Earth Days

Robert Stone’s 2009 film Earth Days simultaneously grips, shocks and enlightens in its account of the early development of the environmental movement, and fortunately avoids becoming too much of a radical polemic.

As a slight diversion from my History research on Slow Food, I stumbled upon Robert Stone’s documentary, Earth Days. Realising that it covered a topic that excited me, while also remaining relevant to the project, I set aside an hour and a half to watch it.

Beginning with Rachel Carson and her 1962 book, Silent Spring, taking in the counterculture of the 1960s, the proposed ‘environmental decade’ of the 1970s and the ‘Earth Day’ demonstrations in April 1970, the film concludes with the entry of Reagan into the White House, who then dismantled the state’s growing sustainability apparatus.

The film’s stars are its illustrious interviewees who narrate what is essentially their story. Amongst them, Paul Ehrlich talks about his potentially explosive findings in his book, The Population Bomb, Dennis Meadows explains the limits of growth which he believes we are approaching at a dangerous pace, and Earth Day organiser Denis Hayes describes the clamour and excitement of the national demonstrations.

Denis Hayes, one of the organisers of the original Earth Day

The fact that such grandmasters of the environmental and sustainability movement tell the tale of organised environmentalism and the difficulties it faced is one of the film’s strengths. However, it is the grouping of these individuals together that is the Stone’s great success.

By bringing together practical organisers, population specialists, biologists, astronauts, radical demonstrators, simple lifers and economists to tell the story of  one movement, it exemplifies the truly global scale of the problems we humans face, and thus the global scale our solutions have to take.

My main frustration with the film was the entirely American focus, despite the fact that other Western countries had diverse and potent environmental movements of their own, and international connections were common. Yet, this is often a tendency with American documentaries and we can probably put it down as a US-centric systematic fault.

A secondary gripe, but one that has more current relevance, is the dramatic ending of the film with Reagan’s election to the presidency in 1981. With the President’s climbdown from environmental concerns, along with the symbolic removal of the solar-powered water heaters from the White House roof, the documentary suggests that the movement fell into an abyss in the 1980s.

Again, perhaps Stone merely aims to chart the initial rise of environmental concerns in America, but I can’t help but feel that the booming affluence that much of the developed world enjoyed from the 1980s until the financial crisis of 2007/8 is ripe for a sustainability-focused analysis.

Despite those relatively minor disappointments, the film offers a compelling account of the rise of environmentalism in the USA which explains many of the practical difficulties such a movement can face in influencing the top levels of government. Importantly, it also shows that when that influence is finally achieved, it can be very easily taken away with a sycophantic smile from a politician desperately seeking short term electoral gains.

The two most pertinent things I will take away from Earth Days:

The film might have had a largely American focus but it did underline how the problems faced by the environmental movement aren’t just about single issues – it is truly all-embracing. Action needs be taken on all fronts – involving economists, geographers, demographers, organisers, scientists, food experts – in a coherent programme in order to effect real change.

The most moving section of the documentary was its description of the impact the first photograph of the earth from space had in invigorating the environmental movement. The image itself is truly stunning and it helps us to understand that the world we live in is essentially one living ecosystem, even if we don’t realise it in our cocoon-like daily lives.

Astronaut Rusty Schweikart articulates his thoughts as he looked down on the earth from space: “We human beings, we this life form on this incredible planet, just coated with life. Where are we going?”

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