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A Brief History of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Environmental Activism

The actor’s concern for the planet in ‘Don’t Look Up’ is also found in his real-life activism.
Don't Look Up
By  · Published on September 14th, 2021

Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. Inspired by the release of the Don’t Look Up trailer, this entry looks at the origins and evolution of Leonardo DiCaprio as an environmentalist and climate change activist.

The trailer for Don’t Look Up, the latest star-studded feature from Adam McKay, debuted last week (watch it here). Needless to say, we’re very excited.

The cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Ariana Grande, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, Tyler Perry, and Timothée Chalamet. DiCaprio and Lawrence play a pair of astronauts who try to warn the rest of the world of an incoming comet that will destroy Earth. Streep plays the president of the United States and Hill plays her son and chief of staff.

The Climate Change Allegory of Don’t Look Up

Production on Don’t Look Up began in 2019. In an interview with the New York Times published earlier this year, writer-director Adam McKay says the movie, in part, began as an allegory for climate change. But then COVID-19 happened, and it became about even more. He explains:

“What that did was bring out what the movie is really about, which is how we communicate with each other. We can’t even talk to each other anymore. We can’t even agree. So it’s about climate change, but at its root it’s about what has the internet, what have cellphones, what has the modern world done to the way we communicate.”

McKay’s recent movies, namely Vice, The Big Short, and even The Other Guys, have been unapologetically political in nature. But DiCaprio, arguably the biggest star of Don’t Look Up, has a long history of climate change and environmental activism of his own.

While Hollywood is certainly not a perfect place, many of the world’s greatest entertainers have a collective history of activism. After the death of the great performer Ed Asnerlast month, many tributes praised his activism just as much as his acting.

And so, in that spirit, as we prepare for the release of McKay’s climate change allegory, here is a brief history of Leonardo DiCaprio’s environmental activism.

Baby Leo Loved the Animals

Leonardo DiCaprio’s infatuation with the environment began at a young age. In multiple interviews, he has said his love for the natural world started when he was a child. He wanted to be either an actor or a marine biologist. He even considered himself “a little biologist.” Some of the first films he watched were documentaries on the destruction of the rainforest and its various species.

Before the Flood, the 2016 documentary about climate change that he narrated and co-produced, includes one of DiCaprio’s earliest memories of environmental awareness. Above his crib hung a copy of the 15th-century Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch’s famous triptych oil painting The Garden of Earthly Delights.

The painting’s first panel centers on God presenting Eve to Adam in the Garden of Eden, surrounded by animals. The second panel features large groups of people engaged in sensory pleasures and sin. As DiCaprio explains in the documentary, the panel also shows “overpopulation.”

The third panel depicts, as he says, a “twisted, decayed, burnt landscape. A paradise that has been degraded and destroyed.”

In other words, a depiction of Hell taking over the natural world. DiCaprio clearly interprets Bosch’s painting as a parable for the climate crisis. It’s no wonder he eventually decided to take matters into his own hands.

Before The Flood

Leonardo DiCaprio and Barack Obama in ‘Before the Flood’

Young Leonardo DiCaprio Forms a Foundation

In 1998, Leonardo DiCaprio, fresh off the heels of starring in Titanic, met with then-Vice President Al Gore at the White House to discuss climate change. DiCaprio cites the meeting with Gore, who is also known for appearing in climate change documentaries, as a landmark moment in his evolution as a climate activist.

That same year, DiCaprio, not yet twenty-five years of age, formed the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation. As of 2019, the nonprofit organization had given away more than $100 million to various environmental causes, including conservation efforts and climate change advocacy and public awareness. The foundation has awarded grants for work done in all five oceans and seven continents.

DiCaprio’s work in philanthropy led to his involvement with other famous environmental organizations. He currently sits on the board of the World Wildlife Foundation. For as long as I can remember, his Twitter bio has consisted of three words: “Actor and Environmentalist.”

Before I knew about DiCaprio’s foundation and other work, I remember rolling my eyes. “Sure, don’t most celebrities consider themselves activists and environmentalists in one form or another?” I wondered. But, as is clear to anyone who reads about him, DiCaprio is the real deal.

Older Leonardo DiCaprio Uses His Clout For Environmental Justice

As Leonardo DiCaprio has grown to be one of Hollywood’s greatest and most famous performers, so too has his status as a climate activist. In other words, he’s not just a talented, handsome, and popular guy with deep pockets. While many celebrities lend their voices to the environmentalist cause, experts agree that DiCaprio’s work stands out above the rest.

Enric Sala, an explorer-in-residence for National Geographic, told The Guardian in 2016:

“There are many foundations and non-governmental organizations interested in oceans, and many do great work. He has a megaphone that nobody else on the planet has. He is so respected and admired and influential all around the world from the general public to head of state, so when he says something people listen.”

The Guardian calls DiCaprio “a fixture” at global events about the environment. In 2016, when world leaders negotiated the Paris Climate Accords, DiCaprio was there. Attendees spotted DiCaprio privately conversing with Ban Ki-Moon, then the Secretary-General of the United Nations.

Two years prior, DiCaprio addressed the United Nations about climate change. In his remarks, he said:

“As an actor I pretend for a living. I play fictitious characters often solving fictitious problems. I believe humankind has looked at climate change in that same way. As if it were a fiction, happening to someone else’s planet. As if pretending that climate change wasn’t real would somehow make it go away.”

Sounds a whole lot like the premise of Don’t Look Up. The movie hits theaters on December 10th and will be available to stream on Netflix from December 24th.

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.