Back in April, Hanna was kind enough to set up the mystical VCR to tape the PBS American Experience documentary on Earth Day, eponymously titled Earth Days so I could watch it as sociopolitical background for my thesis.
I thought they did a particularly thoughtful job selecting the requisite talking heads, choosing a wide range of folks involve in environmental policy and activism from the 1960s through to the present. What I found most fascinating was the way in which environmental activism in the early days (prior to the Reagan administration) was not a strictly partisan issue — controversial in some aspects, yes, but not seen as a Democratic cause (or a Republican cause for that matter).
The most striking part of the film, for me, was the section in which they discuss the commitment brought by the Carter administration to environmental sustainability in the late Seventies, galvanized in part by stagflation and the fuel crisis — and then the Reagan administration’s reversal of all, and more, of the previous decade’s worth of progress toward a more environmentally-friendly America.
Denis Hayes, The Organizer: [Carter] had solar water heaters installed on the White House roof.
President Jimmy Carter (archival): A generation from now, this solar water heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest ventures ever undertaken by the American people.
Denis Hayes, The Organizer: He gave me the best job of my life running the Federal Solar Energy Research Institute and a budget that increased and doubled every year that I was there and the opportunity to really do some important things.
President Jimmy Carter (archival): The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly. It is a problem that we will not be able to solve in the next few years; it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century. We must not be selfish or timid, if we hope to have a decent world for our children and our grandchildren. We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future rather than letting the future control us.
Hunter Lovins, The Motivator: Carter, I think, made a fundamental mistake, which was he saw the transition as one of constraint and of one of privation, and of giving up, and of lowered lifestyle.
Denis Hayes, The Organizer: In a period from 1973 to 1980 the price of oil went from $4 a barrel to $30 a barrel. And that clearly was enough to cause the public to support things like fuel efficiency standards for automobiles and other things that would have been inconceivable unless you’d had a crisis.
* * *
Ronald Reagan, Presidential Candidate (archival): They tell us we must learn to live with less, and teach our children that their lives will be less full and prosperous than ours have been, that the America of the coming years will be a place where because of our past excesses, it will be impossible to dream and make those dreams come true. I don’t believe that and I don’t believe you do either. That’s why I am seeking the Presidency. I cannot and will not stand by and see this great country destroy itself. Our leaders attempt to blame their failures on circumstances beyond their control, on false estimates by unknown, unidentifiable experts, who rewrite modern history in an attempt to convince us our high standard of living, a result of thrift and hard work, is somehow selfish extravagance, which we must renounce as we join in sharing scarcity.
* * *
Denis Hayes, The Organizer: For reasons that I just cannot even begin to comprehend, Reagan did his very best to completely shut down the renewable energy effort. In the instance of the institute that I led, he reduced our budget by more the 80%, fired half of the staff and fired all of our contractors, two of whom subsequently went on to win Nobel Prizes. It was just devastating, but for one year we did have within an element a very good energy policy.
Ronald Reagan, Public Service Announcement (archival): It’s morning again in America. And under the leadership of President Reagan our country is prouder, and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to the way we were?
Reporter (voice over, archival): The Reagan White House has finally dismantled the last vestiges of the Carter Administration. Workmen have now taken down the solar water heating system installed on the White House roof in 1979.
I highly recommend watching some or all of Earth Days, since (at least for those of us who barely remember the Reagan era, let alone the 1960s and 70s) it gives us a chance to re-imagine the public discourse surrounding environmental issues in ways that don’t lock us into partisan divides — gives us a chance to imagine a time in the not so distant past (and hopefully in the not so distant future) when there was more emphasis on the fact that we’re all in this together, as human beings on a living planet, and partisanship aside sustainability is really the only way forward if care to have a “forward” to be moving toward at all.