This article was published in partnership with GlobalPossibilities.org.
With runaway global warming threatening to annihilate climate stability and perhaps life on Earth as we know it, there's no bigger issue on humanity's crowded docket and no better time to catch up on the history of the environmental movement. So let's give thanks that writer, producer and director Mark Kitchell's A Fierce Green Fire has arrived to exhaustively school us all. Especially since the Obama administration has gone long on rhetoric but short on activism, and practically begged to be pushed into action by the American people.
"The main lesson of A Fierce Green Fire is the importance of bottom-up movements to force political action and change at the top," Kitchell, director of the Oscar-nominated Berkeley in the Sixties, told me. "Although the environmental movement put on the largest demonstration ever on the original Earth Day in 1970, it was never all that big on taking to the streets. So I’m pleased that the Sierra Club is endorsing getting arrested, and environmental organizations are forming an alliance against the Keystone XL pipeline. The time has come for nonviolent civil disobedience. This is what we need, and we need more of it."
And sooner rather than later, given the popular disconnect that still hovers over the issue, which still suffers from a visibility and comprehension disorder of befuddling proportions given its existential horror. As powerful as the recent Keystone XL protests at the White House proved, they're still paltry compared to the popular momentum needed to get the Obama administration off its ass.
"No, we’re not getting the level of protest we need," Kitchell added. "But part of that is lacking the urgency that a war in Vietnam engenders. Climate change really is the impossible issue, and it’s taking a lot of time and work to get people really focused on protesting it."
Viewers of A Fierce Green Fire — theatrically released by First Run Features and opening March 1 in New York before going wide across the United States — likely will feel more galvanized into activism than they were before screening the epic five-act documentary, which is narrated by Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Isabel Allende, Ashley Judd and Van Jones. Ranging from the turbulent formation and fights of the Sierra Club and Greenpeace to the toxic madness of Love Canal and costly Amazon sacrifice of Chico Mendes, and of course culminating in the mind-wiping dystopia of apocalyptic climate change, A Fierce Green Fire frontloads more than a century's worth of environmental madness and mobilization into a documentary demanding even more activism and answers. It's very hard to walk away from it wanting to go back to business-as-usual.
"We were trying to bring together all the strands of environmentalism, create a grand synthesis and capture the arc of the movement," Kitchell explained. "What struck me was the evolution from local, specific issues to global resource crises. It’s not just climate change, but forests, water, soils, oceans, salinization, agriculture, equity and justice — and the really big ones like loss of biodiversity and how to put our civilization on a sustainable path to balance with nature. It has been hard for the environmental movement to deal with problems so huge and beyond our ability to solve. Bill McKibben talks about this in Act Five: 'Climate change is too big an issue for the environmental movement to take on.' Of course, he proceeds to start an organization, 350.org, to do just that. Maybe that’s what those who consider themselves environmentalists should pass along to younger generations: An appreciation of how big the battle has become, as well as a sense of possibility and hope that comes from succeeding against all odds on earlier issues."
Despite those odds, mammoth progress has been made, said Kitchell. There are a multitude of solutions and changes that have been accomplished during the environmental movement's extensive history of hell-raising. It doesn't take more than a cursory glance around our warming Earth to find citizens engaged in beating back the ravages of environmental devastation.
"I could point to all sorts of signs that things are changing," he said. "Forty years after photovoltaics first emerged, they're finally showing up in big arrays around California. I love what is happening in Germany, which is not only getting off of fossil and nuclear fuels, but doing distributed generation — quite literally, power to the people. California and lots of other places are moving toward zero waste. There’s a long list of chemicals and synthetic substances that have been banned one after another."
That said, we're still in a race against time, added Kitchell. Global warming is an exponential, existential nightmare, and it's quickly outpacing our comparatively sluggish efforts at righting the many wrongs of our unsustainable production and consumption, which have seemingly proceeded at light-speed since the Industrial Revolution. If we don't get our earthly priorities straight by the middle of this century, all of our significant advances might not make the slightest bit of difference in the final analysis.
"The smart people I know who are really thinking about this think that 2050 or so is the nadir, when things get really bad," Kitchell told me. "By 2100, they think we are turning the corner. Depending on how bad it gets — climate, resource depletion, economic and social collapse and instability — population and carrying capacity may drop, perhaps drastically. We don’t know and we won’t be around to find out. Hell of a way to run a planet, and a movement. This is new territory."
For those new to the expansive territories of environmental activism, here's a list of 10 stunning things the movement has faced, fought or said in its substantial history and battles.
1. IRS Stands For Irrational Resource Sellouts
Founded in 1892 by John Muir, the Sierra Club, which commands A Fierce Green Fire's first act, is the oldest, largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization in history. By the '60s, however, it had become a pernicious disseminator of "propaganda," according to the IRS, which revoked the Sierra Club's charitable status as pathetic payback for a series of popular protests against dams that would flood the Grand Canyon. It's but one birth pang of many that A Fierce Green Fire uncovers in the Sierra Club's outstanding history.
"It has been too conservative or made bad choices at some points," Kitchell admitted. "But it has survived and thrived. What stands out for me is the democratic nature of the club: It is membership-driven and chapter-based. And I’m really pleased to see the Sierra Club’s evolution under a new generation: Executive director Michael Brune is showing up at Keystone XL protests and taking a lead in a powerful alliance. I’m really jazzed about Beyond Coal’s success and its successor campaign, Beyond Oil. Talk about the main event! I think it’s going to be the most important campaign of the next decade or two."
2. Make Way For Earth National Park (Again)
Much of A Fierce Green Fire's act on Sierra Club focuses on its controversial former leader David Brower, who served as its first executive director from 1952-1969, before being ousted in a dispute over nuclear power, which he opposed. But despite many militant opinions, it is perhaps his polarizing conception of Earth National Park — in which "all nations…unite against the one real common enemy: rampant technology" — that may prove most prescient.
"Sure," said Kitchell, when asked if Earth National Park's time has finally come. "I work in a national park, the Presidio. I think the concept has grown enough that we might be able to make the whole world a national park. But Brower was obviously using the idea rhetorically or ontologically, trying to shift consciousness. When I look at where the movement is heading today, I see a few trends: restoration, adaptation and amelioration of climate impacts."
3. Martin Litton, Badass
He may be 87, but the pioneering environmentalist, who teamed up with Brower to fight dam-building, is no fragile flower — and he doesn't want the environmental movement to be either. Environmentalists should "be unreasonable," he argues in A Fierce Green Fire. They should have "hatred in [their] heart[s]" for polluters and ravagers, and they should tell a society that befouls the environment to "drop dead."
4. Spaceship Earth, Cleared For Takeoff
Despite Brower's aforementioned hatred of technology, one of the environmental movement's most notable evolutionary moments came in the '60s and '70s, when it embraced science and tools to effect local and global change. From Stewart Brand's countercultural DIY manual Whole Earth Catalog to the organic pioneer New Alchemy Institute and beyond, hacking Earth became a hippie ideal that has evolved well into our still-new millennium.
"I like Bucky Fuller’s idea that we have to guide Spaceship Earth," Kitchell told me, "as well the idea that we are Gaia, the animating force that will keep this planet habitable. Remember Stewart Brand’s motto in the Whole Earth Catalog? 'We are as gods, and might as well get good at it.' Well, in a piece of the A Fierce Green Fire that was edited out late, Stewart talked about how it has changed to, 'We are as gods — and have to get good at it.'"
5. Richard Nixon, Environmental Activist? Mindfuck!
Believe it or not, it is the disgraced Nixon's administration that proposed and formed the Environmental Protection Agency, and supported a variety of world-changing green laws. But the history books don't tell the whole story, said Kitchell, whose documentary nevertheless gives Tricky Dick the time of day. "Nixon was trying to outflank Edmund Muskie, a real environmentalist. More important was the bipartisan group of senators who sponsored and passed the golden era of environmental legislation. They overrode Nixon’s veto more than once. The Dirty Dozen campaign, launched by the Earth Day folks, unseated some powerful congressmen in 1972, and after that everyone was an environmentalist."
6. Love Canal, Mutant Factory
One astounding act of A Fierce Green Fire is dedicated to this infamous New York neighborhood built atop an Occidental Petroleum toxic-waste dump. The entire segment beggars belief, from its alarming genetic and physical deformities to its naked corporate corruption. But its most stunning achievement is its grassroots uprising, led by the legendary Lois Gibbs, who galvanized neighbors and the nation alike. But most egregious is the government's claim that Gibbs' personal investigations, later correlated by pretty much everyone, was comprised of what she recalled as "useless housewife data." And that EPA relocation advisory blocked by Carter? Mindfuck, the Sequel.
7. "Apartheid American Style!"
Lost in the toxic soup of environmental and corporate pollution are the disproportionate numbers of people of color condemned to sickness and death. That is, until the conscientious pioneer Robert Bullard arrived in the '80s to ignite the environmental justice movement as we know it. But the author of Dumping in Dixie and Toxic Waste and Race understands that true environmentalism is both colorful and colorblind. “There’s no Hispanic air," he argues in A Fierce Green Fire. "There’s no African-American air. There’s air! If you breathe air — and most people I know do breathe air — then I would consider you an environmentalist.”
8. The Coming of Environmental Terrorism?
With global resource wars already well underway, enviroterrorism seems like it's going to become, as the popular slang goes, a thing. But it has proven polarizing on either side of the environmental movement. On one side you have insurgents like Greenpeace influential and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson, who as A Fierce Green Fire graphically illustrates isn't shy about getting physical for his environmental beliefs. This philosophy is corroborated somewhat in the documentary by Greenpeace co-founder Bob "Mind Bombs" Hunter, who notes that "we're insane" for killing sperm whales for their lubricant, which we use to make better inter-continental ballistic missiles to kill each other. But despite the fact that Watson, currently fighting extradition notices from Costa Rica and Japan, has been battling whalers worldwide, Kitchell seems confident that the enviroterrorism label won't stick to him.
"Not a chance," he said. "Every time they go after Paul Watson, he just gets bigger."
But Kitchell stops short of endorsing more radical environmentalists, whose records speak for themselves.
"I had to stop using terms like radical ecology or deep ecology, in favor of alternative ecology movements," he added. "Radicals means Earth First, and much as I love and respect them, look how much they accomplished."
9. Chico Mendes, Amazonian Canary
One moving act of A Fierce Green Fire is dedicated to this indefatigable grassroots environmentalist, whose leadership of Brazilian rubbertappers seeking to save the Amazon rainforest from rapacious development cost him his life. It is one of the documentary's most bittersweet moments, given that the Amazon — which comprises over half of Earth's remaining rainforests and stores 10 billion tons of carbon, more than annual global emissions from fossil fuel combustion — is in danger of losing its total cover by 2100. Be afraid, very afraid.
"Thomas Lovejoy, who has studied the Amazon and how it unravels the most closely and the longest, talks about global forestry compacts and deals, and regulating carbon and nitrogen. He's saying, it’s a new day. And who knows? It might even make us get along! There have been and will be parts of the Amazon that are lost. The rain machine will stutter and maybe halt. But a third of the Amazon is under formal protection. That’s impressive and amazing, better than we’ve done in America."
"So it will be a world of islands, biologically and otherwise," Kitchell concluded. "Find a good place to take refuge, go local, consume less, dematerialize and cyberneticize. And restore the land."
10. Global Warming Is Truly Bipartisan
One thing above all becomes crystal clear while watching A Fierce Green Fire: When it comes to climate change, it is both Democrats and Republicans who have screwed us all. The documentary's final act on the greatest environmental threat facing any generation of American history has nothing good to say about either party, from Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Clinton to Bush to Obama.
Which is why it's more important than ever for citizens of any political persuasion to take up the charge and force the American government to get it in gear before global warming turns into a full-fledged apocalypse rendering the Earth uninhabitable. And the Keystone XL pipeline — whose cargo means game over for climate stability, as NASA atmospheric physicist James Hansen so incisively argued last year — is the flashpoint for that fight, which needs to heat up, not cool down.
"It is a protest against the Obama administration, meant very deliberately to put pressure on them to do the right thing," Kitchell said. "And it seems to be working. I don’t hear much talk of an 'all-of-the-above' energy policy now. But part of the problem with the environmental movement is it doesn’t have the power to swing elections and instill fear and discipline in politicians. You could say that of most mass movements, though."
"I’ve been trying in this film, and the process of making it, to look at the bigger picture of where environmentalism is going and what it means," he added. "I think it’s about civilizational transformation, an idea I got from Paul Hawken. It’s the next big transition after the Industrial Revolution, and it’s about reinventing the way we make and do everything to bring our industrial society into sustainable balance with the natural world on which we depend for survival. That’s why the subtitle of the film is The Battle For a Living Planet.”
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