There was a time, and not so long ago, when the words "environment" and "ecology" weren't on all lips and the damage the human race was doing to its home planet was not of universal concern. The change in consciousness that brought us from then to now was the work of a committed group of individuals who are front and center in an involving new documentary called "Earth Days."
Directed by the veteran Robert Stone, "Earth Days," as befits its subject, is very much a serious, considered film. It mixes archival footage with interviews with nine people who, perhaps in an attempt to jazz things up, are given such titles as the Motivator, the Forecaster, the Futurist, even the Radical.
Fortunately, these people, including Whole Earth catalog editor Stewart Brand and 87-year-old former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, are smart and interesting folks who are worth listening to.
Before it gets to environmentalism's beginnings in the early 1960s, "Earth Days" casts its eyes backward to two historical periods. One was the Great Depression, remembered by Udall as a time when "we had to conserve things to stay alive."
Less difficult but ultimately more sinister in the film's view was the post-World War II economic boom, when this country, "Earth Days" posits, was overpowered by a lust for material goods. "Americans," says sustained development pioneer Hunter Lovins, "want to believe in a future that's expansive." But along with that progress went, for some people, a sense that things were not going all that well with the Earth.
A key figure here was Rachel Carson, whose 1962 book, "Silent Spring," attacked the widespread use of pesticides and sounded the first modern alarm about the fragility of the planet. Seen only in newsreels (she died of cancer in 1964), Carson also withstood the kinds of attacks on her conclusions and her politics that all future environmentalists have had to endure.
Aside from pesticides, another early focus of the movement was overpopulation. Biologist Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" was a major bestseller (there's a clip of him genially chatting with Johnny Carson on "The Tonight Show"), and Mills College graduating senior Stephanie Mills caused a national sensation in 1962 when she vowed not to have children in a commencement speech titled "The Future Is a Cruel Hoax."
The person who helped bring all the strands of the environmental movement together was Denis Hayes, who had a life-changing experience in Namibia and ended up being a key organizer for 1970's Earth Day, billed as the largest political demonstration in American history.
In the wake of Earth Day, the movement truly began to gather momentum, with achievements like the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Endangered Species Act. And when activists published a Dirty Dozen list of anti-environmental congressional incumbents and seven of them lost in the next election, the movement felt it had arrived.
Yet despite the success of subsequent films, like "An Inconvenient Truth," there is a sense of sadness around "Earth Days," a sense that opportunities were not capitalized on, that not enough was done. Udall, for instance, wonders if our society's unquestioning support of the interstate highway system was a mistake, leading to the predominance of car culture and a parallel neglect of public transportation.
Missing during environmentalism's earlier days, says Lovins, was the contemporary sense of global perspective. We may have cleaned up America's lakes, but we didn't see how connected the Earth's countries were. "We have to work with the world we have," Lovins says today, and this documentary makes a strong case for that.
MPAA rating: Unrated
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes
Playing: At Laemmle Sunset 5, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Monica, Santa Monica