Earth Days (Zeitgeist Films, NR)

film_earth-days_sm.gifDespite more than 50 years of environmental activism, the battle is far from won.







I don’t suppose it’s strictly necessary for environmentalists to be a boring, dreary lot, but Earth Days does nothing to dispel that stereotype. It also does nothing to dispel the stereotype that the environmental movement is basically the province of comfortably middle-class white men (and a few white women), preferably those who attended brand-name colleges.

That’s too bad, because we do all share the same environment and most of the ill effects of pollution fall on the poor and disenfranchised. And despite more than 50 years of environmental activism, the battle is far from won. But Robert Stone’s new documentary Earth Days, which will be broadcast as part of the American Masters series next year, will do little to win any new friends to the cause. Instead, it offers a nostalgia-drenched look back at the environmental movement of the 1960s and the 1970s (the first Earth Day was held in 1970) through a combination of archival footage and interviews with nine individuals who are identified, as if we were about to see an expressionist drama rather than a PBS documentary, by their roles before we learn their names.

The nine are The Futurist (Stewart Brand, who edited the Whole Earth Catalog), The Biologist (Paul Ehrlich, author of The Population Bomb), The Organizer (Denis Hayes, chief organizer of the first Earth Day), The Motivator (L. Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the California Conservation Project and Rocky Mountain Institute), The Politician (Paul McCloskey, congressman from California and author of the Endangered Species Act), The Forecaster (Dennis Meadows, author of Limits to Growth), The Radical (Stephanie Mills, editor-in-chief of Earth Times and spokesperson for population control), The Astronaut (Russell L. Schweickart, Apollo 9 Lunar Module pilot and California Commissioner for Energy under Jerry Brown), and The Conservationist (Stewart Udall, Secretary of the Interior under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson).

You might hope that assigning each interviewee a label meant that they represented different points of view and that might spark a discussion, or even an argument, about why the environmental movement has not been more successful. No such luck. While the spokespeople look with regret on the failure of their cause to win greater victories, there’s little examination of why 30 years later the same old anti-environmental attitudes remain prevalent: more is better, resources are unlimited, America is an exception to every rule, conservation means personal deprivation, and so on. It’s as if we are still living in 1978, when Ronald Reagan successfully campaigned for the presidency by telling Americans, "They tell us we must learn to live with less. And tell our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been."

There’s a few hints that limited point of view and lack of political experience played a role (How would you feel if a bunch of smarty-pants kids threatened your livelihood while displaying absolutely no concern for how you and your family would survive? Probably similar to the way loggers in the Pacific Northwest reacted to demands that clear-cutting be abolished), but this is mostly a celebration of gray eminences who are very satisfied with themselves.

When Earth Days is covering ideas and events (and a lot happened during those years, including the birth of the very idea of an environmental movement), it can be pretty interesting. Stone has assembled a fascinating collection of archival materials, from industrials to television broadcasts and commercials. But he spends far too much time on scenic vistas and pompous voiceovers, and not enough on discussing actual events, the reasons they occurred and what they meant in the course of history. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a soothing and nostalgic look at the glory days of American environmentalism, Earth Days may be just the film for you. | Sarah Boslaugh

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