'Before the Flood': A thought-provoking masterpiece

'Before the Flood': A thought-provoking masterpiece

Team ErbologyErbology

'Before the Flood' is a 2016 documentary film co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. Its purpose is to generate discussion around climate change, a topic which is relevant both today and as we move towards a future threatened by global warming. The Erbology Team settles down for a viewing.

June 20, 2022 1:23 pm

A global star to tackle a global issue

‘Before the Flood’ begins in theatrical fashion, as perhaps should be expected with one of the world’s most celebrated actors at the helm. Co-producer and megastar Leonardo DiCaprio ushers us into the documentary with a short and provocative monologue.

He begins with a childhood memory of an art piece he had in his crib by Hieronymus Bosch. Examining the images, he describes the transition of society from a peaceful paradise to a world full of deadly sins. It has left us, he believes, in a dystopian reality riddled with death, crime and destruction.

It’s a bleak view to take, but then DiCaprio has been taking a personal role in environmental advocacy for many years. He has undoubtedly seen first hand the destruction wrought on the environment by human consumption.

Here, he evidently hopes to use his own celebrity status to draw attention to the cause. However, he is unexpectedly modest about his own personal role in environmental advocacy. His scepticism regarding the impact he can make is refreshingly honest.

DiCaprio frequently reflects on his own critics, who cite his inexperience and lavish lifestyle as reasons to diminish his credibility. He takes a mature approach to their comments. Through his personality and simple belief, he proves himself a worthy guide to lead us on this journey through the devastation of climate change.

Giving us a window into his life, from his family to his acting career, he also helps us better understand his motivations for fighting climate change. He demonstrates an intelligent ability to connect emotionally with the viewers, acknowledging his limited understanding. Not an expert, but an ‘everyman’, he almost acts as a bridge between the two worlds, ‘translating’ complex scientific explanations into a considerably easier language.

Problems and solutions

Documentaries about climate change often focus on the problems, aggressively attacking the responsible parties. However, they often fail to come up with anything close to a solution. Viewers or readers walk away fearful, with no understanding of how these problems may be overcome.

‘Before the Flood’, though, makes presents a variety of clear solutions for the problems it examines.

DiCaprio focuses particularly on the carbon tax, a ‘silver bullet for climate change’. The logic behind it is relatively simple: if adding carbon to the atmosphere becomes more expensive, fewer people will do it.

However, the obstacles stopping such a tax from coming into force have little to do with how much practical sense it makes. It has more to do with how we transition towards it, while private fossil fuel money has such a stranglehold on the political system.

‘Before the Flood’: A thought-provoking masterpiece
‘Before the Flood’: A thought-provoking masterpiece
‘Before the Flood’: A thought-provoking masterpiece
‘Before the Flood’: A thought-provoking masterpiece

“We only get one planet. Humankind must become accountable on a massive scale for the wanton destruction of our collective home. Protecting our future on this planet depends on the conscious evolution of our species.”

Sceptics and ‘deniers’

Climate change sceptics feature throughout the documentary, along with the perhaps more insidious ‘deniers’; people who simply deny that climate change is happening.

Many senior politicians appear to be climate change deniers. Indeed, the number of deniers within the US government is staggering

With a 95% plus consensus regarding the condition of our climate, how can such seemingly educated and intelligent individuals care so little for our environment?

Of course, the underlying reasons proceed to reveal themselves. One of them is the relationship between fossil fuel money and political influence.

Many key figures within the US government receive campaign money from fossil fuel companies. This money buys the politicians influence over votes, and in exchange, the companies can influence policy decisions in a way which benefits them.

Visually powerful

‘Before the Flood’ is, quite simply, visually outstanding.

Footage from across the world focuses on areas experiencing the real, present day impact of global warming. Scenes ranged from melting icecaps in Greenland’s frozen landscapes to deforestation in South America’s receding rainforests.

Conceptual animations as illustrations of a future society made for thought-provoking viewing. It also added a layer of credibility to the claims made throughout.

Certain footage also proved to be unexpectedly emotional. The idea that the beauty of the ice caps and rainforests may be destroyed forever, without the opportunity to return, is devastating, made all the more so by the beautiful cinematography which captures their awful predicament.

Examining the motives behind the film

Leonardo DiCaprio comes from a world where celebrity and public perception means everything. Before watching the film, we couldn’t help but wonder: could DiCaprio be using the issue of climate change for more dubious reasons?

Thankfully, the film itself dispelled these concerns.

DiCaprio comes across as a man who has a profound personal respect for nature, and who is using his platform to help protect it. He is also consistently honest, sharing his doubts and struggles with the ethical dilemmas surrounding fossil fuel consumption. He acknowledges criticisms of his advocacy; many US media outlets have accurately pointed out that his carbon footprint is bigger than most.

While this could lead one to think of him as a hypocrite (and indeed, that criticism has been frequently levelled at him), it also removes any sense of ‘preaching’ from the documentary. After careful consideration, we concluded that his proactive advocacy probably results in a positive ‘net’ value to the world, even if – like most of us – he isn’t perfect.

And in fact, while most of us can’t imagine having to think of ways to make our private jets and yachts carbon-neutral, the logic proves surprisingly relatable. It’s always a toss-up between protecting the natural world and convenience, cost, status and a host of other factors which lead us to make environmentally-damaging choices.

He speaks as someone with limited knowledge, often experiencing childlike agitation over the spectacles shown in the film. He’s surprised over solutions presented to him by experts.

In another documentary, the host’s self-confessed ignorance would come across as unprofessional, but here, it works brilliantly. As Leo learns, so do we, and as such we’re gently encouraged (rather than told) to change our behavior.

The Erbology Take

Smart, relatable and visually stunning, ‘Before the Flood’ is a thought-provoking masterpiece which deserves your attention. It’s films like this, with their potential for mass appeal, that have the potential to change minds and behaviors. Highly recommended.

About the film

Before the Flood is a 2016 documentary film exploring climate change directed by Fisher Stevens.

The documentary was produced as a collaborative effort between Fisher, Leonardo DiCaprio, James Packer, Brett Ratner, Trevor Davidoski, and Jennifer Davisson Killoran. Martin Scorsese is also accredited as an executive producer of the film(2).

The documentary premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2016 and was later released theatrically to the mass public on October 21, before airing on the National Geographic Channel website on October 30.(3)