10/07/2010 12:14 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Story of "What About Tomorrow"

This year marks the 20th anniversary of "What About Tomorrow," a groundbreaking environmental music video. The music for the video is taken from a little-known song by Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who are now more famous than ever because of the current global success of Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning play based on their lives. "What About Tomorrow" is the most unusual use ever made of their celebrated music.

At the time I produced this video, I was science and environment editor at TIME magazine. Instead of having our customary "Person of the Year" in 1989, we had named "Endangered Earth" as "Planet of the Year" and compiled a 33-page special report on such dangers as global warming, deforestation and species extinction. The issue generated enormous interest, and I got invitations to address audiences from Maui to Moscow.

Working on one of those speeches in late 1989, I came up with a line something like "We have enough resources today, but what about tomorrow?" That made me think of a song called "What About Tomorrow," which was an obscure track on Streetfighter, one of the Four Seasons' least known albums. But it was written by those same two Jersey Boys, Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, who wrote "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man,'' "Rag Doll," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." "What About Tomorrow" is a typically melodic, eminently hummable Four Seasons love song. Yet I thought it could be much more. Within a day, I had rewritten the lyrics to make "What About Tomorrow" into a call for environmental action.

After obtaining the permission of the Four Seasons Partnership (Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio) in early 1990, I immediately set out to make my rewrite into an environmental music video. Time was short. I wanted the video to have its premiere on April 22, 1990, the 20th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Major commemorations were being planned, and I wanted "What About Tomorrow" to be part of the occasion.

To perform the soundtrack, I recruited my friends Bill Oliver and Glen Waldeck, a folk-singing duo who had made a career of playing songs about the environment. I had seen them entertain the Sierra Club National Assembly and was so impressed that I profiled them in TIME, dubbing them "troubadours for Mother Nature."

Oliver happened to hail from a musical hotbed: Austin, Texas. To arrange the music and gather musicians for the soundtrack, he lined up Reese Wynans, who at the time was keyboard player for the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. Wynans in turn put together an all-star Austin band. Percussionist Paul Pearcy, for example, had just been named one of the city's top musicians at an annual awards dinner and has played on albums by Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks.

With the soundtrack in hand, I found a willing video producer in Sam Green, owner of the Edit Room in Washington, D.C. I had seen some environmental documentary work his company had done for the Smithsonian Institution. After listening to the song, Green and Jeff Consiglio, who became the director and editor, suggested that we could put together a video by using stock footage of nature scenes and filming original scenes featuring children, for whose sake we need to preserve the environment. Consiglio was just beginning a very successful career as an editor and director. He recently edited the documentary feature film War/Dance, which was nominated last year for an Academy Award, and also edited Weezer's music video Pork and Beans, which won Best Short Form Video at the 2009 Grammy Awards.

To shoot the original scenes, Green and Consiglio hired skilled cinematographer Erich Roland. In recent years, Roland has shot footage for such prestigious TV shows as Frontline, Nature and American Masters. But perhaps his most celebrated year came just before he shot "What About Tomorrow." In 1989, Roland was camera operator on Academy Award-winning Driving Miss Daisy and cinematographer for The Johnstown Flood, which took home the Oscar for best documentary short subject.

Everything came together in time, and "What About Tomorrow" had its premiere on Earth Day 1990 on the VH-1 national cable-TV network. It was also shown that day on several local TV stations, including major network affiliates in Cleveland and Indianapolis. A couple of weeks later I was interviewed about my video on Nine Broadcast Plaza, a show produced by Channel 9, based in Secaucus, NJ, and serving New York City. The substitute host that day was an up-and-coming TV personality named Matt Lauer.

In June 1990 "What About Tomorrow" reached a global audience. It was included in a live concert show called Earth '90: Children and the Environment. The show was broadcast in 60 countries and was hosted by John Denver in Tokyo, Olivia Newton-John in Paris and Debbie Gibson at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

It's impossible to say how many times and places "What About Tomorrow" has been shown since then. For a while, Oliver, Waldeck and I were spreading it far and wide. It was shown at the Hawaii International Film Festival. I showed it at a conference held by UNICEF in Florence, Italy. I've known several high school and college teachers to use it in classrooms. This testimonial came from Dr. Carl Finstad, a biology professor at the University of Wisconsin: "I saw 'What About Tomorrow' at the recent North American Association for Environmental Education conference in San Antonio and thought it to be outstanding. I've never seen anything of five minutes duration that was as impacting and comprehensive in its coverage of environmental issues as this one. My plan is to use this tape as a final review in my Environmental Education class."

Why is this 1990 video still relevant? Well, the environment is even more in the news than usual, as Congress struggles to pass the first U.S. legislation to fight climate change. Unfortunately, little has changed in two decades. In fact, such ominous trends as global warming and habitat destruction have accelerated. The environment is more imperiled than ever. The future in which our children and grandchildren will live is more in danger than ever.

For decades, the music of the Four Seasons has brought joy to millions. But few people realize that Seasons music has also been used to deliver a powerful and vital environmental message in "What About Tomorrow."