40 years after Earth Day, 'Earth Days' reveals that much of what you think you know about the modern environmental movement is wrong

cobb_ecologyTonight, in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Earth Day (which is actually this Thursday, April 22), PBS is presenting a documentary that I promise you, if you see it, will alter much of what you think you know about the modern environmental movement. It’s called Earth Days (it will be shown Monday, April 19, from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. on American Experience), and as directed by Robert Stone, it’s a rapturous, provocative, fascinatingly researched, and altogether stirring piece of deep-dish cultural reportage that’s organized around an eye-opening perception. Namely, that if you think of environmentalism as a liberal-left movement — and let’s be honest, who doesn’t? — then you’ve already caricatured it in a way that is deeply untrue to history.

Let me offer an example of what I mean. Quick, who was the most environmentally active president in the history of the United States? Many of you may would probably guess Teddy Roosevelt. The real answer is…Richard Nixon. It was under his administration, and with his full leadership and cooperation, that the landmark regulation of the 1970s — the clean air and water reforms, and much else — was passed into law. Those reforms had a seismic effect; America really did begin to clean up its act. Of course, it’s counterintuitive to think of Nixon as a solar-panel progressive (he wasn’t). To a large extent, he spearheaded those reforms out of political expediency.

earth-day-1970Image Credit: Getty ImagesWhat’s extraordinary is what he was reacting to: the mass demonstration of democratic will (and I do mean small-d democratic) that was broadcast to the world on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. A staggering number of people, more than 20 million of them, gathered across America, and as Earth Days captures in remarkable footage, these were not mostly long-haired counterculture types. They were housewives, men in suits, ordinary folks who had been roused to a kind of middle-class solidarity. I was in grade school when the first Earth Day happened, and I still remember its vibe. I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the hotbeds of ’60s protest (I recall lots of local clashes between angry hippies and the business types who sat on the City Council), but Earth Day was different. It wasn’t a day of rage; it didn’t carry the divisiveness, the culture-war finger-pointing. My very first act of public political protest (and just about my last — I’m far too centrist by temperament to be drawn to anything more political than a voting booth) was to pin on an ecology button that featured the iconic “e” symbol (pictured up top) designed by cartoonist Rob Cobb in November, 1969. Earth Day was certainly a political day, but what I grasped in my naive grade-school heart — and what I still believe to be true — is that it was also a day of global awareness that transcended politics.

Earth Days makes the startling point that that awareness probably wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the space program — and, in particular, for the very first photograph of Earth taken from space to be widely disseminated. That image had a revolutionary impact on world consciousness. It made the earth seem small, vulnerable, tranquil, majestic, and very green. In effect, it fused science and religion. It was literally a vision of the world that mystically trumped political backbiting.

Robert Stone, at least in cinema circles, remains something of an unsung filmmaker, because his work has been seen mostly on television. Yet in his quiet, anti-dogmatic way, he’s an artist of nonfiction. He has directed two of the most explosively insightful documentaries of the past decade: Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst (2004), which captures how the Patty Hearst saga was really the first sensationalist mega-event to be driven (if not created) by saturation media coverage; and Oswald’s Ghost (2007), which may be the single most perceptive examination on film of the JFK assassination and its aftermath. Stone is a no-frills virtuoso who views “objective” history as the intense psychological spectacle it really is.

In Earth Days, he interviews many of the founding members of the environmental movement, a tremendously engaged group of men and women who take us back to a time before the desire to conserve the planet carried leftist associations. (It’s no accident that the words “conservation” and “conservative” are such close cousins. Which sort of reveals how far modern conservatism has drifted from its roots.) Stone salutes the landmark that was Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s monumental 1962 bestseller about the effects of chemical industry on nature, and he goes inside the Nixon White House to capture the process by which Earth Day idealism became national policy.

So what happened? How did we go from the days of Nixon as environmental activist to the toxic, anti-scientific policy debate over whether global warming even exists? Much of the answer lies in the birth of lobbying culture during the Reagan era. Earth Days captures how corporations that were being regulated now moved, successfully, to gut those reforms. At the same time, there was a parallel evolution in middle-class image politics. Ten years after that first Earth Day, the concert movie No Nukes (1980) captured what environmentalism had come to look like: smiley, utopian, neo-’60s wimpoid protest — the very thing that Earth Day had sublimely avoided. And that’s how environmentalism would now be marked. For decades, the debate over these issues became reduced, in the public eye, to a tree hugger-vs.-drill baby drill! debate. Which is why Earth Days couldn’t be more perfectly timed. The movie is a testament to what the environmental movement meant to a distant yet in many ways more grown-up America, an America that may now, slowly, be returning. The movie is about truths that, for the first time in a long while, are no longer so inconvenient.

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  • Green Acres

    Did you know that Earth Day is on April 22 because that is the birthday of Eddie Albert? He was very involved.

  • Sarah El

    Thanks for raising awareness about this doc, Owen! It sounds fantastic and I’d not have heard about it otherwise.

  • darclyte

    Always great to see history presented in the way that it should be, i.e. interesting and compelling.

  • Daniel F

    Michael Giacchino’s score for “Earth Days” is so good, even rivaling his score for “Up.” I’ll definitely be watching tomorrow night.

    • Gre

      I got the musical score for this long ago, but never heard about when or if the film was going to be released. I’ll definitely be DVRing this, at the very least.

  • LOL

    How come teabaggers hate the environment?

    • erin

      Because they’re all old and they don’t care what happens to the Earth after they die.

    • tiebaojin

      And because a lot of them believe in that “old time religion” that says the “End of Days” is near, can’t be avoided, and is meant to be.

      • Howard Zen

        You stay classy, dweebs.

    • Desmo

      Idk why do you hate Canada?

    • sbwm

      You have missed the eloquent point of Owen’s article but this comment.

  • Rebecca

    Saw it at Sundance in 09. So good!

  • joblo

    There’s a difference between environmentalism, as it’s become know today, and conversvationism. Even most hardcore conservatives who are NOT environmentalists still believe in protecting the planet and conserving our natural resources. We just do not accept many of the premises that the modern environmental movement espouses. Hurray for clean air and clean water, but no hurrays for protecting a smelt over the lives and welfare of California farmers.

  • Jon

    Yes, we get it commenters. All conservatives and tea party protests are just ignorant people because we don’t believe something mainly being hyped by Al Gore for his own personal profits.

    You obviously have no idea who the type of people are on the opposite side of political beliefs…so you dehumanize them. It’s so nice you care about a tree but could care less about your fellow people. You liberals are disgusting.

    BTW CONSERVative
    and CONSERVation

    Look closer to who was behind the environmental movement before it become a arrogantly narcissistic pat-yourself-on-the back fad. Most of us are the ones planting gardens yearly and trees weekly when in season (without recognition) while you’re crying about environmental conservation that you’ve never been seriously a part of and then wanting some medal for it.

    • shaye

      pot, meet kettle

    • Desmo

      Save your breath, it will always be easier to just blindly hate.

    • Lisa Simpson

      Jon, by calling all liberals ‘disgusting’ and ‘narcissistic’, it’s obvious that you don’t understand the type of people who are on the opposite side of your political beliefs either. And while Nixon coooperated with the movement out of political expediency, it was that great conservative icon Reagan who gutted the legislation and inspired the more extremist elements of environmentalism (which most environmentalists aren’t).

      And nobody wants a medal for doing what’s right. We just want to enjoy the beauty of the earth and its wild life and places and to breathe clean air.

      • Spencer P

        People should spend part of Earth Day educating themselves on the real environmental issues of today, and how the modern environmental professional community views those issues and is attempting to respond to them. If you think it’s all about hugging trees and saving toads, you’re pretty ignorant to say the least. Go read up on Total Maximum Daily Loads, Best Available Control Technology, New Source Review and CAFE standards, then post your comment. The reality is, we are all environmentalists by default, because we all live in and depend on a healthy environment to be able to participate productively in society. Earth day isn’t about hugging trees and saving toads. It’s about improving human health and productivity. It’s about making businesses more efficient and profitable, and communities more livable. Anyone who claims they are not an environmentalist does not understand what it means to live in a modern, technologically advanced capitalist country.


    Thanks for a great Earth day. Really good news.


  • Billy

    Lol, whatever makes you happy hippies, have fun hugging trees while I drive my SUV. Bite me :)

    • Jennifer Jackson

      Drive your SUV – had that, done that, and, unfortunately, live to reap the consequences- as will you- idealogue.Just graduated?? not life skills? Let us know when reality hits – WE HAVE BEEN THROUGH IT ALL – THE GOOD, THE BAD AND NOW, THE UGLY.

  • Marc

    So now, conservatives are trying to rewrite history because Richard Nixon was pressured to enact environmental reforms by a movement. How transparent.

  • Saundra Hillinger

    Thank you for your article. Get it out there!

  • Normalman

    In the 70s, people were upset about very bad local air and water pollution. It was a matter of common cause. Current environmentalism now focuses on much more indirect impact issues – climate change, saving obscure species, lifestyle issues.

  • Kristen

    I don’t think it was just the lobbyist that moved the environmental movement to Wimpoid, leftist politics. Many of the wimpoid leftists from the anti-war movement had nothing to do in the 80’s so they moved into environmentalism to avoid real life. In addition, the “hippy” idea of back to nature rejects any modern advances. By telling people that they had to give up ALL of the modern conveniences or be accused of hating the Earth, tree huggers made a lot of enemies among those housewives and business men who supported the movement initially. We CAN have our cake and eat it too. The world is a wondrous place if we use its gifts wisely.

    • Jennifer Jackson

      How old are you? Where were you in the 0’s & 80’s? We as well had to earn a living, support families BUT we did not give up our moral standards. Get a grip and don’t dream but face the reality. We didn’t just fight against the war in Vietnam – we fought & worked very hard for a better “Planet & Earth” for the generations to come. “When you hear a bell ring, another angel has won its’ wings”. That’s from “It’s A wonderful Life” – not just make-believe”.

  • Jennifer Jackson

    WHAT A WONDERFUL PROGRAM. I HAVE FOUGHT FOR YEARS, BOTH ENVIRONMENTALLY & SOCIALOGICALLY TO BETTER THE WORLD. We are leaving a terrible history to our children & grandchildren, although we fought to right the unjust. It shall & unfortunately, will be our legacy. We fought,figuratively, through the 70″s thru today; howver, the $$$$ has won out and the EARTH shall pay – just look at the volcano which has “Erupted” the world – worse than 911 – it is sooooooo…sad-globally. Is this what’s life is all about?????

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