Robert Stone’s documentary Earth Days is meant to be about the history of the environmental movement in the United States, but it kicks off with an awful lot of throat-clearing. Earth Days repeatedly returns to the same handful of environmentalists—people like former Secretary Of The Interior Stewart Udall and astronaut Rusty Schweickart—and for roughly the first 20 minutes of the movie, each waxes nostalgic about the simple, sustainable life of their youth, in contrast to the dangerous gluts of today. Stone underlines their reveries with stock footage and an overbearing Michael Giacchino score, which sounds lovely and lyrical when the interviewees recall the past, and ominous when they look to the future. Nearly a quarter of the way through Earth Days, the movie seems on-track to being just another tongue-clucking “Isn’t it a pity” doc, painted in broad strokes.
But once Stone drops the generalities and starts getting specific, Earth Days improves considerably. Stone expertly introduces the key books that launched the environmental movement in earnest—Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb—and shows how some less-recognized phenomena like the space race, Jacques Cousteau’s documentaries, and The Whole Earth Catalog all had a profound impact on the mindset of the late ’60s. Most significantly, Earth Days delves into the politics and personalities behind the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, and shows how at a crucial moment, when ecology was still a non-partisan concept (championed by some as a core conservative value), an influx of anti-establishment types changed the tone of the discussion, simultaneously reaching more young people while putting the older generation into a default defensive stance.
Earth Days isn’t so much critical of the environmental movement’s mistakes as merely conscious of them. Early in the film, Stone offers some speculation that the rise in American wastefulness can be tied to a feeling of impending doom during the Cold War. But isn’t it possible that the apocalyptic environmental PSAs of the ’70s—which warned that we’d all be gas-mask-wearing cannibals with a decade—inspired a certain cynicism too? Earth Days is a sturdy repository of the cultural ephemera related to environmentalism, but when Stone shows Paul Ehrlich chatting with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show (while Roy Clark and Charlie Callas look on), he’s really showing one of the myriad ways environmentalists have let their cause get reduced to an entertaining cautionary tale, too easily consumed and forgotten.