With his legendary Sundance Film Festival, Robert Redford brought sex appeal to the business of independent filmmaking. Now, with his Sundance cable channel, he’s aiming to do the same thing for another underappreciated art form — eco-themed television programming.
Tonight, the channel launches “The Green,” a block of environmental programming that will air on Tuesdays at 9 p.m. Each week, it will kick off with a half-hour segment of Big Ideas for a Small Planet — a 13-part series on environmental problem-solvers and innovations. Produced by the team behind Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, the show is slick and fast-paced, applying a thick coat of gloss to environmentalism’s typically rough-hewn image. Following each segment will be the television premiere of a feature-length documentary, on topics ranging from environmental refugees to Andy Goldsworthy’s natural sculptures to Dr. Bronner’s natural-soap empire. Tonight’s documentary — A Crude Awakening: The Oil Crash — explores the frightening implications of peak oil. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the advisory committee for “The Green.”)
I spoke with Redford about his new green enterprise last week at his office in the Sundance Channel’s Manhattan headquarters, just before he jetted off to D.C. to finish filming his latest political thriller.
What was the inspiration for “The Green”?
We are coming out of one of the most politically damaging periods of American history, during which so many cornerstone environmental protections were rolled back in the face of immense ecological challenges. The beauty of it is that in the midst of this political disrepair, all these solutions and opportunities have been bubbling up from the grassroots. People are fighting back, they’re finding green solutions in agriculture, in food, in fashion, in building, in home furnishings, in transportation. And more of that’s going to come. There are so many positive and exciting stories to tell about the environment right now. What Sundance Channel’s “The Green” is going to do is tell those stories.
Can you give us an example of some upcoming green programming?
I’m particularly excited about the Big Ideas for a Small Planet series. It’s organized by topic — fuel, cities, buildings, clothing, food, and so on — and spotlights the creative innovators and innovations emerging in these areas all around the country. The shows are solution-based, story-driven, and moving the conversation about sustainability to a new place — one of optimism and of people taking control.
It’s a big departure from the doom-and-gloom scenario that environmentalists have been communicating for the past 20 years. We were trying to warn people that things were getting bad, but America didn’t want to listen, so it was hard to get traction. This is about solutions, about people from all these walks of life who are finding industrious ways to help solve our environmental challenges and make money from it.
Would you call what “The Green” is doing “activist media”?
The environment has surged into pop culture in the last year or so. Do you think it’s a fad or the beginning of lasting change?
It’s certainly more than just a fad. The environmental tipping point has been reached. It has come together to a crux so fast that it’s now a bandwagon, and it’s moving fast, and there are all these opportunities that are rolling out of it. But the battle isn’t over. We have to educate and engage people about what’s going on. There are going to be new ideas and new innovations, and those innovations are going to lead to new industries. And the industries will lead to new jobs, and that will lead to a new economy. But in order for this to work we have to educate people — especially young people before they get hardened.
What factors do you think led to the environmental tipping point?
Two things. First, it became good business. A bunch of entrepreneurs discovered that you can make money doing good, and then suddenly larger groups woke up to the fact that they didn’t want to be left out. Then Wall Street got on board. Once Goldman Sachs is in, you know you’re in business.
At the same time, people were experiencing the symptoms of climate change and a changing energy landscape — whether it was soaring gas prices or intensifying hurricanes or their health was being affected.
So I think that those converging forces created this tip where we are now.
Do you really think we’ve reached a tipping point politically? Many enviros would argue that while big change is happening at the grassroots, it hasn’t yet reached Washington.
I think on global warming it has. There have been dozens of different climate-related bills introduced in recent months.
But do you think we’ll see climate regulations pass in the 110th Congress?
I do, I honestly do. We may have to wait until 2009 to get a really ambitious program in place, but I do think the political tides are turning in a big way on this issue.
In general, I am very hopeful that the dangers and the destructive patterns of our leadership in Washington are going to be stopped. It’s hard to believe that one man, one president, could undo so much.
You seem to have very strong feelings about Bush.
King Midas had the golden touch — everything he touched turned to gold. Everything [Bush] touches turns to shit. Everything. The only thing guarding him must be the Rapture, because it doesn’t make any sense otherwise. I’ve met the guy. He’s in a bubble. But it’s getting ready to pop.
Do you think the environment is going to be a defining issue in the 2008 elections?
I think it’s going to be a defining issue, yes, but will it be the defining issue? It’s going to be competing with some other pretty strong issues. Hopefully voters will understand that all the major issues — namely, national security and jobs — are actually very intimately connected to protecting the environment and greening the economy.
Is there a candidate you favor?
Not at the moment. I don’t get involved in presidential elections. I usually focus on local elections, candidates who are solid on the environment. There is certainly a great presidential campaign to be built around a strong green agenda, and I hope we’ll see that emerge.
Are you working on any politically or environmentally themed movies?
I’m just finishing filming Lions for Lambs — that’s very much tied to these issues. It’s about taking personal responsibility in the area of politics, national security, and media. It stars Meryl Streep, myself, and Tom Cruise.
The character I play is a professor who’s trying to keep a kid from drifting into total apathy and cynicism. We’re trying to get this kid involved and to wake up because he’s such a brilliant student, and he’s not coming to class anymore and he’s drifting away, and he’s trying to save this kid before it’s too late.
When the professor tries to get the kid to engage, the kid says, “Why do you want me to get involved in a system that’s so fucked up and broken? Do you want me to go into politics and be jerked off by some page under the table? You call that morality? What’s the matter with just having a decent life? Do I have to go to the barricades and fight this and fight that? And you’re certainly not going to tell me I should go into the armed forces. That’s the most morally absurd thing I can think of.” The kid is trying to justify a certain amount of apathy. He’s trying to justify non-involvement.
So the professor says, “Because how long do you think you and your neighbor are going to be safe? How long do you think your streets are going to last before forming potholes like Third World countries? Before there’s no gas in your tank?”
Do you think this debate within the movie reflects a real reluctance within the younger generation to address the challenges of our day?
I do think there is a pervasive apathy among young people. Some say it’s because there’s no draft, some say it’s the consumerism, some say it’s the media. But I also sense change. I think the pendulum might be ready to swing back the other way, where young people start to engage. I think kids are beginning to realize that there’s more to life than just having an easy life. It hasn’t happened yet on the grand scale, but it’s rumbling. I can feel it underneath my feet.
I agree that the younger generation is struggling to shake off apathy, but then again, it was the boomers who are largely responsible for America’s profligate energy use and heavily polluting habits. There’s apathy inherent in that legacy.
You’re absolutely right. When you stop to think about it, the boomers did the burning, and that seed was sown by the generation before it that sacrificed so that we could burn the oil. In the ’30s and ’40s, it was the Depression and off to war — it was struggle, sacrifice, die for your country. Then suddenly the ’50s come and we’re told to get out there and consume, build, burn oil — it was the patriotic thing to do, and boy we did it. And then, suddenly, it was like, “Where are all the ashes going?” We are leaving these problems to you all to figure out, and that’s a huge and daunting responsibility.