income growth and GDP growth as measures of success.

  2. Thanks to Dave G. and John F.,

    Who knows, possibility of facing the 11th hour and 59th minute in the existence of a great civilization could be one of the finest moments in human history, not a last hurrah.

    Perhaps it would be helpful to comment on securing a future for humankind so that we give ourselves the chance of fulfilling our duty to the children, who can then enjoy the benefits of the wondrous world my generation of elders was given by our parents. It would be a catastrophe if a single generation ruined the world by precipitating the mass extirpation of biodiversity, the irreversible degradation of the environment, the reckless dissipation of Earth’s finite resources, and the endangerment of humanity itself.

    What I am trying to understand is what human beings can do in the extraordinary circumstances that have appeared so unexpectedly before humanity in these early years of Century XXI. It is as if I inadvertently “fell down a rabbit-hole” around the turn of the century. Since 2001 I have been trying to raise awareness regarding humanity’s all-too-human predicament. The Club of Rome calls the predicament the “world problematique.” Raising awareness is all that I have been able to see to do. Simply to find myself rather late in life in such an unforeseen situation, and to have made so little forward movement with the “AWAREness Campaign on the Human Population” over several years, has been completely unanticipated. For most of a lifetime I have believed that Alice’s “Wonderland” was another world, not the one in which I lived.

    I am one who is haunted by the leviathan-like scale and explosive rate of growth of certain unbridled, distinctly human activities now overspreading the surface of our planetary home. Given the astonishing gifts God has bestowed upon the human species, it seems legitimate to believe that we can at least try and deploy well what is God-given. For example, we could choose to receive the education found in the lessons from Ozymandias rather than confront directly the same experiences as this “king of kings.” We could take the better way and not commit the calamitous errors of Ozymandias; or else we can go along as we are now by following the example of the “king of kings” and, by so doing, taking the hard way and learning firsthand what it means to perpetrate the “colossal wreckage” of another great civilization.

    As ever with thanks,


  3. Dave: “There is some truth to that, and it’s a great way to sell the solution to capitalists, I suppose.”

    Yes, that’s what mainstream environmentalists are trying to do, it seems. [1] And it seem to be playing into the hands of the ubercapitalists whose actions, no matter how green, will likely be ecocidal. This is why I keep coming back in my thinking to the idea that the best route is to present the truth, as best one can. It doesn’t have to mean scaring people. We can provide reasons for hope and suggestions for the most productive actions. But it seems to me that even some of the major capitalists could be awakened to the problem and might even rethink their actions if they really, really realized their consequences. You tell them, say, “Let’s not quibble over whether or not the economy could be turned into a steady state economy; let’s just start by realizing that if we continue with the current perpetual growth approach it will kill us.”

    That’s condensed, but I think there has to be a way to convey these ideas so clearly that even many (some?) champions of mainstream economics and capitalism should hear.

    [1] “Mainstream” … I think that’s the first time I’ve differentiated myself from other environmentalists that way. Hmmm…

  4. Steve,

    “What I am trying to understand is what human beings can do…”

    The relocalization movement seems to be one of the most important answers here. Here’s one of the key sites on that:

    (And I provide that even though I got no response from the parent site, the Post Carbon Institute, when I suggested we exchange links. 😥 )

    As you probably know, it’s a movement closely associated with those who’ve studied peak oil. It makes good sense as it provides a way to adjust to reduced oil/energy availability, and does so without the problem we’ve been speaking about, one post below, wherein reductions in fossil energy are replaced completely by increases in clean energy [1], further helping to drive population growth and so failing to really deal with the core problem of outgrowing the earth. Paul C. could no doubt say more or say it more accurately. But that seems to me to be one of the sorts of concrete solutions we should support.

    Also, Steve, I suspect your actions to date have had more effect than you realize. It’s very hard to know, when you’re acting to raise awareness, what your effect has been. But raising awareness is key. Without it, how far would we get? Though it may be hard to see tangible evidence, you’ve undoubtedly had some very real impact.

    [1] Not that they’re going to be replaced quickly enough to maintain the status quo anyway, but the problem with that whole idea needs to be brought out into the open.

  5. What do you think it will take to shatter the silence perpetrated by “the hollow men, the stuffed men,” as well as to gain the attention of these leading wreckers of our earthly home, these self-proclaimed masters of the universe who worship the golden calf and the many sources of power derived from it and it alone?

  6. Well Steve, I don’t know. But if I could just magically make some scenario occur I think I’d apply a kind of “intervention” to the “stuffed men” (like the ones used with addicts etc. wherein their families and friends confront them). Get a couple of CEOs (ones who have children or grandchildren) together in a room with a couple of experts, passionate about ecological matters, and ask the latter to try to confront the former on these matters, forcing them to think about what they’re leaving their children. They’d teach them a simple lesson in the precautionary principle and get them to face the risks they’re taking in perpetuating the status quo.

    Repeat this scenario over and over till a sizable percentage of CEOs etc have been involved in such “interventions.”

    I don’t know. That’s just something that popped into my head. It doesn’t sound feasible, but maybe there’s something there to think about.

  7. Magne Karlsen

    Steve: “Raising awareness is all that I have been able to see to do.”

    I know what you mean. I’ve been locked up in the same “business” myself for many years now. I wonder: what else is there to do? What more can anyone actually do?

    Awareness is the key to change, of course it is. The problem is: I’m not too sure about WHAT EXACTLY the 6.5 billion strong population of this planet feel they’re becoming aware of? Is it “an urgent need to change our ways in a most fundamental way”, or is it “doom”; ie. that the ecosystems of this world is about to collapse, and that there really is nothing much we as a species can do to change that …? Unfortunately, it seems to me (especially from what I’m hearing people say, not on commercial television but in real life, where the answer keeps blowing in the wind) that people in general are quite ready to accept the notion that we can equally just give in to simple facts of nature and not think too much about it, because it is depressing to the point of despair. That ignorance is bliss, and a changing of ways is nothing but another form of madness, because it’s probably futile anyway.

  8. Magne, you often piss me off with your persistent honesty — and I thank you for that! Same goes for Steve. You guys don’t let up nor should you.

  9. “It’s effective, though it runs more information past the viewer than I think most can take in.”

    Excellent, I can’t wait to see it. I’ve been hoping for a long time that someone would make a high content documentary.

  10. Dear Trinifar,

    Thanks for your kind comments above. Of one thing I am certain. We are going to make a difference that makes a difference.

    Change is in the offing. I would hope that change occurs under human direction. If the cluster of readily identifiable global challenges before humanity (e.g., energy supply dissipation, biodiversity extirpation, overfishing, loss of forests and original wildlife habits, and pernicious effects of climate change, including global warming) are primarily human-driven, then human beings can change behavior, according to recognizable, practical requirements of reality.



  11. Wacki,

    It’s definitely worth seeing, save for the qualifications I mentioned.

    I suspect more films with similar themes will be coming. Dave Gardner, you’d better get crankin’!

  12. Great discussion. Thanks. Keep going.

    Perhaps needed changes in human behavior are in the offing. Consider the following example.

    Will carbon offsets provide a solution? Or are carbon offsets convenient and conspicuous rationalizations for patently unsustainable lifestyles?

    The Wealth Report: Living Large While Being Green — Rich Buy ‘Offsets’ For Wasteful Ways; Noble, or Guilt Fee?

    24 August 2007

    The Wall Street Journal


    It’s not easy being green — especially if you’re rich.
    With their growing fleets of yachts, jets and cars, and their sprawling estates, today’s outsized wealthy have also become outsized polluters. There are now 10,000 private jets swarming American skies, all burning more than 15 times as much fuel per passenger as commercial planes. The summer seas are increasingly crowded with megayachts swallowing up to 80 gallons of fuel an hour.

    Yet with the green movement in vogue, the rich are looking for ways to compensate for their carbon-dioxide generation, which is linked to global warming, without crimping their style. Some are buying carbon “offsets” for their private-jet flights, which help fund alternate-energy technologies such as windmills, or carbon dioxide-eating greenery such as trees. Others are installing ocean-monitoring equipment on their yachts. And a few are building green-certified mansions, complete with solar-heated indoor swimming pools.

    Some people say the measures are a noble effort on the part of the wealthy to improve the environment. ………………

    Others say the efforts are little more than window-dressing, designed to ease the guilt of the wealthy or boost their status among an increasingly green elite. Environmentalists say that if the rich really wanted to help the environment, they would stop flying on private jets, live in smaller homes, and buy kayaks instead of yachts.

    “Carbon offsets and these other things are feel-good solutions,” says Lester Brown………………”These kinds of programs postpone more meaningful action.”

    Either way, an increasing number of companies are launching programs designed to help the rich live large while staying green……………….

    ………………………..offsets are a bargain compared with the flights: A round-trip private-jet flight between Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Boston costs about $20,000. The offsets for the 13 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted would cost about $74…………………………………

    V1 Jets International, a jet charter company, rolled out its “Green Card” program that it says accentuates “the positive effect your flight emissions will have on the environment.” The company calculates the total emissions from the trip and then buys a carbon offset from the Carbon Fund. “From a jet perspective, we have a responsibility to look after the damage that these planes do,” says Andrew Zarrow, V1’s president. The company also has created technologies designed to make flights more efficient by selling seats on “deadleg” trips — flights that are returning empty from one-way trips…………………………

    Some wealthy people are going green with their houses, too. The U.S. Green Building Council has certified at least three mansions for being leaders in environmental design, including one owned by Ted Turner’s daughter, Laura Turner Seydel, and her husband, Rutherford, in Atlanta. The 7,000-square-foot-plus house, called EcoManor, is equipped with 27 photovoltaic panels on the roof, rainwater-collecting tanks for supplying toilet water, and “gray water” systems that use water from the showers and sinks for the lawn and gardens. The top of the house is insulated with a soy-based foam that is more efficient than fiberglass. The home has 40 energy monitors and a switch near the door that turns off every light in the house before the family leaves.

    Mr. Seydel says the couple’s energy bill is about half that of comparable homes. While he acknowledges they could have built a slightly smaller house, he said all the space is well used, between kids and visiting friends and in-laws.

    “The wealthy have always been the early adapters to technology,” he says. “I’m hoping that we can pave the way and show that you can have something that’s luxurious that also makes a lot of sense from an energy and convenience point of view.”

    Comments are welcome.



  13. Dear Friends,

    What follows is a tentative, overly simplified proposal, one designed to save the world…… perhaps.

    Then, again……

    Somehow we, the experienced elders, could conceivably do our children a good service 1) by “passing the word” regarding some kind of plan like Jack Alpert’s proposition for “Rapid Population Decline” and by employing our intelligence, science and technology to begin a process of humanely doing as Reiel Folven of Norway is suggesting: fitting the size of the human population to the size of the Earth 2) by downsizing/rightsizing the global economy to fit Earth’s carrying capacity, perhaps using a model like the one from Aubrey Meyer in England, “Contraction and Convergence” and 3) by figuring out the fair and just ways to cap per capita consumption of resources so that human consumption realistically fits with what can be sustained in our planetary home.

    Obviously, a huge challenge is posed to humanity by the unbridled growth of the human population; however, there appears to be a powerful synergy at work in the interplay of humankind’s propagation, production and consumption activities now appearing to threaten life as we know it and the integrity of Earth. As we begin to move in other directions, I am supposing that there would be some kind of beneficial synergy that would help us back down and away from the edge of the ledge at the top of the highest cliff where we seem to have thoughtlessly, inadvertently and unintentionally driven our species.

    Somehow, some ways will be found that safeguard the children, their children and coming generations from their elders’ adamant, relentless and patently unsustainable pursuit of the endless wealth to be acquired along a primrose path, the one that could soon take the innocent children beyond ‘the end of the world’ and into the abyss.



  14. To the three considerations mentioned just above, a fourth consideration — resource distribution — needs to added.

    Humanity faces a global challenge posed by the unrestrained, unfair and inequitable way millions of people conspicuously consume many too many resources while billions of people have too little for substantial subsistence associated with normal human growth and development.

    At least to me, it seems that recognizing limits to per human resource consumption and also accepting the need for universally shared values with regard to resource distribution would need to result in the promulgation of new “rules of the house”. I do not know what the ideals, principles and “rules” should be, or how things could actually be worked out, or by whom within our planetary home. Nevertheless, I would like to add a thought on this matter. It does look as if we might choose to begin getting about the task of living according to something that could be defined as an unrealized ‘law of human nature’. That is to say, individuals will choose to behave more justly, fairly and equitably in sharing finite resources and cooperating with one another for the good of the community.

  15. In light of today’s report from the World Conservation Union (IUCN) that more than 41,000 species of animals and plants are now on its ENDANGERED SPECIES LIST, do you think it is too early to consider that the evolutionary success of the human species may not be guaranteed?

    Perhaps it is time to consider how the human species could be adamantly pursuing a business-as-usual course that will inadvertently precipitate the demise of the human species, by insisting upon limitless growth of business enterprise and human numbers in the relatively small, finite, planetary home God blesses us to inhabit .

    That is to say, I am concerned that after threatening biodiversity with extinction and the environment with irreversible degradation, and also dissipating the limited resources of Earth, humankind could become an unexpected victim of its own unbridled consumption, production and propagation activities.

  16. “… humankind could become an unexpected victim of its own unbridled consumption, production and propagation activities.”

    That is certainly a concern, as indicated in this video from the Species Alliance:

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