For someone who once died because of an iceberg, you’d think Leonardo DiCaprio would be cool with climate change.
His new documentary, Before the Flood, chronicles his long campaign to raise awareness about the clear and present danger of this global phenomenon. If you know a lot about the issue, you won’t learn much from the film; if you don’t know anything, you’re probably not going to watch it. Unfortunately, the audience it needs to serve consists of people least likely to view it. Then again, this is a guy who, at various points in his career, has convinced people he was mentally challenged, on quaaludes, and in a fight-to-the-death with a bear, so he’s pretty persuasive. (Now imagine if he fought a bear on quaaludes…)
The film’s title was inspired by the Hieronymous Bosch painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” which hung over Leo’s bed as a child. He uses it as a way of framing the narrative because he sees in it a depiction of humanity’s possible movement through existence; we definitely don’t want to get to the third part of Bosch’s triptych, when we suffer a hell on Earth as a result of our unchecked decadence. (Where’s the League of Shadows when you need them? Batman, plutocrat, just keeps us on track toward inevitable oblivion.) He’s so into the painting as a guiding metaphor that we see him give Pope Francis a book about it, which is really the only takeaway from that part of the film; we learn nothing about the substance of their conversation, which appears to have consisted of Leo mangling Italian and the Pope smiling Pope-ishly at him for a few minutes. (In case you weren’t aware of the kind of access this U.N. messenger of peace has, the film will raise your awareness about that at least.) It’s actually a beautiful connection. I’m taking unnecessary cheap shots. At least Leo’s trying to do something; I’m sitting here in my underwear writing about it with a cynical tone. Let’s make this clear: I’m the asshole, and I admire his work. He doesn’t have to do anything, but he’s been involved in the fight since he became aware of climate change as a thing, back when it was dressed up as “global warming,” the dress that naysayers still like to put on it to keep it at bay.
But my admiration can come with reasonable criticism. The film is an effective stepping stone, and while its didactic nature may not appeal to the people that would benefit most from its message, hopefully it’s emotionally engaging enough to wake a few people up. Unfortunately, people wake up only to go right back to sleep. There’s always the option to hit snooze on any social issue. So what does it take to get people out of bed and into action? I can’t even answer the question for myself, so I won’t pretend to have an answer for anyone else.
Anyway, let’s get to the film itself, which is replete with a standard balance of unsettling present imagery and hopeful future possibility; from the likes of a scorched Indonesian rain forest to Elon Musk’s gigafactory to Leo’s speech after the Paris COP treaty signing, the film fills you with despair, mitigates it with optimism, and seals it off with a call to action. It’s not enough to know; we must do. But the film’s thesis about action lacks an understanding of equity. Of fair responsibility.
Leo talks to a guy early on who claims that switching your diet is easy (e.g. beef to chicken), suggesting that everyone can afford to assess their food choices more ethically and rationally. Apparently there’s no such thing as economic reality in food discretion, and I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a wealthy, albeit well-intentioned celebrity didn’t push back on this classist argument. In the struggle to mitigate and adapt to climate change, which is a struggle against our collective and individual status quo, making such claims will only lead to unfairly demonizing people who can’t act so cavalierly as they try to help in the cause. It’s a short documentary, so I shouldn’t expect a more nuanced dialogue about such intersectional complications, but at least a nod to the complexity of the problem would’ve helped. (That’s as far as I can go.)
At another point in the film, Leo gets pushback from Sunita Narain, a leader at the Centre for Science and Environment, Delhi, who criticizes Western paternalism, with Leo effectively (and unwittingly) acting as its figurehead throughout his journey. She exposes the injustice of developed countries telling other countries that they can’t develop. Meanwhile, developed countries don’t change their standards of living and continue to expect, hypocritically, for developing countries to change first. It’s easily the most interesting moment in the documentary, but we don’t get to stick with it long enough. Leo basically goes, “yeah, you’re right, but Americans aren’t going to change,” and then argues for a focus on how we’re investing on a larger economic scale. His candor is fine, but his canned solution – investing in solar and wind energy – is disappointing.
America’s lifestyle and consumption habits should be on trial. What we’re doing to the planet should be an indictment against our culture. Climate change begs for cultural change. But instead of confronting that truth, which necessitates a psychic revolution for people who can’t even tolerate cup alterations at Starbucks, we point our fingers at energy corporations and demand that our leaders convert to renewables. We’re waiting for Superman and exonerating ourselves from the inarguably criminal consumptive activity we then choose to sustain. We’re all about saving the planet, but not if it means changing our daily rituals. We want to feel like we’re doing good without actually doing anything.
I’m certainly guilty of it. I know that climate change is a massive threat, but I act more on the knowledge that it won’t really affect me for some time. And that’s good enough to keep me moving routinely through my world. I have enough awareness to act, but not the will. I don’t care enough. I can only intellectualize the people that will truly be affected by the way I live (the way I choose to live), and evidently, that’s a pitiful empathetic exercise. Their lives don’t matter enough to me to make me act differently.
There’s a huge gap between thinking differently and behaving differently, and while I consistently push myself in the former way, I rarely achieve the latter. What’s the point of intellectual expansion if it contributes to physical contraction; if I know more, but do nothing?
“The more you know” isn’t a commendable starting point as much as a sad excuse that displaces real action.