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DiCaprio’s Before the Flood Almost Gets It Right

American actor Leonardo DiCaprio lands on the Wall of Shame today for one statement he made in his new film, Before the Flood. I do this very reluctantly, because at the same time I want to applaud the man for investing so much time and energy into producing this movie. Thank you, Leo! Please take my remarks here as encouragement to reflect and up your game even more. You’re doing great work. It can be even greater!

First things first. See this film. After hitting theaters in New York and Los Angeles (plus screenings at the UN and White House), it had its television premiere October 30 on the National Geographic Channel. You’re likely to still be able to find it on NatGeo or on demand on your cable system. It has also been available for streaming free at and on YouTube here. Publicity indicated the free streaming would end yesterday, but so far the film is still available. You can watch the whole thing right here:

DiCaprio assembled some amazing talent to create what I will call a moving update on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The team included Executive Producer Martin Scorsese, Director Fisher Stevens and Screenwriter Mark Monroe.

The Al Gore film did one hell of a job making climate change a household word (okay, 2 words). It was mostly Gore onstage delivering a great PowerPoint presentation. A year later DiCaprio gave it his best shot with his film, The 11th Hour. An admirable effort, The 11th Hour still disappointed. It felt like a stock footage demo reel (a little better than PowerPoint, though), and DiCaprio’s onscreen presence was rough. Ten years later, DiCaprio clearly felt it was time to turn the volume up to eleven.

“I just want to know how far we’ve gone. How much damage we’ve done. And if there’s anything we can do to stop it.”

He has delivered. Before the Flood is very watchable, thoughtful, factual and engaging. Applause. It does an admirable job of demonstrating that climate change isn’t some future possibility. It is happening now. It’s costing us a lot of money, and it’s impacting – and costing – lives.

Now I want to ask Leonardo DiCaprio to do better. And here’s why. My heart just sank when I heard this conversation with Sunita Narain, of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, 37 minutes into the film:

Narain: (To Leo “as an American”) “…your consumption is really gonna put a hole in the planet…. We need to put the issue of lifestyle and consumption at the center of climate negotiations.”

DiCaprio: “Absolutely correct. And I think, yes, it’s a very difficult argument to present to Americans that we need to change our lifestyle, and I would also argue that it’s probably not gonna happen. So, we are dependent, if we wanna solve the climate crisis, on the fact that hopefully, renewables like solar and wind will become cheaper and cheaper….”

Narain shakes her head. She’s not buying it. And neither am I. Leo’s words, and much of the film’s content, left me with the impression that DiCaprio is placing all bets on technology to minimize greenhouse gas emissions. Later, in his conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, I get the impression that is also Obama’s take. In the scene following DiCaprio’s chat with Sunita Narain, Leo offers these thoughts:

“The U.S. has been the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in history. And there’s no doubt that we’ve all benefitted from fossil fuels. I know I have.”

We see a jet and Leo walking thru an airport, then getting in his car and driving.

“My footprint is probably a lot bigger than most people’s. And there are times when I question, ‘What is the right thing to do?”

The cheap shot here would be to give the writer grief about that “probably.” Probably? Come on. Get real.

Now that I’ve taken the cheap shot, let me explain why I was so disappointed by DiCaprio’s statement that Americans probably won’t change our lifestyle. You have to see the scene. He doesn’t seem to even lament that fact. It is just a fact, so we’d better get behind renewable energy technology.
DiCaprio and Brett Ratner in submarineThe problem, Leo, is that we cannot continue business as usual, plundering the planet, and 1) expect it to be physically possible to power it with renewables, and 2) expect in the process to preserve the life-supporting ecosystems the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation is working so hard to protect.

I can’t get into the details here, but just imagine the carbon footprint and depletion of nonrenewable resources necessary to manufacture and install renewable energy infrastructure to power our 7.4 billion at today’s various lifestyles, let alone at the lifestyle aspired to by the developing world. And then imagine powering up for 11 billion. You might want to check out Ozzie Zehner’s book, Green Illusions.

And, I really hope you know, Leo, that getting a handle on greenhouse gas emissions will not do a thing to resolve the other ill effects of overshoot: inadequate fresh water supplies, toxic and declining rivers and aquifers, fisheries collapse, fertile soil depletion, ocean dead zones, species extinction and nonrenewable resource depletion. And doing this while ignoring overpopulation (virtually absent from the film)? Good luck.

The simple fact is that we are going to have to at least do these three things in order to have any hope of a non-dystopian future on Earth:

  1. Leave fossil fuels in the ground
  2. Scale back our lifestyles
  3. Contract our population

I’m not the only one who has identified this weakness in the film. In a very on-point critique at The Conversation, Jason von Meding offers a very clear assessment, but also a plausible explanation for why DiCaprio’s film stops short:

“Before the Flood lines up a series of leaders, scientists, and innovators to tell us that we need to move faster towards sustainable energy. But their implied backing of the economic status quo of indefinite growth goes unchallenged, because DiCaprio sees such a challenge as impossibly radical. We therefore leave ourselves at the mercy of a technocratic response that has failed time and again.”

In his review of the film in Hollywood Reporter, John DeFore writes:

“Maybe movie stars can sway public opinion more effectively than tightly reasoned activist docs full of hard data and compelling narratives. Here’s hoping.”

Bravo for producing this film, Leo. Now, please step it up and find a way to give us more truth. Ready or not, we need to start hearing it. Let’s get started on the next film. You have the star-power to get the film made and to get our attention. It’s time for The Ultimate Inconvenient Truth. The good news is that trampling the planet isn’t really making us happier; doing the right thing will actually enrich our lives.

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Dave Gardner

Producer of the documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. Dave writes and speaks regularly on the subject of growth addiction, including the pro-growth media bias that perpetuates prosperity-from-growth mythology.

Comments (2)

  • Avatar

    Brian Sanderson


    I didn’t see the movie. But I was intrigued by your comment on the DiCaprio footprint… I would offer just one observation in his defense. DiCaprio, so far as I know, has been most modest with regards to procreation — no children! Less modest, Mel Gibson has a score of 8… That’s a truly mind-blowing column of footprints marching into the future.

    So which Hollywood celebrity do you think should win the Oscar for Hollywood’s biggest footprint? (Picture, if you will, the beaming “Star” marching onto the stage to collect an Oscar styled after Sasquatch.)

    Hold onto your video camera! Eddie Murphy seems to have jumped one up on Mel… Meanwhile, Steven Spielberg and Kevin Costner are hot on his heels.


  • Avatar

    Dave Gardner


    Sure enough, the film has disappeared from YouTube and cannot be accessed free at national, but I see I can still access it free on demand on my local cable system.


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