Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary, Before the Flood, which he produced and stars in, is an unflinching look at the political, corporate, and cultural mess surrounding climate change, the debates surrounding it, and the key question at the heart of the issue: what do we do?
The film opens on a fairly straightforward metaphor involving Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting The Garden of Earthly Delights, which I mention here only to remind readers that the triptych is essentially a representation of the story of humanity as told in the Bible’s Old Testament, ending with death and destruction after a long era of sin and decadence. This is also, as you might have guessed, the basic theme of the film, which echoes DiCaprio’s longstanding message on climate change issues: this is our fault, and we need to fix it before it’s too late.
Filmed concurrently with the feature film for which DiCaprio won a Best Actor Oscar, The Revenant, DiCaprio begins laying out the case that this is all humanity’s fault by drawing parallels with previous, more precise moments of our impact on various ecosystems, particularly those times when, during global colonial expansion, Europeans slaughtered animal species to the point of extinction without a second thought, or clearcut vast swathes of forestland for farmland or pasture, both of which have had dramatic effects over time. (I would also add dams to this list, at least in North America, and would point to another documentary for a devastating look at the practice: 2014’s DamNation.)
But the film quickly establishes exactly what it should: that the scale of destruction that has been happening and which continues to happen, is, in DiCaprio’s own word “terrifying.” One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when DiCaprio takes a helicopter tour of a tar sand oil field in Alaska. Huge fields of black sand, crisscrossed by access roads full of massive machinery, cover the earth as far as the eye can see, and the executive giving the tour explains that this is only the extraction site, that the refinery is some 100km away, connected by pipelines. This is followed by shots of coal strip mining in West Virginia, and by a colony of off-shore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. The sheer volume of fossil fuel extraction and production is shocking, yes, but not entirely unexpected considering the world’s population boom since WWII; what is shocking, at least to me, is the violence of these methods of extraction, the obvious disregard for the environments and ecosystems from which these precious items come.
DiCaprio also does another thing you’d expect in a film like this when he visits quite a few places where the effects of climate change are most visible (this is a visual medium after all, and there’s great value in simply showing the devastation). This includes Baffin Island in Arctic Canada, Greenland, and, on the other end of the spectrum, tropical islands like Kiribati. He also visits Miami, partly to demonstrate that these aren’t happening exclusively in far flung corners of the world, but also to begin to lay out what is the film’s central case: that climate change is simply undeniable, that it’s humanity’s fault, that the situation is dire, and that we need to act. And act now. In Miami, for example, in the state of Florida, which has a governor that actually banned all mention of climate change among state officials, the mayor of Miami has been reduced to merely addressing the effects of rising sea levels on the city, and those are minor stopgaps at best, a point he readily acknowledges. Addressing the causes or implementing more long-term solutions is impossible for the city in the current political climate.
Which speaks to the much larger point of the toxic political environment in the American government, one that reduces climate change issues to a minor partisan issue by virtue of a large number, almost one third, of all elected representatives flat out denying that (1) climate change is even happening, and (2) that if it is, that human actions are in any way responsible. To any right thinking person, this seems ludicrous, and the film makes that point abundantly clear. But what it also does is dig into the reasons why so many politicians (and scientists and members of the media) fight any and all laws aimed at reducing dependence on fossil fuels or favoring renewable energy sources like wind or solar. The fossil fuel companies, it turns out, give enormous sums of money to politicians in the US, and those donations have translated not only to votes consistently in the interest of the fossil fuel industries, but to a widespread and public campaign against those who have the gaul to believe the mountains of evidence before them that suggests we need to move away from fossil fuels. And in addition to the politicians, the companies have recruited and paid scores of otherwise reputable scientists to sell their credentials on television. It is, as someone in the film mentions, a campaign of misinformation. And it’s working. At least in the United States.
Before the Fall next does something that I believe is its attempt to gather support for something like a far reaching grass roots movement. It does this because, as they crudely point out, elected officials tend not to do anything about any given issue until its obvious that the public wants it to be done. The example they give is gay marriage rights in the US, which Obama said he didn’t support during his campaign, but which he later said he did support when public polls indicated the tide had finally turned. So generating a movement, a large one, the film suggests, is one of the key elements to forcing actual, enforceable changes. And to inspire you? How about the fact that one of the worst polluting countries in the world, China, has already begun making serious improvements on its energy providing, including record investment in renewable sources. Why? Protests. Demands for change. And in Sweden, they’ve officially vowed to become the first fossil fuel-free country, an astonishing accomplishment.
The point here is that not only is the technology available, it’s paramount that we implement it as soon as possible, lest we allow truly cataclysmic and irreversible damage to be done. How? Well, as individuals it’s not terribly easy. One fact I personally found interesting was just how much food production land is dedicated to cattle, and how much methane those cattle create. Eliminating beef from our diets, and switching to chicken, would require 80% less land, and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 90%. Energy consumption is another area where we can individually create an impact, especially considering the available technologies. But by and large the time for a global and individual response, a la Earth Day in earlier years, is sadly passed. What we now are institutional changes, and those have to come from our leaders. That, however, is something we can influence in the voting booth. And by protesting when necessary. And by simply spreading the word, sharing the facts, by making sure the issue doesn’t fade into the background. In short: consume less, vote, and demand changes.