The grand finale of Washington’s recent environmental film festival recounted the history of the modern environmental movement, noting progress since the first Earth Day in April, 1970, but hastening to add that much of the past was not pretty. Its cautionary message did not stop there. The film went on to convey that if substantial lifestyle changes were not made, the future would be bleak.
Earth Day was directed by Robert Stone, and the two hour documentary provided an evaluation of the past and speculation about the future through interviews with nine prominent participants in the environmental movement. They included former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, famed biologist Paul Ehrlich, Earth Day founder Dennis Hayes, environmental activist Hunter Lovins, and former California Republican congressman Pete McCloskey (who drew cheers from the youthful audience when it was announced in the film that he had switched to the Democratic Party).
Udall was one of the few in the film who expressed optimism about the future, albeit in a very guarded way, and according to him, based more on subjective feelings than hard facts. Hunter Lovins was not so sanguine. She asserted that President Ronald Reagan’s permissive attitude towards corporate polluters and land barons had “cost the country 30 years”. And she added that while the environmental movement had won some important victories since 1970, they had simply postponed the damage rather than prevented it.
Lovins expressed the sentiment echoed by virtually every other participant in the film, namely that the environmental idealism inspired by the first Earth Day had been adulterated over the next four decades by Americans’ obsessive focus on material
Everyone in the film lamented American society being lured away from its roots and a bonding with nature by pursuit of unsustainable economic growth. Concerns were raised about nuclear proliferation throughout the world and runaway population growth.
In a panel discussion after the film, former democratic Indiana congressman Phil Sharp expressed optimism that the environmental movement would remain effective by informing and educating the general public. But how? The shrinking mainstream print mass media is in a fiscal freefall. Cable news on a daily basis tends to shy away from issues as complex as the environment. Network television news has little time for anything more than sound bites. And the internet is preaching to the converted, in addition to which it’s hard to know how factually reliable are the many news sources one encounters on line.
The eminent environmentalists in the film agreed that the nation could be saved by kicking the conspicuous consumption habit and evolving into a steady state economy in which growth was qualitative rather than quantitative. The economy would be built around renewable energy, fuel efficiency, conservation of natural resources, and recycling. People would live within their means, and polluters would be dealt with decisively.
Since the first Earth Day, every president has vowed to bring about optimum environmental quality, but the vision has never advanced beyond rhetoric. They all fell into industry propagandists’ trap of allowing environmental health to be deemed an impediment to economic prosperity rather than an essential complement to it.
Can President Barack Obama bring about the dramatic cultural and social reforms that none of his predecessors even attempted? Nancy Sutley, chairwoman of Obama’s White House Council on Environmental Quality, was a discussant on the post-film panel.
She expressed confidence that the president would win national acceptance of a restructured environmentally sustainable economy. He would accomplish this, in her view, by strictly following science’s dictates in an open and transparent way, and most importantly of all, by exposing the false dichotomy between the environment and economy.
We shall see.
@Copyright 2009, Edward Flattau