The American Historian

Davids vs. Goliaths: A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet. First Run Features, 2012.

Adam Rome

A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet is an ambitious and often inspiring documentary about the environmental movement. Yet I don’t think the film should be assessed as a work of history. Director Mark Kitchell clearly intends A Fierce Green Fire to be a call to arms: It’s an unabashed paean to the power of grassroots activism.

The ambition of A Fierce Green Fire is manifest in the film’s five-part structure. Act 1 celebrates efforts to save wild places, beginning in the early twentieth century. Act 2 focuses on protests against environmental hazards, from the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962 to the first campaigns to deal with toxic wastes in the 1970s. Act 3 addresses “alternatives” to mainstream environmentalism in the 1970s, including the countercultural appropriate technology movement and the “mind-bombing” tactics of Greenpeace. Act 4 explores the flowering of grassroots environmental movements around the world, especially efforts to protect traditional ways of living off the land. Act 5 considers climate-change activism. In every act except the last one, Kitchell showcases a charismatic leader who fought a David vs. Goliath battle. I was especially impressed by Kitchell’s telling of the stories of Lois Gibbs, a working-class housewife who successfully challenged the federal government to aid the residents of the Love Canal neighborhood in New York, and Chico Mendes, a Brazilian rubber tapper and labor leader whose campaign to save the forests of the Amazon led to his martyrdom.

For historians, A Fierce Green Fire isn’t as satisfying as Kitchell’s wonderful first documentary, Berkeley in the Sixties (1990). Inevitably Kitchell oversimplifies. But the problems go beyond the dramatic necessities of the film medium. You would never know from A Fierce Green Fire that many Americans began to protest against pollution in the late nineteenth century. That’s because Kitchell relied on an outdated work by a journalist, Philip Shabecoff, also called A Fierce Green Fire (1993), which saw the environmental movement largely as an outgrowth of older movements to preserve wild places and conserve natural resources. The first major scholarly revision of that argument, Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement, came out in 1993, the same year that Shabecoff’s book appeared.

Kitchell also does not include any dissenting voices. The only criticism of the environmental movement is self-criticism. A number of environmentalists argue that they weren’t radical enough. Often, their reflections are the flip side of self-praise: We faced overwhelming obstacles, we fought like hell and we won more than anyone could have predicted we would, but we should have demanded more! Of course, the story is more complicated than that, especially the story of the failure of the environmental movement to deal with the challenge of climate change.

I have shown segments of A Fierce Green Fire in my U. S. environmental-history class, and the students were keenly interested. I can imagine that showing the entire film might work as a teaching tool if the students also read Gottlieb’s book. A Fierce Green Fire has striking images, a great soundtrack, and provocative ideas.