Earth Days, by celebrated documentary filmmaker Robert Stone, begins with a powerful montage of United States presidents, beginning with John F. Kennedy, proclaiming the urgency of the mission to clean up our air and address our dependency on dwindling energy sources. Our future as a nation depended on it.
Of course, as we know, the urgency has not diminished but the clarity of the vision has. This is signaled in the film as the final president in the series, George W. Bush, expressed nothing more than the need to reduce our dependency on foreign sources of oil. Even Ronald Reagan spoke with much greater force on the subject than that. In part, as this film shows, the clarity of the mission diminished as the clarity of our air increased. It was the success of early environmental pioneers like JFK's Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall and California Congressman Pete McCloskey, in the face of very obvious pollution in large American cities, that enabled subsequent politicians to diminish and ignore the challenges that face us in the coming days.
The film outlines the history of the modern environmental movement in America, through the eyes of several early activists who were inspired by writers such as Rachel Carson and Paul Ehrlich. The words of nine passionate and highly influential, still living, pioneers are supported by images of growth and change in America, as the effects of economic expansion and technological development on our ecosystem and way of life began to demonstrate that the American dream of increasing prosperity was unsustainable.
The style of the documentary is pretty conventional, but not preachy; it has a polished look that is easy to follow, edited and shot in the straightforward style of a PBS documentary. It would, perhaps, have been strengthened by the introduction of a few new voices, of those who have been inspired by the work of the pioneers of the sixties and seventies and are taking up the cause into the future. As it is, the film plays more like a piece of history with a message for the present than a contemporary call to action.
Still, the historical perspective is fresh, and the implicit message is powerful. The most important message of Earth Days is that awareness is a fragile thing. Activists harnessed America's growing awareness of environmental troubles to bring about a number of important changes such as the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act. Earth Day, celebrated first in 1970, brought people together across the world and raised a powerful awareness of environmental concerns within the United States. Unfortunately, some of the more radical predictions and confrontational techniques of activists, combined with their success in overcoming some of the most visible dangers and the success of industrial lobbyists in undermining their message, allowed conservative politicians to drive a wedge between the work of environmentalists and the concerns of mainstream Americans. The result was that for the past thirty years we have been losing some of the ground built up so deliberately through the sixties and seventies.
The moral is clear: in the face of new and obvious crises presented by global warming and worldwide growth in energy demand, those who care about the Earth must both move quickly and find a way to rally others from all walks of life to the cause. They must make clear that environmentalism is neither anti-American nor elitist, and that it should not pit liberals against conservatives or democrats against republicans. The powerful changes that took place over a few decades (and that have been undermined rapidly) show that change can take place. In spite of some repetition and a somewhat too deliberate pace, Earth Days is an important and timely film, that reminds us how quickly change can occur, for better or for worse.