The Daily Green recently attended a screening of Earth Days: The Seeds of a Revolution, a Robert Stone documentary about the first decades of the environmental movement. It opens today (Aug. 14).
The film traces the themes of the environmental movement by following the careers of several prominent early advocates: Stewart Brand, the editor of the Whole Earth Catalog; Paul Ehrlich, author of the Population Bomb; Denis Hayes, chief organizer of the original Earth Day in 1970; Hunter Lovins, a founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute and an advocate for sustainable business; Paul McCloskey, a former Congressman and a co-organizer of the first Earth Day; Dennis Meadows, co-author of Limits to Growth; Stephanie Mills, an advocate for population control; Russell L. Schweickart, an astronaut on Apollo 9 in 1969; and Stewart Udall, the Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson.
The early successes of the movement are gigantic, but aren't sustained. The movie documents what happened.
Here is what the editors of The Daily Green thought:
Running through Earth Days was a consistent theme of the fragility of our planet, especially as seen -- literally -- in the iconic "Earthrising" image that the Apollo astronauts brought back from the moon. According to the film, the pioneering (and often controversial) green futurist Stewart Brand had been asking the world for just such an image for some time (after an interesting drug experience that is classic counter culture).
In the late 60's Brand campaigned for the image, and when NASA brought it back down to Earth it blew people away, from Texas to Timbuktu. According to Earth Days, many people hadn't really conceptualized how finite, fragile and beautiful the planet is. The image helped galvanize one of the largest mass demonstrations in the history of humankind, when 20 million Americans took to the streets on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.
Earth Days takes a thoughtful, historical look at the birth of the modern environmental movement. As a veteran in the green scene I recognized many of the featured characters from their faces, and while I knew much of their stories already I still learned a great deal. It was moving to see Hunter Lovins, Dennis Meadows, Denis Hayes, Stewart Udall and others talk passionately about their life work, and it was particularly cool to see all the "old" footage of these young pioneers in action.
In fact, the film makes expert use of archival and stock footage throughout, painting a fascinating collage of the genesis of Green, rising out of the changes and problems of the mid-20th Century. Viewers gain deep insight into the conversion of factors that brought so many people to action. It was the combination of terrible pollution across the land, resource depletion, energy anxiety, youthful energy and cultural evolution. The film chronicles the early successes of the movement, including keystone environmental legislation signed by President Nixon, as well as some of the gradually building backlash. It ends with a survey of Carter's grand goals for a green presidency, and the lost opportunity that the Reagan administration ushered in.
The film should be required viewing for any environmentalists and prospective environmentalists. As Stone (who looks an awful lot like James Carville) said at the q&a after the recent press showing in NYC, "One of the reasons why I made the film was because it's important to know where we came from to know where to go next. You know that old saying, 'If we don't know our history we'll keep making the same mistakes.'" Stone stressed that he made the film as a historical documentary filmmaker, not as an environmental activist, though he added that he has been committed to the green cause for his whole life, and that he had been inspired on Earth Day as a child. Stone is perhaps best known for his fantastic direction of Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst.
Stone said he wanted to time the release of the film before the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and that he hoped it would inspire the new generation of green thinking. He urged greens to find common ground with mainstream society, and to transcend political parties and philosophies, as his film clearly showed was the case in the early days. (Robert Redford recently espoused a similar message.)
Everyone reading this should go see Earth Days; the film has no marketing budget and is likely to need some help drawing the mainstream crowd. It's not as hip or explosive as some recent documentaries, but it's important.
Earth Days got me thinking, more than anything, about the potential, and potential pitfalls, of Earth Day 2010. I've been an environmental journalist for more than 10 years, and have come to think of Earth Day, at least professionally, as a time when talking about the environment becomes paradoxically more difficult. More people are paying attention, but it's harder to get through to them because of the din of green messaging and marketing that rears up as "competition." (If we earned a dollar for every email The Daily Green receives in April, Congress would sick the compensation czar on us.)
Earth Day 1970 was something different entirely -- a point made plain by the film. It was news to me that President Richard Nixon responded to the swelling environmental movement almost five months before 20 million people (10% of the U.S. population) took the streets for the first Earth Day. It was Jan. 1, 1970 that he signed the National Environmental Policy Act, a foundational law (based on the fight against the building of a power plant in the Hudson River Valley) that requires environmental reviews before new projects are permitted. Nixon was a reluctant environmentalist at best, but certainly a shrewd politician: He recognized that no elected official could stand in the way of a movement demanding cleaner air, cleaner water and a generally more respectful stance toward the environment. The Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency soon followed.
Stone makes an important unappreciated point: Earth Day 1970 lacked specificity. People weren't marching for a 20% renewable energy portfolio requirement by 2020, or a 50% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions below 1990 levels by the year 2050, or for a CAFE standard of 35 mpg on new vehicles. They were upset at the state of the world, and they wanted things to improve. The movement was wide-reaching, including among its biggest backers, the United Auto Workers. It was interwoven with the civil rights and the peace movements. It was a broad call for change, from the ground up.
In my lifetime, Earth Day has been a day for groups to break out informational booths, beg petition signatures and showcase green products or lifestyle choices. There's nothing wrong with that; it's symptomatic both of our increased depth of understanding about the suite of complex environmental issues we face, and of the diversity of the movement's goals. (I support the National Wildlife Federation's drive to combat nature deficit disorder, the American Lung Association's fight against air pollution, the Audubon Society's attempts to protect birds and dozens of other specific causes.) But the scattershot messaging of Earth Day has sapped its potency. There's no central thrust that galvanizes those ordinary Americans who don't spend their time editing green Websites (for instance). As Stone points out, since 1970, environmental groups became much more conventionally powerful, much more deeply entrenched in Washington, much more adversarial ... and much less broadly supported. (Stone's film cuts off in 1980 -- with Ronald Reagan's stunningly hostile presidential campaign message that environmentalism was effectively making Americans live more meager lives -- meaning that the recent diagnosing and treatment of this disease goes undocumented.)
Next spring, Congress will probably have moved on from health care reform to the energy and climate priorities President Obama has set. Those bills, as drafted and envisioned, are incredibly complex; there's a detail for everyone to gripe about, and more detail than all but a few staunch policy wonks can stomach. I'm afraid that trying to inspire millions to march for 350 (the concentration of carbon dioxide, in parts per million, that we think will provide us a safe-enough stable climate) is too specific by far. That said, turning out 10% of the U.S. population (30+ million people, today) in a show of environmental concern might just inspire shrewd politicians to make the right choice on a complex environmental law, if only for reasons of political self-preservation.
The question is: What is the message that will inspire people today?
That we want to live well, but within the constraints of real world reality? That we want an Earth for our children and grandchildren that resembles the one we've enjoyed? That the restoration of our environment is as big a priority as the restoration of our economy?
As Brian pointed out, Stone didn't seek to make a movie that would set an agenda for the environmental movement today. He made a film about a piece of history, and he leaves it to his audience to draw lessons from it. Inspiration is as important as perspiration (whatever Edison said). That's one lesson I draw from the film. What about you?
Earth Days opens with spliced newsreel footage of speeches by U.S. presidents JFK to George W. Bush addressing their environmental concerns. These scenes seem to state the intent to provide a full history of the environmental movement up through present-day, but the film goes so in-depth in the stories of the '60s and '70s that it never makes it to the movement of today. While the interviews and commentary from key members of the early environmental movement Rachel Carson, Paul Ehrlich and Stewart Udall among others were interesting, the film failed to meet its original intent and deliver a full history. Indeed, the timeline stops in the 1980s. When questioned the director, Robert Stone, said this film could be the first in a series of films about the history of the movement. In my opinion, this was a missed opportunity to connect the dots from the early movement to the current movement, thus making it a bit more relatable to a younger audience. Each activist has an interesting story to tell, but I wanted to see how this related to the current situation.
The film is at its best when it focuses on individual stories, like the story of why and how the classic shot of the Earth from space was made. I have never known a time when this photo did not exist, so I had never considered how the Blue Marble shot had changed our perception of the environment. Unfortunately, when the film allows the environmental activist to wax on about the old days of the movement, it feels like a tribute, which I can't imagine will interest the larger movie-going audience. It was in those long recollections that I felt myself urging the film to propel forward to the state of the current movement by, perhaps, offering an explanation of how the movement became so political or even by beginning a discussion about how current Earth Days have become so mainstream. Where the film succeeded was in its use of archival footage, and this helped to break up the stories told by the environmental activists. Quirky scenes of '60s era families creating the consumer culture we know today and footage of and early environmental protests (and the reaction from the public) were some of my favorite moments.
Ultimately a film can only tell its story to the people who see it, and as for recommending this film, your interest in the topic must already be strong to truly enjoy it; I don't think this is the film that will take your green skeptic friends and make them into activists. Maybe take them to Earth Day Part Two.
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