earth days posterIn the 1970s, just after the first Earth Day and in the midst of oil shortages, recessions, and uprisings by restless youth, politicians were suddenly expected to show concern for the environment. President Jimmy Carter went above and beyond by installing solar panels on the White House in 1979. Solar panels on the White House!

Seven years later, President Ronald Reagan took them down.

This mind-bogglingly idiotic reversal is chronicled in Robert Stone’s new documentary Earth Days, about the history of the environmental movement. Seeing “history” and “environmental” in the same sentence probably makes you want to curl up for a 100-minute nap. But Earth Days, though it moves at a contemplative pace and contains less radical-protest/crunchy-commune footage than the hippie in me had hoped for, gives an absorbing overview of how the green movement got started, and why it ended up where it is today.

Featuring interviews with a who’s who of influential environmentalists, Earth Days starts in postwar suburbia and describes the creeping sense of discontent some Americans began to feel in the midst of the nation’s rapid economic growth. In this same era, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring to national acclaim, JFK assembled a panel of experts who confirmed that her science was sound, and, aided by the progressive policies of Kennedy and Johnson’s Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (interviewed in the film), the environmental movement began to take shape. It meshed well with the idealism of nature-loving hippies. Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, a sort of Bible for early enviros, recounts in the film how his idea for the catalog came from an acid trip. The first image of the Earth from outer space became the icon of the catalog, and of the environmental movement as a whole.

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Earth Days chronicles how groundbreaking, controversial writings like Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, which inspired Stephanie Mills’ famous commencement address “The Future Is a Cruel Hoax,” put environmental issues in the mainstream public’s consciousness. The first Earth Day in 1970 was the largest national demonstration in United States history, with 20 million people across the nation voicing their concern for the environment. After that, environmentalists got seriously organized, taking their message into the political arena. In the span of just a few years, they helped push through the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and other cornerstone environmental laws.

This burst of widespread concern and political action, as depicted in the film, is truly inspiring — and what followed, a string of missed opportunities, is truly devastating. The gas shortages of the 1970s presented the perfect opportunity for a switch to renewable energy, but it didn’t happen. Corporations started to catch on to the fact that environmental concerns could threaten their short-term profits. Reagan campaigned on the idea, perpetuated in part by the environmental movement itself, that a transition to a clean energy economy would be one of sacrifice. “They tell us we must learn to live with less,” he declares indignantly in a campaign commercial shown in the film. After Reagan’s election, greed became good again, the solar panels were stripped from the White House roof, and environmental destruction crept dangerously on.

“We lost 30 years, because both sides ossified into their ideologies,” Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, said in the film. “If we’ve learned anything, it’s that we’re still in this together.”

But Earth Days‘ portrayal of the past left me with a dark view of the future. It gave me the sense that because the leaders of previous generations wimped out, the planet’s been desecrated past the point of salvation. As mentioned in the film, we’re going the way of the Maya, the ancient Egyptians, and other civilizations that taxed their resources to the point of societal collapse — except this time, ours is a global civilization that’s killing itself, and taking the whole world with it.

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Watch the trailer: