“Will you hold the stencil while I spray?” she purred in my direction. Tall. Curvy. She and I shared the same university, and we were carbon-based life forms, but that was about it. To suggest she was out of my dating league would be laughable. I probably shouldn’t have been within a football field’s length of her. She was, as I remember, a goddess.
Hold the stencil! Shoot, I’d invade Canada if she asked.
There must be a sense of urgency to all the climate change evangelists claim, otherwise, calls for massive shifts of public and private capital seem foolhardy upon quick inspection.Around Southern California, we spent a crisp Spring weekend finding drainage gaps along concrete streets and downtown’s asphalt. The stencil was a dolphin with the bordering words, “No Dumping. Drains to the Ocean.” I held that stencil with a focus I hadn’t had my entire college career. Of course, I was a prevaricator in her world, an interloper.
My leanings, even to the present, were downright Randian when it came to the environment. I never succumb to the oceanic feeling of oneness with nature. I much preferred skyscrapers, automobiles, restaurants, art galleries, and punk rock to a hike in the mountains.
She droned on about impending hellish scenes headed our way due to humanity’s indifference and greed. Authoritarian socialism of the most cryptic variety, ogres spanning commissions, and committees were the answer. There simply was no time to debate. She waxed about population control measures. Between hair flips and stretches, oblivious poses, I remember long dissertations about bicycles for some reason.
Command economics, the total State, never looked so good while sounding so awful. Her femme fatale disposition and staccato patois lent to an assuredness of her vision for the future I do not believe I’ve come across since. This was the state of what we now refer to as climate change (then Global Warming) advocates: they were brutally honest about their diagnosis and prognosis. Honest to a fault.
Sure enough, my continual recoil revealed itself during our brief time together. She didn’t really need another reason to be through with me, and we parted amicably. Every so often I come across those little placards and sprayed warnings, and I have to smile.
Present-day climate change evangelists have to tow a slightly more nuanced line, however. There must be a sense of urgency to all they claim, otherwise, calls for massive shifts of public and private capital seem foolhardy upon quick inspection.
The sexiness of so many years ago, albeit inadvertent, to lure my impressionable college-aged self to climate change orthodoxy has been summoned yet again. This time, it’s in the form of a young-ish, rugged actor and his well-positioned pals.
And it had to be an easy sell. Send an A-List celebrity, now a newly minted Academy Award winner, to five continents over a two-year period to examine and document environmental devastation. Give him a production credit, puff him up with a United Nations Messengership, and all that’s really left is funding.
Any project with Leonard DiCaprio attached will be financed, and documentary industry heavies RatPak Entertainment – a mega fund by way of Brett Ratner and Australian billionaire James Packer – backed Before the Flood, which allowed for cinematic production values, the hiring of Academy Award winning writer Mark Monroe, and enough cash to lay the final touch of having aging alternative rocker Trent Reznor score the film. Even American directing legend Martin Scorsese gets a signage credit as an amorphous executive producer.
Though Before the Flood doesn’t particularly add to the climate change argument in any new way, it does seek to update the alarm, working to scare the hair off your grandmother.
It has, of course, been a decade since Al Gore rattled in An Inconvenient Truth (2006) about how humanity is “sitting on a time bomb. If the vast majority of the world's scientists are right, we have just 10 years to avert a major catastrophe that could send our entire planet's climate system into a tailspin of epic destruction involving extreme weather, floods, droughts, epidemics, and killer heat waves beyond anything we have ever experienced – a catastrophe of our own making.” Gore’s documentary was shown in every compulsory public education science course classroom. It won every award imaginable. The man collected a Nobel Prize for Peace attributed to his work. I think it’s clear his views had a healthy hearing.
Ten years on, it does appear Mr. Gore at least overplayed his hand. There’s a real sense, according to Mr. DiCaprio in the opening scenes, the public has given in to malaise, to a kind of catastrophist agnosticism, indifferentism. A revealing online poll, not mentioned in Before the Flood, was conducted by the United Nations in 2015. It surveyed, at last count, something like 10 million people about their major concerns. Of the variety of issues presented, from education to political freedoms, “Action taken on climate change” ranked dead last.
Earnest is something Mr. DiCaprio does very well, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s in various states of facial hair repose as the documentary is being shot during his making of The Revenant (2015), a muscular, bone-crushing movie worthy of your time. Mr. DiCaprio is set not so much as a movie star in Before the Flood but instead is an inquisitive Joe, attempting to understand this complex phenomenon of global climate change – something he never questions, but assumes completely. He sits in the interviewer’s chair well, walks tall with world leaders, and each edit to him reveals an intensity with the subject matter. Part Dorothy, affixed and along very much for the ride, and part Toto, confused and bewildered and at times visibly upset, Mr. DiCaprio is the perfect documentary foil. We believe him. We believe in him.
Mr. Di Caprio is incredulous, disbelieving anyone could be anything less than on fire to stop the great This from happening.Vignette after theatrical vignette, we want to know where Mr. DiCaprio will go next, which exciting cameo will reveal the likes of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President Obama, mogul Elon Musk, or Pope Francis. Prior to the carefully spaced out and plotted global leader insertions, Mr. DiCaprio’s history of activism is highlighted, going back to the second Clinton administration.
Filmmakers allude to common skepticism about actors becoming advocates for serious issues, and a quick-running package of Fox News shows and various other Right Wing media voices chorus to razzle Mr. DiCaprio’s attempts. Initially, I believed this to be foreshadowing, as perhaps Mr. DiCaprio would engage those who offer differing opinions on climate change. Instead, the video package criticizing him serves nothing and is never called on again.
Exchange after exasperating exchange is shoved at the viewer; Mr. DiCaprio is incredulous, disbelieving anyone could be anything less than on fire to stop the grand This from happening. It’s religion in the very worst sense. The world is neatly divided between dupes and evildoers. Science, whom Mr. DiCaprio invokes incessantly, holds the opposite of this emotional outlook, as it dispassionately gathers contingent facts, hoping to make sense of empirical data.
But in Before the Flood, time has run out. Everything is settled. Dupes are senselessly holding up This from being solved. Evildoers (they really stick it to the Koch brothers) are funding dupes, making sure This is never even considered. For Mr. DiCaprio, it is politicians of his political stripe who are necessary for real, lasting change to occur. Just let our guys handle it, and maybe, perhaps, we can turn This around.
Nowhere at any point does Mr. DiCaprio discuss or even mention the hordes and gaggles of state monies, government grants, and private alternative fuel industries who might also be attempting to tip the scales in their favor regarding more strident climate change claims.
The fossil fuel industry is the go-to sack, mucking up the Earth, generally spoiling everything. That there is a fossil fuel industry at all seems to frustrate Before the Flood’s makers. “This is happening,” is all they seem to say. Maybe a minute is devoted to the trade-off and opportunity costs various societies have made in their effort to industrialize, but, no, no, back to the developed world’s overconsumption as the key to ending This. In the short term, since the climate change political priesthood is having trouble gaining a foothold, Mr. DiCaprio urges First World countries to eat more chicken, foregoing beef, as a way to immediately make a difference. There is no time to waste.
From there, it’s a quick pivot to dragging out American progressives’ and neo-conservatives’ favorite, the vaunted carbon tax (which Before the Flood makers insist they voluntarily paid to offset their own footprint). A token free market-ish economist is interviewed as a toss to parity, with even Mr. DiCaprio asking why this dude advocates for a tax. A tax! You guys hate taxes! Well, the economist explains, a carbon tax would be used to offset other, more odious taxes such as the payroll tax. Yes, without comment, filmmakers snidely suggest a carbon tax would replace payroll taxes. Literally no one is seriously suggesting as much, and any student of history understands taxes aren’t repealed, they’re simply transferred and stacked. Instead of replacing payroll tax, we’ll have yet another revenue stream to government legislatures.
What is somewhat revealing is how the filmmakers let stand the assertion that making things more expensive changes behavior and that something more expensive is purchased less than something cheaper. Why that argument never breaks through in the minimum wage debate is anyone’s guess. But here, for one brief clip, American progressives seem to understand that taxing something adjusts incentives. Go figure.
Notes to Educators and Editorialists
I fall weirdly in the climate change debate. I believe change is happening, and that it is hastened by what humans do. That much of the science is clear to me. What isn’t clear is how climate change will impact human life, and less clear still is the role of politicians in the scheme of things. Climate models going as far back as my cynical dolphin paintings have been hideously off, and off by a lot. Then there’s the Jehovah’s Witnessization of meteorology. What should be a robust, healthy, sober look at our choices is often replaced by Cassandras.
Watch Before the Flood. In an effort to show good faith, and, I suspect, to fight against the public’s overdosing on doom pornography, the documentary is streaming free on platforms like YouTube. Since it swings such large influence, thinkers concerned with climate change should be aware of its tone. They’ll pin it right away as agitprop, and any skeptic is labeled a “denier,” eerily lumping one in with goons who deny the Holocaust. This is done on purpose, overtly attempting to quiet debate and challenge.
For once, just once, it'd be nice to have a climate change documentary that doesn't just alarm, but illuminates.There is plenty to debate and challenge about climate change.
If you’re an educator, surely Mr. DiCaprio’s vehicle will provide a slick, one-sided introduction to the controversies. Classroom instructors can then show Matt Ridley’s almost point-by-point refutation, a complete coincidence as it turns out, in a recent UK lecture.
Anything profiling the downright dazzling worth of Norman Borlaug is more than worth a mention. His work in Mexico, and then across the world, to increase wheat crop yields is nothing short of inspiring. Students and careful thinkers alike will appreciate the human will and desire to tackle seemingly impossible environmental problems.
And of course, for theater, few yarns are better than the classic wager between Paul Ehrlich and Julian Simon during the 1980s. Simon is such a warm and inviting writer and lecturer, it’s a shame he’s cast to the relative dustbin of history while Ehrlich continues on in hourly dire warnings. The best book on their tangle, in which Simon won, is a non-ideological account by Yale University’s Paul Sabin, The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble Over Earth’s Future (2014).
Before the Flood won’t do more than seal the baked-in quality of a viewer’s bias, and that’s a real shame. Mr. DiCaprio, and his access to policy wonks and the world’s movers and shakers, had a real chance to shed badly-needed light on the subject matter. He begins the entire film by questioning the resolve of the industrial world’s public, and seems genuinely perplexed as the documentary ends without having moved the needle much. For once, just once, it’d be nice to have a climate change documentary that doesn’t just alarm, but illuminates.
At least we got a new Trent Reznor tune out of the deal this time.