Two documentaries with the imprimatur of Leonardo DiCaprio can be seen in New York City and likely in theaters around the country given his clout as one of Hollywood’s superstars. Both of the documentaries are timely and excellent. They also raise questions about the role of tinseltown progressives. With DiCaprio, George Clooney, Sean Penn, Angela Jolie, John Cusack and others not so well known picking up where Jane Fonda left off years ago, it is a good time to consider their role in social change. Since there is a natural and even reasonable tendency on the left to regard such personalities as superficial phonies, a close look at DiCaprio’s trajectory would be useful.
“Before the Flood” opened yesterday at the Village East Cinema in New York and features DiCaprio in a kind of Michael Moore narrator/main character role. (The film will also be shown on the National Geographic channel on October 30th.) As the title implies, this is about climate change and certainly a follow-up to Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” that helped to draw attention to arguably the most important environmental question we face today even as Gore’s film failed to provide adequate answers. Whether DiCaprio’s film succeeds in answering them is open to question although it is undeniable that the average audience member will come out the theater with a much better idea of the problems we face.
The film is a kind of odyssey with DiCaprio meeting with people all across the planet who are on the front lines of climate change. Mostly he is content to allow people to speak freely even when they come close to denouncing him as part of the problem. When he meets with Sunita Narain, the director of the Centre for Science and Environment in India, he allows her to excoriate the West for demanding sharp cutbacks in fossil fuel usage across the board when her country and others like it are mired in poverty. After we see an Indian peasant turning cow dung into a patty that is used almost universally in the countryside as a primitive stove fuel, Narain remonstrates with DiCaprio:
Coal is cheap, whether you or I like it or not. You have to think of it from this point of view. You created the problem in the past. We will create it in the future. We have 700m household using biomass to cook. If those households move to coal, there’ll be that much more use of fossil fuels. Then the entire world is fried. If anyone tells you that the world’s poor should move to solar and why do they have to make the mistakes we have made…I hear this from American NGOs all the time. I’m like, wow. I mean, if it was that easy, I would really have liked the US to move to solar. But you haven’t. Let’s put our money where our mouth is.
There was nothing like this in Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and as such makes this new film far more credible.
One of the things you will learn from “Before the Flood” is that Western Europe is making great strides in developing alternative energy sources. Not only that, so is China which is far Greener at least on climate change than the USA. To some extent, this is likely the result of China’s need to reduce air pollution from coal-burning plants even if it had nothing to do with the coastal flooding that can put cities under water everywhere, including China. Since protests against unclear air have roiled China, the Communist Party must have felt a need to defuse the situation. Furthermore, since lung cancer does not discriminate between rich and poor, the elite obviously would prefer to enjoy its wealth in good health.
If advances are being made in alternative energy sources, there continues to be profit-driven assaults on the world’s great rainforests that serve to absorb carbon dioxide and hence slow down climate change. One of the more shocking examples is the deliberately set forest fires in Borneo, a first step in clearing land for palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a key ingredient of junk food. When DiCaprio visits a shelter for orphaned orangutans, you really have to wonder what kind of mad world we are living in when a bag of Lays potato chips can fuel the extinction of such a gentle and intelligent beast.
There are three interviews that epitomize the shortcomings of a Green outlook that is not rooted in a critique of the capitalist system. DiCaprio gives Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw a platform to advocate for a carbon tax that he feels will reduce its use just as cigarette taxes reduce smoking. We assume that the inclusion of Mankiw, a life-long Republican who served in George W. Bush’s economic advisor, is meant to illustrate the possibility of uniting all sides of the political spectrum in a battle against extinction.
The carbon tax is based on the idea that markets can be the solution to climate change after the fashion of Obama’s cap-and-trade that provides incentives for reducing carbon emissions. But as long as the market system prevails, there will be enormous pressures to be cost-effective. This might entail allowing big corporations to offset the expense of a carbon tax by drilling in areas of the world where labor costs are minimal, like South Sudan for example. Indeed, even as China is converting to alternative energy sources within its borders, it is stepping up drilling in the South Sudan.
As it happens, Exxon Mobil is in favor of a carbon tax but this might have something to do with the fact that it would likely benefit more than its competitors from a carbon tax that favors cleaner-burning natural gas over coal. Guess what. ExxonMobil has the largest natural gas reserves of any U.S. company.
As another example of progress in the fight against climate change, DiCaprio talks to Elon Musk in his “gigafactory” in the Nevadan desert. Upon its completion in 2020, it will produce 500,000 electric vehicles per year and batteries/cells equal to 85 GWh/yr. Musk is also a proponent of the carbon tax as this exchange reveals:
Elon Musk: What would it take to transition the whole world to sustainable energy? What kind of throughput would you actually need? You need a hundred gigafactories.
Leonardo DiCaprio: A hundred of these?
Elon Musk: A hundred. Yes.
Leonardo DiCaprio: That would make the United States…
Elon Musk: No, the whole world.
Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world?!
Elon Musk: The whole world.
Leonardo DiCaprio: That’s it?! That sounds manageable.
Elon Musk: If all the big companies do this then we can accelerate the transition and if governments can set the rules in favour of sustainable energy, then we can get there really quickly. But it’s really fundamental: unless they put a price on carbon…
Leonardo DiCaprio: …then we are never going to be able to make the transition in time, right?
Elon Musk: Only way to do that is through a carbon tax.
It is too bad that DiCaprio did not follow up with a question about lithium mining since this is the primary ingredient of the batteries he will be producing. I first became aware of its environmental impact in a film titled “Salero” that examined the life of a salt extractor in Bolivia whose way of life was threatened by the transformation of the salt flats into a huge lithium mine. Friends of the Earth details the possible outcome, which amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul:
Lithium is found in the brine of salt flats. Holes are drilled into the salt flats and the brine is pumped to the surface, leaving it to evaporate in ponds. This allows lithium carbonate to be extracted through a chemical process.
The extraction of lithium has significant environmental and social impacts, especially due to water pollution and depletion. In addition, toxic chemicals are needed to process lithium. The release of such chemicals through leaching, spills or air emissions can harm communities, ecosystems and food production. Moreover, lithium extraction inevitably harms the soil and also causes air contamination.
The salt flats where lithium is found are located in arid territories. In these places, access to water is key for the local communities and their livelihoods, as well as the local flora and fauna. In Chile’s Atacama salt flats, mining consumes, contaminates and diverts scarce water resources away from local communities. The extraction of lithium has caused water-related conflicts with different communities, such as the community of Toconao in the north of Chile. In Argentina’s Salar de Hombre Muerto, local communities claim that lithium operations have contaminated streams used for humans, livestock and crop irrigation.
Finally, there is the interview with Barack Obama in which the chief executive worries about scarce resources becoming subject to competition between populations. This amounts to a national security issue according to the Pentagon. In a way, this has already taken place if you consider the possibility that the revolt in Syria was fueled to some extent by climate change. You can read about this in the December 17, 2015 Scientific American:
Kemal Ali ran a successful well-digging business for farmers in northern Syria for 30 years. He had everything he needed for the job: a heavy driver to pound pipe into the ground, a battered but reliable truck to carry his machinery, a willing crew of young men to do the grunt work. More than that, he had a sharp sense of where to dig, as well as trusted contacts in local government on whom he could count to look the other way if he bent the rules. Then things changed. In the winter of 2006–2007, the water table began sinking like never before.
Ali had a problem. “Before the drought I would have to dig 60 or 70 meters to find water,” he recalls. “Then I had to dig 100 to 200 meters. Then, when the drought hit very strongly, I had to dig 500 meters. The deepest I ever had to dig was 700 meters. The water kept dropping and dropping.” From that winter through 2010, Syria suffered its most devastating drought on record. Ali’s business disappeared. He tried to find work but could not. Social uprisings in the country began to escalate. He was almost killed by cross fire. Now Ali sits in a wheelchair at a camp for wounded and ill refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos.
If there is anything that casts doubt on the ability or willingness of American imperialism to preempt “national security” issues stemming from climate change, it is the situation in Syria that has deteriorated to hellish levels. The USA had zero interest in reducing conflict in the entire Middle East and North Africa, which to one extent or another is suffering from extreme weather conditions. Its general strategy is to support the status quo with one or another dictatorship keeping men such as Kemal Ali from getting out of hand. Oil will be sent from Saudi Arabia while men like al-Sisi and Assad keep the rabble in line. This is the shape of things to come in the 21st century and nothing will stop it except the revolutionary action of working people and farmers who have nothing to lose but their chains. This is a showdown that will force men and women in Leonardo DiCaprio’s social position to choose sides. I’d like to think on the basis of the convictions displayed in “Before the Flood” that he can be won to our side.
In the early moments of “Before the Flood”, DiCaprio recollects how as a young boy he began thinking about environmental questions. He became preoccupied with animal extinctions and wondered how they happened and how they could be prevented. Since we are part of the animal kingdom ourselves, we have an obvious interest in eliminating any environmental threats to our own existence.
Moving from those early musings to the current day, we see him in conversation with Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of “The Revenant”, a very fine film about one man’s struggle to reach civilization after being mauled in the wilderness by a grizzly bear. In a way, this was nature’s revenge since the man was a hunter who like thousands of others in the early 1800s helped to bring many creatures to the edge of extinction. We see director and actor looking in horror at a photograph of one of these hunters before a small mountain of pelts. DiCaprio shakes his head at this gruesome spectacle and asks why such men could not see the impact that they would have on nature.
That kind of irrational, cruel and ultimately self-destructive behavior is the subject of the documentary “The Ivory Game” that opens in theaters everywhere on November 4th as well as on Netflix. DiCaprio served as executive producer for the film that is directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson.
As the title implies, this is about the wholesale destruction of African elephants through poaching. The main market for their tusks is China, where the nouveau riche value artwork made of ivory. Like the rhinoceros tusks that end up in useless cures for a variety of ailments ranging from impotence to cancer, China is a primary cause of the enormous loss of living natural resources that cannot easily be replaced.
The film follows some of the men and women involved in eliminating the black market for ivory in both Africa and China. We meet the cops who are in pursuit of Shetani, a kingpin in the poaching business whose name is Swahili for Satan—appropriately enough. We also meet a young Chinese man who after being horrified as a boy by the slaughter of small animals in an outdoor market decided to take up their cause. He became an investigative journalist covering the ivory game as well as an undercover operative who secretly filmed the Chinese and Africans who take part in this sordid business.
As a further illustration of the insanity of the capitalist system, we learn that the men in the poaching trade and the shopkeepers in China who sell the handicrafts made of ivory want the elephant population to decline since that will drive up the price of their goods. Supply and demand, don’t you know? This becomes a vicious cycle that will eventually lead to their extinction.
As it happens, my earliest inklings into the conflict between capitalism and mother nature was a 1958 film titled “Roots of Heaven” directed by John Huston that I wrote about in July 2014:
My duty is to protect all the species, all the living roots that heaven planted into the earth. I’ve been fighting all my life for their preservation. Man is destroying the forest, poisoning the ocean, poisoning the very air we breathe with radiation. The oceans, the forests, the race of animals, mankind are the roots of heaven. Poison heaven’s roots and the tree will be done and die. The stars will go out and heaven will be destroyed.
That was the response of the character Peer Qvist to a colonial administrator charged with the responsibility of tracking down and persuading the small band protecting elephants to give up their struggle. When asked to justify his membership in a subversive group after pledging only to do scientific research in French Equatorial Africa, Qvist (played by Friedrich von Ledebur, who also played Queequeg in John Huston’s “Moby Dick”) gives the only possible answer for someone who values all life. It would be hard to exaggerate the impact those words had on my when I first heard them in 1959, long before terms like animal rights and ecology had entered our vocabulary.
“The Roots of Heaven” was very much in the spirit of Edward Abbey’s 1975 “The Monkey Wrench Gang”, a novel that for all I know was inspired by “The Roots of Heaven”. While Abbey’s work celebrated sabotage against machines that were destroying the West’s natural habitats, Romain Gary’s heroes were using a monkey wrench against a system that had very little machinery to speak of. That system provided ivory for billiard balls and other ostentatious items, leaving the Africans without industry or wildlife. Indeed, some of the African nationalists who initially hook up with them—mainly for the publicity–view the elephants as an obstacle to progress and would be more than happy to see them sacrificed.
So what do we make of Leonardo DiCaprio? To start with, it is good that he is involved with projects such as these. His name might help to fill seats in theaters that are outside the arthouse ghetto. It also helps that the two films have production values not ordinarily seen in documentaries.
Plus, the man puts his money on the line. He recently donated $1 million to an anti-poaching campaign. While he certainly can afford to make that kind of contribution, we can at least respect him for making it. I also invited you to visit his website where you can see other initiatives that he is funding. I am not sure if there is anybody doing more than him to protect wildlife and the ecosphere, at least in Hollywood.
There were some autobiographical details in “Before the Flood” that I found interesting. It turns out that DiCaprio’s father was both a creator and marketer of underground comics and evidently part of the counter-culture. For some reason that only the father could explain, he put a poster of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights” on his young child’s bedroom wall. DiCaprio became obsessed with the images, especially the one to the right that depicts hell. It is that image that evokes what our planet will look like unless the forces of destruction are not confronted and defeated.
Like most people in his milieu, DiCaprio is a Democrat as Wikipedia notes:
During the 2004 presidential election, DiCaprio campaigned and donated to John Kerry’s presidential bid. The FEC showed that DiCaprio gave $2,300 to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in the 2008 election, the maximum contribution an individual could give in that election cycle, and $5,000 to Obama’s 2012 campaign.
Well, the $5000 shelled out to Obama might have been wasted but the million dollars to save the elephants was much better spent.
On balance, we are better off with DiCaprio as a spokesman for causes we believe in rather than him standing on the sidelines doing cocaine and navel-gazing. In the final analysis, it is the working class and its allies that will transform the economic system that hastens climate change and the extinction of African elephants but we should be looking for all the help we can get in a monumental struggle upon which everything rests, including the survival of life on earth.
This is the speech he gave to the UN on April 22nd, 2016. I’d like to think he wrote it himself:
Thank you, Mr. Secretary General, for the honor to address this body once more. And thanks to the distinguished climate leaders assembled here today who are ready to take action.
President Abraham Lincoln was also thinking of bold action 150 years ago when he said:
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country.”
He was speaking before the US Congress to confront the defining issue of his time – slavery.
Everyone knew it had to end but no one had the political will to stop it. Remarkably, his words ring as true today when applied to the defining crisis of our time – Climate Change.
As a UN Messenger of Peace, I have been travelling all over the world for the last two years documenting how this crisis is changing the natural balance of our planet. I have seen cities like Beijing choked by industrial pollution. Ancient Boreal forests in Canada that have been clear cut and rainforests in Indonesia that have been incinerated. In India I met farmers whose crops have literally been washed away by historic flooding. In America I have witnessed unprecedented droughts in California and sea level rise flooding the streets of Miami. In Greenland and in the Arctic I was astonished to see that ancient glaciers are rapidly disappearing well ahead of scientific predictions. All that I have seen and learned on this journey has terrified me.
There is no doubt in the world’s scientific community that this a direct result of human activity and that the effects of climate change will become astronomically worse in the future.
I do not need to throw statistics at you. You know them better than I do, and more importantly, you know what will happen if this scourge is left unchecked. You know that climate change is happening faster than even the most pessimistic of scientists warned us decades ago. It has become a runaway freight train bringing with it an impending disaster for all living things.
Now think about the shame that each of us will carry when our children and grandchildren look back and realize that we had the means of stopping this devastation, but simply lacked the political will to do so.
Yes, we have achieved the Paris Agreement. More countries have come together to sign this agreement today than for any other cause in the history of humankind – and that is a reason for hope – but unfortunately the evidence shows us that it will not be enough.
Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you.
We all know that reversing the course of climate change will not be easy, but the tools are in our hands – if we apply them before it is too late.
Renewable energy, clean fuels, and putting a price on carbon pollution are beginning to turn the tide. This transition is not only the right thing for our world, but it also makes clear economic sense, and is possible within our lifetime.
But it is now upon you to do what great leaders have always done: to lead, inspire, and empower as President Lincoln did in his time.
We can congratulate each other today, but it will mean nothing if you return to your countries and fail to push beyond the promises of this historic agreement. Now is the time for bold unprecedented action.
My friends, look at the delegates around you. It is time to ask each other – which side of history will you be on?
As a citizen of our planet who has witnessed so much on this journey I thank you for all you have done to lay the foundation of a solution to this crisis, but after 21 years of debates and conferences it is time to declare no more talk. No more excuses. No more ten-year studies. No more allowing the fossil fuel companies to manipulate and dictate the science and policies that effect our future. This is the only body that can do what is needed. You, sitting in this very hall.
The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations, or vilified by them.
Lincoln’s words still resonate to all of us here today:
“We will be remembered in spite of ourselves. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the last generation… We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”
That is our charge now – you are the last best hope of Earth. We ask you to protect it. Or we – and all living things we cherish – are history.