In a powerful scene from A Fierce Green Fire, a powerful Earth Day special from American Masters that is airing tonight on most PBS affiliates, environmental demonstrators march through the streets carrying placards bearing a stark message: “There is no Planet B.”
That neatly sums up the point of view in Mark Kitchell’s critically acclaimed one-hour documentary, which looks back on 50 years of environmental activism on both a grassroots and global scale. If anything, the subject begs for a more expanded treatment, but the film does a splendid job of maintaining its breakneck pace while moving smoothly from one topic to another.
A Fierce Green Fire takes its title from a line in A Sand Country Alamanac, a 1949 documentary from a pioneering ecologist and former forest ranger who writes of finding a wolf he had shot: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”
I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself from that devastating image, but Kitchell’s documentary uses the phrase in a positive context, referring to the vital ecosystems that — at least for now — are struggling to keep Earth healthy and vital. In fact, this special suggests, many people probably got their first reality check in the late 1960s and early ’70s when they began to see photos of a shining blue Earth, wrapped in sweeping clouds, as taken from the surface of the planet’s bleak and arid moon.
A Fierce Green Fire is divided into five “acts,” each with a different narrator. The first, narrated by Robert Redford, focuses on the conservation movement of the 1960s, which saw the Sierra Club and its charismatic executive director, David Brower, waging a strenuous yet ultimately successful attack to halt the construction of dams in the Grand Canyon. The most depressing part of this segment is the reminder that, if you think the deplorable trend of putting non eco-friendly candidates into environmental political posts is a new thing, think again. It’s been that way for years.
The special then moves into the 1970s, as Ashley Judd narrates a look at growing public awareness of pollution. That topic reached a flashpoint in the latter part of the decade with the Love Canal debacle in upstate New York. This segment, which I found the most riveting in the film, throws the spotlight on Lois Gibbs, a mad-as-hell housewife and mother in the community who refused to be blown off by politicians and galvanized her neighbors into taking action against the toxic industrial waste that was causing sickness and skyrocketing birth defects among their families.
Environmental advocate Van Jones narrates act three, which looks at emerging “alternative” ecology groups such as Greenpeace and the anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, then Chilean novelist Isabel Allende presents an homage to martyred activist Chico Mendes, who gave his life to protect the Amazon rain forest.
Meryl Streep takes over as narrator for the final act of A Fierce Green Fire, a power punch devoted to climate change. There’s not a lot in this segment that will come as a revelation to most viewers, although it’s depressing to realize yet again how deeply commercial interests are controlling and gutting any attempts at meaningful legislation in Washington, D.C.
As the recently deceased climate scientist Stephen Schneider remarks in an archival interview, it’s “a hell of a way to run a planet.”
As always with PBS programming, check your local listings to confirm air date and time in your area.