9 p.m. Monday
WFYI (Channel 20)
Sometimes you have to look around and wonder what's wrong with us. Like, why do we need Earth Day? It should be self-evident that clean air and water, energy independence and food that's as pristine and chemical-free as possible ought to be our common, unanimous goal.
And yet, somehow, it's not.
That's what kept running through my mind as I watched Earth Days, Robert Stone's informative and ultimately unsettling film, which provides an oral/visual history of the modern American environmental movement as seen through the eyes of nine of its movers and shakers.
Stone begins in the 1950s, when America began to treat materialism and unfettered growth as its birthright. Rachel Carson's 1962 book Silent Spring, which warned against overuse of pesticides, sounded the first alarm. (Not shockingly, the chemical industry labeled her a "hysterical woman.")
As smog, pollution and overcrowding began to threaten life and health in our cities, activists got together to create the first Earth Day (April 22, 1970), inspiring 20 million Americans to demand a cleaner environment. Incredibly, some opposed the idea, noting that the date coincided with the 100th anniversary of the birth of Lenin. Yes, much like health care somehow equals Nazism today, back then clean air and water meant communism.
The federal government, however, noted the power of the movement. President Nixon signed the Clear Air and Clean Water acts and created the Environmental Protection Agency, and environmentalism became a great cause. (The FBI also wiretapped the Earth Day offices, but hey, you can't have everything.)
After the success of Earth Day, the environmentalists got into politics, attacking 12 congressmen with terrible records on the environment. Viewers will note that four of the so-called "Dirty Dozen" - E. Ross Adair, David Dennis, Earl Langrebe and Roger Zion - were from Indiana.
But soon, the 1973 oil crisis hit and the environmental movement and business began to tangle. Instead of finding a balance between, say, clear-cutting forests and chopping down no trees, putting loggers out of work, both sides failed to compromise. Instead of heeding Jimmy Carter's warning that "if we fail to act soon (on energy independence), we will face an economic, social and political crisis that will threaten our free institutions," Ronald Reagan thumbed his nose at such pessimism and removed the Carter-era solar panels from the White House roof.
And so on. The speakers in this film, including former congressman and interior secretary Stewart Udall, author Paul Ehrlich (The Population Bomb) and Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes reflect on what they accomplished with a sense of awe and what we've yet to achieve with disappointment.
Stone's film can be grim at times, but it's also a sort of lovely retrospective of what America looked like from the 1950s through '80s. He mixes in colorful cars, men in gray flannel suits and classic commercials that sounded environmental warnings. One ad from the '70s warned that "by 1980, you're probably going to need a gas mask and a flashlight to get to the office. There won't be any birds or bees or trees."
Tactics like that probably wouldn't work today. If two wars, $4 gas, warnings about mercury-contaminated fish and continued dependence on Middle East oil don't scare us, nothing will.