The 11th Hour’s Ticking Clock
The planet’s in trouble and we don’t have much time.
“The evidence is now clear,” says Leonardo DiCaprio early in “The 11th Hour,” the new environmental documentary he narrates. “Industrial civilization has caused irreparable damage. Our political and corporate leaders have ignored the overwhelming scientific evidence. We face a convergence of crises, all of which are a concern for life. Will our pivotal generation create a sustainable world in time?”
“The 11th Hour” underscores the urgency of this question. Depictions of nature’s beauty are juxtaposed with images of its destruction throughout the film, beginning with an opening montage that depicts a fetus in the womb, raging storms, and glacial demolition. A polar bear wandering over a flaming trash dump serves as a stark reminder of the damage being dealt to the natural order.
“We see our large-scale impact on our home, planet Earth, depicted as isolated events by the media,” says DiCaprio. “But when taken together these events form a story, a human global story.”
Going beyond “An Inconvenient Truth,” which focused primarily on global warming, “The 11th Hour” seeks to illustrate the broader scope of the planet’s environmental crisis—a crisis that threatens human existence. The film includes interviews with environmental experts, interspersed with piercing videos and pictures of natural beauty and humankind’s impact on it.
In discussing why humans’ environmental impact has become so damaging, the experts repeatedly cite the belief that humans are separate from and above nature, rather than part of it.
“The big rupture came in the 1800s with the industrial revolution,” says author and editor Nathan Gardels, media fellow of the World Economic Forum. “This was a great rupture from earlier forms and rhythms of life, which were generally regenerative. What happened after the industrial revolution is that nature was converted to a resource and that resource was seen as, essentially, eternally abundant.”
The film’s success lies in its merging of this emotional appeal with a frank look at the earth’s health. Discussions of global warming, deforestation, ocean acidification, oil dependence, and air pollution—among other issues—illustrate the myriad problems the planet is facing, and that humans can no longer afford to put off reparative actions.
“The U.N. estimates that by the middle of the century there may be 150 million environmental refugees,” says author and environmentalist Bill McKibben. Highlighting the fragility of the planet’s balance, he notes that—even though the observed change in the world’s average temperature has only been one degree Celsius so far—even if all carbon emissions stopped today the planet would still slowly, inexorably get five degrees warmer.
The narrative of the film repeatedly emphasizes that the very fate of the human race is at stake. Change isn’t just a good thing to do for nature—change is required for our very survival.
Stephen Hawking, the esteemed physicist and author, most vividly describes the direness of the situation: “We don’t know where the global warming will stop,” he explains, “but the worst-case scenario is that Earth would become like its sister planet, Venus, with a temperature of 250 [degrees] centigrade, and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions.”
The film does more than just sound the alarm and call for change; it also devotes plenty of time illustrating the most practical—and economically feasible—ways for us to change our habits. Most engaging is a discussion of biomimicry, a new science that studies nature’s best ideas and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. This idea has inspired new types of ecologically friendly design that mimic the sustainability of nature (for instance, ecological systems in which one organism’s waste is another’s food).
The film highlights sustainable design pioneers such as William McDonough, an architect and designer who built the first solar-heated house in Ireland in 1977. “If we think about the tree as a design,” he says, “it’s something that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides a habitat for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy, makes complex sugars and food, creates micro-climates, self replicates. So what would it be like to design a building like a tree? What would it be like to design a city like a forest?”
“The 11th Hour” powerfully concludes with an urgent call for changing how we live. “We find ourselves on the brink,” says DiCaprio. “Because we’ve waited, the challenges we face are much more difficult.”
Yet living in such a complex, troubled time also presents opportunities. As environmentalist Paul Hawken puts it: “We live in the greatest time because we get to re-imagine every single thing that we do. This generation gets to completely change this world.”
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