The second screening of A Fierce Green Fire: Battle for a Living Planet drew a good-sized audience to the MFAH on Sunday. Given the even larger audience for the “Environmental Challenges Facing Houston in the Next 25 Years” forum on August 28th, it seems like there is considerable interest in environmental issues in a city known more widely for the opposite sentiment. Mark Kitchell’s documentary will be released on Amazon Oct. 1st, and it premiered in 2012. With celebrity narrators (Robert Redford, Ashley Judd, Isabelle Alende, Van Jones, Meryl Streep) and a sweeping focus on the global (but especially American) environmental movement, A Fierce Green Fire is probably the most comprehensive documentary to cover this topic to date. It’s a good general overview, though the pace required to cover so much ground means that many of the stories have the quality of a Wikipedia “stub.”
A Fierce Green Fire has 5 chapters, each narrated by a different celebrity. On the surface, this is an elegant way of dividing the material. In practice, the brevity of the documentary means that some sections fall short of their promises. The “Alternatives” chapter, for example, gives a few brief notes and images on eco-communes and solar panels, then shifts to a long focus on Greenpeace and Paul Watson’s war against whaling, a campaign that seems more like direct action than an alternate society or resource.
But the scope is also what could make the film valuable for teaching. The wide-angle approach gives the newcomer a workable sense of where environmentalism came from and who some of its key figures have been. As a crash course, it covers enough material in 101 minutes to give students an impression of the tradition and send them off to explore whichever hyperlinks are most compelling.
The speedy montages cover the move from Theodore Roosevelt, Aldo Leopold, and early twentieth century preservationism to the formative and successful Sierra Club campaign to save the Grand Canyon from becoming a reservoir. From there, the film shifts to the 1960s explosion of environmentalism, associating it perhaps too strongly with the image of earth from the moon and the Whole Earth Catalogue (throughout the film, Steward Brand keeps returning to comment on the state of environmentalism). The second wave of environmentalism culminates in the Clean Air and Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the Environmental Protection Agency; Jimmy Carter’s solar panels (which Reagan caused to be removed from the White House) become a symbol for the neoliberal period’s erosion of the regulatory advances of the 1970s.
The strongest and most detailed story in A Fierce Green Fire is the toxic disaster in Love Canal, New York, which is mixed with commentary on Rachel Carson and her debates with industrial chemists. The takeaway message is that efforts to control nature lead to the kind of toxic pollution and human suffering that happened in Love Canal. The account of Lois Gibbs’s leadership is compelling. But the episode when she and other angry residents decide to take EPA agents hostage in order to force the federal government to relocate them from their corporately polluted environment made me reflect on the more brutal measures that would likely have be used to end a similarly peaceful protest today. Despite the focus on the role of women activists in this episode, though, we learn nothing further about ecofeminism or the gender dynamics of environmentalism. At the same time, the film’s (relatively) lengthy focus on Love Canal works against the common impression that environmentalism is more interested in wilderness landscapes than social justice.
In this same vein, the role of environmentalism in the civil rights movement gets hardly any airspace, though we hear a few words of a powerful speech by James Farmer, who argued that environmental problems need to be addressed so that social equality doesn’t turn into “equality of extinction.” But A Fierce Green Fire does pay attention to the emergence of the environmental justice movement and to critiques of environmental racism. In a section dedicated to environmentalism “going global” (which tends to reinforce the sense that it all starts in America) the centerpiece is the work of Chico Mendez to protect Amazonian forests and communities. Vandana Shiva makes a brief appearance to talk about the right to clean water, and Houston’s Bob Bullard lays out the stakes and meaning of environmental racism.
The documentary ends with a focus on climate change. The brief history closes with melancholy uncertainty and anxiety about the inability of political and economic leaders to address global warming. The film’s projected is catastrophic, especially when it claims that environmentalism has shifted, in the ‘90s and ‘00s, from trying to save wild places to trying to save human society.
A Fierce Green Fire’s pithy opening claim is that “the environmental movement is about nature vs. humanity.” From an ecocritical vantage, what really seems to be missing is any perspective that questions the relation between nature and culture, on the one hand, and any perspective that speaks to the political character “humanity” on the other. Particularly when geologists are debating the concept of the Anthropocene, whereby no aspect of earth remains outside human-technological influence, a documentary like A Fierce Green Fire should have some stake in asking where the idea of an absolute separation of nature and humanity comes from, and what its legacy has been in the movement. When it comes to politics, the film pulls a lot of punches. Though it criticizes the weakness of global climate action, it ultimately includes no voice that would implicate neoliberal capitalism and globalization in the problem of global warming and the barriers to a solution.