Inspire Us, Don’t Scare Us

Where is the vision of the future we can get excited about?

A few weeks ago, I went to see Before the Flood, a movie by Leonardo DiCaprio about the climate crisis, the devastation is has already wrought and what we might do about it. Over 30 million people watched it during the week it was available for free which gives me some small hope that we might still avoid catastrophe.

In many ways, Before the Flood is an archetypical environmental movie. It’s beautiful, it’s moving and has the right dose of inspiration with a bit of humor thrown in. It’s “archetypicalness” is also why the movie was disappointing.

During the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio goes around the world to witness what’s happening first hand. The key message is that the climate is changing already, and it’s scary. In one scene, Leo marvels at narwhals and wonders if they’ll be around for the next generation to see. Leo takes a helicopter ride and is stunned by the destruction from tar sands mining. Leo witnesses the Greenland ice sheet melting under his feet. Leo talks to (mostly) white men about what’s happening and what might be done.

My disappointment can be boiled down the 2 issues:

1. Too many white men

At a moment when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their allies are protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline at great personal cost, choosing to highlight mostly white men in the US such as John Kerry and Elon Musk perpetuates the problem that got us here in the first place. It’s critical to meaningfully include front-line communities, predominantly low-income people and people of color, in the climate movement. I particularly appreciate the work of 350.org and others who are doing this seriously. We need many organizations to do the same.

2. We need a better vision of the future

The other element of the movie that struck me is the absence of an inspiring vision of the future.

As with many environmental movies, the moments of most beauty are when Leo is deep in nature, reflecting on how mankind is destroying paradise.

In case you didn’t get the subtle analogy, the movie keeps referencing a painting by Hieronymus Bosch that depicts human sin leading to the destruction of the world, and humans literally destroying paradise.

Focusing on the loss of narwhals, polar bears and boreal forests is a problem. It’s more likely to fuel anger than inspiration. There’s plenty of anger to go around these days and that doesn’t seem to have made much of a difference. More importantly, it pits people against nature and creates a false choice. How many people will be altruistic enough to put the needs of nature over our own? It’s hard to get excited about not buying the things we want, not flying in airplanes and taking short, cold showers.

Instead, I wish the movie had painted a vision of the future that we can all get behind. Leo did showcase the Gigafactory, a mega factory where Tesla is betting it can make batteries so cheap we’ll be able to power our world with renewable energy. What are other examples of forward-looking solutions that make “doing the right thing” feel bold and exciting?

As a starting point, I would suggest that we can’t create this inspiring vision of the future by only considering the environment. As multi-faceted humans, we need a multi-faceted path forward.

How can we redefine what success as a society looks like to better align with what is good for us? Can we aspire to more community, and less stuff?

Courtney Martin’s recent book, The New Better Off, provides a great starting point by defining a New American Dream that will leave us more fulfilled and connected (if you don’t want another book on your bookshelf, her TED talk provides a nice summary).

Who else is painting an inclusive, holistic vision of the future we can get excited about? We need them more than ever before.