When we thought we could save the Earth

Robert Stone's documentary feels like a Pynchon-style alternate history of the U.S. -- except it really happened

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 14, 2009 10:16AM (EDT)

"Earth Days"   (opens August 14)

Much of Robert Stone's new documentary "Earth Days" feels like a Thomas Pynchon-style alternate-universe history of the United States, except that it all really happened: One-tenth of the American population demonstrated against pollution and environmental destruction; a 36-year-old ex-Jesuit seminarian whose platform included "exploring the universe" was elected governor of California and appointed an astronaut-turned-hippie as his science advisor; a female college student became an overnight celebrity with an anti-childbirth commencement address titled "The Future Is a Cruel Hoax"; a Republican congressman became the leading environmental exponent in Washington; and the president ordered solar panels installed on the White House roof.

But as President Jimmy Carter noted during the solar-panel ceremony, that moment could point in two different directions: It might mark the beginning of a new era, and it might be an odd little road-not-taken footnote to history. Ouch! That's just one of about 15 moments in "Earth Days" when you want to punch yourself in the head and call down God's vengeance upon our perennially hoodwinkable nation. Stone, a compelling nonfiction tale-spinner whose previous films include "Radio Bikini" and "Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst," is telling an especially complicated story here, one that's simultaneously about how much the first Earth Day in 1970 really did change everything, and also about how much and how fast that change was undone.

On one hand, pioneers of ecological consciousness like Whole Earth Catalog impresario Stewart Brand, Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes, one-time Mills College student Stephanie Mills (she of the explosive commencement address), Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart and former Rep. Pete McCloskey thrust a variety of environmental issues onto the nation's radar screen and led to sweeping new laws that cleaned up our air and water. On the other, here we are 40 years later, with a global economy hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels and a global ecosystem teetering on the brink of irrecoverable disaster.

There really isn't a single message to be gleaned from Stone's challenging, paradoxical film, but here's one I came away with: Politics really does matter, and the American people have consistently chosen narcotic reassurance over realism. Ronald Reagan, of course, had those communistic solar panels removed; it was morning in America, and morning was powered by Saudi oil.

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By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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