The 11th Hour: Only Governments Can Make the Big Changes Affecting the Environment, But There Are Still Lots of Real-World Solutions for the Average Joe!
by Jessica Mosby
The film has the best of intentions, but as a siren call to the world, unfortunately it is more of a monotonous dirge, partly because we are deluged with what is actually very valuable information. For 95 unrelieved minutes, 50 independent experts of all sorts, from Stephen Hawking to Mikhail Gorbachev, are soothsayers of doomsday. While these experts cite important facts and opinions that need to be noted, finally the sheer volume and sameness of the information is overwhelming. Ultimately, I found I had tuned out, despite my complete agreement with the premise of the movie and the cause itself.
In an admirable effort to contribute to the dialogue on what to do to save the planet, Leonardo DiCaprio has recently released a documentary film, The 11th Hour, which he produced and narrates. However, if you are already feeling overwhelmed by the world’s problems and suffering, you probably shouldn’t see it. It might push you over the proverbial edge as surely as if you were a polar bear slipping unexpectedly off a melting glacier!
One problem is The 11th Hour’s narrative structure, or lack thereof: it is painfully short on the pizzazz needed to take environmentalism from the grassroots of individual action to an international movement. Instead, one expert pops up briefly on the screen (name, title, and credentials are dutifully noted) to lecture for a few minutes while seated in front of a black wall, then the film cuts to the next expert, and then the next. Occasionally the monotony of “expert” footage is broken up by cutting to montages of very basic news reels set to a musical score; at other times, digitally drawn diagrams appear, imposed next to an expert’s head to illustrate their points.
Maybe Al Gore’s influence has made PowerPoint a cinematic technique?
The basic premise of The 11th Hour could not be more valid: the world has lost balance in its relationship to natural resources. These resources will not grow, even though our population and spending ability does. We must change, or the consequences will be dire. A million experts can talk for hours on end, but unless the world internalizes this and changes accordingly, the future is bleak.
Everything the film asserts is true: ready or not, our generation must reverse the effects of pollution, deforestation, population explosions, soil degradation, and the ruthless exploitation of natural resources – environmentally devastating patterns that date back to the Industrial Revolution.
In other words, yes, the world needs to return to using renewable energy (namely the sun) and move away from its dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels. One of the tensions in The 11th Hour is how to effect real change. What the environmental movement really needs are viable alternatives to change the destructive course the world is on.
The film spends a lot of time blaming governments. It makes clear that our problems are so overwhelming and so systemic that only when governments and corporations make drastic alterations in policy is there any real hope that that the earth's rapid decline will be stopped and hopefully reversed for future generations.
The 11th Hour underscores that there has been total failure at that level and is especially hard on the U.S. government for being unconscionably susceptible to lobbying and corporate greed at the expense of infrastructure development. From the film, one can only conclude that the Bush administration has been a colossal disaster for the environment, and that oil companies like Exxon Mobil have worked assiduously to distort the public debate on climate change. Undeniably, a modernized infrastructure would go a long way toward allowing people to use fewer resources on a massive scale.
What bothered me was that The 11th Hour only devotes one-third of its viewing time (yes, I timed it) to “real world” alternatives, and those alternatives are discussed only in the last 30 minutes. Moreover, most of the suggestions about how individuals might change the environment by changing the way they live doesn’t apply to young people like me, or for that matter, to those who are in the lower half of the economic spectrum. It does offer a few average-Joe type solutions like buying low-energy efficient light bulbs and appliances. But the real thrust of the film is that governments must change the infrastructure. Although the ideas discussed are very America-centric, the redesign of U.S. government buildings built in the last 50 years to utilize current conservation technology is an inventive idea; it would create construction jobs and it would have lasting environmental benefits.
A Toyota Prius Hybrid does get 46 miles per gallon and costs $30,000 less than the gas-guzzling Hummer that only gets a paltry 15 miles to the gallon. Yet there are people who still choose to drive Hummers; however these people probably do not recycle and will never see The 11th Hour.
The film proposes an economic policy that would decrease income taxes and increase gas taxes; this idea assumes that there is an alternative to driving. I live in California; I know from daily experience that unfortunately fast reliable public transportation is still either insufficient or altogether absent in far too many cities and towns.
I have my own suggestions for individuals to make positive changes: if powering your home via solar power is not an option for you, then small and relatively inexpensive universal chargers, such as the Solio Sport Hybrid 1000 Solar Charger, use solar power to charge your cell phones and MP3 players. To fight deforestation, you can buy used pieces of furniture or wood products made from sustainable alternatives such bamboo or cork.
Buying organic food seems like an obvious choice for any environmentalist, but we must remember that by buying organic meat from Australia, any environmental benefit gained by the farmer’s not having used pesticides or hormones is lost by transporting the meat from “Down Under” to your local grocery store. So instead, buy locally grown organic food, especially at Farmers Markets; it will save valuable resources in the transportation of goods and it supports your local economy.
The American economy is fueled by our insatiable need for goods; changing the very nature of our society seems unlikely. But the American desire for profitability can be channeled into businesses that promote sustainability and which also have mass appeal. Recycling should transcend plastics and include everything in one’s home. Imagine the impact it would have if even fifty percent of everyone’s recent purchases were used instead of new?I could not be more serious about making a commitment to incorporate more used items into our daily lives. If you’re not a patchouli-loving nouveau hippy who weaves your own clothes from hemp and decorates your home with salvaged finds (if you are, thank you), there are stores in every city as well as websites where you can find stylish used goods. If you’re not a Goodwill devotee like me, stores such as Crossroads Trading Company, a popular West coast chain, sell both used clothes made within the last few years and vintage apparel. Patrons can shop for new used clothes, in addition to selling or trading their own unwanted items.
A common retort amongst many of my “me-first” friends is, “I could go buy it new at the store, or I could look on Craigslist.” For those not familiar with the international phenomenon started by Craig Newmark in 1995, the for-profit website is an online mecca for people looking for jobs, homes, dates, and used goods for sale or free, organized to serve specific geographical areas.
My favorite part of the site to troll is the section where people post the location of goods they left on the street for free. Yes, for free! If you look long enough, you can find anything on Craigslist! The site, which operates out of a modest home in San Francisco’s Sunset District, only charges for posting job ads, so for most of the people viewing the site (which receives over five billion hits a month), the service is free. The company is not publicly held, but profits are estimated at $125 million in 2007.
The 11th Hour is accurate in its description of the American work life balance: you work more so you can spend more. Environmentalism is about more than saving the environment, it’s about saving humans by saving the environment. But is the answer really to slow down and consume less, or can we channel our fervor to creating a sustainable way to live? In the film, sustainable design experts William McDonough and Bruce Mau posit that “Today design asks, ‘What if we could do anything? What if the questions surrounding design turned out to be the big questions? What if life itself became a design project?’ ”
Right. I am working on designing my own life to benefit both myself and the planet. There are everyday things that everyone can do to conserve resources. It may seem a cliché to bring your own bags to the store, recycle, buy used clothing and furniture, grocery shop at your local farmers market, and ride public transportation instead of driving, but until the entire world is on board, these accessible solutions should at least be considered.
Then there is the water we drink. Slashing the consumption of water bottles is a good place to start: 25 million water bottles are tossed away each day. According to the Earth Policy Institute, and as the "Think Outside the Bottle" campaign of Corporate Accountability International points out:
"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."
This is a change that is easy to make!At least resources were conserved during the making of The 11th Hour. As the advertised narrator, Leo has little screen time. However, despite his considerable acting talent and his well-known commitment to the cause, his short speeches about his environmental concerns have to be his most stiff and affected performances ever. Not even the beautifully tranquil, untouched ponds or open fields behind him liven up his message, however correct or well-intended it may be.
I would have found it more convincing if Leo had spoken candidly on an issue he has to know up close: how decadent celebrity culture can be. So often celebrities publicly promote their environmental causes, yet conspicuously consume more resources than the average person. I know Leo himself now drives a Prius; I am told he lives in a solar-powered house. But I would rather he had discussed the process he went through in coming to those decisions. Personally, I would have found a thoughtful discussion contrasting his present lifestyle with how he lived before he became aware of the planet’s crisis much more credible. I would rather he had declared outright that he actively rejects large houses, private jets, and gas guzzling vehicles in favor of a simpler life which conserves resources.
A piece of news not part of The 11th Hour, but one whose matter-of-fact, let’s-take-action tone was in marked contrast to this film’s deadly seriousness was learning that The Live Earth concerts converted at least one celebrity: Apparently, after Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas performed at the environmental benefit show, she then decided to sell her Hummer and donate the money to Global Green USA, a group founded Mikhail Gorbachev.
Now that is a testimony I find convincing!
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Berkeley, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.