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EARTH BEAT

Director Mark Kitchell's Mind Bombs

Mark Kitchell

The history of the environmental movement is long and complicated, sometimes heartwarming and often dispiriting. In A Fierce Green Fire: The Battle for a Living Planet, filmmaker Mark Kitchell (director of the Oscar-nominated Berkeley in the Sixties, 1990) focuses on the passionate voices behind the issues of dam building, forest felling, water pollution, whale slaughter, and climate change. His film is an indispensable primer for anyone unfamiliar with the breadth of the global environmental movement, and a shot in the arm for movement veterans in search of new inspiration. Sierra spoke with Kitchell from his San Francisco office.

How did you decide what to tell in just 100 minutes?
At first I imagined a six-part series. But one of my advisers, Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, said, "You'll never get it funded, and no one will watch it." So I focused on five important events. It took a scientist to tell me I had to be dramatic.

What Can this film do for those new to the Environmental movement?
I hope it educates and inspires and mobilizes and recruits.

Of the activists you profile, do you have a favorite?
Housewife-activist Lois Gibbs and the fight to clean up Love Canal in New York in 1978. It's a great dramatic story.

Is there an anecdote that particularly fascinated you?
After Sea Shepherd captain Paul Watson rammed the whaler Sierra in 1979, the Portuguese government couldn't figure out who owned his vessel. So it was given as compensation to the whalers. Watson then snuck back into Portugal and sank his own ship.

What cause did best at getting media attention?
The theme of "How do you use the media?" runs through the film. David Brower was brilliant with the Sierra Club's ads against building Grand Canyon dams. And Greenpeace had dramatic, camera-ready events known as "mind bombs."

Do you despair over global warming?
I worry that we're not going to deal with it on time and will reap the whirlwind. Climate change is hard to deal with and easy to ignore. It's drip, drip, drip. Unlike with the bomb, the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper.

How should activists deal with the amorphousness of climate change?
People are finding handles for the issue, such as opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, coral reef protection campaigns, and the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. Finding a piece of the problem to work on makes a lot of sense. Bill McKibben's group 350.org is a stalking horse for the larger issue.

An Inconvenient Truth was huge seven years ago. Yet it's still hard to get the message out.
The scientists have been too careful, and environmentalists are trying and not succeeding all that well. [Former Sierra Club executive director] Carl Pope says that they thought the biggest problem was going to be opposition from oil and coal, but didn't anticipate Americans' sense of denial, or how the negativity of the message was going to hurt the cause. We should have begun with more positive messages.

The film is critical of top-down political solutions. But doesn't any cause ultimately need political allies at the top?
That is a little rhetorical and a little unfair. It's going to take top-down, too. Some of the most impressive efforts are occurring "subnationally," at the local, state, and regional level. Over 1,000 cities have signed on to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. It's democratizing power.

Short of taking EPA officials hostage like citizens did at Love Canal, do you have a sense of what might create a tipping point?
The answer will be economically driven. It may not even look like an environmental crisis. We may go through an age of austerity.

When was your environmental awakening?
When I was in high school, I wrote a paper on pollution from detergents.

What's your environmental vice?
I've been a starving artist for a long time, so my carbon footprint is small. But I fly too much. On a personal level, I'm 60 pounds overweight, and since starting this project, I've started smoking a pipe. —interview by Reed McManus


A Fierce Green Fire premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival will be screened in theaters starting in March 2013. For more information, including screening dates and locations, go to afiercegreenfire.com.


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