Having long ago thrown in with a wussy posse of environmentalists, Leonardo DiCaprio has now produced something from that commitment -- a 90 minute polemic called The 11th Hour that seeks to summarize and draw awareness to the poor health of planet Earth in general. There's hardly any new information on offer in the film, even for those with only a loose understanding of the major talking points of the environmental movement, but as a classroom teaching tool, it could serve a useful purpose. It breezes from topic to topic with great alacrity, and the bases covered include global warming, overpopulation, soil erosion and forest depletion, the political landscape vis a vie environmentalism, and the emergence and practicability of green technology. There's an abundance of talking heads in the film, and they're an eclectic bunch, ranging from the authors of scary-sounding books like The Collapse of Complex Societies, to professional climatologists and environmental consultants, to he-of-the-authoritative-sounding-voicebox Stephen Hawking, to a Native American gentlemen who represents something called the Turtle Clan, to Leo himself.
One of the most interesting points argued throughout the film is that we live during a fundamentally unnatural juncture in Earth's history, with humans living very successfully off of the "ancient sunlight" stored in non-regenerative fossil fuels, instead of basing our life cycles on the natural dawn-to-dusk cycle of daily sunlight. Having found a way to live and produce food on our own schedules instead of nature's, we've exploded our numbers beyond what the Earth can bear. There are now twice as many people as there were when Kennedy was president, and if it were not for the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, the planet could not sustain more than one billion. The cumulative effect of all that human activity is a terribly negative one for Earth's health, the film argues, and the planet will eventually try to reject us, like a virus. A grim showdown between us and mother nature is postulated, and the film even notes that climatologists and economists have already begun crunching numbers to see what it will cost to "replace nature."
As is often the case with environmental sermonizing, the argument tends to lose punch once it strays into the area of 'political solutions,' most of which are non-starters. The 'let's talk about solutions' portion of The 11th Hour includes one expert pointing out that no serious, pro-environmental change is even possible under the American system of government, because the Constitution recognizes nature and animals as property and people as people, and that's that. People are free to buy and sell land and animals and do pretty much whatever they want with them, and nothing short of a wholesale replacement of our Constitutional system will change that. So what's left to talk about? It's probably reasonable to assume that directors Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen and participants in The 11th Hour feel that the Democrats would be more receptive to their arguments than Republicans, but give them some credit for seeming to understand the basic truth: that what we really have is a Janus-faced one-party system that is responsive to corporate America and absolutely nothing else.
The film is on its best footing in the latter portion, when it starts to shed some light on the emerging green technologies that are producing such things as sustainable buildings. I'm not going to pretend to have any understanding of things like mycofiltration, but that's an example of one technological process that the movie understands and explains to some extent. It has something to do with preventing erosion with water run-offs. Whether or not you're able to grasp all of the scientific facts as they fly by, you should gain some sense of relief as a viewer to know that industry is behind making some serious changes for a more environmentally-conscious future in areas ranging from building construction to waste management. In fact, one of the film's strongest points is that even if individuals take little action on their own, just injecting the very notion of environmental responsibility into the lexicon is a starting point. If people demand to live in a more environmentally-friendly atmosphere just because it seems like the thing to do, someone will provide that service.
The one group I might hesitate recommending this film to is Leo-heads. As the narrator, Leo steps into the frame a few times during the film to sell a point, and he provides off-screen narration at other times, but his dialogue hasn't been polished or shaped in any way that would make it memorable. Any old narrator could have provided the service that Leo provides here. If you're expecting to see Leo riding a giant tortoise or touring a wind farm or anything like that, then you'll be very disappointed. Overall, The 11th Hour does a serviceable job of preaching to the environmental choir, without bothering to refute or even acknowledge any reasonable resistance to the basic tenets of the movement, which I kind of respect. The message is fairly straight-forward: the Earth is at the breaking point in its ability to deal with the sheer traffic, volume, and pollution of human activity, and if humans don't sharply reduce their consumerism and start treating the Earth as a living thing instead of as a commodity, we face total destruction.