Kitchell succeeds in transforming five turning points into a deeply felt, dynamic story. He blends rock music, superb cinematography, historic footage, original music and narration by five environmental stars (Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep).
Conservation meets industry
After World War II, David Brower led the Sierra Club in opposing proposed dams in the Grand Canyon. Public outrage followed IRS threats to the club. Early organizers learned to use advertising effectively.
The Sixties brought the flowering of conservation. New national parks were created. More than a million acres of land were protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers and the National Trails acts. Pollutants and toxic chemicals were fueling our bright, shiny future. In Silent Spring, Rachel Carson was the first to speak out about the dangers of pesticides like DDT.
Apartheid: American style
It took two decades before the civil and environmental rights movements converged, says Robert Bullard, pioneering environmental justice advocate, professor and author of Dumping in Dixie. Hazardous waste landfills and incinerators are located in the neighborhoods of Afro-Americans, Hispanics, recent immigrants and other minorities “because of their lack of political klout,” Shabecoff notes.
For example, Union Carbide located a manufacturing plant for MIC (methyl isocyanate) – the chemical that killed thousands in Bhopal, India – in predominantly black Institute, West Virginia. The largest hazardous waste landfill in Sumpter County, Alabama was built in Emelle (now 95% black), even while no blacks sat on county commissions. “It’s called Apartheid: American style,” says Bullard.
“This is about human rights,” he adds. “The right to breathe clean air, the right to drink clean water, to eat food that’s safe, and to live in a community that is nourishing and sustaining.”
The Ecology movement grew out of the 1960s counter-culture movement. In a world out of balance, people wanted to build alternative futures and live the change, says author and eco-entrepreneur Paul Hawken (Blessed Unrest; The Ecology of Commerce). Buckminster Fuller’s thinking inspired ecologists. How could we do more with less?
Following the oil crisis of 1973, renewable energy only received a fraction of federal research dollars. The money went to coal, gasification, synthetic fuel and breeder reactors.
“Ronald Reagan took away all the tax credit and subsidy for the alternative energy industry,” says Bill McKibben, author and founder of 350.org. You want a wind turbine? You go to Denmark. You want solar panels? You go to Japan, Germany and China. “We’re bit players,” says McKibben.
“Mind bombs” make waves
Greenpeace brought passion and excitement to environmentalism. Activists put their bodies on the line worldwide. Paul Watson, one of the Greenpeace co-founders, tells about sailing in front of a Russian whaling vessel. A mother whale’s scream sounded human, he recalls. That’s when he realized, “I work for whales. I work for seals. I work for sea turtles and fish and sea birds.”
The International Whaling Commission passed a moratorium on whaling in 1982. Activists continue to monitor the situation. Greenpeace now leads international opposition to nuclear weapons and other issues.
Chico Mendes taps justice
A poor rubber tapper and union organizer named Chico Mendes stepped forward to save his people’s way of life after logging of Brazilian forests began. Mendes began to build alliances with other indigenous groups.
Through non-violent protest, the rubber tappers stopped loggers from cutting down more trees. Cachoeira, the first extractive reserve in the world, was established. In such indigenous reserves, “the people wouldn’t own the land but it would be theirs for as long as they wanted to work it,” according to journalist Adrian Cowell. “It was an idea of the people who actually lived in the forest.”
Mendes was gunned down soon after Cachoeira opened. The Brazilian government recognized the rights of the forest peoples and established parks and protected areas. Some 58 million acres were set aside in extractive reserves. Some 40% of the Brazilian Amazon was protected.
Industrial soy farming and illegal logging continue to threaten the area. Activists remain vigilant.
Partial deforestation and climate change have taken a toll. The Amazon will become semi-desert by the year 2100 unless we act now, says Cowell. “It will be an apocalypse for the whole of mankind across the whole globe unless something is done.”
“I’m actually sort of a planet doctor,” says Tom Lovejoy, a conservation biologist who conceived the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments research project. Protecting endangered species means protecting their habitats, working with local communities, and facing big challenges like acid rain and global warming.
“The time is at hand for a great global bargain about the world’s forests,” says Lovejoy. We must manage global carbon and nitrogen, he notes. “It’s a different time. And who knows, it might even make us get along with each other.”
“Right to live” claimed
In the 1980s and 1990s, environmental movements rose throughout the global South. Issues included water and soil rights, and restoring the land. Social justice, indigenous and environmental rights became one in the developing world.
“What people are really fighting for is the right of subsistence, the right of access to clean water, to food, to forests,” says author and professor Vijaya Nagarajan. “The right to live.”
Archival footage shows Wangari Maathai of Kenya’s Greenbelt Movement, and Vandana Shiva, physicist, author and activist for seed and traditional agriculture in India. “The forests are our lives,” Maathai tells a group of loggers.
Gaia’s “tough love”
Crises beset all our ecosystems by the 1990s. Deforestation, desertification, loss of water and soil, emptying oceans, the Sixth Great Extinction and a vast hole in the ozone over Antarctica threatened. Yet global warming dwarfs all these problems.
“If Gaia heals itself from our current greenhouse gas emissions by going to 5 degrees Celsius warmer the way it did 55 million years ago, and stabilizes there, it’s fine for Gaia, but lousy for us,” explains Stewart Brand, publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog. “That’s a world in which there’s carrying capacity for maybe 1.5 billion people versus 6.8 going onto 7 that we have now. That would be a very tough century.”
World wants a real climate deal
In the summer of 1988, James Hansen, director of NASA’s Goddard Institute, warned a congressional committee that global warming had arrived. Hansen told leaders, “We’ve got to stop waffling around. We are heating the planet, this is human-caused, and it’s going to get way, way worse,” according to McKibben.
The two biggest carbon-producing nations, the U.S. and China, resisted mandatory carbon emissions reductions at climate summits in Rio de Janeiro, Kyoto and Copenhagen. Citizen protests broke out.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide reach 800 to 1,000 ppm, says Joe Romm, author and editor of the Climate Progress blog. “The consequences are so dire that most scientists haven’t even studied them.”
Global warming is “in a sense, too big an issue for the environmental movement to take on,” McKibben believes. “It took a long time even for environmentalists to really pick up on it. For much of the 1990s, it was a second-tier issue among environmentalists.”
Where’s Planet B?
“We keep looking for love in all the wrong places” when we ask governments for change, says Hawken. He discovered two million grassroots organizations worldwide working on social justice and the environment.
“This is not going to be top down,” Hawken asserts. “It goes right back to the hundreds of millions of people on Earth who are trying to find and craft and create solutions every single day.”
This is “humanity’s immune response to the despoliation of the environment, to the degradation of living systems, to the corruption we see in economic systems, and the pollution of the industrial system.”
“Everything is hitched,” John Muir once said. “There’s no black air, no Hispanic air, no white air,” Bullard told ThinkProgress. “It’s just air.” If you’re concerned about what’s in our air, water and food, “You’re an environmentalist. You just may not know it.”
Environmentalism’s next chapter
Kitchell told the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), “I think what we can do is we can educate, we can inspire, we can recruit and we can mobilize.”
“We’re talking about civilizational change and try and show, instead of say, that everybody ought to be active and out there doing something.” The film ends with a mosaic of people worldwide acting on different issues.
A Fierce Green Fire is intended for past and future generations. It’s for “the kids coming up now and in the future who will live through the storm. I want them to know that there was a movement, there were people who cared.”
The director hopes that A Fierce Green Fire “will cause people to think and then they’ll find the action deeper within themselves.” ★★★★★