Both a patchwork history of the American environmental movement and an unhysterical call to consciousness, Earth Days charts the growing awareness of the finite nature of global resources and the impassioned efforts to combat unsustainable development during the late '60s as well as the forces that helped to undo much of the movement's progress during the Reaganite '80s. Drawing on interview footage with a handful of activists and ex-politicians, a generous sampling of stock footage, and a range of vividly photographed original material, Robert Stone's handsome doc exposes the mindset of superabundance and eternal progress that took root in the aftermath of WWII—represented here through eye-popping Technicolor-inflected tableaux recreating hyper-real scenes of '50s domesticity—and which laid the groundwork for our current crises of climate change, overpopulation, and oil shortages.
Building on the success of Rachel Carson's groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring (defended by JFK himself against the interests of pesticide manufacturers in a bit of revealing archival footage), the modern environmental movement was launched as a parallel to such contemporary causes as the anti-war and women's movements. For Stone, the culmination of the environmental crusade is marked by the establishment of the first Earth Day in 1970, a massive call-to-arms for increasingly globally aware Americans, no doubt because it proved an important historical event, but also because co-founder Denis Hayes is one of the film's subjects.
If anything, there's a bit too much of the self-congratulatory in the film, with both Hayes and population growth guru Dennis Meadows doing a fair bit of horn-tooting, but any sense of complacency is quickly undercut by the film's final act. There, in short order, the advances of the '70s are undone by an unwillingness to address the larger global problems underlying the more limited national crises and the sinking of environmental legislation by a government intent on serving the corporate interest. In the end, the film posits a genuine world crisis, but remains vaguely optimistic that things can be changed, so long as we increase our awareness from the local to the global, a perspective shift embodied in back-to-the-land pioneer—and Earth Days talking head—Stewart Brand's mid-'60s rallying cry, "Why haven't we seen a picture of the whole earth, yet?"