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The environmental movement made other mistakes, too. Activists at that time tended to be very confrontational. They took the view that if you were pro-business, you were anti-environment.
The environmental movement has done a lot of growing up since then. It’s become less ideologically driven and more practical. Cap and trade, which puts a price on carbon emissions, is an example of this new approach. And, in fact, Obama represents the apotheosis of practical politics.
Being practical can be a mixed blessing, though. Some environmentalists are bemoaning the climate change bill that recently passed the House. They say it’s too watered down. Can we get the change we need by being “practical?”
Everything we can do at this point is a step forward. But there’s a counter-truth as well: We do need to make very rapid social and political progress. The environmental movement was essentially marginalized for [almost] 30 years, starting in 1980. Those three decades may have lost us everything.
Did you direct the film at any particular audience?
I was focused more on younger people than older ones, because it’s largely their future that we’re talking about. I particularly wanted to reach the people who hadn’t experienced these times personally. In fact, one of the best screenings of the film I’ve had was to a group of 400 high school students in New York [City]. They loved it. But it seems to be appealing to a pretty wide range of audiences.
You tell your story by having some of the leading figures in the sustainability movement—people like Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog; Dennis Hayes, the mastermind behind Earth Day 1970; and Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart—recount their experiences. Why did you opt for this approach?
I decided very early on that to make a film about such a vast subject meaningful, it had to be grounded in personal narrative. I thought it would be interesting to zero in on a few movement leaders who had had transformative, “A ha!” experiences about the environment. Dennis Hayes had one while trekking through Africa. Rusty Schweickart had one in outer space. Stewart Brand had one on 100 micrograms on LSD.
As a whole, the people whose stories I tell are like spokes on a wheel. They represent the various strands of the environmental movement.
I was particularly struck by the documentary footage from the 1950s, some of which is so extreme as to seem like self-parody. There are lots of other juicy moments in the film too. Do you have any particular favorites?
Well, Stewart Brand’s story is an entertaining and important one. On his acid trip, he was gazing out at the San Francisco skyline and got a sense of the Earth’s curve. It then occurred to him that the curve of the Earth must be more dramatic the higher one went. In his mind, he started going further and further into orbit and soon realized that the sight of the entire planet, seen at once, would help people understand the extent to which we are all in this together. This led to his creating buttons reading “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?” and distributing them to people in power everywhere.
Over the years, Earth Day has become corporatized and watered down. What, if anything, should we read into this?
If Earth Day has grown thin over the years, it’s because the environmental movement itself has grown thin. Starting in 1980, our culture embraced the ideology that the market can solve everything and we became a fairly complacent society. That era came to an abrupt end with last year’s economic collapse. Things are transforming rapidly now, and, in fact, Earth Day 2010 is gearing up to be a sizable and important event.
It’s also important to remember that Earth Day has had some significant positive impacts, such as environmental curricula being adopted by schools throughout the country.
What’s next for you—another environmental documentary?
After being thoroughly immersed in making a film about the environment, every other topic seems almost irrelevant. Still, I can’t totally commit to only doing environmental films going forward. I’ll be making films for the rest of my life.
I’ve been starting to raise money for a film about what happened to the environmental movement between 1980 and the present. It would be about the intertwining of economics and the environment. If Earth Days is successful, I’ll get a chance to make it.