Earth Days

Directed by Robert Stone
American Experience, 100 minutes

In Review

movie poster thumbnail, circle on a starry field covered with slogan pins

The documentary Earth Days (airing on PBS April 19 at 9 p.m.) is ostensibly a celebration of the advent of Earth Day and a history of the modern environmental movement, but it’s also a cautionary tale about how little that movement has managed to accomplish in the last 30 years. The film features nine environmental leaders who take us from the industrialization of America in the 1940s and 1950s to the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, the first Earth Day in 1970, the oil crisis of the late 1970s, and Jimmy Carter’s commitment to building a renewable energy industry, starting with the installation of a photovoltaic solar array on the White House roof in 1979.

Up until that point, the tone is optimistic. These people were getting things done. Former Congressman Pete McCloskey (R-CA) talks about crossing the aisle and partnering with Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson (D) to help create the first Earth Day. Archival footage of biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of Population Bomb, speaking to packed auditoriums, and appearing on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, reveals a mainstream acceptance of environmental issues and the need to do something dramatic to address them. Astronaut Rusty Schweikert wistfully describes the moments he spent in space, untethered from his shuttle, realizing that humans are just another form of life birthed by the planet. Clip after clip is played of first John F. Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon trumpeting environmental causes.

This is what people mean when they worry that today’s “green” movement will peter out the way the 1970s movement did. Environmentalists today like to believe that the movement is more entrenched now, that we’ve done our homework and learned from past mistakes. That this time, it will stick. Earth Days reminds us that our predecessors were convinced they would succeed, too.

The film basically lays the blame at Reagan’s feet. Following an interview with original Earth Day director Dennis Hayes in which he jubilantly describes starting an alternative energy department under Carter, we see a Reagan campaign ad in which he says, “They tell us that we have to make do with less. I don’t believe that and I don’t think you do either, and that’s why I’m running for President.”

To his credit, director Robert Stone spreads the blame around a bit. The American people, he points out via video clips from the day, were only too happy to forget about curtailing energy use or finding other options once the oil embargo ceased and oil prices went down. And environmentalists were also to blame.

“We lost thirty years,” says Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Hunter Lovins at one point in the film. “We lost thirty years because both sides ossified into their ideologies.” Lovins throws a bit of blame Carter’s way, too, for focusing on reducing use of resources and, as she puts it, “preaching scarcity.”

In that sense, the environmental movement has made some progress. This time around the emphasis on having it all and being environmentally responsible to boot has brought more people on board. But Earth Days stands as a somewhat depressing, though very interesting, reminder of how fragile any environmental victory is (a newly elected official can always come in and reverse things), and how far we have left to go (minorities are still underrepresented in the movement, and technology still tends to be demonized). It’s an important film from that standpoint. As the old adage goes, sometimes you need to look back in order to move forward.

Amy Westervelt

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.