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A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet cover image

A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet 2012

Highly Recommended

Distributed by Bullfrog Films, PO Box 149, Oley, PA 19547; 800-543-FROG (3764)
Produced by Mark Kitchell
Directed by Mark Kitchell
DVD, color, 101 min.

General Adult
Environmental Studies, Environmental Justice, History of the Environment, Grassroots Activism

Date Entered: 05/02/2013

Reviewed by Andrew Jenks, California State University, Long Beach

The documentary takes its name from the early environmentalist Aldo Leopold. As a young park ranger he shot a wolf and saw the fierce green fire in its eyes – thus triggering his transformation into an environmental activist and ecologist. The film, divided into five “acts,” provides a concise history of the environmental movement in the United States and the world. The first examines the awakening of environmental consciousness and the battle to protect natural habitats from dam building and other projects in the 1960s. The focus is on David Brower and the Sierra Club. It was prosperity that produced the visible destruction of the environment – as well as wealth – which in turn inspired efforts to preserve non-human natural habitat.

While the early environmentalists focused on preserving non-human nature – and primarily for the enjoyment of the well to do – the next generation of environmental activists were much more concerned about the environment as the place where mostly poor people and people of color lived. Love Canal – the community in Western New York that was built on top of a toxic waste dump – provides the prism through which the film examines environmental activism and the environmental justice movement in the 1970s and 1980s. The benefits of industrial progress, it turns out, went disproportionately to well-to-do whites and the costs were distributed to the poorer and, in many cases, darker Americans.

The third act shifts to Greenpeace and its efforts to save the whales, with a focus on the increasing understanding of the planet as an interconnected biological system, or biosphere. The iconic Apollo image of the Earth rising over the moon’s horizon from 1968, which was also featured on Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, ushered in a new era of global environmental consciousness. That era was signified by the landmark 1970 first Earth Day, attempts to find more appropriate technology and sustainable living, and linkages between environmental protection and the anti-war and nuclear movements.

The fourth act goes beyond the borders of Europe and the United States to examine the environmental movement in the Amazon. This section is told through the story of rubber tappers struggling to save the rain forests essential for their livelihoods. The Amazon was ground zero for global resource management issues. Rubber tappers, in defense of the rain forests, waged a fierce struggle against the ranching interests. That struggle produced the first martyr of the battle to save the rain forests – the murder of the ecologist and rubber tapper Chico Mendez. His death, however, inspired a defense of ecological resources across the southern hemisphere, resulting in a fusion of environmental protection, indigenous rights, and social justice. Finally, the last part of the film discusses global warming and its consequences.

The film provides a wide range of topics in the history of the environmental movement. Since each part stands on its own teachers and professors can pick sections that fit in to the content and ideas of their courses. But the parts of the film also work well together, building from the origins of ecological thinking in the 1960s and the shift to environmental justice in the 1970s to the globalization of the environmental movement and the destruction of natural resources in a globalized economy. Along the way the film points out one of the ironies of the environmental movement in the United States. Just as there seemed to emerge a new consensus that the state’s job was to protect the environment, the politics of the Reagan years began attacking state regulation as a source of economic stagnation and job destruction. Ever since environmental activists have struggled to show that environmental protection is not a luxury that only the rich could afford – and that any attempt to limit pollution and habitat destruction would not necessarily stall the engines of economic growth.

The film, as with most discussions of the history of the environment, tends to privilege the United States in presenting the story of environmentalism. According to the story presented in the film, the environmental movement began in the United States, emerging from Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring and out of the counterculture of the 1960s, growing into the environmental justice movement that defined the environment as the place where people lived and worked, and from there spreading outward to the rest of the world via Greenpeace and other groups. There is some truth in this story but it also misses much of the earlier activism in other parts of the world – in Europe, Japan, and elsewhere – that has also inspired the global environmental movement. Nonetheless, this is a very valuable documentary for anyone seeking a solid grounding in many of the landmark events in the environmental movement – leading up to the present controversies and debates surrounding global warming.