Countdown to Extinction

The departed: Leonardo DiCaprio in The 11th Hour

The departed: Leonardo DiCaprio in The 11th Hour

By Judith Lewis

Tell me not, friar, that thou hear'st of this, Unless thou tell me how I may prevent it: If, in thy wisdom, thou canst give no help, Do thou but call my resolution wise, And with this knife I'll help it presently.

—Juliet to Friar Laurence, in William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, Act IV, Scene I

"How is this one better than the other one?"

This is what I heard one critic mutter as the lights went down on a screening of the latest documentary of climate doom, The 11th Hour. I knew just what he meant. The last one featured Al Gore, won an Oscar, and miraculously shifted the tide of public opinion toward the climate change yea-sayers (that is, the broad range of scientists not paid by ExxonMobil to insist that even if Greenland is melting, it isn't because of us). It was a movie that enlightened legions, scared many and galvanized a few, but also left us limp and powerless in our seats, unsure of how to transport our bodies home afterward without ruining everything completely and forever. I mean, this guy was the vice president, for God's sake: If he couldn't do anything to stop climate change, how can we, in our puny little everyday lives, possibly compete?

It didn't help that An Inconvenient Truth wound down with titles against a black screen suggesting we all switch to hybrid cars and screw in compact fluorescents throughout our modest homes. In fact, it made things worse. It made it appear as if the film's producers, director, and even Gore himself were unaware that nothing short of a far-reaching political solution—like mandating that wind and solar replace fossil-based fuels—will reverse our lethal course. Think we can do it, folks? Uh, no.

Personally, I doubted I could take that again. With no disrespect to the former veep, I didn't need to be told once more of drowning polar bears, hypoxified oceans, or desertified forests. Nor did I need yet another reminder of how the sun's stored fossil energy, released in the form of petroleum and coal, has coated our planet with such a fog of carbon dioxide that heat can no longer escape. Or that our droughts have grown longer, our storms more violent, and floods more frequent as the Earth's climate responds to this creeping shift in temperature. And I don't happen to believe it will help much if we all set our AC to 78 degrees and drive our Mini Coopers 55 miles per hour unless our world leaders also agree to embrace and enforce huge, realistic solutions—solutions even a U.S. vice president could enact were he but in office.

On this, The 11th Hour doesn't start out well. Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio—a superb actor but oddly dispassionate as an authority figure—and directed by Leila Conners Petersen and her sister, Nadia Conners, The 11th Hour parades a dizzying crew of talking heads across the screen, intercut with horrifying shots of factory-farm animals and F4 tornadoes and gooey black effluent flowing into pristine oceans. It lines up scientists such as Stephen Hawking and NASA's James Hansen—a climate expert the Bush administration notoriously fought to silence—with more progressive visionaries such as author and radio host Thom Hartmann, who rightly warns that the buildup of carbon dioxide in our delicate earthly atmosphere is only the most conspicuous symptom of our biosphere's malignant disease. Indeed, the film stresses, we are not just warming the planet but also destroying habitats and poisoning soils, filling large pits in the ground with toxic waste and squandering supplies of fresh water. In the process, the species we most endanger may be our own. "The environment is going to survive," advises one expert, Kenny Ausubel. "It's us that's not going to survive."

Ausubel, a folksy type with a meager beard and the unpretentious air of a country farmer, is the founder of a social and environmental organization known as Bioneers, and many of the people in the film—from mycologist Paul Stamets to TreePeople founder Andy Lipkis—will be familiar to viewers who have attended Bioneers' annual conference, held in Marin County every October. (They'll also be familiar with DiCaprio's mom, Irmelin DiCaprio, the film's executive producer and a devoted Bioneers attendee.) At Bioneers conferences over the last decade, Stamets has explained how hay bales inoculated with oyster mushrooms can filter downstream pollution from coffee plantations; "Cradle to Cradle" architect William McDonough has presented environmental remediation as a manageable design problem; and attorney Tom Linzey has explained how he led a coalition of small farmers to victory over Monsanto Corp., which had tried to turn precious fields in Pennsylvania to sludge. They are all galvanizing speakers, ready with inventions to explode definitions of the possible—inventions that sometimes seem like benevolent wizardry, but have also remained confined to the margins of progressive environmentalism. In the years I attended Bioneers, I often walked away fortified but spent the next year frustrated—it just wasn't possible to get enough people to read of such groundbreaking technological wonders to really make them stick. I wanted to see these people in the boardrooms of large corporations and on White House energy task forces, and I desperately wanted them to be heard.

So it's a thrill in a way to see all of these people and more show up in The 11th Hour. There's Brock Dolman of the WATER Institute, from whom I learned how restoring rivers restores the ocean; author Bill McKibben (The End of Nature, Deep Economy), who this year organized a global day of climate action called "Step It Up" that enjoyed some tentative success; Wangari Maathai, the Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist from Kenya who has probably saved the equivalent of a year of Victoria's Secret catalogs in African forests. Their presence makes the film seem like a magical portal into a secret society, one brimming with solutions to the riddles that threaten to kill us off if we don't answer them soon and get them right.

This is where The 11th Hour directors Conners and Conners Petersen depart from the typical enviro-documentary gloom. Their film may linger too long on visions of floods and war and pestilence; it may reduce great speakers to bland lecturers by confining them all to the same side of a black-and-blue backdrop; you may wish somebody like Errol Morris had gotten involved to give the documentary a better dramatic arc (it seems longer than its 91 minutes). But such shortcomings are worth your patience, because The 11th Hour is ultimately a triumph of redemptive ideas that DiCaprio—God bless his celebrity—may finally succeed in transporting from the environmental fringe to the mainstream moviegoing audience. If it's possible to leave The 11th Hour quaking in your Earth Shoes over the quickening pace of planetary destruction, it's also possible to hold firm to the notion that we have a way out of this mess. It isn't an easy route, and we may not always like the ride. But as The 11th Hour persuades you in the end, we choose it or die.

"What a great time to be alive!" declares author and entrepreneur Paul Hawken (of the garden-supply company Smith & Hawken and so many other things) in the film. "This generation gets to completely change this world." It's a nice way to put it. If only we do.