Opening today at the Cinema Village in New York, “A Fierce Green Fire” is an intelligent and dramatically compelling history of the environmentalist movement directed by Mark Kitchell, whose last film was “Berkeley in the Sixties”. Although I have followed the movement closely since the late 80s, much of the film came as a revelation especially the story of how ideological and strategic differences within the movement led to the formation of new groups, a process I am more familiar with as a long-time student of the Marxist left as well.
The film is divided into five parts, each narrated by a notable (Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende, Meryl Streep).
The first deals with conservation, the hallmark of the Teddy Roosevelt presidency so sweeping in its ambitions that Lenin used it as a model for similar efforts in the infant Soviet republic (my factoid, not the film’s). We learn that John Muir founded the granddaddy of all environmentalist organizations, the Sierra Club, at a time when the citizenry was becoming enraged over the loss of wildlife, including the magnificent birds like the Snowy Egret that were supplying the feathers for hats sold in department stores. As someone who has observed these creatures in Central Park, one can well understand why people would be moved.
Eventually David Brower, who I never met but with whom I was familiar his support for Tecnica in the 1980s, assumed the reins of the Sierra Club in 1952. At the time Brower was working with Lindsay Mattison in the International Center for Development Policy, a group that provided behind-the-scenes support not just for our organization but a host of others as well. Whenever Michael Urmann, our executive director, referred to Brower, it was in hushed and reverential tones. It is easy to see why from this film. He was a heroic figure who elevated the Sierra Club into a fighting organization that stopped the government dead in its tracks in 1965 from building dams in the Grand Canyon.
When the Sierra Club board voted to back the construction of a nuclear power plant in Diablo Canyon in 1967, Brower and his supporters split to form Friends of the Earth. As someone who admired Brower from afar for the past 25 years, it was deeply satisfying to see him speak and to lead protests in the film.
The next part is an account of the Love Canal struggle of the late 70s in which families living in Niagara Falls demand to be relocated from a toxic dump that has left most of their children suffering from birth defects. Although I have vivid memories of what took place, it was thrilling to see ordinary people fight like hell for the basic human right not to be poisoned by corporate polluters. People too young to remember Love Canal will find it inspiring since it is a reminder that a massive resistance is possible once the victims of corporate malfeasance decided to take matters into their own hands.
Part three covers the formation of Greenpeace as a response to Japanese whaling. One of the interviewees is Paul Watson, a former board member of Greenpeace who split with them over a perceived lack of militancy. He went on to form Sea Shepherds, a group that I have had some problems with in the past over their opposition to Makah whale hunting. I recommend an article by Jim Craven, an economics professor of Blackfoot descent, making the case for aboriginal rights.
Next the film deals with the spread of environmental activism, focusing on the struggle of Chico Mendes, a rubber tapper who led nonviolent resistance to rancher incursions into the Brazilian rainforest in the 1980s and who was murdered for his efforts. Again, this is a heroic figure whose story younger people would find most inspiring. There is a sad irony reflected in Mendes’s electoral bid as Workers Party candidate. Despite the party’s radical roots and the promises of its leaders to defend the Amazon rainforest and its dwellers from commercial exploitation, the relentless drive for profits continues apace.
The final part on global warming dovetails with the documentary “Greedy Lying Bastards” that opens next Friday at the Village East and AMC Empire 25 in New York and in Los Angeles as well. (Full screening information is here: http://greedylyingbastards.com/) Directed by radical environmentalist Craig Rosebraugh, a former member of the Earth Liberation Front, it is a no-hold’s barred attack on global warming denialism. If “A Fierce Green Fire” was all about heroes, this is a documentary about villains. The two films actually complement each other and should be seen by anybody who cares about the future of the planet.
If the situation was not so dire, the film almost would play as a comedy with a rogue’s gallery of denialists parading across the screen. Among the most grotesque is Christopher Monckton, the bowler-hat wearing Third Viscount of Brenchley and one-time adviser to Margaret Thatcher. Yes, I know, this sounds like something I lifted from a P.J. Wodehouse short story but this is a real person—in a manner of speaking. Monckton specializes in making outlandish statements such as declaring that there has been no evidence of warming over the past 16 years. As the documentary points out, it does not really matter if denialists lie. It forces scientists to spend an inordinate amount of time correcting the record and has the effect of changing some peoples’ minds after the fashion of Goebbels’s “big lie” technique.
People like Monckton make a good living from stipends paid by energy company executives to speak at their bashes. Among them are characters like the Koch brothers who are as disgusting as ever.
The film gives the victims of climate change to tell their story, from homeowners in the Southwest devastated by wildfire and survivors of Hurricane Sandy. The film also interviews some of the major figures of climate change science, including Mark Serreze and Pieter Tans. It also features Representative Henry Waxman who comes across as more determined to stop the Koch brothers and Christopher Monckton’s of the world than most politicians.
But one can’t help but feel a sense of dismay at the tendency of the environmental crisis to deepen no matter which party is in power. One of the final interviewees in “A Fierce Green Fire” is Robert Bullard, the African-American author of author of “Dumping in Dixie” and “Toxic Waste and Race.” He plaintively asks why there should not be unanimity on the need to save the planet, since all of us—rich and poor—live on it. This, of course, is a question that has nagged at me for years. Why doesn’t the ruling class of today look after its long-term interests in the way it did a hundred years ago? Just compare Teddy Roosevelt who set aside huge amounts of land so greedy corporations would not despoil it to Barack Obama, who despite paying homage to Roosevelt, has shown willingness to let oil companies drill in formerly protected areas—not to speak of his utter ineffectiveness in halting climate change.
Perhaps there is no sense in trying to psychologize the people in power who like all ruling classes in a period of steep decline show an utter inability to think about the long term. Despite Obama’s Columbia and Harvard education (or maybe because of it), he may not be that much different than the Czar taking advice from Rasputin.
If the solution to the environmental crisis is eliminating the profit motive, there’s not much engagement with that in either documentaries despite their many virtues. If I were Mark Kitchell, I might have made an effort to grill some of the environmentalist leaders he had a chance to interview like Barbara Bramble, the head of the National Wildlife Federation. Her predecessor Jay Hair built up a huge $100 million endowment. You’ll never guess how? Well, let Counterpunch editor Jeff St. Clair explain:
Under the firm hand of Hair’s leadership the Federation’s membership doubled and it’s budget tripled. His strategy was simple: market the Wildlife Federation as a non-confrontational corporate-friendly outfit. Hair created the Corporate Conservation Council and forged relationships with some of the world’s most toxic corporations: ARCO, Ciba-Giegy, Dow Chemical, DuPont, Exxon, General Electric, General Motors, IBM, Mobil Oil, Monsanto, Penzoil, USX, Waste Management and Weyerhaeuser. The corporations received the impriatur of the nation’s largest environmental group, while the National Wildlife Federation raked in millions in corporation grants.
The conservation giant showed less deference to its members. In 1975, Dr. Claude Moore, a long-time member, donated a 367-acre tract of forest land in Loudon County, Virginia to the Federation to be managed as a wildlife sanctuary. The land provided rich habitat for an extraordinary number of birds. A Smithsonian guidebook called the area a natural gem.
Then in 1986 the National Wildlife Federation decided to sell the sanctuary to a developer for $8.5 million and use the money to help pay for the construction of the Federation’s new seven-story office building on 16th Street in DC. Outraged, Dr. Moore and other members sued the Federation, alleging it had violated a contract to manage the land as a nature preserve. Moore lost. The land was sold and 1,300 houses constructed on the site.
What was it that Malcolm X used to call this? Asking the fox to guard the henhouse?