Fighting for the Good, Green Land

A new documentary recounts the history of the American environmental movement. Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

Aldo Leopold once shot a wolf. As he approached the dying animal, he saw “a fierce green fire in her eyes,” which convinced him that he had erred deeply in his understanding of nature. As the noted environmentalist would write later in A Sand County Almanac, “I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes—something known only to her and to the mountain.”

A Fierce Green Fire is the title of an expertly-made new documentary by Mark Kitchell that made the film-festival rounds for much of last year and recently became available for streaming at GaiamTV, the media branch of the green lifestyle company Gaiam. Based in part on New York Times reporter Philip Shabecoff’s book of the same name, the 100-minute documentary features narration by Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones and Isabel Allende.

The history of the American environmental movement, now about a century old, has been told before. A Fierce Green Fire does a fine job of telling it again -- the early activism of Theodore Roosevelt, the unlikely environmentalism of Richard Nixon, the tragedy that was Love Canal, the travesty that was Ronald Reagan’s administration, which resorted to invocations of freedom whenever it wanted industry to roam ever more free. Especially effective are images of senseless cruelty and calculated destruction: clubbed baby seals, bloodied sperm whales, obliterated Amazon rainforests, toxic sludge bubbling up all over the land.

“Earth pollution is mind pollution,” Allen Ginsberg said at Earth Day 1970. But that was four decades ago, and many of the leaders of the environmental movement -- the ones who headed the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council and likeminded organizations -- are aging. Recounting the battles they have fought, these activists clearly yearn for a new green vanguard to replace them.

So does Kitchell. He tells Newsweek that he made the film “not for our generation but for the next generations -- young people who know how important these issues are but have never experienced much of a movement, who struggle to find a handle for activism against impossible issues like climate change.” The recent Occupy Wall Street movement -- which had an environmentalist edge -- showed that young people can organize, that digital apathy hasn’t stunted every youthful neuron. The green fire burns still.