DAVID BRANCACCIO: This week, we're talking to Oscar winner Robert Redford, who's a long-time environmentalist and an executive producer of a new documentary called "The Unforeseen." The film is a poetic, heartbreaking, and eye-opening examination of the struggle between real estate developers, citizens, and environmentalists in the pursuit of the American dream. Well, Robert Redford, thanks for joining us.
ROBERT REDFORD: My pleasure.
BRANCACCIO: How did you become interested in telling this story about a—a springs near Austin, Texas?
REDFORD: As a child, my mother's family was all from Austin, going back several generations. And I would spend many of my summers with my grandfather in Austin. The first place I ever learned to swim, when I was about six years old, was Barton Springs. And it had a tremendous impact on me.
BRANCACCIO: And had you followed the controversy that would eventually swirl around this place?
REDFORD: Oh, yeah. I mean, I—I've been involved with this issue of Barton Springs for about, oh, I'd say 15 to 20 years—starting from the very beginnings when the grassroots was just starting to raise their voices to help preserve Barton Springs.
BRANCACCIO: In the film, we see you sitting in front of the Barton Springs pool. And you talk a lot—I mean, you come back to it a bunch of times, this idea of short-term gain versus long-term costs. What do you mean by that?
REDFORD: The fundamental issue that I've seen, going all the way back 35 or more years of being involved in the environment, is what are we going to develop for our survival and what are we going to preserve for our survival? When you—when you hear these sloganeering statements by politicians saying, "America, the beautiful. America, the great." And they always show the shots of the beautiful landscape, whether it's the Southwest or the Rockies or the oceans or—or the midlands—
BRANCACCIO: They don't show tracked houses in a (LAUGHTER) real estate development.
REDFORD: No. No. And—and yet, we sloganeer about how important—preservation is, but it's not shown up in our policies. And so I think that—obviously, we are development-oriented society. We have—we've been kind of led by businessmen, who are out to make money. And then you have—the overriding issue to that is population growth.
BRANCACCIO: You worry about the numbers not being on your side. I was looking at census bureau numbers. By mid-century, there could be 420 million people that live in this country. And you gotta worry that it's—the developers are gonna win, and the land is gonna lose.
REDFORD: Well, I think up to a few years ago, that was certainly the way everything was heading. I think there's ch—a change in the air. There's—there's no question about it. We can see now that business is readjusting itself—more towards the value of the environment. I think the tipping point that's been reached in the last year is pretty much led by big business deciding there was money to be made by doing good, rather than just making money to make money to make money. And then led to a whole new grouping of social entrepreneurs.
And—and I think that was a very, very major step. People are becoming more and more aware of how—the dominance of development and business is altering their lives, and particularly, their own heritage.
And that's why the Barton Springs issue—it's—it's become a—a model for how we're going to go forward and—and the power of the grassroots. 'Cause the grassroots is really the voice of the people. And we've had—particularly with this current administration, we have a—a government and the policies that come out of this government ignoring the American people.
The irony of constantly seeing this slogan statement of "Protect the American people. Protect the American people. We're doing this to protect the American people." When, in fact, the policies are endangering the American people. And I think the people are beginning to see it, because they can feel it. They can feel the effect of negative development on their health, their well-being, their children's future, and so forth.
So the Barton Springs issue is really, I think, a microcosm of issues all over the country, and probably the world as well. And these people that are rising up are saying, "Hey, you come and wipe this out to put the development in and take all the water, you're gonna wipe out something that's part of our personal heritage. And we don't want that. Go somewhere else."
BRANCACCIO: Yeah. I wanna ask you about the change in the air, as you've put it. You were recently featured in an advertisement urging the presidential candidates to make solving global warming a top priority. It takes political guts to go against the status quo, I mean, for these politicians to push for revolutionary changes that would be necessary for addressing something like global warming. But, you know, politician aren't really known for (LAUGHTER) their ability to embrace revolutionary change. But you think now's the time?
REDFORD: I do. I think those days are coming to an end. I think that we can see it in—in the shift, the—be—because of the government bias towards the power of money and—and also, always offering the promise of jobs, the way they help deflect the negative costs of this with the—they will always promise jobs. And that's age-old. But when I would start speaking out about environmental preservation being important, I would get just hammered and knocked down, like, "What does he [Redford] know? He's an actor... I had to live with that one until Reagan got elected, and that took care of that argument."
So, yes. I think that we—we can see this administration, despite their posturing, it's pretty lame duck because their policies were voted out in the last election. And so, therefore, I think that there's a shift occurring. And I think the next election—I mean—forget this administration. They're—they're hopeless.
And they—they're—they're gonna continue behaving the way they have right to the end. But I think this next election, global warming, it's on its way to becoming a huge issue. And I think that it's going to be an election issue. And I think the politicians, most of who—whom are just—have one interest and that's to stay in—in their (LAUGHTER) jobs, are gonna be listening to the voters, because it will mean them being voted in or out of office. I think the issue—you wanna call it green, you wanna call it the importance of the environment—is now finally reaching the place I think it should have reached for many, many years in many, many of the debates, which is a much higher priority than it's ever been given. It's always been pushed to the bottom of the ladders on issue. And I believe the American people care a lot about the environment.
BRANCACCIO: This film works at many levels. One of them is a fight by citizens to preserve their beloved springs. And the—the folks, initially, seem to pull it off. Development is stopped.
But then, George W. Bush is elected governor of Texas. One of the first things he does is sign a pro-developer law, and the construction begins. You don't want people to walk away from that part of the story feeling that, you know, big money always wins in the end, and resistance is somehow futile.
REDFORD: Well, it didn't win. What the documentary shows—and I—I thought it was particularly poignant to be able to show the cost to that—that person's life, that developer's life. I mean, you—you can't fault him from coming where he came from, from a hardscrabble life, to build towards the American dream and—and have an authorship role in it. But the people spoke against it. And he was—stopped, and at great cost to himself.
BRANCACCIO: By the way, you mentioned about Barton Springs, when you swam in it as a kid. It's cold, isn't it?
REDFORD: Boy, is it cold. And it's not any warmer. Even despite of global warming, it's still cold. (LAUGHTER)
BRANCACCIO: I know. My brother lives in Austin. He took me there about a year ago.
REDFORD: Oh, yeah?
BRANCACCIO: And—you know, I froze my "patooties" off, whatever my "patooties" are.
REDFORD: Yeah. But I —
REDFORD: —I imagine they disappeared when you went in.
BRANCACCIO: (LAUGHTER) But it's still a gorgeous place, isn't it, even now.
REDFORD: It's fabulous. It's natural. It's gorgeous. And it belongs to the people in that area, and it should stay that way.
BRANCACCIO: Well, Robert Redford, thank you very much for this.
REDFORD: You're more than welcome. I'm very happy to have talked to you.
BRANCACCIO: Robert Redford is one of the producers of the documentary "The Unforeseen." To let us know what's on your mind, send us an e-mail to pbs.org/now. That's www.pbs.org/now. This program was produced by Karin Kamp. Thanks so much for joining us. I'm David Brancaccio.