The Darkest Hour Before Dawn

According to Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental documentary
The 11th Hour, the future of all life on earth may be in jeopardy. . .
unless humankind radically changes its ways.

By Patrick Dougherty

October 2007

Planet Earth. As the health of this spinning blue marble suspended in space goes, so goes the health of every living species that inhabits it. But increasingly burdened by humanity’s toxic load, our world has fallen into sickness. If the dire environmental predictions of the documentary film The 11th Hour are accurate, that means without an immediate and drastic consciousness shift, humans—along with many other life forms (never count out the cockroach)—may be headed for extinction much sooner than we ever could have imagined.

Juxtaposing images of pristine na­t­ural beauty with horrific environmental catastrophes, The 11th Hour details how humankind’s deliberate detachment from nature is in many ways responsible for our current environmental crisis. In the name of progress, society has steered towards the synthetic, leading to harmful side effects of a chemical-based world. Nature’s pure offerings for the well-being of all living things—healthy herbs, wholesome foods and clean water—have been distorted along the way, transformed into dangerous drugs, processed food poisons and tainted aquifers. Anesthetized from the consequences of these environmental assaults, many humans have lost touch with their “feedback loops”—natural instincts that earth’s creatures use to distinguish between life-promoting and life-destroying actions. As humanity distances itself further from nature, its health—along with environmental health—becomes more fragile and susceptible to disease.

The 11th Hour presents a simple solution to this crisis: Re-connect with nature. This does not mean a return to loincloths and grass huts, but a merging of modern ingenuity with the natural world—yielding advancements that work in harmony with nature, rather than working destructively against it.

The New Eco-Celebrities
    Behind The 11th Hour stands Leonardo DiCaprio and sisters Nadia Conners and Leila Conners Petersen, who wrote, directed and otherwise chipped away at over 100 hours of interviews with over 70 experts to form the documentary. DiCaprio’s on-screen presence is understated in The 11th Hour, limited to short segues that unite the commentary of the film’s all-star cast of eco-warriors. “The whole purpose of making this movie stemmed from wanting to listen to what the consensus is of the overwhelming majority of the scientific community,” explains DiCaprio. “I wanted to hear what these people had to say in an uninterrupted form.”

Through this philosophy, The 11th Hour transforms America’s fascination with celebrity into an environmental activism recruitment strategy. Elevated in the process are the minds behind the environmental revolution: Inventors, scientists, activists, politicians and others whose dedication to saving the planet is so intense, it mirrors DiCaprio’s legendary passion. The key difference, however, is the power of celebrity—which can be incredibly positive, productive and motivating. When DiCaprio—one of the greatest actors of our time—pleads for environmental health with such sincerity and urgency, people listen closely and are inspired to change.

While the film is necessarily foreboding, leading with a prologue that explores the very real scenario of human extinction, its ultimate view is one of optimism. “[The 11th Hour] hopefully will help people to realize that there are a lot of solutions out there if they become active,” DiCaprio explains. “That was the whole key to this movie; inspiring people to become more educated about this subject matter and to take action personally.”

For DiCaprio, The 11th Hour represents a full-circle completion: He has created a documentary to inspire others, just as he was once inspired. “I was very affected by documentaries that I saw as a young kid about the rain forest and the mass extinction that’s going on right now. So for me, it’s a merging of two worlds,” DiCaprio explains. “I think that The 11th Hour is the culmination of that. This is my experience in this business and learning how to affect people emotionally through film and my passion for environmental issues. That’s what this movie has become. It’s been a profound experience and a great learning experience. I really wanted to play the role of somebody who was hopefully asking the right questions of people that have devoted their lives to this issue.”

Two of those who have devoted their lives to the environmental issue are DiCaprio’s filmmaking partners, Nadia and Leila, co-founders of the non-profit eco-organization Tree Media Group. Energy Times sat down with the sisters to discuss their role in creating The 11th Hour.

Energy Times: What were you surprised to learn from the experts you interviewed for The 11th Hour?

Nadia Conners: For one, Wes Jackson’s explanation of agriculture and soil. I never knew soil wasn’t just dirt but a mixture of nutrients and earth that has been evolving for billions of years. Modern agriculture and all of our petrol-based fertilizers and pesticides, and monoculture farming, is actually not only destroying the soil but also degrading it so much that we are producing food that is not only toxic but losing its nutritional value.

ET: Were there any philosophies or ideas that you found universal among the experts?

NC: One beautiful solution that everyone talked about is “Loving the Local.” It’s such an empowering idea; it’s so obvious and doable. It would change the world and save our lives.

Essentially, if you understand where your water and food come from, how you clothe yourself, how you get around...if you solve those things locally, you solve the problem—especially if everyone did that. Loving the Local was this huge idea, I’d never really thought about it that way.
Leila Conners Petersen: The other thing that they all talked about was the positive experiences they had in nature as kids; all had different stories but it came down to this initial contact with nature. But as we see 80% of the world’s population is now moving into cities, we’re becoming more and more separate from the very thing that we need to love in order to sustain our life—much less nature’s life.

That is inspirational and also frightening because of where we’re headed. But if we can bring nature into the cities—and we can and we have to—it would make cities sustainable. Imagine how fun it would be if we had this Hanging Gardens of Babylon approach to our cities.
NC: In the movie we show a building in Japan that when you enter, you can’t hear the city...you only hear the sound of birds and waterfalls. There’s a river that goes down the front of that building. You’re in nature when you’re there. Modernity has to shift to include life as a practical objective. The future isn’t all metallic, glass domes and no trees...it has to be both.

ET: The 11th Hour presents a possible environmental doomsday scenario. But you’ve said you have hope and optimism because of the heart of mankind...

LCP: One of the people in the film, Paul Hawken, says if you look at the data we’re done for—but if you look at the human heart, you have hope. The ability of humanity to adapt to circumstances is very strong. We’re extremely intelligent and we are resilient. As a species, we’ve weathered crises in the past. Therefore there’s this unknown factor: What can we do, what can we invent, how quickly can we mobilize? If we go the way we’re going now without change, it’s a path to extinction...and quickly, in terms of geological time. Therefore the hope is that we’ll shift. We don’t know how quickly we can do that, but some people believe that we can and so do we.

ET: Isn’t the human heart also partly responsible for the environmental crisis?

NC: The human heart to me also means imagination—and it does cut both ways. Imagination and innovation have created great things and have created things that have been fairly destructive. I’m continually amazed by how people are doing innovations within this structure that we have right now; they are showing how we can create solutions on a small level as well as on a big level—that’s what’s inspirational.

LCP: David Suzuki [a human genetics expert featured in The 11th Hour] says that the human brain helped us survive because it could project future scenarios so we could adapt and change. What’s so interesting about the world we live in today is that it’s so complex that we don’t get the feedback loops to help us make the decisions—there’s so much white noise, so much media, so much distraction. Things are changing here and we just can’t perceive the feedback loops, so our abilities are reduced—we’re not getting the appropriate information and we’re not understanding it. This film is intended to give you that information and try to cut through the noise a little bit and say hey, let’s all get on the same page, these are the conditions of the planet right now, let’s move forward to solutions.

ET: Leonardo DiCaprio’s celebrity status helps drive The 11th Hour—but isn’t America’s obsession with celebrity a source of the distracting white noise you speak of?

NC: Leonardo is a celebrity, but he’s also an artist—and for as long as we can remember, artists have been engaged in the issues of their day. Leonardo was a co-creator of this project; it wasn’t that we made a project and he came in to lend a celebrity voice in order to get it out there to more people. He generated with us the idea for this film, and has been a part of it every single step of the way. So this is as much an issue close to his heart as it is to us.

LCP: The intention of this project was to bring the experts together and put them in a movie so that the public could meet these people. And so Leo said, “Well, should I be in it? Is it going to be a distraction, or would it help people to go see the movie?” We’re aware of what we call the media sphere and how it works, so we decided that if he was in the movie it would get greater exposure. Leo, Nadia and I wrote it in such a way that he was really in support of the film, not trying to take center stage.

ET: Can you talk about the process of distilling 150 hours of expert interviews into 90 minutes?

LCP: It was very difficult; it took a year. We took all of that information and basically did a selection, our favorite selections of all that 150 hours and put it into a script—bins of ideas—and it ended up being 17 hours’ worth of material. So we went from 150 to 17 hours and from there we cut it down to 91 minutes. It was very painful and hard, because the whole 17 hours was actually quite informative. All that stuff is going to go online eventually.

ET: Did you have a current of pre-established ideas for The 11th Hour, or did a theme just present itself as you worked on it?

NC: We knew that we didn’t want to make a global warming film. We wanted to show how we got here, where we are, how we get out of this crisis...and obviously, why we aren’t moving quickly enough. So, we did want to broaden the environmental perspective from treating global warming as the problem and move it into a symptom of a greater problem. Knowing that helped us look towards different experts to speak about big-picture issues. I would say certain things that came up and came out of it, including this overriding theme of disconnection; the idea that Leila was talking about earlier of feedback loops was one of the things that came out that was very interesting to me...the thought that we’re living in a world where the consequences of our actions are shielded from us.

Across the board, no matter what we were dealing with in the film, it came back to feedback loops. I think the act of healing the damage of industrial civilization and ourselves as individuals is piercing that bubble that we’re in where we don’t see the consequences of our actions.

ET: The 11th Hour is dark and distressing, yet ends with hopeful optimism. Does that mirror your emotions as you made the film?

NC: I found it almost a relief when I heard the dark information, because I feel like in our culture, you sense something is wrong but you’re not getting the message clearly. So when you sit down with these environmental experts who know what’s going on, there is this sense of the empowerment of truth: “OK, it is that bad, and now I know the information that I need to know in order to make a change.” How can you get better if you don’t know what the problem is? I was constantly inspired by the fact that these experts have been working on the front lines of the environmental issue for 30 to 40 years, shouting into the wind. Here we are coming of age into a world that is starting to accept some of these facts. But these experts have been fighting alone with this knowledge for years...and yet, they’re still passionate and excited, they have this sparkle in their eye, they believe that we can turn this around. That got me through a lot of the dark information; they still had faith.

LCP: Making this film was very difficult emotionally, but for me personally it becomes a visceral time to be alive. Everyone alive matters and everything we do matters. There’s a huge degree of purpose. Granted, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have that kind of purpose...but it lays it out there.

We really all need to work together to change. We can definitely do it if we work together; in order to survive the dark stuff, that’s where I’ve ended up. This is exciting; we all get to work together, and the world that needs to evolve from this dire situation is an amazing world, a world that’s beautiful and healthy.

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