'A Fierce Green Fire': The Untold Story of America's Environmental Movement

Children protest pollution of Love Canal. (Photo: Buffalo State College Archives, Courier Express collection) .

Environmentalists have fought for the planet on many battle grounds over the last 50 years — from efforts to stop dams in the Grand Canyon, save whales and baby seals from slaughter, stop the toxic pollution of Love Canal, save the rain forests from commercial deforestation and halting the progress of climate change. That fight is the subject of the documentary “A Fierce Green Fire,” which premieres on PBS’ “American Masters” on Earth Day, April 22.

Mark Kitchell

With narration by Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, and Isabel Allende, the film chronicles the history of the green movement from the ‘60s through 2009. Mark Kitchell (pictured right), who was nominated for an Academy Award for his documentary “Berkeley in the Sixties,” spent 11 years working on the project. He shared his insights with MNN.

MNN: What prompted you to make the film, and what was your goal in making it? Why was it important to tell this story now?

Mark Kitchell: It was my wife’s idea: “I know, why don’t you make a history of the environmental movement?” It was surprising to find no one had ever taken on the big picture, brought together all the major parts of the biggest movement the world has ever witnessed. That was something that needed to be done and that was the main prompt. It’s the greatest challenge I’ve ever faced, and an honor to address the broader and deeper meanings of environmentalism. It is crucial to our survival. Exploring the movement so far is important to understanding where it is heading. I have come to see it as civilizational transformation, a revolution as far-reaching as the industrial revolution, the next step for humanity – creating a society based on sustainable balance with the natural world.

When and how did you become interested in the environmental issue?

Growing up in San Francisco in the ’60s, conservation came naturally. My parents were involved in stopping freeways and saving nature along the coast. On the original Earth Day, I did a report on phosphates in detergents. Through the ’70s my father experimented with solar design. I couldn’t understand why photovoltaics didn’t take off — living off the sun made sense. However I was a witness to and a student of environmentalism more than an activist for many years. It was only taking on this project that I began to explore more deeply, learn about Love Canal and Chico Mendes, and plumb the reasons why climate change is taking so long to deal with.

How did you decide on the approach and format you took?

We started out developing a six-part series, and came to a structure where each episode followed a strand from origins to the present: conservation; pollution; wildlife and biodiversity; alternative technology; global resource issues and crises; climate change; and visions of the future. I wrote a 36-page outline. Then E.O. Wilson, the conservation biologist who advised the project, told me I’d never get it funded and, if I got it made, no one would watch it — it was too much. He suggested focusing on five of the most dramatic and important events and people. We discussed and agreed on those five main stories. I had to put aside the project for four years. By the time I came back, I saw that those five stories were emblematic of major parts and eras of the movement. So I built five acts, each shaped like an hourglass: starting wide with context and origins; then narrowing in on the main story more fully told; and opening again to explore ramifications and evolution of that part of environmentalism. That worked well but I was still worried about the whole: whether the acts would come together and get at the overall arc, even if the idea of one movement was a fiction. But it proved successful and is very much the film I imagined.

What were the essential topics/points you wanted to be sure to include? Why were they significant?

Stories like stopping dams in the Grand Canyon and Love Canal, where angry housewives with sick children battled 20,000 tons of toxic waste buried beneath them, were key struggles and turning points that we felt were important as history. But embedded in them are a lot of ideas, strategies and lessons. We wanted to show development and change in the environmental movement — how the issues grew from saving wild places to saving human society, from a dam or a swamp in our own backyard to global-scale issues like forests and soil, biodiversity and climate change. We also wanted to explore the varieties of movement, different strategies, how people like David Brower and Paul Watson pushed against the boundaries. Paul Hawken does his “Blessed Unrest” thesis, that environmentalism is not a movement, it’s humanity’s immune response, something new in the way of activism and social change. Maybe the most obvious and important point we make is that bottom-up movements are needed to put pressure on top-down politics and force change.

What do you see as the greatest accomplishments of the environmental movement?

You can look at the film and see how much things have changed. The air and water have been cleaned up. Poisonous chemicals have been banned. Toxic waste dumps and incinerators have been halted. So much nature, both wild places and animals, has been conserved and even restored. So many people have awakened to environmental consciousness. We have changed the way we make and do things, and the way we think about ourselves in relation to the natural world. In thousands of ways we have begun what Joanna Macy calls the “Great Turning.” There’s at least a million ‘buts’ to qualify the foregoing; environmentalism is always “On the one hand ... on the other hand ...” Still, time is on our side. There’s no alternative to a sustainable world.

What are its biggest failures and what can we learn from them?

Too often the environmental movement hasn’t had the weight in society to force its will. Except for a golden era after Earth Day when all the environmental laws were passed, it has been a hard slog, an uphill battle against industrial capitalism and its resource-gobbling damage and destruction. Even when you win, the battles are never over. And the scope of the issues keeps growing, maybe beyond our ability to deal with them. Kermit the Frog had it right: “it’s not easy being green.” One lesson to learn is that whenever environmentalism is marginalized, threatened with irrelevance, pronounced dead, criticized for being too insular or ineffective, it always comes back — driven by the issues, their importance and the inevitable need to face and deal with environmental crises. It’s a hell of a way to run a movement (to borrow what Stephen Schneider says in the film about our inability to deal with climate change, “It’s a hell of a way to run a planet”) but no doubt these are the central challenges of our lifetime and the next 10 generations.

What are the greatest current and future environmental challenges?

Climate change is the mother of all environmental issues, so big it overshadows everything else. But it’s not the only or even the greatest challenge we face. Loss of biodiversity, the sixth great extinction, is underway. Tom Lovejoy, in the longer cut of the film (available on DVD and Netflix), talks about managing global carbon and nitrogen, and the need for a global compact on forests. We have to reinvent the way we make and do almost everything, find more environmentally benign and less resource-intensive manufacturing materials and processes. Doing more with less is a longstanding theme. Conservation and efficiency gains should have run their course by now, but Amory Lovins smiles and says, “Oh no, we’ve just begun.” Where I see this all heading is civilizational transformation, creating a society in sustainable balance with the natural world on which we depend for survival. That’s easy to say and much harder to do. But the film shows successes against enormous odds. So I hope people will take courage and step up to the challenges.

What do you think is the legacy of Earth Day and why is it still important?

Earth Day was the beginning, an awakening that took the powers that be by surprise, the spur for a new movement with new people taking on new issues, and an example of what can happen when bottom-up pressure means 20 million people in the streets. We need that now. When environmental organizations become too professionalized, pursue inside-the-beltway strategies, try and fail to pass climate legislation ... they need pressure and activism from the bottom up.

Did Redford, Streep and other narrators come aboard right away?

Robert Redford agreed to narrate the film when it got into Sundance Film Festival. Initially our idea was to have him voice the whole film. But we decided to try five narrators, one for each act. Meryl Streep was amazing – within 10 days of putting a request to her agent, she said yes. Ashley Judd was suggested by the Sierra Club’s conservation director, who comes from Kentucky, and knew of Ashley’s work opposing mountaintop removal coal mining. She agreed right away. Van Jones also came aboard as soon as we got free of a star-centric approach, and turned to prominent activists and intellectuals. Isabel Allende was a head-slapping moment. I’d been looking for a Latin voice and there she was in our own backyard. All of them together work beautifully; I’m so pleased and honored to have such great narrators.

How much archival footage was there to go through?

Enormous amounts of archival material were located and looked through by many of us over many years. There are over 100 sources in the film (and probably as much again in the closing mosaic). We began with major distributors like Bullfrog Films and The Video Project, looked through most of the films in their catalogs. I found a gem on Lois Gibbs’ shelf. The Sierra Club’s library was a treasure trove. Wonderful material came out of the National Archives and Buffalo State. Adrian Cowell, who made “The Decade of Destruction” and other films about the Amazon, was invaluable. At the end we discovered UNEP. Filmmakers like Yann Arthus-Bertrand and photographers like Edward Burtynsky gave us their fabulous material for free. There’s a lot of fair use, which is copyright law that allows quoting other works without permission. Thanks to a box called Dark Energy, our colleagues were able to master from an array of sources. The film is an archival tour-de-force, worth watching just because it puts you there.

What was its journey to PBS?

My wife and I started in 2001, spent three years developing that six-part series. I did research interviews and gathered much material before being forced to work for a living and raise three daughters. When they were securely in or out of schools, I returned to the project at the end of 2007, this time as a stand-alone film. 2008-2012 were the years of production and three to four rounds of editing. I’m proud and pleased that we pursued the film the final 10 percent of the way after Sundance – and then cut it from 101 to 53 minutes for broadcast. That’s perseverance!

First Run Features did a theatrical release from March through May of 2013. I’d been warned that things had changed since my “Berkeley in the Sixties” was released in 1990, and they were right. Theatrical now is a necessary but wrong model. Environmental films, especially, have a hard time. But then we did our own grassroots outreach and engagement, working with enviro groups to put on screenings in churches and libraries, schools and community centers. That proved to be our true audience and we’ve had great success. All this was building up to the national broadcast. Susan Lacy, founder and former executive producer of “American Masters” and Marc Weiss, executive producer of the film who founded and ran the PBS series “P.O.V.,” were key to bringing the film to PBS. Both of them have great taste. What can I say? We got lucky, and the film deserves it.

What do you hope will be the takeaway for the audience?

Educating and inspiring, recruiting and organizing are what we’ve been doing for two years. I hope it opens doors and awakens people, and helps build this big change.