Leila Conners Petersen
Tell us about your purpose in making The 11th Hour.
The whole point of the film is to get people to have a clear understanding of the state of the planet. If you understand something you're better able to react to it. People are not getting the information they need — or it's blurred by special interests so that the real message is cloudy. We wanted to create a film that explained the situation very, very clearly, so that then people could make a decision. Now whether or not they make a decision toward sustainability remains to be seen, but we are convinced that life loves life – it's a biological drive called biophilia -- and that once we clearly understand that life is in jeopardy across the board, that we'll choose to move in a direction that supports sustainability so that all life can continue on this planet.
Biophilia – that's a new word for me.
Edward O. Wilson, who appears in our film, wrote a book about Biophilia, the hypothesis that rooted in our biology is a deep attraction to nature and life, that life loves life. Life doesn't tend toward destruction unless there's something out of balance. So cooperation really is the underlying fundamental activity of life on the planet. The reason why evolution happened was because bacteria started cooperating, rather than fight. And the same thing with all of life, all human society is basically cooperative.
So out of the principle that life loves life, you have faith that humanity will find a way to get past these political structures and find a way to survive?
I don't believe that people maliciously wake up in the morning saying I'm going to hurt the earth today or I'm going to trash the earth or whatever. All of this is simply a byproduct of the way we constructed society. The industrial revolution, the discovery of oil, has given us so much power that we have to learn how to use it correctly without it being destructive. So we just have to redesign our society at every level so that it doesn't destroy the planet.
The movie talks about a tipping point. What are some examples of unexpected impacts that could make the situation worse than scientists expected?
Well one of them, which is the scariest one I've heard, is the absorption of carbon into the ocean. Basically the ocean and the atmosphere both absorb carbon, but the ocean absorbs more carbon than the atmosphere does. One of the scientists, Jeremy Jackson, said that there could be so much carbon absorbed into the ocean that it changes the chemistry of the ocean to acid, which then will prevent plankton from producing oxygen, which then turns the entire world into an anaerobic world, which means we're back to when bacteria were the only things that could survive on the planet.
Will that happen?
We don't know. But why find out? You know, people will take out fire insurance for less than 1% chance that their house is going to burn down. But if there's a 10% chance of a catastrophic outcome from climate change, there are still people saying you need to be 100% sure about all the outcomes before we do something about it. Would you get on a plane with a 10% chance that the rivets are going to pop off the plane? I mean why are we gambling with the planet's life support system?
So what can we do to increase the odds for the planet?
We need to rapidly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. That's the number one thing. We need to go solar in as many ways as we possibly can. The other thing we can do is consume a whole lot less, because a lot of things that we do are completely wasteful. So this is not rocket science. This is simple plain old conservation, efficiency, you know, and a little innovation. It's certainly doable technically.
How do we begin to implement change on a global basis?
We do need leadership at the international governmental level to create regulations and to create laws to help companies do the right thing. I think the U.N. system needs to evolve to have strong international agreements. Again, here's that word cooperation. The environment is going to be one of those things where we're just going to have to do it in order to survive. We need to be working in concert to make sure that the feedback loops are flowing. You need strong participation at every level. You need strong cities. You need strong regions. You need strong states. You need strong international communities. And you need them to be constantly talking to each other.
So basically you're talking about Glocalization – tackling at a local and global level at the same time.
I like that word. I've never heard that before. Eventually it's going to make more sense for companies to be green because fossil fuels are going to cost a lot of money. DuPont already has changed one of their plants into a biofuel plant. If companies don't learn how to adapt now, they're just going to be left behind. I think a lot of companies are realizing that, too.
Very good. So what's your next project after this film?
The mission of our company is the use of stories to put new ideas into the mediasphere – the ecosystem of ideas. We have a couple of projects in the works. "Original Instructions" is about nature's operating instructions, that we can look to nature for all the answers to save the world. And there's another movie I'm developing about how mushrooms are basically going to save the world.
Mushrooms? Really? How?
You have to wait for the film for that one, but basically mushrooms can eat anything from toxic waste to heavy metals or radioactivity. They just have a lot of chemical defenses that we can use to remediate polluted environments, as well as to manage insect control.
So once the world finds the political will to turn this around, there are incredible tools at our disposal to do so.
They're here now, political will or not. It's my opinion that the politicians are going to be the last ones to find out what's going on because it's happening now.
It'll be like Gandhi said: "There go my people. I must follow them. For I am their leader."
Exactly. And that's how it's supposed to be anyway. Right?
When did you first get involved in the issue of the environment?
When I was very young I remember realizing that things weren't necessarily the way they're supposed to be. I was eight and my sister Leila was 10. We had this triangle of concrete near our home and we said "there should be a tree here." So we wrote letters, petitioned, and eventually a tree was planted. Now when you drive down Olympic there's a pretty big tree. So, that was a revelation to me – that you can have an impact.
So you learned that if you persist, eventually you can win?
Exactly. Since then a lot more trees have been planted in that whole area. So it's kind of poetic that we started with trees and now we have Tree Media.
A tree certainly is a friend. Our movie points out that one tree can take up 57,000 gallons of water from a flash flood, capture it like a sponge, clean it and put it back into the aquifer. And it cleans the atmosphere of CO2 as well.
I was amazed to learn from the film that if Canada still had all its original virgin forests, those trees could absorb all the carbon put out by all the cars on the planet. Does the tree serve as a model for developing sustainable technology in the future?
Absolutely. In the film we propose designing a building like a tree, and a city like a forest. Trees are incredible structures when you look at them. My sister was the one who came up with the name Tree Media, and as our company grew, the tree just became so much more appropriate. First of all, there is the tree of knowledge — educating ourselves and sharing what we've learned through websites or documentaries or fiction features - I'm also a feature writer. Secondly, the tree is very significant in everything that it does for us. The tree question is so big, because it really does touch on everything that we are about as a company and everything that the film is about, and everything that the sustainability movement can be about. It's symbolic, but it's also literal. Because when you take out concrete and you put in a tree, you're allowing the forest system to start coming back into the world. Think about how much water just runs off and goes into the gutters and then just flushes out into the ocean, bringing with it all the toxins of the city. What a forest system does is it allows us to recycle that water and process that water and have the water grow plants that help human beings and help other life forms.
You mentioned that you're also a feature writer. What is the role of stories and emotions in moving people as opposed to just the facts and figures?
If I tell you a story, you'll most likely remember it. If I tell you data, you're not going to remember it. That's just the way we are as human beings. We like to tell stories and we like to hear stories. So that was the challenge with this documentary. We wanted to get the best and brightest minds that have been on the front lines of this issue for decades, give them an opportunity to tell their truth and what they've learned over their lifetime of work. It's very data heavy. But in the editing and in the flow, we worked to make it an emotional film. The arc in the story is humanity and our relationship to the planet. It's not cold, it's not dry. It's 54 different people speaking from such a place of passion.
Now that you've completed this film, are you going to work on stories that capture the same kind of message about the flow of humanity and its hope?
Yes. I wrote a script called "Earthquake Weather." I'm going direct that film, hopefully in early 2008. I wrote it before we did this documentary and the more I worked on the documentary the more I realized, wow, this story I wrote is significant. It's an emotional character driven drama about the loss of idealism, set partially on a political campaign in the early 90s in Los Angeles. And it's very interesting because there are so many parallels to things we are dealing with today.
Loss of idealism – sounds like the same theme that you had in childhood when you faced the reality that the world wasn't the way it should be and then found a way to get your power back, to get that tree planted.
Yeah. Interesting – yeah, I think everyone has that revelation at some point where you realize that what's going to happen tomorrow is not an inevitability and that you have an opportunity to participate in the outcome. That was something that struck me when I was very young and I know it struck my sister. One of my favorite lines in our film is when Paul Hawken says, "What an exciting time to be born, what an exciting time to be alive, because this generation gets to completely remake this world."
This generation, with the Internet and all these new ways of communicating, really can rethink the world. Imagination is really encouraged right now. To have that and the technology and the communication mixed with the kind of point of crisis that we're in — adds up to an amazing opportunity. And it's funny because when we first started making this movie, I was worried about the bad news, and felt that we were going down as a civilization and as a planet. After interviewing all these people, I couldn't be more hopeful. I feel that we are really going to turn this around and that not only is the planet going to be better off, but human beings are going to be better off, because we'll learn how to slow down from the fast-paced life and do things smartly instead of doing more and more.
Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge. When you imagine the future, what do you visualize? What do you see as the direction the world could move? What could the world look like?
Imitating nature and moving in the flow of the way the Earth's natural systems work. Solar is one of the most obvious examples. But thinking of new things as well. Do you remember in the movie, there was a shot of a dance floor, and the people dancing on it were actually powering the nightclub?
Yes, I thought that was very innovative.
It's really cool because it's the movement of human beings. They're going to be dancing anyway, so you might as well put them on a floor where the energy is captured and then turned into electricity. My sister and I have talked about this for a long time. Can you imagine if all of the gyms in Los Angeles, all of the treadmills and the bicycles were actually hooked up to the grid how much energy could be created? In nature, nothing is wasted. Everything has closed loops. If we look around us, and find all the places where we are wasting energy or resources, and ask, how can we imitate nature? How can we close the loops? Then we can create a very exciting future. I get excited about the way that we can green this city, about having edible gardens, about having skyscrapers with green rooftops. I mean all of those kinds of things; more farmers' markets, more local living even within the city. And changing our transportation system because in LA we have the worst air pollution and we have some of the worst traffic in the world. I think if you start solving those problems with real imagination, that's very exciting.
So how do we take this terrific groundswell of imagination and creativity at the local level and make it global? In the face of political structures that seem so oriented toward blocking change?
That's a very important question, and maybe a year ago I would have tried to think of a way in which you could, "send that message to Washington." But those structures are so broken that I don't think you can fight them anymore. You can waste a lot of time trying to change Washington — Washington is so deeply entrenched in lobbyists and industries and policies that it is just not working.
So, I think the only thing we can do is to just begin making the changes. We have the most power over how we live our lives locally. And if we can change the way we live locally and work with our community and protect what we have locally, and if that's happening all over our state and all over the country and all over the world — and it is — then you change the world.
What if we-the-people, with the incredible power of the Internet, somehow began to evolve our own global governing structures? A global operating system for the planet?
In many ways we really are doing that. It's fascinating because as Paul Hawken says in our film, the social justice and environmental movement together is the fastest growing movement on the face of the earth. And it's really heartening and exciting when you start seeing the work that people are doing - what farmers are doing in India where they're protesting Monsanto, or what people are doing all over South America, where they're reclaiming their natural resources and taking back "The Commons", the things we all hold in common like the air and the water.
I got very excited when we were doing research on the film and I found Masai tribesmen, in the middle of Africa, holding a global warming demonstration. They were in their full regalia with big sign saying "Stop Global Warming." And here we are in supposedly the most sophisticated advanced culture -- or, you know, industrialized anyway -- in the world and we're still arguing about whether global warming is happening or not. And these guys, who are experiencing it happening to them, are out there demonstrating. So I have a lot of hope in these local groups that are kind of hooking up and networking together.
One of the biggest revelations to me in the film was that this fight to save the world is global -- it's the largest in human history – and that approaching it as an issue to be regulated here and there will never work. A total sea change in how we live and approach the world is necessary. We need a constitutional right to protect the environment.
Tom Lindsey in our film said something very interesting. We never set out to regulate slavery. We abolished slavery and put an amendment in the Constitution. The failure of the environmental movement to a certain extent has been our attempts to regulate rather than go at it Constitutionally and say look, nature has rights.
Right now Corporations are considered a person with rights under the law. But nature is considered property – so you can do anything you want to it. Nature needs to be constitutionally protected, not only in our country, but in the world. We're kind of in a pitched battle to save what we have and not to continue destruction. So we need a system in which corporations have to take into account the long-term value of a mountain intact versus a mountain destroyed.
Doesn't that have to be a global system so nations don't just move to another country that doesn't put restrictions on them?
Yet the problem is — we don't have a global governing system.
I guess that's what they thought the U.N. was going to do.
But the U.N. is just a committee of states that all claim absolute sovereignty.
It doesn't have any governing power. What if we-the-people began to say okay, we've got new tools that are way beyond the horse-and-buggy-days when our forefathers had the foresight to unite the states into a Federal governing structure? What if we took the internet tools, the open source movement and so on — and begin to evolve new governing structures, a new Earth operating system for the planet?
I think what you're saying is very interesting and I haven't thought about that. I would have to think about it for quite a while before I said anything. I do think on one level people are increasingly starting to feel like citizens of the world, which is the first step.
First we've got to imagine it, right?
Absolutely. And I think that people are starting to think this way. The idea of a citizen of the world has been around for quite a long time. This has been something that people have been talking about for at least the last 100 years. But I think it's not just being connected to other citizens, but seeing yourself integrated into nature. We are all part of this system, which includes nature. And it's the merging of those two things that's very powerful.