First, a disclaimer: I still harbour a tiny little bit of hatred for Leonardo DiCaprio, thanks to the impossible romantic standards he set for teenage boys in the late 90’s and early 2000’s. While Leo’s thick blonde hair flopped over his eyes in Romeo and Juliet, my weird afro loomed threateningly over terrified friends.
I temporarily put this grudge aside when I watched Leo’s latest venture into climate communication – ‘Before the flood‘. It’s a 1.5 hour National Geographic piece you can watch for free below.
Wrapping climate action around a celebrity superstar, from the outset, filled me with a preemptive nervousness that went well past any teenage grudge. The still-sizeable chunk of people who reject the science illustrating human-caused climate change do so for reasons partly related to the feeling of being preached at by well-off, left-wing city elites. If we reject climate science for reasons more closely related to identity rather than logic, presenting a big personality might be retroactive – DiCaprio’s further involvement might serve as the perfect fuel for this fire, right?
I was pleasantly surprised by this documentary – DiCaprio seems to understand precisely the dangers of perceived hypocrisy and celebrity privilege, and puts more effort into presenting a compelling and well-told message than he does into preaching or posturing (though there are moments where this balance wobbles, like a lingering and kind of vanity-projecty -scene where he’s offering a variety of fruit to some orangutans). At times, he’s almost self-deprecating:
“I didn’t grow up around nature at all. I grew up near downtown Los Angeles”
“The truth is, the more I’ve learned about this issue, and everything that contributes to the problem, the more I realise how much I don’t know”
DiCaprio starts the film with an assumption that he, and the people consuming the fuels causing the problem, are largely innocent (The only group that DiCaprio really has no sympathy for ((rightly, I feel)) are the misinformers with close ties to the fossil fuel industry – one domestic curiosity I discovered is that they use an image from the 2011 anti-carbon tax rally in Australia on their ‘how to talk to a climate denier’ page).
DiCaprio’s attitude felt like the spinal cord of the film: not that fossil fuels are terrible (they are), or that climate change is apocalyptic (it is) – but that people are nice, and worth saving.
It reminded me of a monologue from the great science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica – it’s a long one, but stick with it – Commander Adama, the leader of scattered and broken fleet of survivors battling with a malevolent robotic force, says:
“You know, when we fought the Cylons we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question, why? Why are we as a people worth saving? We still commit murder because of greed, spite, jealousy. And we still visit all of our sins upon our children. We refuse to accept the responsibility for anything that we’ve done. Like we did with the Cylons. We decided to play God… create life. When that life turned against us, we comforted ourselves in the knowledge that it really wasn’t our fault, not really. You cannot play God and wash your hands of the things that you’ve created. Sooner or later, the day comes when you can’t hide from the things that you’ve done any more”
Mid-way through the film, DiCaprio interviews Sunita Narain, from the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi. She delivers a message to DiCaprio that is surprising, unpalatable and seemingly unsolvable:
“Coal is cheap. Whether you or I like it or not. Coal is cheap. You have to think about this from this point of view – if you created the problem in the past, we will create it in the future. We have seven hundred million households who cook using biomass today. 700 million households. If those households move to coal, you have that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone gives you this very cute stuff and tells you ‘oh the world’s poor should move to solar’, ‘why do they have to make the mistakes that we have made?’ I hear this all this time from american NGOs. And I’m like wow, you know. I mean, if it was that easy I would have really liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is”
Narain doesn’t offer DiCaprio any celebrity advantages – she shows no deference or hesitation as she points out America’s gigantic per-capita consumption of energy (Australia’s up there, too). It’s only moment in the film where he fumbles for a response. However, he doesn’t shy away from addressing this in the narration:
“There’s no doubt we’ve all benefited from fossil fuels. I know I have. My footprint is probably bigger than most peoples, and there are times I question, what is the right thing to do?”
It’s refreshing to see that they don’t quietly ignore the stickier components of the climate battle in this film – the bits that are harder to swallow, and that might result in dejection and hopelessness. There also seems to be a concerted effort to inject practicality and physicality into the film – the impacts of climate change aren’t numerical, they’re physical.
The melting of ice is represented through a stray cable lying on the surface, that once sat vertical in frozen water. The problem of emissions from beef is raised – but the interviewee simply admits that everyone loves having ‘flesh between their teeth’, and that maybe chicken is better. President Barack Obama chooses to outline ‘in hard-headed terms’, the national security implications of climate change, and why it’s logical to tackle emissions. “Reality has a way of hitting you in the nose if you’re not paying attention”, says another interviewee, seemingly invoking Commander Adama’s point about comforting denial of responsibility.
The physicality of the causes, as well as the solutions, are manifest in this film. Flying over the Suncor Energy oil sands of Alberta, an innocent senior VP is baffled by Leonardo’s description of the landscape as they fly above it:
DiCaprio: It kind of looks like Mordor.
DiCaprio: Like Mordor. From Lord of the Rings.
This style of communication is compelling, and appeals to traditional environmentalism – the horror of a scarred landscape, which Tolkien clearly called upon when writing about Mordor. But it doesn’t dominate the film – it’s injected in controlled doses throughout.
The film doesn’t spend much time outlining in detail the technical, social or political pathways for decarbonisation. A few criticisms have pointed out that political and technical solutions are discussed, but social ones are left out – that DiCaprio only presents solutions that the privileged can engage with. Others have raised the failure of the film to talk about nuclear power as technological component of the mix. It’s clear that the purpose of the film isn’t really to critique or list a diverse range of solutions. To me, the core of this film is why bother, rather than how do we fix it.
Why are we as a people worth saving? DiCaprio addresses Commander Adama’s dilemma through an interview with former astronaut and current director of the Earth Sciences Division at NASA Dr Piers Sellers, who describes returning to Earth after a stint on the space station:
“At the end of all that I became immensely more fond of the planet, which I never thought about just when I lived on the surface. But also kind of fond of the people on there too. It’s like being taken away from your family and coming back. I wish it all well”
It’s one of the most important parts of the film, because it blends hard-headedness and sentimentality in a potent way (it comes before one of the most annoying, weird parts of the film, where DiCaprio silently loiters near the pope – it’s awkward and seemingly pointless). Sellers outlines why he’s hopeful:
“The facts are crystal clear. The ice is melting, the earth is warming, the sea level is rising, those are facts. Rather than feeling ‘Oh my god it’s hopeless’, you say ‘Okay, this is the problem. Let’s be realistic, let’s find a way out of it’. And there are ways out of it”
It’s a compelling message – from both Sellers and the film as a whole, because they go some way to answering Adama’s necessary inquiry: why are we worth saving? The importance of addressing this question has increased by several orders of magnitude in the last year, as fascist, white supremacist movements inflate in major Western economies. The leaders of these movements are deeply, violently hostile towards climate science and climate action – this surely erodes the morale of those working to defend both of those things.
Despite 2016’s geopolitical horrors, it’s a real, rich fondness for humans, across the developing and developed world, that serves as the core of why we work to shift our species away from fuels that are self-sabotaging and insidiously harmful. It’s well worth watching the level-headed doc Before the Flood, if only to remind yourself of why we’re worth saving.
Header image – Paul Nicklen/National Geographic
All Screenshots – Before the Flood/National Geographic