The 11th Hour

I have some great friends that I correspond with privately via E-mail. We have great raging discussions about all of the same stuff that I frequently post about here on Samadhisoft.

But I’ve noticed that these private conversations are qualitatively different that what I and other bloggers post.

I think when we post as Bloggers, we’re trying to muster our points while speaking into a silence that probably won’t reply. And, we’re also aware that what ever we post will be out there for a long time unless we go and pull it down. I think it causes a kind of formality and stiffness in what we put out there.

Our private conversations, however, are much more nuanced and subtle. We know what our readers can deal with, we know what’s been discussed previously, we know that a response is highly likely and we know that the half-life of what we say can probably be measured in hours. Conversations like this, even when slowed by E-mail exchange speeds, still flow and ebb organically.

Most of the time, my private correspondents prefer to keep our conversations private so that no one has to worry about doing themselves harm through and excess of candor. But, recently my friend and correspondent, LA Heberlein (www.heberlein.net), wrote a fine and thoughtful review and reaction to a new movie called The 11th Hour and he’s agreed to my sharing it here.

Personally, I wish that more of what we do in our on-line Blogging was of this quality.

Here’s LA:

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Every now and again I reflect back on something Dennis talked about one day at lunch after watching the David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago. The emotional experience of identifying with those characters was so profoundly moving, he wondered why our writers haven’t been able to create a similar experience which would wake everyone up to the emergencies in our biosphere. If everyone could go to the movies on Friday night and walk out feeling as strongly for the fate of humanity on earth as we feel for Lara, Dennis postulated, maybe they’d go out and do something.

(Lord knows I’ve tried. And failed. I haven’t even been able to get my 1996 ecological novel published, let alone see it transform America’s consciousness.)

I find myself restive at NPR’s series “This I Believe.” I imagine submitting a testimonial in response: Believing is easy. Anybody can believe. The human mind is way too hardwired to believe. The average American probably has 42,000 palpably erroneous beliefs about the operation of common household appliances. Don’t let’s even get started on metaphysics. What we need isn’t more list of things people believe. What we need is people willing to suspend their belief-making apparatus and say, “I don’t know, let’s see if we can frame a testable hypothesis.” Belief is what got us here, it won’t get us out. Still, one does tend after a few years on the planet to accumulate a bag of heuristics which one doesn’t subject to daily testing, just “believing” that because you’ve seen it work that way enough, this time it will probably come out the same way again. In that way, if I did have to list some set of “beliefs,” way high on the list would be the heuristic that for any human problem, education is a main part of the answer. I know you can list counterexamples. But, even in cases where education by itself is insufficient, it’s certainly a necessary part of anything that is sufficient.

So I watched with interest to see what effect Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth would have. And I think we’d have to say that it nudged the consciousness. X percent of Americans knew what was in the movie and weren’t affected. Y percent rejected the message entirely, preferring to see it as a political ploy on behalf of those whose politics they do not favor. But Z percent took in the message, heard things they hadn’t heard, internalized the concepts, and were more attentive thereafter to other information whose significance they might previously have missed, more open thereafter to arguments for action. And Z was not a small number.

I anticipated the arrival in theaters of The 11th Hour, an environmental wake-up movie produced by and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, partly in hopes that, since it was not associated with a partisan politician, perhaps Y would be a smaller number. But my guess is that, even though it’s not a terrible movie, its Z will approximate 0. One reason for this is that, even though Gore was tainted with the stain of a political party, he has more gravitas than a Hollywood pretty boy. And even though DiCaprio has been turning into a really pretty interesting actor (c.f. Blood Diamonds), he’s still associated with youth, and in any event lacks any standing to bring serious issues before us. A second reason is that the film tries to do too much. Admittedly, the crises in the biosphere are many, and if you start pulling on any thread, you find it related to all the other threads, but in order to tell a convincing story, you would have to artificially isolate one thread. The 11th Hour tries to summarize everything, so it’s a 10,000-foot flyover, breathless, like the Monty Python 30-second “Summarize Proust” contest. The biggest reason for the failure, though, especially by comparison with Gore’s movie, is the lack of focused intention. Gore has given his slide lecture hundreds of times. He has learned what works, what questions audiences will have at what point in the presentation. So at that point in the presentation, he stops and addresses that question. This movie is a one-shot which has not had the chance to benefit from a similar refinement toward a goal.

The film has some big-budget footage, some beautiful landscape photography, and some Koyaanisqatsi moments that try to show the crazed frantic out-of-balance effect of human activity on the landscape. But the most interesting parts for me were talking heads. The writer/directors have assembled a group of people I loved listening to: Sylvia Earle, Mikhail Gorbachev, Paul Hawken, Stephen Hawking, Bill McKibben, David Suzuki, Andrew Weil, James Woolsey. But again, I would have preferred a movie that gave me one of these people, and let them reason and explain at length.

The favorite discovery for me was Thom Hartmann. Alan, I’m sure that you’re quite familiar with his work. Hartmann would peg the meter on the quality I was ascribing above to Gore. He has explained this so many times that he knows exactly the words to bring it across. “Here, let me show you,” he seems to say, in a calm voice you instantly trust. For tens of thousands of years, humans had to live on an annual solar budget. They couldn’t spend more energy in a year than the energy they harvested from the sun that year. Then about a hundred years ago, we found a way to tap a huge reserve of stored solar energy. We spent that ancient sunlight in a quick, brilliant burst, and it allowed us to do a million things, it was what made all of our amazing technological and economic progress possible. Now we’ve used up the ancient sunlight and we need to learn how to go back to living on an annual solar budget.

My evolutionary psychologist friends frequently point out that I trust too highly in the power of reason. “You think, L.A., that if people just come to understand it, they can change the way they behave. But in fact, changing behavior is really hard. We have hugely strong evolutionary imperatives, and doing otherwise than they drive us to is incredibly difficult.” Yes, but it does happen. If you look at recorded history, you’ll see many ways in which human behavior has changed dramatically, and some of these changes were caused by changes in awareness. Slavery was once a near-universal phenomenon. Now it has been largely stamped out in most of the developed world. This change was made directly into the wind of evolutionary imperatives, confronting property, wealth, and power head-on.

So call me naive, but I think if everybody could have Thom Hartmann sit down and explain it to them, it would make a difference.

(I also really liked Woolsey. Partly for Z-cred. Hey, I’m not some tree-hugging hippy. I used to run the CIA. And I’m here to tell you some hard facts about what we need to do to make business keep working the way we like it to work.)

If you tried to imagine the shape of this movie before seeing it, you’d probably be about right. After 80 minutes of trying as hard as it can to scare you, it would have to end with fifteen minutes of hope, right? No one wants a downer. Got to end positive. So, along with some exhortations to change ourselves spiritually as well as ecologically, we basically have to rely on technological hope. “The technology exists now to have our present lifestyle while spending 10% of the energy budget on it.” If you had us all move to different corners of the room based on our affinities, I’d probably sort myself out with the techno-hopers myself, but I thought “The 11th Hour” presented a particularly facile and thin version. (Again, what would have been much more interesting to me would have been a whole movie just on the techno hopes.) The result here was to weaken the effect of what had gone before, to leave the movie without drive. “This is an emergency! It’s not the eleventh hour, it’s 11:59 and 59 seconds! Oh, but we’ll just design some cool new airplanes and everything will be okay again.”

The New York Times just ran a long article about pollution in China. I had an interesting conversation with one of my daughter’s friends who just came back from a year in China. “It’s not just the cities,” she said. “It’s everywhere in the country. They’re burning so much coal everywhere, that even in little villages, you can’t see all the way down main street.” The stats in the NYT piece were ugly, ugly, ugly. If the Legion of EcoSuperHeroes showed up today and volunteered to go to work, you’d send all of them to China. Anything you can do over here on this side of the pond would make a fraction of the difference of helping China find a sustainable way to develop.

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