Robert Redford - Honoring the Environmental Artist

03/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Dr. Bill Chameides, dean of Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, blogs regularly at

Discussions of the environment, including those found here, can be intellectual, dominated by science, public policy, economics, and politics. But why do we care?

The environment is front-page news; everyone is talking about one environmental issue or another. When asked, most Americans will say they care about the environment and that it should be protected. Yet, when asked to rate its importance relative to other issues, the environment is usually placed far down on the list. Why the dichotomy? That question has puzzled environmentalists for a quite a while. Perhaps Americans, living in a highly mechanized society, have lost a sense of their physical and, if you will, spiritual connection to the natural world?

I suspect that fundamental change - the kind that will spur more sustainable choices and lifestyles - will require people to reconnect viscerally to the environment. Creating visceral connections is the purview of the artist. But while a plethora of awards honor environmental greatness (e.g., Volvo Environment Prize, The Goldman Environmental Prize, Seaworld/Busch Gardens Environmental Excellence Awards, Mercedes-Benz Australian Environmental Research Award, New Jersey Environmental Excellence Awards), precious few recognize the contributions of artists.

Duke's Nicholas School Announces New Environmental Award for Artists

We at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment have decided to change that. Our new award, the Duke LEAF (short for Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts) will be awarded annually to:

"an artist whose work has lifted the human spirit by conveying our profound spiritual and material connection to the Earth, thereby inspiring others to help forge a more sustainable future for all."

Robert Redford to Be First Recipient of the Duke LEAF

So on April 18 Mr. Redford will be coming to our campus to receive the first Duke LEAF. We will honor:

  • his central role as an artist,
  • his moving cinematic portrayals of the natural world, and
  • his strong and effective environmental advocacy.

Of course, Redford is best known as an actor, who has portrayed all sorts of roles from Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate story with Carl Bernstein (All the President's Men, 1976), to the Sundance Kid (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 1969).

Redford's Wide-Ranging Work

But to view him only as a Hollywood star would seriously undervalue his other major contributions. In addition to acting in more than three dozen movies, Redford has:

  • directed seven major films, including Ordinary People (1980), his directorial debut for which he won a Best Director Oscar, and Golden Globe winners Quiz Show (1994) and Horse Whisperer (1998);
  • produced 25 movies and TV programs; and
  • received an honorary Academy Award for his work as an "actor, director, producer, creator of Sundance, and inspiration to independent and innovative filmmakers everywhere."

Arguably, his greatest contribution to the arts has been to found the Sundance Institute and Sundance Festival

Since 1981, Redford has unselfishly devoted time and energy to provide resources and outlets to thousands of independent film, theater, and musical artists. Probably no one is single-handedly more responsible for bringing independent film to American movie-goers. Just one of many examples: do you remember Little Miss Sunshine (2006), which won Best Screenplay and Supporting Actor Oscars? It debuted at Sundance.

Today Googling "independent film festival" returns ~352,000 pages (without quotation marks, it's ~34.5 million). A Google search back in 1981 (had that been possible) I suspect would have gotten far fewer.

Environmentalism in Redford's Films

Environmental themes abound in Redford's films. A River Runs Through It (1992), A Civil Action (1998), and the Milagro Beanfield War (1988) are noteworthy in this regard. I particularly like the Milagro Beanfield War, based on the John Nichols book. While made two decades ago, it remains a wonderfully entertaining but relevant explication of the ever-growing water crisis in the American Southwest. I haven't watched it in almost 20 years, but look forward to seeing it again.

Redford's impressive resume includes producing and directing credits on a number of environmental documentaries, including The Solar Film (1975) and the award-winning The Unforeseen (2007).

Redford has also been a key spokesperson for the environment beyond the big screen, working for conservation, renewable energy, and clean air and water.

In 2007 he formed the Redford Center, a year-round haven for independent thinking, inspired creativity, and social change. Of the center, Redford said:

"I've long believed we could move toward solving some of our biggest problems if there were an artist at every table. An artist who can contribute new creative thinking to issues like climate change. That's what we're trying to do up here - bring artists together with policy makers to develop fresh approaches to persistent issues."

What more can I say?