Documentary filmmaker Robert Stone has been making films since 1987, when his first effort, Radio Bikini, about the relocation of Bikini islanders for US nuclear testing was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary. Since then, he has built an impressive body of work that examines intriguing aspects of American history and popular culture, such as the homegrown terrorism of the 1960s (2004’s Guerilla: The Taking of Patti Hearst) and the place of conspiracy theories in our culture (2007’s Oswald’s Ghost).
With Stone’s latest effort, Earth Days, the filmmaker has for the first time turned his cinematic eye to the environment. The documentary examines the origins of the environmental movement in the 1960s and ’70s, with a special focus on Earth Day 1970, a watershed event that put environmentalism on the map in earnest. The film, which premiered as the closing night film at this year’s Sundance festival, has been well received: Variety called it “quietly majestic, moving, elegiac, and deeply contemplative.”
Rhinebeck’s Upstate Films will screen Earth Days on August 15, with Stone appearing in person to discuss the film. He won’t have far to travel: He’s been a Rhinecliff resident for the last five years.
I caught up with Stone recently for a conversation about art, the environment, and the future of the planet.
Of all the films you could have made at this point in your career, why this one?
My two small children were the inspiration. With all that’s happened recently, it’s hard to remember that only a few years ago, the environment wasn’t on people’s minds very much. Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth hadn’t come out. Obama wasn’t president. But things were changing rapidly, in no small measure because the science of climate change was becoming more widely accepted. I felt compelled to make a film that dealt with the environmental crisis because where we go from here will determine the type of world my children live in. And it seemed to me that one area that had not been explored enough was how we’d gotten to this point.
A lot of young people are downbeat because they look back, see Bush’s assault on the environment, and feel as if they’re starting from the beginning, in terms of getting things going. This isn’t the case, though. The environmental movement isn’t starting from scratch, it’s making a comeback.
We have a precedent to fall back on. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the environmental movement was born, real change occurred, and it took place rapidly. If this happened once, it can happen again.
The environmental movement is by its nature forward-looking. It looks ahead to what we can do to create a more ecologically positive future. There’s value in looking back, though. There’s a great analogy in the space program of the 1960s, which was also very forward-looking. No one expected that the image created by the astronauts’ looking back at Earth would be the most profound and lasting impact of the program.
History is our teacher. I made this film in the hope that it might lay out a roadmap for where we go from here.
Would you characterize Earth Days as a hopeful film?
Yes, because it shows that very rapid social, political, and cultural change can happen. People don’t remember this, but the United States was a very different place before Earth Day 1970 than it was afterward. Littering became taboo almost overnight, and that’s just one indicator. The transformation was much broader than that. An enormous amount of vitally important environmental legislation, including the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Air Act, was enacted during the three years immediately following Earth Day 1970. Even more remarkably, it occurred on Richard Nixon’s watch, even though he didn’t actually care about the environment! There’s a hopeful message in this. Positive change can happen if enough political pressure is brought to bear.
There are also lessons to be learned in the mistakes the environmental movement made. Jimmy Carter presented environmentalism as a paradigm of scarcity. He wanted us to make do with less. This didn’t sit well with people. Ronald Reagan played into this resentment by arguing that we could thrive in a world without limits. Essentially, he was advocating a return to the world of the 1950s. He articulated a backlash that brought him two terms as president and brought the environmental movement to a screeching halt. Reagan was simply a much better politician than Jimmy Carter.