“A Fierce Green Fire: the Battle for a Living Planet” – a documentary history of environmentalism (part 1)

I didn’t see this film, but a friend offered the following discussion (very slightly edited):

The film “A Fierce Green Fire” (by Mark Kitchell, 2013) was shown on April 25 at an event organized by two municipal “green” committees, followed by a discussion led by a professor in a local college’s Sustainability program.

The movie organizes  environmentalism into five historical phases: (1) land protection following the loss of California’s Hetch Hetchy Valley (1902), leading to the Sierra Club’s entrapment to approve Glen Canyon Dam in the 1970s, (2) awareness of deadly pollution – by DDT (Rachel Carson ‘s “Silent Spring”) and the toxics in Love Canal – 1970s, (3) ecological lifestyle alternatives promoted by the Whole Earth Catalog and proponents of renewable energy sources, and including Greenpeace activism, to which I would add Callenbach’s “Ecotopia” (1975), (4) globalization: mostly efforts to save Amazon rainforest by organizations large (World Wildlife Fund) and small, and (5) opposition to Climate Change by the likes of 350.org.  There were close-up interviews of many current players and survivors.

There was much to discuss, but I’ll concentrate on one issue that bothers me exceedingly.  Several people bemoaned the difficulty of recruiting young people into political activism.  A proposed explanation is the difficulty in CONNECTING with young people – since they have lost the ability to read/listen/study: an effect of media overload, media dumbing down and the technological poisons of background music, electronic games, texting and face-booking.  I certainly recognize this disconnectedness in my college students: they have lost whatever interest students of my generation had in taking notes in lectures, and their attitude toward the history of my subject (genetics) borders on disgust.

I propose this insight: my undergraduate major was Philosophy and Science, and my senior thesis was titled “The Influence of Immanuel Kant on Physiology.”  In his “Critique of Pure Reason” (1781), Kant proposed the existence in the brain of a priori organizing capacities such as space and time.  Noam Chomsky’s Universal Grammar would be a recent proposal for such an organizing capacity.  

My suggestion is that the brain LACKS an organizing capacity for history.  It’s an acquired taste, and only rare people have it – and have the capacity for it.  Human evolution may even have opposed it, since survival often required instant and instinctive reactions to dangers that would have been delayed by historical reflection.  If a capacity for appreciating history is problematic, then so is the capacity to plan for the future.  Thus the problem of Environmental History.

Possibly related is the blandness of recent history.  Technology may be roaring ahead, but great upheavals that engaged most of the public (world wars, depressions, natural disasters) have not occurred in the lifetimes of most people living today.  So the disturbing events that might gravitate people toward a consciousness of impending climate (and other) disaster aren’t happening.  We’re like the frogs in a gradually heating kettle of water.


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