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Q&A: Acclaimed Doc Director Robert Stone Reviews Our Earth Days

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In light of the on-going ecological crises we seem to face daily, it was not only a massive task that veteran doc director Robert Stone tackled by making his latest film, Earth Days, but it was crucial for a movie like this to have come out this summer (it debuted as the closing night film for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival).

The film documents the history of environmental activism from its roots nearly four decades ago through the eyes of some of its key participants. To Stone, the modern ecological movement began with the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, and is moving on to a new and hopeful phase today. To illustrate such a globe-spanning movement, Stone chose to focus on a small set of its crucial players and thinkers.Employing interviews, a strong historical reference and beautiful scenes of Earth's natural riches, Stone draws on his own personal commitment to the subject to propel his film forward.

Stone's witnesses includes former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall; biologist Paul Ehrlich; Congressman Pete McCloskey; astronaut Rusty Schweickart; and Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand, among others.

Q: Your film is at the center of all those films that covered the panorama of ecological issues; it looks at the roots of it all.

RS: A lot of what people are talking about are symptoms of a larger problem. What I tried to do is to step back and look at the root causes of it. All of what's going on now has a context and a back-story. If you just look at each of these little crises that these various films represent or book, it's almost like throwing paint at the wall. And what I'm trying to do is step back and put this all in context so you can understand what's going on now.

Q: It's almost like you're there at the core of it all and every other feature or story emanates out from here.

RS: Exactly. The root cause of all of it is that there's too many of us, and nobody talks about that anymore.

Q: How did you choose the specific people you focused on? There are a lot of others you could have used as well. Orville Schell is one who comes to mind but these people provide an interesting set of choices.

RS: A film dealing with a subject of this magnitude had to be grounded in personal narrative in order to work. So I wanted it to be personal stories that would carry the film forward. The fewer people you have the more personal the story's going to be. I thought nine people would be the maximum the film could carry.

There are three main characters in the film and the rest are sort of secondary. With each of them, their personal life stories mirror the journey of the film. You see them in their childhood and they undergo a personal change which mirrors the changes that happen in the society at large. Also, taken together they represent the different strands that came together to create the [environmental] movement. I wanted the film to be a personal story, not one where the subject dominated it and you just have this brief chorus going on, just interviewing experts. They're experts but it's also about their personal experiences.

Q: Were you conscious about environmental issues from an early age?

RS: My mom read [Rachel Carson's] Silent Spring to me when I was eight years old so that had a pretty profound effect on me. Then [the original] Earth Day absolutely was a big turning point. I grew up in a college town and was really exposed, even though I was a young kid, really exposed to the demonstrations against the war and the political activism. Though I wasn't really a part of it, I saw it.

When the environmental movement came along with Earth Day, it was like a children's crusade in some way--kids got involved and that was our revolution. Kids have a natural understanding about the environment and a fascination with nature in a way that grownups don't, I think. When you're a kid you're interested in animals and the world, so the environment is something that children immediately glom onto. I certainly did.

Q: You picked some of my cultural heroes; Stewart Brand has been here since The Whole Earth Catalog came out. It was like the internet on paper--"this is the coolest."

RS: It was. He ended up becoming a real pioneer of the internet, but that's been his whole thing from the beginning.


Q: Former Arizona Congressman and, later Secretary of the Interior Udall (under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson) was really fascinating. What was it about him and the others that you felt A) were really important to you, that focused you on them, and B) why did you think they'd still resonate to people now--for the historical context or because you want people to see the continuum culturally?

RS: Each of them plays a different role. Authors Paul Ehrlich and Dennis Meadows wrote two of the seminal books that had an enormous resonance in the culture and the whole debate. Though Rachel Carson's dead, she's in the film. Those three books: Silent Spring, The Population Bomb and Limits to Growth are the three seminal books, so those guys are in it.

Former astronaut [Russell Louis] "Rusty" Schweickart has an incredible story that's one of the great astronaut stories that's not been told. People know about the guys who landed on the moon but his is really remarkable. I'd met Rusty about 15 years ago and heard his story. I always was amazed by it and surprised that so few people knew about it.

Rusty's another example of why I chose my characters. He's a minor character in the film, but not only does he go up in space and have this amazing revelation, he comes back and puts it into practice and becomes the Commissioner of Energy for the State of California and does all these radical innovations with energy conservation. So all the characters reemerge throughout the film in different phases.

Q: I could talk to you all day about Stewart Brand. He is one of the most fascinating personalities in the world. The Whole Earth Catalog came out and changed everybody's thinking in this time when the movie starts.

RS: Yeah, that's one of my favorite people in the world. Stewart had a profound impact on me and the visual palate of the film. Originally, when I started delving into this and finding archival footage, the first thing we did was find news footage that covered the topics in the film. It became clear early on that that wasn't going to work visually for this film because a lot of what they're talking about is almost unfilmable.

The whole message Stewart's been putting forth for 40 or 50 years now is that technology can enhance our perception of the world and by enhancing our perception, is the only way we're going to get a grip on the problem. You have to understand the problem to perceive the problem before you can start to find solutions.

He's always been pro-technology when the rest of the movement was really anti-technology. He said, "Look, rockets can get us into space and that can allow us to view the world from above and get a new perspective on our place in the universe. Airplanes can lift us up in the sky. Stop-motion photography, you can look at a smokestack and it might seem rather benign; you speed it up 100 times and you see how awful that amount of pollution going into this tiny veneer of an atmosphere we have."

So we started using those simple visual techniques to not only visually depict what was being talked about, but also since so much of the film is about this change in perception that we had going from the '50s into the '70s, [it shows] a revolutionary change of perception about our relationship to the earth. So Stewart had a really profound impact on how the film actually ends up looking.

Q: You talk about pesticides, Carson and President Kennedy. How significant was the President in an environmental issue?

RS: It was hugely significant. Because she didn't have academic credentials, she was a scientist, a woman--a single woman--so at that time the pesticide industry went after her with a real concerted campaign to discredit her, calling her a hysterical woman, that she didn't know what she was talking about. They were trying to destroy the message by destroying the messenger.

Udall had given Kennedy a copy of Silent Spring. He read it and was very moved by it so he came out and publicly supported her and set up a scientific panel, a commission, to study what she had done. He ended up supporting her and backing all of her research. That really silenced the critics and it went on to become a huge international best seller. Carson and the book had a profound impact on starting the whole environmental movement.

Q: If it had been Al Gore instead of George Bush becoming President would there be a whole different perspective right now?

RS: It goes back to Reagan really. I don't think you can just blame Reagan as a person, it was a whole movement. Reagan was elected by an overwhelming majority of the American public; America adopted a very conservative ideology that was easy. It's very easy to say the magic hand of the marketplace is going to solve all of our problems because then you don't have to do anything.

Reagan basically said we can go back to a 1950s mentality and the marketplace will take care of things, and people bought into it. As Hunter Lovins says at the end of the film, "We lost 30 years. For 30 years there was absolutely no movement forward In fact there was movement backwards, and we're just now resetting the clock and getting back to where we were."

Q: Ironically, the marketplace has been the one area where there is some movement in that people are trying to come up with new technologies to try to get ahead. Even during that 30 year period.

RS: It wasn't a fair market; it wasn't a market, that's the thing. The free hand of the market actually will solve these problems if it's a real market. If when you buy a car, you're paying the full value of that car including the damage to the environment that went into making the car and all of the pollution that's going to come out of that car, that's the value of that car. If you pay that, if it's a real market, that will solve the problem. And that's where the environmental movement is going now.

Q: The irony is that if they had allowed proper market forces to allow for technological innovation, there would have been alternative energy sources years ago. But there's a sort of corporate totalitarianism; they're not free marketers; they're corporate socialists.

RS: That's absolutely true. That's addressed in the last part of the movie when Dennis Hayes talks about the solar entrepreneurs as being crushed by these giant corporations who wanted to control the power industry.

Q: Pete McCloskey was a sort of liberal to moderate Republican but I didn't realize he became a Democrat. It must have been fascinating to talk with him and see his cultural and personal evolution.

RS: It's not that he's changed, it's that the Republican Party just shifted so far to the right and completely abandoned all the principles of environmentalism that it founded. And he's not the only one, there are other people I interviewed that didn't make it into the film; I interviewed Russell Train who was Richard Nixon's environmental advisor and the second head of the EPA. He's a staunch Republican was a big supporter of George Bush Sr. and everything, but he voted for Obama and is just appalled by how the Republican Party has abandoned environmentalism.

He's like, "We started environmentalism, this was our cause." Talk about conservation, this is conservative. And this corporatism you mentioned, corporate socialism, is exactly what bothers them; that the Republican Party has just shifted into this craziness. Republican environmentalists have just abandoned the party in droves.

Q: It amazes me sometimes, how could a Republican think that environmentalism is bad? I don't get it. Did you figure it out?

RS: It got caught up in the culture wars, and the Left has some blame here as well in that what you saw happening in the '70s with that initial burst of legislative success coming out of Earth Day, is that these minor, marginal environmental organizations became huge, they moved to Washington, they became these giant Washington lobbying organizations doing battle with corporate lobbying organizations. And the American public outsourced their activism to these Washington groups and they lost because they were overwhelmed by bigger forces.

I see the same thing happening now, and that's a warning of the film. Right now, the current battle over climate change, all it is being debated by Washington lobbying organizations, and how much money can you put into The Left versus The Right? Who has got the most amount of money and the most clout?

As long as that's where the movement is going, it's a recipe for disaster. That's what happened in the 1970s. Right now you almost have a complete reversal of how things were then. In the early '70s, it was a grassroots movement, with the mass public demanding change on a political level. And in the late '70s, as it is today, it became more about scientists, environmental activists, and a segment of the political class who were leading the whole thing. But they'd lost the support of the mass public who didn't understand the problem.

I think you see the same thing today. So unless you get back to it being a grassroots movement, it will be like the recent climate change bill that passed by what, three votes in Congress? With Obama in power, and the Democrats in control of the House and Senate, everybody's talking about climate change, yet with everything that we know about it, it passed by only three votes? That's not good.

Q: We have the nuttiest strain of Republicans in power that we've ever had.

RS: That's true. The film addresses this moment in time where there was a big focus on the environmental movement about perceiving the larger problem. In the case in the environment, people can get their heads around the big issue, and it's not a Republican or a Democratic issue that we need to care for our planet and that we're all in the same boat here. That's a big picture thing; when you start to get into arguing about the minutiae and the details about how we get from point A to point B it becomes politically divisive. So I would hope the environmental movement could get back to focusing on the big picture and not the minutiae.

Q: Many politicians prefer to tackle other issues because they usually resolve those issues in a short time. In order to get elected you have to solve a certain issue. Do you think that's part of the problem?

RS: Yeah, they're not going to tackle long term issues unless they're forced to do so because there's no political advantage to tackling long term issues. So again, as long as it's a battle of lobbyists in Washington it's going to be a losing battle for environmentalists. And I think the lesson of that is clear by what happened in the late '70s.

Q: Do you think that movies like yours and these other ones will help on a grassroots level? Because they don't make the larger political issues, they give it a more personal connection.

RS: I hope so. I don't think anybody can say that documentaries don't make a difference anymore. An Inconvenient Truth undoubtedly made a difference. Some films do and some films don't. My film is designed to reach as wide an audience as possible and not be a polemic. It's an effort to put this whole thing into a larger context, so for anybody who wants to really understand the environmental movement now, [they have] to understand how we got here.

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