In ‘A Fierce Green Fire,’ Mark Kitchell puts environmental history on film
AMHERST — Climate change activist Bill McKibben looks like he’s in pain as he tells an interviewer that Denmark leads the world in wind turbine technology and the top solar panel factories are all in China, Germany and Japan.
“We’re bit players in these games because we made a set of political decisions, beginning with Ronald Reagan, to pay no attention to the idea that there might be a need to change,” he says.
McKibben is one of many environmentalists who appear in the new movie “A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for Living Planet,” which received advance screenings in Amherst last week. It’s a film history of the environmental movement, from the Sierra Club opposing dams in California to young mothers coping with toxic chemicals at Love Canal to Greenpeace protecting whales to the current debate over climate change.
The film, which will be released in independent moviehouses next spring, was produced, directed and written by Mark Kitchell, who made “Berkeley in the Sixties,” which was about a different kind of protest movement and received an Academy Award nomination. Kitchell, who lives in San Francisco and has family connections to the Pioneer Valley, was at the Amherst Cinema Nov. 27 to show the film and answer questions.
He was asked if he’s optimistic about the future.
“On climate change, I don’t think it will go well,” he said. “A lot of good things are happening, but I don’t think there will be the social and political will to make change until it gets bad enough. I expect the next century to be difficult.”
Kitchell’s Shakespearean tale has five acts, each narrated by different celebrity. Actors Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Ashley Judd lend their voices to the film, as do activist Van Jones and writer Isabel Allende. The film features current interviews with Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Amherst native Amory Lovins, Love Canal victim Lois Gibbs, agricultural activist Vandana Shiva and many lesser-known environmentalists.
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot,” Joni Mitchell sings in the film. Tom Lehrer contributes this ditty, another ’60s classic: “If you visit American city, you will find it very pretty. Just two things of which you must beware: Don’t drink the water and don’t breathe the air.”
The environmental movement started with ladies’ hats, as the Audubon Society tried to save plumed birds, Redford intones at the start of the film. Brand explains the film’s title in saying that writer Aldo Leopold looked into the eyes of a wolf he had shot and saw “a fierce green fire.” The film follows John Muir and the Sierra Club’s mixed success in fighting dams.
“The real consciousness-changer was seeing Earth from space” in 1969, Brand says. “It completely changed people’s ideas about themselves and their role on the planet. You saw a green, blue, cloud-bedecked living planet and in the foreground a dead moon with nothing but craters. People began to realize we could be as dead as the moon.”
The film shows footage of people cleaning up trash on Earth Day in 1970 and features civil rights activist James Farmer saying, “If we do not save the environment, whatever we do in civil rights or the war on poverty will be of no meaning, because then we will have the equality of extinction.”
Two Republican presidents show how the promise of Earth Day was thwarted. Richard Nixon, who who was president when the Environmental Protection Agency was created, is shown saying, “The great question of the ’70s is shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our piece with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air and water.” Ten years later, Reagan is shown saying, “There is environmental extremism; they won’t be happy until the White House looks like a bird’s nest.”
The film gives extensive screen time to Love Canal, the upstate New York site that a chemical company used as a dumping ground. Nearby residents noticed that a large number of mothers were giving birth to stillborn babies or children with birth defects, and made such a ruckus that President Jimmy Carter intervened, saying, “There must never be in our country another Love Canal.”
In an act called “Alternatives,” Brand talks about the birth of the Whole Earth Catalog. “Communes were reinventing civilization and didn’t know how and I didn’t either, but thought we could find out,” he says.
The film covers the first computer modeling of environmental trends, Buckminster Fuller, renewable energy and the oil crises of 1973 and 1979. It details Greenpeace’s efforts, which led to a moratorium on hunting whales in 1982.
The movement goes global in the fourth act, with residents of the Amazon resisting logging, dams and deforestation. All the campaigns chronicled in the first four acts had their successes, but the final chapter of the history of climate change has yet to be written.
Its prophet is NASA scientist James Hansen, who in 1988 testifies before Congress that carbon dioxide emissions are accelerating and the consequences could be dire. But at a summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, President George H. W. Bush says that “the American way of life is not up for negotiations,” and Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., calls climate change “a hoax.” The second President Bush rejects the agreements made at a summit in Kyoto.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 had unavoidable implications, especially because it followed an unprecedented heat wave in Europe, drought and fire in Australia and ice disappearing in the Arctic. McKibben starts the activist group 350.org as a way to emphasize the maximum amount of parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that can be tolerated to avert catastrophe. In 2009, a summit in Copenhagen fails to reach a consensus.
The film ends with Paul Hawken saying that activists are “looking for love in all the wrong places.” He says political leaders can’t be relied on to address the problem, and the two million organizations working on social justice and the environment amount to “humanity’s immune response.”
Kitchell said he made the film because no one had done a comprehensive history of the environmental movement. “It was ready for someone to take on the bigger meaning of it all and put the pieces together and see what it’s come to.”
Occasionally, the style of the film evokes Ken Burns, who also has connections to the Valley. But Kitchell said Burns tries harder to be neutral on political questions.
“I feel a little guilty in this film for not coming up with a critique of capitalism or coming down harder on coal and oil companies,” he said in an interview.
Climate change is not like the Vietnam war or nuclear weapons, because opponents don’t have something clear-cut to protest, Kitchell said. “It’s an impossible issue to deal with but impossible to ignore,” he told viewers at the Amherst Cinema.
Still, the first four acts of his film show that patience and persistence can result in victories. “There’s a general sense of growth of the movement from local and small to bigger and broader in scope until it’s the whole world, ” he said. “What the movement is ultimately about isn’t just climate change. It’s about finding a sustainable path to the future.”