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Earth Day: The Movie

By Michael D. Lemonick

When the first Earth Day happened in 1970, I was a junior in high school in Princeton, New Jersey. I was vaguely aware of the environmental movement at the time (someone I worked for in the summer described herself as an “ecologist,” although she wasn’t — she was just interested in keeping trash out of the environment). But the day itself kind of snuck up on me. I had no idea where Earth Day came from, and frankly, in an era when my contemporaries were busy marching against the Vietnam War, and avidly following and supporting the Civil Rights movement, it didn’t really matter. We knew about pollution in a general way, and Earth Day seemed like a sensible idea to us.

On that same day, Robert Stone was in middle school, also in Princeton. We didn’t know each other (and besides, he was just a kid, so I wouldn’t have given him the time of day). But his environmental consciousness was already higher than mine: around that time (he can’t remember exactly), Stone made this film, which his mother held on to.

Even so, neither of us could have imagined back then that we’d end up on a stage at the Paley Center, in New York, along with Earth Day co-founder Dennis Hayes, discussing Stone’s terrific new film called Earth Days, which premieres tonight on the PBS show American Experience. Earth Days looks at the founding of Earth Day through the eyes of some of the people — including biologist Paul Ehrlich, Earth Day organizer Dennis Hayes, Whole Earth Catalog author Stewart Brand, Kennedy-administration Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and more — who helped launch the modern environmental movement.

The film is, first of all, visually spectacular. The first half is full of remarkable historical footage from the era before anyone thought much about the environment, starting at a time when America was still largely rural and agricultural. Then it takes us through the postwar years, right through the 1950s, when, as Hayes reminisces on camera, “better living through chemistry” was a phrase people used without irony. We dammed rivers, cut down forests and spewed an astonishing mix of toxic chemicals into the air, water and soil without even thinking about it. “There were no environmental laws when I became secretary of the Interior,” recalls Udall. “The rivers of this country essentially were sewers.”

Even after Rachel Carson’s pivotal book “Silent Spring,” the environment was still on most peoples’ back burner (Stone has some terrific footage of Carson, by the way, and of the counterattacks mounted against her by the chemical industry). But starting with the Civil Rights movement, people started to wake up to the idea that it was sometimes right and necessary to organize to change the status quo — and by 1970, thanks in part to the people profiled in Earth Days, the nation was ready for a major outpouring of support to try and protect the environment.

It was successful beyond anyone’s dreams; as part of the resulting surge in environmental activism, Richard Nixon signed landmark legislation into law such as the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, and created federal agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and proclaimed the 1970s the Decade of the Environment (whether this came from a genuine concern rather than a cynical political calculation is open to doubt; Hayes refused an invitation in 1970 to meet with the President, and even today insists that “Nixon did not have a single environmental nerve ending in his body”).

All of that rich history leading up to Earth Day, 1970, takes up only the first half of the film; the second half talks about what’s happened since. I’ll resist the impulse to lay the rest of it out here. Instead, I’ll simply urge everyone to watch tonight. For local listings, go to the American Experience website.

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