American Experience

Earth Days

by Cynthia Fuchs

19 April 2010

In Earth Days, as early environmental activists remember the movement's early days, they remember as well the effects and lessons of Rachel Carson.

Maturity and Mastery

cover art

American Experience: Earth Days

Director: Robert Stone
Cast: Stewart Udall, Denis Hayes, Stewart Brand, Rusty Schweickart, Hunter Lovins, Dennis Meadows, Stephanie Mills, Pete McCloskey, Paul Ehrlich
Regular airtime: Monday, 9pm ET

US: 19 Apr 2010

I call myself a troubled optimist. I’m hopeful for the future despite the recent past.
—Stewart Udall

“I truly believe that we in this generation must come to terms with nature. And I think we’re challenged as mankind has never been challenged before, to prove our maturity and our mastery, not of nature but of ourselves.” When Rachel Carson spoke on CBS in 1964, she was explaining a central concept of her book, Silent Spring. In it, she argued, among other things, that pesticides were toxic not only to the insects they targeted, but to other life as well, including birds and humans.

Controversial when it was published in 1962, Silent Spring ignited a pesticides industry campaign by “demonize” her—calling her “hysterical” and countering her claims with disinformation. But, as Paul Ehrlich (author of The Population Bomb) notes in Robert Stone’s 2009 documentary Earth Days, airing 19 April on PBS, “Rachel Carson didn’t demonize easily.” For one thing, she looked utterly unthreatening and reasonable. For another, her science was demonstrably right, as John Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee concluded.

Her book has been credited since with inspiring the “environmental movement,” particularly one of her fundamental insights, that so-called progress—so firmly believed to be not just a good thing but also a god-given right—might not be either. As technologies allowed the production of more food at a lower cost, they were also poisoning ecosystems, with consequences extending far beyond the foreseeable future. Her ideas were absorbed and expanded by environmentalists like former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and astronaut Rusty Schweickart, Whole Earth Catalogue founder and LSD enthusiast Stewart Brand and Limits to Growth writer Dennis Meadows. As they remember their early days as activists, they remember as well the effects and lessons of Rachel Carson.

Udall recalls urging the Nixon Administration to get on board with environmental legislation. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), signed in 1970, required federal agencies to prepare environmental statements when seeking funding from Congress. The Clean Air Act was passed a few months after Earth Day in 1970 and the EPA was also established that year. That all of this legislation was achieved despite the president’s apparent disinclination is remarkable: as Denis Hayes, the coordinator for the first Earth Day in 1970, puts it here, Richard Nixon, “By all accounts, did not have an environmental nerve ending anywhere in his body,” but instead saw supporting proposals to clean up air and water “as a political chess move.”

This “move” is recounted in Earth Days as the result of sustained work and consciousness-raising efforts by activists as well as some good luck in timing. Though the talking heads are identified in part by unhelpful designations (the Radical, the Biologist, the Forecaster, the Politician, etc.), some of their stories are actually fascinating, including that of Schweickart, who piloted Apollo 9’s lunar module in 1969. His breathtaking description of seeing the earth during his spacewalk—“I’m just floating there, almost as if I’m naked in space. All this stuff starts coming into my mind: I’m here because life has evolved on this planet… I am the representative of life moving out into the universe”—sets a reverent, vivacious tone for the film’s story of inspired efforts back home.

Schweickart’s vision of the earth coincides with Brand’s, as he insists on a huge, whole picture. He extols the energy and sense of purpose generated by the space program: “We totally identified with it, the whole world identified with it, and the whole world was proud of it. Once you’ve got pride,” he says, “I learned this in the army, a whole bunch of things that seemed impossible seemed not only possible but, ‘Let’s get on with it.’”  The photo of earth from space, he says, “flips you from the world that we’re in to the planet that we’re on.”

The film looks at various facets of the early movement, from Cold War-ish realization that people could destroy themselves to street demonstrations and communes to Ehrlich’s appearances on The Tonight Show: Johnny Carson nods solemnly at his guest’s warnings concerning the geometric growth of population versus finite resources. But as gas prices soared during Nixon’s and then Jimmy Carter’s administration, the film argues, neither came up with long-term solutions (only, Ehrlich says, “peripheral responses” like Nixon’s “Project Independence”). Instead, energy conglomerates ensured their profits, as shortsighted automakers and legislators adhered to models of overconsumption and continued energy dependence.

As enthusiastic as the Earth Day activists were—then and now—their attempts to shift “people”‘s thinking and behavior were consistently countered by commercial culture and an enduring faith in “progress,” that is, the belief that economies could keep growing indefinitely. As Meadows describes it, “The entire discipline of economics, macroeconomics, is based on the assumption that output is going to continue to grow, living standards are going to continue to go and so forth.” Indeed, one of the film’s designated villains articulates that mindset when he announces his intention to run for president in 1979: “They tell us we must learn to live with less, and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been, that the America of the coming years will be a place where—because of our past excesses—it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true,” says Ronald Reagan. “I don’t believe that. ”

But if the Morning in America involved rolling back environmental legislation, Brand describes another strategy for sustainability, “the engineering approach.” “Don’t try to change human nature,” he says, “That’s not gong to change. Don’t try to change the politics, it’s too clueless. We can change the technology.” And so, even as Earth Days looks back on some seeming golden days, he looks to a next stage in the movement, encouraging consumers and producers (and even corporations) to see their interests best realized in efficient, increasingly green technologies.

American Experience: Earth Days


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