Films about big problems usually offer alarm and hope in equal doses. But while a new documentary about arguably our biggest problem, ecological collapse, is much more convincing at the former, it's probably the message we need to hear.
"We are committing suicide," says one of the dozens of scientists, activists and thinkers (Stephen Hawking; writer Bill McKibben; Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai) whose talking heads comprise the core of The 11th Hour. Though it's been lumped with An Inconvenient Truth, this film by Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen is much more ambitious than Al Gore's hit wake-up call. Gore merely proposed that global, human-made climate change promised mass extinctions, widespread flood, drought and famine, and the sufferings of tens of millions of environmental refugees. The 11th Hour goes well beyond global warming to detail the misery already afflicting a planet with depleted soils, vanishing forests, dying oceans -- whose every living system, in fact, is in steep decline.
Where 11th Hour is strongest is in exploring crucial ideas even Gore never broached: the cultural myth, for instance, that insists we're separate from nature, and no longer dependent on it for sustenance. And the notion that while it's poisonous to base an entire economy on ripping irreplaceable resources from the Earth, it's sheer self-destructive madness to insist that that economy must also pursue growth for its own sake. The idea that we have a death wish -- to kill the natural world we've betrayed even as we built civilization to flee it -- isn't new. But to hear it voiced in a multiplex movie (one produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio) is as bracing as it is surprising.
In making its case, The 11th Hour over-uses Katrina footage (conflating FEMA's failures with the depredations of industrial society as a whole). And why so mnay synthesizers weirding away on the soundtrack, when the facts are fearful enough? But after spending 60 minutes outlining the problems, where the film most disappoints is in its half-hour of proposed solutions.
Suddenly, a crisis arisen from a cultural faith in more-is-better machines can be solved with ... better technology and wiser consumer choices? Sure, buildings and products created to mimic self-renewing natural systems sound hopeful -- especially when they appear on a movie screen via the frictionless magic of 3-D computer graphics. But "vote with your dollars" seems a faint rallying cry. How can we believe that buying organic-cotton T-shirts will fix things when we've just been told that the problem lies with viewing the world in the exploitative terms of global capitalism? Even remedies more philosophical, like slowing down and scaling back one's lifestyle, are framed as consumer choices, as if time bore a barcode.
Meanwhile, the truly radical proposals the film raises -- like granting nature itself the same legal rights as the corporations that want to eat it -- are brushed past almost too quickly to register. But give The 11th Hour credit: It does raise them.