Yes, But What Can We Do?

What does a brilliant film about climate change accomplish and what does it leave undone?

"Before the Flood" starts with a painting that hung above the narrator's crib, "The Garden of Earthly Delights," by the early Netherlandish master Hieronymus Bosch. (It also happens to be on the wall of my study.) The painting is a triptych, with the left panel showing the first couple in the Garden of Eden; the center, an aspect of Bosch's medieval world as he saw it; and the right panel, that world turned to burnt toast (in terms of Christian iconography, hell). Obviously, the film's globe-galloping narrator Leonardo DiCaprio fears that the prosperous, peculiar world that we know may be sliding into the devastation of the third panel.

The film has star quality, in the form of not only the perspicacious and persistent witness of DiCaprio, but also some of his well-known interlocutors: Pope John, Secretary of State John Kerry, Tesla's Elon Musk, and President Barack Obama. It features a particularly eloquent, well-informed and angry Indian woman. The movie shows melting sea-ice in the Arctic, wildfires, deforestation in Indonesia for palm oil mono-culture, helicopter views of the scarred landscape of the Canadian oil sands, violent rivers of ice-melt in Greenland, dying coral reefs, Beijing's ghastly industrial air pollution, Miami Beach streets already under inches of water at high tide.

"Before the Flood" includes the high drama of a talk before the UN: "All that I've seen and learned on my journey has absolutely terrified me," says DiCaprio from the green marble podium. "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."

Talking to delegates in the grand chamber of the UN, DiCaprio continues: "Unfortunately the evidence shows us that [hope] will not be enough. Massive change is required...The world is now watching. You will either be lauded by future generations or vilified by them... You are the last best hope of earth. We ask you to protect it, or we and all living things we cherish are history." Strong words, well delivered.

So "we" simply lack the political will? Who is this "we"? Is it our leaders, who naturally respond to the dismally low concern about climate change shown in many surveys of voters? The media, which see the same surveys? Our elected representatives who accept perfectly legal donations from fossil fuel companies that profess belief in "free markets" while accepting huge subsidies? Who? We citizens who are silent?

In spite of its brilliance, what does the movie lack? New forms of action. What is a person to do, other than buy low wattage light bulbs (as Al Gore recommended back in 2004), use civil disobedience to protest a pipeline (as 350.org started doing, with respect to Keystone), click support on the computer keyboard for a financial incentive such as a revenue-neutral carbon tax?

In contrast, action against the Cold War got a big boost with the social invention called "citizen diplomacy." This involved a massive exchange of unofficials between the US and what was then the USSR. Citizen diplomacy appears to have given the Gorbachev circle hope that a different kind of relation was possible between their country and the West--a hope that allowed big changes and that is challenged, if not dashed, by the current demonization of Putin.

Another model for pressuring or encouraging politicians to act is the "nuclear freeze" movement proposed by Randall Forsberg in the 1980s and sponsored by many peace groups. Among many modalities, this movement solicited local expressions of support via town meetings and other civic organizations. (It also sponsored huge gatherings, including a rally in Central park.) Though arguably the energy was coopted by the Reagan administration, government action included the amazing dialogue at the Reykjavik summit in 1986 when the leaders favorably discussed the need to eliminate nuclear weapons, a proposal made a couple of years earlier by Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth.

If the lesson of the "nuclear freeze" was local action for abolition, the lesson of the subsequent citizen diplomacy was the power of establishing unofficial relations. In both cases, ordinary people had a form of action. They could contribute instead of just muttering that "something must be done before it's too late."

The present writer has suggested that another form of action with respect to climate change might be the availability of bonds, modeled on the liberty bonds of the mid-twentieth century war and used now to support sustainable energy sources. Everybody knows what physical inventions are, such as TV, jetliners or the cell phone. A physical invention may help with climate change, but the situation surely also requires social inventions. What is the latter? It is a facility or arrangement or way of doing things that provides a new form of action. Social inventions tend to become invisible and are thus under-valued.

Meanwhile, the first step is emerging from denial, seeing the challenge. To this task, "Before the Flood" makes a magnificent contribution. Directed by Fisher Stevens, this National Geographic film is available in theaters.