It is now all the rage, but can you remember when everyone in America was not “Going Green”? AMERICAN EXPERIENCE’s Earth Days looks back to the dawn and development of the modern environmental movement through the extraordinary stories of the era’s pioneers — among them Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall, biologist/Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand, Apollo Nine astronaut Rusty Schweickart, and renewable energy pioneer Hunter Lovins.

Widespread concern about the environment in America was on the rise in the early 1950s after a small group of scientists began to document the impact of our technology on the Earth’s ecosystem. Within a decade it seemed to many Americans as if the post-war dream of a better world brought about through science, technology and economic growth — the American dream — was turning into an unfathomable nightmare. The post-war economic boom had fueled industrial expansion, and the Interstate Highway program had encouraged mass migration to the suburbs, but emissions from new vehicles and production factories clogged the skies, and cities around the country experienced “smog episodes.”

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring called attention to the dwindling bird population in her town, placing blame on American chemical manufacturers. A nationwide debate ensued between Carson’s followers and the chemical companies until President John F. Kennedy stepped in and called for further scientific research. When the evidence largely supported Carson’s claims, encouraged activists continued to raise public awareness about the environmental impact of industrial expansion. As a new conservation movement sprang forth, groups small and large fought for causes such as preserving Florida’s Everglades and protesting dam construction in the Grand Canyon.

In December 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson hired 25-year-old Denis Hayes to organize a national teach-in about the environment. Just four months later, on April 22, over 20 million Americans across the country participated in celebrations and demonstrations — the largest in American history — demanding political action to protect the environment. Their grassroots call to action led to groundbreaking national legislation and created a new consciousness about the fragility of the earth’s resources. The collective strength of the public’s outcry gave Washington a mandate for environmental action. In the years that followed, Congress was flooded with environmental legislation. Between 1972 and 1974, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Coastal Zone Management Act, Endangered Species Act, Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act, Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The 1970s became known as 'the environmental decade’, and new federal legislation made great strides in cleaning up our skies, lands, lakes, and oceans. As President Richard M. Nixon declared, “The great question of the ’70s is: shall we surrender to our surroundings or shall we make our peace with nature and begin to make reparations for the damage we have done to our air, to our land, and to our water.”

Directed by acclaimed documentarian Robert Stone (Oswald’s Ghost, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst) Earth Days is both a poetic meditation on man’s complex relationship with nature and an engaging history of the revolutionary achievements — and missed opportunities — of groundbreaking eco-activism.

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