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American Experience: Earth Days

A movie directed by Robert Stone

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Every day is Earth Day -- A timely bit of history, that shows how change can happen, without being preachy

  • Jun 3, 2010
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 (especially in the wake of the recent oil spill disaster) 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.

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review by . March 26, 2010
Earth Days is a comprehensive history of the evolution of the environmental movement in America, told from the point of view of nine individuals who participated in the early stages and the inception of an annual Earth Day (1970). The documentary opens with compelling films, many taken from early TV commercials and news stories, illustrating how Americans became enamored with the automobile and with conspicuous consumption, the two forces that heavily contributed to the global environmental and …
About the reviewer
Nathan Andersen ()
Ranked #68
I teach philosophy at Eckerd College, in Saint Petersburg, Florida.      I run an award-winning International Cinema series in Tampa Bay (www.eckerd.edu/ic), and am co-director of … more
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It is now all the rage in the Age of Al Gore and Obama, but can you remember when everyone in America was not Going Green ? Visually stunning, vastly entertaining and awe-inspiring, Earth Days looks back to the dawn and development of the modern environmental movement from its post-war rustlings in the 1950s and the 1962 publication of Rachel Carson s incendiary bestseller Silent Spring, to the first wildly successful 1970 Earth Day celebration and the subsequent firestorm of political action. Earth Days secret weapon is a one-two punch of personal testimony and rare archival media. The extraordinary stories of the era s pioneers among them Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall; biologist/Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich; Whole Earth catalogue founder Stewart Brand; Apollo Nine astronaut Rusty Schweickart; and renewable energy pioneer Hunter Lovins are beautifully illustrated with an incredible array of footage from candy-colored Eisenhower-era tableau to classic tear-jerking 1970s anti-litterbug PSAs. Directed by acclaimed documentarian Robert Stone (Oswald's Ghost, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst) Earth Days is both a poetic meditation on man's complex relationship with nature and an engaging history of the revolutionary achievements and missed opportunities of groundbreaking eco-activism.
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Cast: Denis Hayes
Director: Robert Stone
DVD Release Date: April 20, 2010
Runtime: 120 minutes
Studio: PBS (DIRECT)
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