Environmental documentaries–and there are a lot of them–tend to be of the moment. They usually seek to persuade, and the most common methodology is to try to create a sense of urgency. Even the titles–An Inconvenient Truth, Surviving Progress, The Eleventh Hour–imply a claimed immediacy that is as narrow in scope as it is broad in importance.
Mark Kitchell’s A Fierce Green Fire takes a longitudinal view, contextualizing arguments about global climate change by showing what led up to them. It is an historical overview of environmentalism that is, in its way, as sobering as the jeremiads it complements but which may also allow for the smallest glimmers, sparks, and flickers of hope.
One source of hope provided by an historical perspective is the reminder that not every moment or battle within the environmental movement has been a failure. I was born in 1966, meaning I came of (voting) age in the Reagan 80s, a time where American society tipped pretty far towards the interests of business and capitalism and attempts to wed progress to conservation, personal opportunity to corporate good, were dismissed. What has been my whole adult life is a chapter in Kitchell’s film, and it is good to be reminded that there have been instances where the people (even Americans!) have been galvanized around a cause and successfully instituted progressive changes.
In that way, the film’s narrative reminded me of Harold Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States. We want our battles to be singular, and our successes to be permanent. Oftentimes, however, social or political progress is incremental, and is achieved by managing to bring the pressure of a movement to bear at a single point. It is easier to get those who hold power to agree to not make a dam or to concede isolated land rights as the cost of appeasing opposition before it gets too big and too threatening, harder to get a broader swath of the population to change a way of life entirely.
Part of what is most frightening about the current iteration of the environmental problems (i.e. global climate change) is the increased realization of the enmeshment of environmental issues. As one observer opines, it is hard to deal with pollution without dealing with jobs and the economy, hard to deal with local problems without understanding how global forces promote (necessitate?) the sorts of behavior that results in the economic problems we face. And while human behavior may be diverted, it is very, very difficult to change. Add to that fact the economies of scale, and the problems may seem bigger, more pervasive, and more consequential than ever before because…well, maybe they are.
The largest, scariest question raised by environmental documentaries, then, is whether failure is inevitable. I tend to think that the more often we say it is, the more likely it will be. (I was reminded in the film’s Act V, not for the first time, of Al Gore’s observation at the end of an Inconvenient Truth that too often his listeners go straight from skepticism to despair without ever passing through a stage where they act.) The delicate balancing act of the environmentalist is to try to create sufficient urgency to prompt action without killing any hope of success. A Fierce Green Fire has plenty of doomsayers in it, but the historical perspective may remind some that while our problems our new, the feeling that they are insurmountable is not.
Another striking feature in the film is the absence of any reference to God. It is hard to know what to make of this, whether that is an editorial omission or whether, for whatever reason, the environmental movement has been an entirely secular one. (It would be plausible to postulate that American evangelicalism has been more associated with the Republican party, but it is possible to have a theology of stewardship that informs one’s environmentalism, and as unpalatable as it might be to hear it, if the church has been absent from environmental debate and the shaping of environmental policy, that is an historical phenomenon that requires comment, does it not?)
From a cinematic perspective,A Fierce Green Fire bears the marks of Kitchell’s style in the Academy-Award nominated Berkeley in the Sixties, particularly in the way it integrates archival footage with retrospective interviews with the participants. As mentioned previously, this creates a dual perspective, and it is fascinating to see which participants have not changed much (at all) and which are able to differentiate between successes and failures, extracting from them valuable insights about what sorts of approaches may or may not be effective today. If anything, Kitchell’s visual style in the film seems a little more diverse, the interview portions a bit more succinct. This may be a function of having more ground to cover than did Berkeley, or it may be a concession to the shorter attention span of the American public. Then again, the cliche says that a picture is worth a thousand words, and one of the most chilling and powerful moments in the film comes when pictures of the earth from space are shown, juxtaposing what has been and still is a living planet with the barren lifelessness of the lunar surfaces that acts as a chilling glimpse of just how dead a sphere in space without an environment can be.
A Fierce Green Fire will be presented as part of the Campbell University Lecture Symposium on Thursday, April 11 at 7:00 p.m. Director Mark Kitchell will attend a Q&A session after the film.