Just watched the excellent new PBS documentary Earth Days. PBS has very nicely decided to start placing its documentaries online, so you can stream it here.
The movie deals with the origins of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Its producers wisely decided to adopt a reflective rather than preachy tone and highlight both the successes and failures of the era’s environmental activists. The film is also gorgeously shot and contains great archival footage of everything from mid-century advertising to “back to the earth” hippies flocking to communes.
One of the saddest parts of the documentary was watching the transition in mainstream attitudes towards the environment from the 1970s to the 1980s. Even it was for cynical reasons, Nixon supported the legislation that lead to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air and Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act. The energy crisis of the early 1970s, which caused gas prices to skyrocket, convinced many Americans of the necessity of developing alternative energy and a reducing consumption. Along these lines, President Carter warned Americans that they would have to make sacrifices for the good of the planet and that there were limits to economic growth.
Ronald Reagan, however, based his first presidential campaign in large part on rejecting this philosophy. He argued that talk of limits on the nation’s consumerist “way of life” were almost un-American. Once elected, President Reagan slashed spending on environmental research and even removed the solar panels that Jimmy Carter had installed on the White House roof.
On a related note, Earth Day falls on April 22, which happens to be Vladimir Lenin’s birthday. The always-vigilant freedom fighters on the American Right noticed this fact. In the film, we learn that a Georgia politician sent out hundreds of telegrams denouncing the event’s first celebration in 1970 as a Communist plot. Plus ca change.