Earth Days, The Movie: The Rise & Fall & Rise & ? of the Environmental Movement

Earth Days Robert Stone photo

Oscar-nominee Robert Stone discusses Earth Days now and then. Photo by RCruger

Shiny Chevy’s cruising efficient freeways and cheery new homes signaling the American Dream soon turned into a nightmare of smog and suburban sprawl. Through this context we view the birth of the ecological movement 40 years ago. Though many know the basic storyline, Robert Stone’s documentary, Earth Days, explores the roots of the first Earth Day, follows its rise through the legislative achievements in the 1970s, and collapse with the Reagan administration, with some intriguing surprises. With every week bringing some new eco-film release, why is this redux relevant?

A series of Presidents’ eco-friendly statements sets the tone for this chronological tale. Interviews with key figures from the early days are interspersed with compelling historical footage: Denis Hayes co-founder of Earth Day 1970, Dennis Meadows, author of Limits to Growth, biologist Paul Erlich, author of Population Bomb, and Stewart Brand, publisher of the Whole Earth Catalog, who describes the photo of earth taken from space as a moment that opened perspectives. While watching the enthusiastic response of 20 million Americans taking to the streets on April 22, 1970, Stone (Oswald's Ghost, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Radio Bikini) believes it's important to understand how the movement got derailed in order to avoid pitfalls again.

Less is more: scary or inevitable?
Earth Days shows the dramatic convergence of scientists’ warnings, bi-partisan politicians, and activists who captured the public’s attention to protest the perils of pollution, from nuclear fallout and burning rivers to DDT poisoning and killer smog. Stone dispels the image of environmentalists as a bunch of radicals or hippies taking back the land. But the film points out how the unraveling began, how righteousness, rhetoric and ideology soured the grass roots campaign; and how these situations and the oil crisis were a missed opportunity that led to Americans to choose the 1980s' promise of abundant prosperity over fear of deprivation.

As the results of reduced resources is realized now, Earth Days pays tribute to the diverse group of pioneers, from former Secretary of the Interior, 87-year-old Stewart Udall to renewable energy developer Hunter Lovins. It’s worthwhile to recognize prior accomplishments we take for granted, to be reminded that eco-friendliness wasn’t just invented, and to learn how to avoid creating another backlash. In the Huffington Post, Stone asks us to connect the dots:

I would argue that the environmental movement, which is a similarly forward looking enterprise, would be well served by taking a look back at itself, however briefly, if for no other reason than to understand where it came from, what it has accomplished, where it has stumbled, and why, given all we have long known about our pollution of the Earth's ecosystem, we have ended up in our current environmental predicament.

Bursting out of the green bubble

After a screening at LA’s Enviromentaland someone in the audience questioned Stone why Greenpeace wasn’t included, another asked about omitting agri-business, and one review in the Daily Green complained that the film didn’t relate to today's green movement. The filmmaker explained his focus was on the fundamental causes of the problem -- overpopulation and over-consumption in the name of progress -- not the countless symptoms. Keeping an eye on the bigger issue, he believes, makes disastrous news and complex solutions feel less overwhelming. So how do we really rally the masses?

What would be the equivalent of Earth Day 1970 now -- more than turning off lights during Earth Hour, planting trees, cleaning beaches or other good green deeds? Would millions around the world taking to the streets to send a message make a difference today...let's say on Saturday, December 12 during COP15, the UN’s Climate Change Conference?

Open in New York, in Los Angeles this weekend, and September elsewhere, check out Earth Days release schedule for your town – it could determine how many others could get the chance.

More on Earth Day:
How to Go Green: Earth Day
What Not To Do on Earth Day
History of Earth Day in a Nutshell
Quote of the Day: Gaylord Nelson on Earth Day

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