The other night, I saw A Fierce Green Fire, a documentary history of the environmental movement, as part of the excellent DC Environmental Film Festival. The movie was OK, worth seeing, but not great, a bit PBS-like in its sweep. By trying to cover a lot, the filmmakers mostly skim the surface: Here’s Sierra Club founder John Muir, there’s Rachel Carson and Silent Spring, remember when Jimmy Carter put a solar heater on the White House roof, say hello to Stewart Brand and Bill McKibben, meet Wangari Maathai, and let’s not overlook environmental justice and the Copenhagen climate talks, and wasn’t that Buckminster Fuller? Nor does the film look critically at environmentalism; it’s narrated by Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Van Jones, Isabel Allende and Meryl Streep, which pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Having said that, the film, sometimes by design and sometimes inadvertently, manages to deliver a useful reminder about radicals and rabble-rousers: They are often the ones who drive change. Had Barry Goldwater been an environmentalist, he might have said that extremism in defense of the earth is no vice and that moderation, when it comes to climate change, is no virtue. The environmental movement’s heroes, at least in this telling, are David Brower and Lois Gibbs and Chico Mendes and Greenpeace, and not those who work inside the Beltway or travel to UN conferences. At the very least, grass-roots, bottom-up activism created the conditions that drove change in Washington.