Global warming is a crime for which we are all guilty!
—Kiefer Sutherland PSA
Earth is in trouble. According to The 11th Hour, we no longer have time to argue about whether the atmosphere is warming or human activity is contributing. The first images offer a bleak scenario: fires, floods, earthquakes, hurricanes, insects scuttling, people protesting, hazmat officials swarming. Amid the commotion, journalist Kenny Ausubel contemplates the complex relationship between “human society and nature.” It’s no longer a question that we must save the environment, he says: “We’re the ones who may not survive.”
It’s an alarming start to what will be, essentially, an assembly of experts from a range of fields, tracing how the planet came to this state and some possible responses. The documentary is surely important, in various senses, not least being its comprehension and exploitation of celebrity politics. Organized into sections that are introduced by Leo DiCaprio (the film’s producer as well), interviewees describe “what makes us human,” that is, what makes us both like and unlike the other beings with whom we share the planet. They raise not only questions of responsibility, but also historical situation. Environmentalist David Suzuki asserts that it was the human mind that “threw us out of balance with the rest of nature.” In the 19th century, with the emergence of fossil fuels and industry, human populations no longer relied on “regenerative” resources, but instead began destroying and polluting the environment.
Our uniquely human capacities for desire, imagination, and especially, implementation, have allowed us to affect everything around us, intentionally or not. The abuse and loss of resources have accelerated with technological advances. As radio talk show host Thom Hartmann puts it, “Our culture is bound up in the idea that we are superior” to our fellow inhabitants. The movie posits that a shift in attitude, something like humility and generosity, might yet save us. Psychologist James Hillman asserts, the notion that we are “separate from nature is in itself a thinking disorder.”
The strategy here is onslaught. The sheer number of talking heads is daunting (directors Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners interviewed some 70 people, over 150 hours), and the arrangement into a series of connected storylines is persuasive. Eschewing the personal plot that Al Gore offered in An Inconvenient Truth, the film instead makes a case for the interconnectedness of human interests with nature, over time and across continents. Exploitable resources like oil and coal are limited, growth must be carefully considered, and costs must be calculated. Thus far, says, Joseph Tainter, “All of our lives have been subsidized, we don’t pay the full price.” The eventual costs, the film submits, are manifest in disasters like Katrina, wildfires, and tornados. Stephen Hawking says, “The worst case scenario is that earth would become like its sister planet, Venus, with a temperature of 250 centigrade, and raining sulfuric acid.”
The 11th Hour makes such scary potentials imminent with its array of archival footage, edited to convey a sense of urgency. The film’s language helps to make this case: former CIA director R. James Woolsey cites a “national security problem” brought on by “environmental refugees,” while DiCaprio points out that the loss of the world’s oceans to mercury, chemical, and heavy metals pollution threaten “life.” Among the several solutions proposed by the film, buildings might be ecologically designed, fossil fuel companies might get on board and still turn a profit with new technologies, and individuals might use ecologically sound light bulbs.
If such solutions sound familiar, they are also part of a campaign strategy, especially those that appeal to individuals. Making the crisis less abstract and gargantuan, these proposals ask consumers to understand themselves in relation to the environment. Psychologist James Hillman pleads, “We’re psychologically numb, we’ve lost the feeling of the beauty of the world.” Alongside all the data presented in The 11th Hour, such an assessment demonstrates the film’s case-making on multiple fronts. Opening in theaters just after Newsweek‘s cover story, “Global-Warming Deniers: A Well-Funded Machine” (as well as its critics), the film doesn’t so much argue against naysayers as it presumes the green truth, at once heartfelt and rational, polished and urgent.
While the film’s historical overview drops a couple of names (Exxon Mobil exemplifies the fossil fuel companies who have looked ahead and lobbied to maintain financial and political influence, Martin Luther King, Jr. showed the “power of people’s movements”), it mostly sticks to the currently popular tactic of celebrity endorsement. While this convergence of forces—stars and green earth—has frequently been disparaged as hypocritical or self-promoting, The 11th Hour refines the package. DiCaprio certainly appeals to a broad audience (and is known as a longtime environmental activist), but he and the directors (who previously have worked together on a couple short documentaries) have built the case with a mix of interviewees, some starlike (Hawking, Woolsey, Mikhail Gorbachev, New York Times science reporter Andy Revkin), but most unfamous among non-activists.
And yet, despite the repeated claim that saving the environment is no longer a “political” problem, that mainstream polls reflect increasing “public concern,” it is precisely politics—of celebrity, of commercial culture, of the endless election and news cycles—that The 11th Hour and other platforms must negotiate. Even as the Live Earth concert drew attention to the cause, it also jumpstarted the Police and Smashing Pumpkins reunion tours. This doubled effect is not in and of itself hypocritical, but it is inescapable. Debates over policy, resources, and money are and will be shaped by campaigns, images, and celebrities—whether elected, appointed, or signed to huge contracts. The 11th Hour understands that, and makes its case accordingly.