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Re-Examining the Roots of A Movement: Earth Days

by Kerry Trueman
Earth Days, the new film that opened this past weekend from acclaimed documentarian Robert Stone, is being promoted as a history of the environmental movement in the United States. But it’s more of a road trip, really: the road less traveled. The road not taken. The road to hell, blazed by grassroot good intentions that got asphalted and AstroTurfed.

AstroTurf once referred to the fake grass brought to us by the clever chemists at Monsanto, but in this era of tea-baggers and birthers and death panelists, it’s become shorthand for cynical pr campaigns funded by fat cats posing as watchdogs.

Stone’s skillful blend of archival footage and new interviews with the environmental movement’s founders documents a movement still in its infancy when an oily alliance of extraction-happy industrialists and the Don’t-You-Dare-Ask-Americans-To-Care contingent conspired to smother it in its crib.

The movement survived, but it didn’t thrive. Next year marks Earth Day’s fortieth birthday. Will it be a milestone, or a millstone? Earth Days depicts the birth of a movement that started with so much promise but ran aground on the shoals of shallow self interest, blithe indifference and callous greed. It’s Stone’s fervent wish that if enough folks turn out to see Earth Days, we might be able to get this boat floating again.

When Rachel Carson published her seminal Silent Spring in 1962, the chickens came home to roost and discovered that in the mad dash to feather our nests we’d done a fine job of fouling them, too. Carson’s watershed work got the ball rolling, but it took the acid-inspired global vision of Stewart Brand, who published the ground-breaking Whole Earth Catalog in 1968, to popularize the notion that we’ve only got one Earth and we might want to stop stomping on it.

The movement really picked up steam in 1970, when 20 million people turned out across the nation to celebrate the first Earth Day. It was the first time in our history that we began to grapple with the reality that no country, no matter how big or how bold, has infinite resources.

After the energy crisis of the seventies, though, and Jimmy Carter’s cardigan-coated, much-maligned but sadly prescient message to turn down the thermostat and chill on the consumption, our collective will to find alternative ways to fuel the American dream ran out of gas. A key turning point in the film–and our future–is captured, painfully, by a clip of Ronald Reagan essentially enshrining the squandering of the world’s resources as an American birthright.

The New York Times declared Earth Days “a bittersweet stroll down memory lane.” But Stone intended it as a road map to get the environmental movement back on track by showing how it got derailed.

Yes, it’s a cautionary tale, but as Stone notes in his director’s statement:

…it also illuminates the historical fact that positive changes in social attitudes, technological possibilities and political determination can take place very rapidly if the will exists to make it happen. We were halfway there a generation ago, but then we lost our way. As we at last begin anew to tackle our many environmental challenges, it’s vital to know how we arrived at this predicament and what lessons from the past we can draw upon in facing an uncertain future.That is why I made this film, and why I made it now.

Earth Days hits awfully close to home for me, and not just because Stone happens to live a stone’s throw from me in our mass-transit accessible Hudson Valley hamlet. Growing up in the suburbs of Los Angeles, I felt acutely alienated by our car-centric community; the only time my dad ever spanked me was when he caught me throwing rocks at passing cars. Some guy I hit pulled over and tattled on me, and my dad got so mad he paddled my auto-hating ass.

I didn’t know it then–this was in the mid-sixties–but I was a kinderKunstler (that’s “kinder” as in “kindergarten”, not “kinder, gentler”.) Of course, it would be decades before peak oil prophet James Howard Kunstler declared the American suburb “the single greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.”

I don’t know if history will prove Kunstler right, but Earth Days provides plenty of ammunition to back up the statement he recently made to pop culture pundit Stephen J. Dubner:

Sometimes whole societies make unfortunate decisions or go down tragic pathways. Suburbia was ours.

Earth Days is a thoughtful, entertaining film that documents pivotal peaks and low points in the environmental movement. You really ought to see it, if only to catch a glimpse of a rare species that’s nearly extinct now: the pro-conservation conservative. To borrow a famous phrase from the first President Bush: Message–they cared. Will we?

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