09/06/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Earth Days Probes the Roots of Environmentalism

During the 1960's, the space program was focused on looking outwards, on moving away from the Earth, on exploring new worlds. And yet, surprisingly, its most profound and tangible legacy came not from looking forward but from looking backward, back at the Earth from the barrenness of space. The space program changed the world by providing us all with a good long collective look in the mirror, and things would never be the same.

I would argue that the environmental movement, which is a similarly forward looking enterprise, would be well served by taking a look back at itself, however briefly, if for no other reason than to understand where it came from, what it has accomplished, where it has stumbled, and why, given all we have long known about our pollution of the Earth's ecosystem, we have ended up in our current environmental predicament. As we search for and debate a proper roadmap out of the current crisis, a look back may prove more informative than speculating about the future. My new film Earth Days attempts to do just that by telling the forgotten back-story to both the current environmental movement and the current environmental crisis.

Each of us can perhaps trace our own Aha! moment when we began to more fully understand our relationship with the planet we live on and to see the world in different way. Mine came at age 1,1 attending a local event in New Jersey on the first Earth Day in 1970. Collectively, these moments, repeated by millions of us in millions of different ways, changed this country and indeed, the world, within the course of a single generation. This new understanding spread like a virus to the point where we now take it for granted that most people understand that we need to stop damaging the ecosystem, despite the raging debates about how best to achieve that goal. But how did this all get started and why have we not made more progress?

Earth Days is framed around the personal narratives of nine Americans who played key roles in awakening us to the environmental crisis and in giving birth to a political movement to confront it. Four key scenes in the film revolve around the personal revelations four of our main characters: Denis Hayes, Stewart Brand, Rusty Schweickart, and Hunter Lovins, as they each had their own Aha! moment and then went about sharing it with the world.

In January of 1965, a young American hitchhiker named Denis Hayes found himself in a desert in Namibia following a two-year trek around the world. He had what he describes as a vision in which he saw that the history of mankind had been artificially distorted in the past 150 years or so by the discovery of fossil fuels and our growing dependence upon it as the engine of modern civilization. Prior to the Industrial Revolution mankind depended, in one form or another, on solar energy. That's all there was. We had made a sort of Faustian bargain in tapping into fossil fuels from beneath the Earth, liberating us from our past, creating enormous wealth and power, but at the expense of a rapidly deteriorating global environment. Denis resolved to return home and dedicate his life to weaning us from our dependence on fossil fuels and to harness the renewable and sustainable energy from the sun. Five years later he organized the first Earth Day in 1970. He then went on to head the Federal Solar Energy Research Institute established by President Carter and has been one of the leading proponents of solar energy ever since.

In 1966, a young hipster named Stewart Brand dropped 100 micrograms of LSD while sitting on a rooftop in San Francisco and hallucinated that he was looking down at the Earth from outer space. At that time no spacecraft had sent back more than a few photos of the Earth's horizon. Stewart believed that if everyone on Earth could see the whole planet floating in space that it would profoundly alter their perception of the fragility of the ecosystem and our need to care for it and preserve it. To realize his vision he set about campaigning NASA and officials of the Soviet Union to release a photograph of the whole Earth. The following year, he established the Whole Earth Catalog (the Sears Catalog of the back-to-the-land movement) and forged a photo of the whole Earth on it's cover by taking a picture of the sky using a fish-eye lens. The placeholder he created for lack of a genuine photograph proved to be remarkably similar to the actual photo of the earth that was first beamed back to Earth on Christmas Eve 1968 by Apollo 8. The photograph of the whole Earth from space became the iconic image of the new environmental movement and the most reproduced image in American history. Just as Stewart had predicted, seeing the Earth from space did indeed change the world.

In March of 1969, an American astronaut named Rusty Schweickart was orbiting the Earth, making the first test flight of the lunar module that would later be used to land on the moon. A technical glitch led him to be stranded during his space walk for about 5 minutes in complete radio silence. During this time Rusty, floating in space looking back at the Earth, had a revelation about the history of life on the planet and his role in pushing the boundaries of life beyond the confines of the Earth. He recognized that while the Earth had given birth to life and nurtured it, now it was our turn to nurture and care for Mother Earth. His "revelation" was, in a sense, the next logical step from what Stewart had predicted and what Denis had dreamed. Rusty returned to Earth with a determination to help bring about a sustainable and harmonious relationship between the planet and ourselves. In the late 1970's he put his passion into practice by becoming the head of the California Energy Commission, and is now in the business of tracking so-called "killer asteroids" that could damage or destroy life on Earth.

On April 22, 1970, the largest demonstration in American history took place as 20 million people, organized by Denis Hayes, took to the streets to demand a cleaner environment. One of those demonstrators was a California anti-war activist and college student named Hunter Sheldon (who is known today as Hunter Lovins). She planted a tree that day and witnessed what she perceived to be the beginnings of a new and powerful political movement that could truly change the world. From that day forth, she began to devote herself to building an environmentally sustainable society. A few years later, Hunter became dismayed to see that this new movement was meeting such fierce opposition as it tried to cajole and regulate the natural human impulse for greed and self-interest. She resolved to try to work with polluters rather than against them, and to get them to see that sustainability could be both individually profitable and socially beneficial. It's an approach that is now the basis of "Cap and Trade" and other more recent efforts to solve our environmental problems.

Beginning in 1980, a backlash against the environmental movement took root and America embarked on a 30-year experiment in allowing imbalanced market forces and unregulated cartels to determine the fate of our ecosystem. We are just now emerging from this period that Hunter Lovins describes near the end of my film as "the lost 30 years."

If going forward the environmental movement is to avoid some of the mistakes of the past it needs to know its history. It also needs to build on its many successes, the most important of which was the creation one of the greatest bottom up grassroots movements in history. It upended the political establishment of the day and pushed through the most sweeping set of environmental legislation in our nations history during the early to mid 1970's (and signed into law by President Nixon who was no friend to the environment). Following those successes the environmental movement became more top down oriented, led by large lobbying groups in Washington in a pitched political battles with even larger corporate lobbying groups. The result was a 30-year long stalemate in which little or nothing was done to advance us towards creating a more sustainable society. The movement was stopped in its tracks. The lesson, it seems to me, is that progress along these lines must be seen as a political necessity to those in positions of power. When the public loses the ability to perceive the problem, when only scientists and environmental activists truly understand what's at stake and are out there working for change, the battle is all but lost.

Earth Days is not a polemic on the issues of the moment. It is a film that reflects on how far we've come and how much further we need to go. And as the old saying goes, those who don't know their history are condemned to repeat it.

Earth Days opens theatrically in New York on August 14; LA on August 21; and nationally in select cities in September. For more information please visit