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40 years after Earth Day, 'Earth Days' reveals that much of what you think you know about the modern environmental movement is wrong

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cobb_ecologyTonight, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (which is actually this Thursday, April 22), PBS is presenting a documentary that I promise you, if you see it, will alter much of what you think you know about the modern environmental movement. It’s called Earth Days (it will be shown Monday, April 19, from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. on American Experience), and as directed by Robert Stone, it’s a rapturous, provocative, fascinatingly researched, and altogether stirring piece of deep-dish cultural reportage that’s organized around an eye-opening perception. Namely, that if you think of environmentalism as a liberal-left movement — and let’s be honest, who doesn’t? — then you’ve already caricatured it in a way that is deeply untrue to history.

Let me offer an example of what I mean. Quick, who was the most environmentally active president in the history of the United States? Many of you may would probably guess Teddy Roosevelt. The real answer is…Richard Nixon. It was under his administration, and with his full leadership and cooperation, that the landmark regulation of the 1970s — the clean air and water reforms, and much else — was passed into law. Those reforms had a seismic effect; America really did begin to clean up its act. Of course, it’s counterintuitive to think of Nixon as a solar-panel progressive (he wasn’t). To a large extent, he spearheaded those reforms out of political expediency.

earth-day-1970Image Credit: Getty ImagesWhat’s extraordinary is what he was reacting to: the mass demonstration of democratic will (and I do mean small-d democratic) that was broadcast to the world on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. A staggering number of people, more than 20 million of them, gathered across America, and as Earth Days captures in remarkable footage, these were not mostly long-haired counterculture types. They were housewives, men in suits, ordinary folks who had been roused to a kind of middle-class solidarity. I was in grade school when the first Earth Day happened, and I still remember its vibe. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the hotbeds of ’60s protest (I recall lots of local clashes between angry hippies and the business types who sat on the City Council), but Earth Day was different. It wasn’t a day of rage; it didn’t carry the divisiveness, the culture-war finger-pointing. My very first act of public political protest (and just about my last — I’m far too centrist by temperament to be drawn to anything more political than a voting booth) was to pin on an ecology button that featured the iconic “e” symbol (pictured up top) designed by cartoonist Rob Cobb in November, 1969. Earth Day was certainly a political day, but what I grasped in my naive grade-school heart — and what I still believe to be true — is that it was also a day of global awareness that transcended politics.

Earth Days makes the startling point that that awareness probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the space program — and, in particular, for the very first photograph of Earth taken from space to be widely disseminated. That image had a revolutionary impact on world consciousness. It made the earth seem small, vulnerable, tranquil, majestic, and very green. In effect, it fused science and religion. It was literally a vision of the world that mystically trumped political backbiting.

Robert Stone, at least in cinema circles, remains something of an unsung filmmaker, because his work has been seen mostly on television. Yet in his quiet, anti-dogmatic way, he’s an artist of nonfiction. He has directed two of the most explosively insightful documentaries of the past decade: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004), which captures how the Patty Hearst saga was really the first sensationalist mega-event to be driven (if not created) by saturation media coverage; and Oswald’s Ghost (2007), which may be the single most perceptive examination on film of the JFK assassination and its aftermath. Stone is a no-frills virtuoso who views “objective” history as the intense psychological spectacle it really is.

In Earth Days, he interviews many of the founding members of the environmental movement, a tremendously engaged group of men and women who take us back to a time before the desire to conserve the planet carried leftist associations. (It’s no accident that the words “conservation” and “conservative” are such close cousins. Which sort of reveals how far modern conservatism has drifted from its roots.) Stone salutes the landmark that was Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s monumental 1962 bestseller about the effects of chemical industry on nature, and he goes inside the Nixon White House to capture the process by which Earth Day idealism became national policy.

So what happened? How did we go from the days of Nixon as environmental activist to the toxic, anti-scientific policy debate over whether global warming even exists? Much of the answer lies in the birth of lobbying culture during the Reagan era. Earth Days captures how corporations that were being regulated now moved, successfully, to gut those reforms. At the same time, there was a parallel evolution in middle-class image politics. Ten years after that first Earth Day, the concert movie No Nukes (1980) captured what environmentalism had come to look like: smiley, utopian, neo-’60s wimpoid protest — the very thing that Earth Day had sublimely avoided. And that’s how environmentalism would now be marked. For decades, the debate over these issues became reduced, in the public eye, to a tree hugger-vs.-drill baby drill! debate. Which is why Earth Days couldn’t be more perfectly timed. The movie is a testament to what the environmental movement meant to a distant yet in many ways more grown-up America, an America that may now, slowly, be returning. The movie is about truths that, for the first time in a long while, are no longer so inconvenient.