Directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners
Narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio Leonardo DiCaprio narrates The 11th HourÕs look at the warming of the planet and its consequences. © 2007 Warner Independent Pictures One of the big-picture analogies in The 11th Hour's look at global climate change is a reference to Earth as a sort of Goldilocks situation. Other planets in our solar system couldn't support the human species. Some are too cold. Some are too hot (by hundreds of degrees). Earth, however, is just right.
At least for now.
The opening scene of the documentary frames the issue very clearly. Earth is a big rock. It'll be here for a long time. The global climate-change debate is about how long the human race will be able to survive in the thin biosphere that offers suitable living conditions.
What follows is a fascinating and at times troubling look at the big picture of Earth's over-taxed ecosystems through interviews with a wide array of scientists, engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, politicians and authors, from physicist Stephen Hawking to Mikhail Gorbachev. Leonardo DiCaprio narrates a film that mixes mostly stock footage from all over the globe (most of it very beautiful and slickly edited into a serially stunning collage) with talking head interviews. It is not an expos, not a scare tactic and not grounded in any particular figure's personality or politics, which perhaps makes it odd for a film released to theaters. This is the documentary approach of Ken Burns (The Civil War, Baseball, Jazz), not the dramatic and polemic call to arms of Michael Moore (Sicko, Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine), though the latter would likely draw more viewers to the multiplex. The science is very accessible, intriguing and should even challenge the perspectives of many climate-warming converts.
It's almost Greek tragedy. Man's ability to dominate and manipulate his environment and resources has earned him the run of the planet. But he's now industrialized, exploited resources, overpopulated and overpolluted himself into a corner. The compounding and accelerating changes to the planet's natural balances are headed towards tipping points beyond which man will not be able to control the consequences.
If it sounds like good news that global warming isn't really the problem, the bad news is that global warming is just one of many symptoms of what is dangerously shortsighted about mankind's stewardship of Earth. The subjects in the film have some rather stark perspectives on how obvious some of these warning signs are.
What is most simply understood as the effect of global warming is the manner in which gases in our atmosphere retain the heat of the sun's energy reflected off the planet. This accounts for roughly 60 degrees of our normal temperature, says Stephen Schneider of Stanford University. The global warming problem is one of compounding negative contributions. As we add massive amounts of carbon dioxide (from burning fossil fuels) and other chemicals to our atmosphere, the atmosphere retains more heat, which then affects the surface. This becomes a potent vicious cycle. Unfortunately, there are many processes in place, figuratively burning several candles at both ends, that are accelerating the problem. Hawking points out that the melting of polar ice caps decreases the amount of energy reflected away and thus allows the atmosphere to warm even further. The great question in The 11th Hour is how much time we will leave ourselves to adjust to sustainable ways of living.
It's not a sentimental argument about a cute species, saving trees or imploring people to recycle. Some of the most intriguing ideas presented in the film are about solutions, some of which are already being implemented on a very small scale. While there is expected coverage of increasingly affordable wind and solar power, other technologies are presented as not just new approaches to energy production, but sources of new industry and jobs. A movement towards biomimicry looks at ways of producing materials like nature does. One example sites the production of the super-strong substance Kevlar. It takes 1400 degree heat to produce it, which burns a considerable amount of energy. Yet spider webs are ounce-for-ounce five times the strength of steel. And they're produced chemically at room temperature. Researchers are trying to discover the processes in order to produce similar materials.
Though it's a Warner Pictures Independent release, there is a local angle to the film. Everyone will recognize familiar shots of Katrina. (The film doesn't attribute the storm to global warming, but fits it into a trend of increasingly common environmental catastrophies, including hurricanes that grow in intensity and size because of warmer ocean waters.) In addressing solutions, the film features interviews with Global Green president Matt Petersen (who is married to one of the film's co-directors, Leila Conners Petersen). Global Green has been active in promoting rebuilding New Orleans from a green perspective. Some of those ideas are addressed in the film.
In the end, the film's tone offers a lot more hope than its message. Perhaps one of the most amusing moments is courtesy of former CIA director James Woolsey quoting Winston Churchill: "The Americans always do the right thing -- it's just after they've exhausted all the other possibilities."