Earth Days posterThink An Inconvenient Truth’s what brought environmental issues to the public consciousness? Then you haven’t seen the footage from April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day, when 20 million Americans — or 10% of the U.S. population — took to the streets in support of environmental issues. Nothing even close to that sort of mass uprising’s been seen since.

That important history’s what Earth Days, a new environmental documentary by Robert Stone (Oswald’s Ghost, Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst), hopes to remind or to educate the American public about. Featuring everyone from the former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall to Rocky Mountain Institute co-founder Hunter Lovins to Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, Earth Days tells the story of the beginnings of the environmental movement — a story that’s largely forgotten that we can learn a lot from.

After all, the environmental movement saw quite a few victories in its beginnings. Shortly after the first Earth Day came the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act — all passed under President Nixon, no less. In Earth Days, longtime environmental activists talk about how Nixon didn’t actually seem to care about the environment — but was basically made to at least put up the pretense of caring — then actually pass some serious green laws — simply because the galvanized public demanded it.

But Earth Days also goes on to show the missteps and failures of the environmental movement. We see how Reagan’s smooth talk about how Americans should embrace the good life runaway consumerism offers beat out Carter’s less sanguine message asking Americans to scale back energy use. Reagan, as we know, won the election — pushing back the environmental movement 30 years, as the enviro-activists in the film tell it.

Robert Stone at Earth Days screening at Environmentaland in Los Angeles

Now, it’s up to us to look at the past and figure out how to mimic some of those successes — while avoiding the pitfalls. After a private screening of Earth Days at the not-yet-officially-open Environmentaland in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Robert Stone (above) remarked on how the environmental movement tends to focus almost exclusively on the future — but how at this juncture, studying the history is really necessary.

What lesson can we learn from Earth Days? The film shows that people — acting en masse — really can influence politics and create real, meaningful changes from the status quo. Robert Stone also emphasized that the messaging of environmentalism’s important — that the message perhaps needs to be not one of severe personal sacrifice, but of personal benefit — of environmentalism as a goal to pursue in part for our own self interest.

Robert expressed great optimism with the Obama administration — since we now have a president who not only seems aware of the importance of global climate change issues — but is also a charismatic, eloquent speaker to boot.

So take a trip down memory lane — or learn anew about the history of the environmental movement you were never taught about in school — by watching Earth Days. The film opened today in four Laemmle’s theaters in Los Angeles; check the site to see when Earth Days is coming to a theater near you.

Also read: MNN's interview with Robert Stone

Top image courtesy of Earth Days; bottom photo by Siel

The Ghost of 'Earth Days' past
Robert Stone's new eco-documentary <i>Earth Days</i> reveals lessons from the past we must take into the future.