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Fighting for the Planet: New Movie Sizes Up Environmental Movement’s First 50 Years

John Tarleton Feb 28, 2013

These are busy times for environmentalists. From fighting fracking to trying to halt the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline and organize a divestment campaign against leading fossil fuel companies, the challenges never let up. But sometimes it helps to step back and take stock of the larger picture. In his ambitious new documentary, A Fierce Green Fire (First Run Features, 2012), director Mark Kitchell offers just such a chance. Rich in archival footage and narrated by an all-star cast that includes Robert Redford, Isabel Allende and Ashley Judd, the movie looks back on the emergence of the modern environmental movement over the past half-century from its early days fighting to save iconic sites like the Grand Canyon from big dam builders to the complex, globe-spanning issues of today such as climate change and resource depletion. Kitchell, the Academy Award nominated director of Berkeley in the Sixties recently spoke with The Indypendent about the film which hits the big screen in New York at Cinema Village on Friday March 1.

John Tarleton: Why did you make this movie?

Mark Kitchell: Credit belongs to my wife for the idea. We were riding up from LA to San Francisco, and she said you ought to do a film on the history of the environmental movement. It was a great idea. There needs to be a big picture history of the environmental movement and so I volunteered to do it.

JT: The possibilities are endless with a story like this. How did you go about organizing it?

MK: My wife and I spent a year reading and writing and formed it into a six-part series. I wrote a 30-page treatment. I went to see E.O. Wilson, the famous Harvard conservation biologist, who was one of the advisors on the film. And he said, 'Mark, you're never gonna get it made and if you do nobody's ever going to watch it. It's just too long, you need to focus on five of the most dramatic and important events and people'.

We said there has to be the Sierra Club and there has to be Lois Gibbs and Love Canal and there has to be Chico Mendes and the struggle to save the Amazon, and what else could you finish on but climate change. I added Greenpeace later because I wanted the cowboys and people who made it fun and passionate to be an environmentalist in there. Later, I put other material back in including the emergence in the 1980s of the environmental justice movement that connected environmental and racial justice issues.

So I ended up with a sort of an hourglass shape for each act where you start wide with context and origins and then you narrow in on the main story and the main character and then at the end you open up again to look at ramifications, evolution, what became of that strand of the movement.

JT: What's been the reaction to the movie?

MK: I've been impressed at the range of people who told me they learned things they didn't know. We showed it at Middlebury College and one of the students there said she's already presenting for Al Gore's Climate Reality Project and she's saying just because she really needed to have background to what she was doing. She did not know the history.

There was a cashier at the food market in Mendocino who took my hand the day after the screening and said, 'you kept us up all night talking about the things we used to do and don't do and are gonna do again'. Yesterday I was in Florida showing it to college students and they really got it.

JT: What are some of the key lessons to be learned from the past 50 years of environmental activism?

MK: The issues have kept on growing in scope and difficulty. The battles started out being local and rather concrete, you were trying to save a place or a thing. Then it moved to where you were taking on an industrial society that's spewing out poisons and harmful substances. In the next stage, and you're trying to create alternatives and that's continually being frustrated and undermined. Then you get to a level where it's global scale – it's the oceans it's the atmosphere, it's soil, it's water. Things like equity and sustainability and an extinction crisis on top of all of it. And then comes the biggest one, which is climate change.

The issues are impossible and the battles are against all odds but then people go ahead and they take them on and they win a lot of the time. So one of the lessons is that you can take on difficult and impossible issues and you can succeed. There’s certainly a lesson there about the need for bottom up movements if for nothing else, to put pressure on top-down politics, to make the changes that are necessary.

The film is a primer on all the varieties of activism and all the ways you can run a movement and take on an issue. There's debates about how far to go, whether to break the law or not and so on.

JT: The questions that every movement confronts.

MK: Yes. There's lots of splits, and people survive the splits.

JT: Toward the end of the film, it's mentioned that there are now 2 million organizations around the world that exist that are addressing environmental and social justice issues. Yet, environmental problems continue to multiply as capitalism accelerates its destruction of the planet. Should we be doing something differently?

MK: The environmental movement doesn't behave exactly like a more conventional movement. It's not as concrete and structured and with a set of ideas and leaders. It tends to be very organic and responsive. Those 2 million organizations, most of them are people who are fighting for their own backyard.

We need something like a civilization transformation or certainly changing our industrial society to bring it into some kind of balance of the natural world so that it can go on. It would be the biggest change since the Industrial Revolution began 250 years ago. So I'm hoping that the film can be part of that bigger discussion beyond climate change and about how we're going to reinvent our society.

A Fierce Green Fire begins a week-long run at New York City's Cinema Village on Friday March 1. For more about the movie, click here.

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