I approached Leonardo DiCaprio and Fisher Stevens’s new film, Before the Flood, with trepidation. The last climate change documentary I watched (Josh Fox’s How to Let Go of the World and Love Everything the Climate Can’t Change) left me depressed for weeks. But, right from the start, Before the Flood offers an alternative to the typical doom-and-gloom environmental narrative. It inspires hope for salvation.
We Can Choose Our Future
The film begins with Hieronymus Bosch’s three-paneled painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. (DiCaprio says a poster of the painting hung above his bed as a child.) The left panel depicts a beautiful paradise and the right panel depicts a dark hellscape. The center panel, a scene populated with temptations and delights, symbolizes our current world.
The film invites us to look at these three panels non-sequentially. Although overconsumption and an addiction to fossil fuels have destroyed many of our natural places, the hellscape doesn’t necessarily await us and our planet. We can still regain paradise for our descendants. The question is, what must we do and can we do it fast enough?
Before the Flood makes three excellent recommendations that go beyond changing lightbulbs.
Create More Cleantech Jobs
DiCaprio visits Elon Musk at his bustling new Tesla Gigafactory in Reno, Nevada. As the two walk and talk, we are treated to a view of the building’s massive interior and busy robots making batteries. After Musk makes the case for solar and battery production, he says it would only take 99 more gigafactories to convert the entire world to sustainable energy. This sounds manageable, if the market expands.
“Tesla can’t build a 100 gigafactories,” Musk says to DiCaprio. “The thing that’s really going to make a difference is if companies that are much bigger than Tesla do the same thing.”
A CEO asking for more competition in the market?! I’m happy Before the Flood included Musk’s call to action, but I wish it had emphasized the significance of his statement more. Building and operating more gigafactories is a huge job creator. While most of us will never be able to answer Musk’s call directly, we should reference it anytime someone mislabels environmentalism as a job killer.
Persuade Leaders to Impose a Carbon Tax
DiCaprio also interviews Harvard economics professor and Republican Gregory Mankiw. For years, Mankiw has voiced his support for a carbon tax to make polluting activities more expensive. The tax will help people make better environmental choices and enable politicians to cut other taxes, like the payroll tax.
But even as an economic advisor to Republican “heavyweights” John McCain, Mitt Romney, and George W. Bush, he couldn’t build on bipartisan support to get them to adopt the tax. Mankiw explains it’s not about persuading climate denying politicians to adopt a carbon tax; it’s about changing the public’s view.
“Politicians, whether we call them elected leaders, are really elected followers. They do what the people want them to do,” Mankiw tells DiCaprio. “We need to preach to the American people. Once the people are convinced the politicians will fall in line.”
Consume Less Palm Oil and Beef
Building on Cowspiracy, the seminal documentary executive produced by DiCaprio about the food industry’s environmental impact, Before the Flood highlights the climate impact of beef and palm oil consumption. While the film identifies specific companies that use palm oil in their products, it also recognizes that it’s ubiquitous. It calls on the government to regulate palm oil in beauty products, detergents, and processed food.
But people can avoid or limit eating beef without government regulation. Raising cattle is the biggest reason for tropical deforestation and an incredibly inefficient use of land. Plus, cows produce methane, which is a huge contributor to climate change.
Reaching for Paradise
All of these calls to action are attainable. We’re already seeing countries like Costa Rica, Sweden, Denmark, and Germany expand sustainable energy and grow a green economy. We already have bipartisan support for the carbon tax. More people are becoming vegetarian and vegan. The Paris Climate Agreement and agreement in Rwanda to limit climate-damaging HFCs signal worldwide support for climate action.
But there’s so much more that needs to be done quickly. What about reducing our use of products made with fossil fuels like plastics and synthetic fertilizers? What about diverting methane-producing organic waste from landfills? In San Francisco, composting is mandatory. Other municipalities must adopt this policy, especially because compost helps plants suck carbon out of the air and store it in the ground.
Although the world is heating, the ice caps are melting, and the oceans are dying, there is still a lot we can do to save our home.
At the end of the film, DiCaprio meets with Pope Francis, who urged us in his landmark encyclical to stop polluting and destroying our common home: Earth. Although most of the meeting doesn’t appear in the film, DiCaprio says the pope wants us all to keep speaking out about climate change as loud as we can, immediately take action, and pray.
Basically, we should do everything in our power to reach beyond our current temptations toward paradise. It’s more than doing what’s good for polar bears; it’s about salvation.
Check out Before the Flood in select theaters October 21st and on National Geographic October 30th.