It has been described as 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.
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.
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 seems to hope that the film would make people push corporate behavior to become more environmentally responsible.
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, notes activist Don Hazen.
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.
At a press conference in Los angeles the filmmakers, DiCapiro, Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, 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.
Co-director Nadia Conners said, "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 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."
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.
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.
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.
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. Reviewers are already connecting 11th Hour with Gore's highly successful An Inconvenient Truth.
But in an interview, co-director Nadia Conners 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."
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, says Hazen.