Its not like the environmental crisis snuck up on us, a point made in the opening montage of Robert Stones documentary, EARTH DAYS. Starting with John F. Kennedy, ending with George W. Bush, and with every president in between, the looming consequences of living out of harmony with nature are expounded forcefully and with dire, but realistic, warnings. How effectively each president, and the country as a whole, reacted to those warnings is a matter of debate. What isnt a matter of debate is the deft handling of how our society began its love affair with cheap fossil fuels and a developed a mentality that made disposable seem like progress. Filmmaker Robert Stone chooses salient moments of the past, illustrated with seductive vintage clips of big shiny cars and suburbs with beautifully manicured lawns. Who wouldnt have wanted that view of a present with unlimited possibilities and a future that would only be better? Surely not us, hence the environmental mess we are in, one that reaches back to smog that killed people in New York City 50 years ago. For reasons disturbing now, sound thinking at the time, that Stone carefully examines why no one took effective action to clean up the air or the water. The result is a cautionary tale of staggering proportions.
Stone uses carefully selected dissidents who, for various and salient reasons, saw things differently, and who offer solutions that require paradigm shifts that are radical, but not impossible. Pete McClosky, who talks wistfully of the California of his youth, Hunter Lovins, who pioneered sustainable energy and wonders on camera why the idea of community got lost in the illusion of progress, Stewart Brand, who figured out early on that technology and sustainability were not mutually exclusive and who recalls fondly the follies and lessons of early back-to-the-land experiments, biologist Paul Ehrlich, who warned about the ramifications of the population bomb thirty years ago and more and was, for the most part, ignored, and Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart, who viewed the earth from space and was changed forever by the experience.
The perfect example of Stone’s thesis is easily former Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall, who voted for an interstate highway system as a freshman congressman in the 1950s, and now decries the dependence of cheap gas that is fostered. Short-sightedness of being caught in the glare of plenty and a firm refusal to even admit of a long view of things, much less defining it.
The long view was already in sight, as Stone recalls the effect of Rachel Carsons book, Silent Spring, which described in horrifying detail the long-term effects of DDT. There is a sickening familiarity to the quick and expensive campaigns waged against the assertions by the chemical companies. That book, nonetheless, was for some a call to action that culminated in the first Earth Day, a phenomenon whose planning and execution is brought to vivid life by Stone. Denis Hayes, the national coordinator the first Earth Day in 1970 recalls the heady idealism of those times, and the intractable reaction by the establishment against it, its attempts to marginalize the first eco-activists, and the heartbreaking failures of those first eco-warriors to gain the traction they needed with middle America. No moment exemplifies it better that Ronald Reagan removing the solar panels from the White House that Jimmy Carter had put there in response to the first oil embargo.
EARTH DAYS is not just a concise history of that time, its also a dynamic kaleidoscope of those heady days when revolution was palpable, and individuals really believed to the core of their being that they could change the world. No film has done a better job of capturing what it was like to be alive then, and that includes the heartbreak of missed opportunities, the clear ideologies and politics that kept sustainability from taking hold.
Most importantly, its a tribute to those who stood firm, and to the ability of those people to remain open-minded rather than allow their thinking to ossify. When Stewart Brand champions nuclear power, his Great Satan of 40 years ago, it challenges everyone in the audience to examine his or her preconceived notions with an open mind, open heart, and a sense of the urgency of the work still to be done.