Interview with Phil Shabecoff

This is a report on the Shabecoff interview we shot today. Philip Shabecoff is a New York times journalist, founder of Greenwire (the 1st environmental news source), and author of A Fierce Green Fire, what I consider to be the best history of the environmental movement. He spans the whole film, the whole movement really. He’ll be someone who keeps coming back into the story.

I'm getting a reputation for exhaustive and exhausting interviews. Philip is 76 and we put him through a lot. He was game and worked hard to give us what we wanted. he said he suffers from CRS syndrome -- can't remember shit. But I realized afterwards how much good and valuable material he gave us. Here's a rundown to the best of my recollection:

He started with his signature statement, where he's at now: we are a failed evolutionary experiment. He doesn't think our species is going to make it. He did this again late in the interview, I thought better -- he talked of humans as rational beings, but unable to stop destroying our world. It's powerful stuff, coming from a man like him. We did a few rounds of the fierce green fire story. he made it not only about Aldo Leopold, but about how he came to name his book. Nice context -- about Roosevelt, Muir and Pinchot, then on to Leopold hunting predators on the Kaibab Plateau in Arizona, where they eliminated the wolves and the deer population exploded, then starved and died. When he got to Leopold's story of the fierce green fire, he delivered the famous quote. Also in there was a great signature line about looking for a title for his book and coming across the quote and thinking the environmental movement is a fierce green fire. Gold.

He did the pioneers -- the transcendentalists and Thoreau ("in wildness is the salvation of the world"), George Perkins Marsh (did a good one-sentence precis on his ideas too). I think there was more in there about conservation of land and wildlife, wilderness...

I asked him to do the postwar explosion of powerful new technologies and economic growth, pollution, consumption, rivers in flames (I read to him a great passage from his book.) I remember mention of chemicals and the Cuyahoga River bursting into flames... I also read him a passage about the growing suspicion that something was amiss in affluent society and he gave me a good version of that too. He spoke of Barry Commoner and Rachel Carson ("chemicals that threatened all life including humans...") We went in to nuclear fallout and strontium 90 showing up in baby's teeth.

I had him do a few takes on Earth Day. First the emphasis was on it being more than a celebration, it creating a movement. Then I pushed him to do his flood bursting over the dam metaphor and he delivered that well enough to use. He gave us a good line about the public's inchoate fears and anger. Then he did a couple of takes on the movements of the 60s -- civil rights, feminism, anti-war -- being strong sources of Earth Day -- how the activists who believed they could change the world took up environmental issues. All very nice stuff.

The golden era of environmental legislation. He got in Clean Air, Water, toxic waste... We talked about NEPA, requiring government to do enviro impact studies and how that affected everything. He concluded by talking about NEPA as a stealth act. We talked of Nixon knowing which way the wind blows and responding, setting up EPA. We also talked of Senator Muskie as Mr. Green (actually he was known as Mr. Clean) and the bipartisan Congress that passed legislation. He mentioned NRDC arising to litigate (unbidden by me.)

Then I asked him to connect the foregoing to Love Canal and he did a great job of talking about Lois Gibb, this housewife who forced the federal government to relocate them because their kids were going to school and their houses were built on tons of toxic waste. He did talk about her going on to start a group helping other grassroots movements fighting toxics in their backyard. He gave a few specifics like nuclear reactors leaking radiation, dumps. At some point he led well and neatly to environmental justice -- this again struck me as a piece we could use in toto on screen. He did say that Lois helped many other groups, but many groups acted on their own, took up fighting to save their children from pollution (maybe in here he gave a few examples, struck me as useful.) We also talked a bit about NIMBYism.

Pushback and jobs versus the environment. I asked him about business and how they reacted. He said they were surprised at first by the rise of environmental concerns and didn't really push back until late in the '70s, around Superfund. Did a nice little thing about how it almost didn't pass, until Dupont and its chief, Shapiro, supported it.

The Reagan counter-revolution (he prefers that term to counter-attack.) He talked of Ann Burford (Gorsuch) and James Watt and what they were doing. Some talk in here about the environmental organizations doubling and doubling again in membership as public rallied to environmental issues. He talked of Burford and Watt being forced to resign.

Then we got into what he calls "third wave" environmentalism -- groups trying to work with business. Nice bit in here about how the cadres still had a fierce green fire, but the organizations became institutional, bureaucratic. We got into cap and trade scheme, he explained how polluters could do better and sell permits to pollute to those who weren't doing better. We talked of an excess of compromise...

That's as far as we got by lunch break. Coming back, I had two main things to do: Act 4, the rise of global issues; and Act 5, climate change.

First we talked a bit about whales and the IWC. There was more in here about the US's role and some act that threatened to cut off trade with countries that kept whaling. Going global. There are some fine pieces in here that Phil delivered with passion and energy. The best may be a passage where he weaves North/South development and equity issues into the idea of sustainable development and ties it to the Rio Earth Summit. He explained how economic and environmental issues were tied together, mentioned a global bargain and all the promises of funding that were never kept by the rich countries. He also did a litany of issues that I thought was pretty good -- from the ozone hole to the Montreal protocol, atmospheric issues, water and land, forests and oceans. He brings in biodiversity, says that George H W Bush refused to sign that treaty. I'm sure all this will be useful for setting the context at the top of Act 4.

We talked about the study done at Stanford that estimated how much of the earth's biomass humans are using. 48% he gave as the figure, then talked about population and consumption doubling, to the point where we will be using all of the earth's biomass. He did a great job of connecting to the idea that humans are crowding out all other species. In here I also had him do Earth Day 1980 vs. 1990. Nice how he got at 1990 as 200 million people around the world awakening to concern about the earth, the rise of a truly global movement.

I gave him a quote "The earth is one but the world is not." That he explained came from the Brundtland Commission, expressed idea that the physical world was one but socially and politically and economically we very divided. We came back to Rio as a moment of hope and he did a very nice piece about that -- Agenda 21, the two treaties, all the leaders and promises -- "and then it vanished." Great moment. Also some stuff in here about Gorbachev and how remarkable Russia taking up enviro issues was.

Climate change. We talked politics, Gore especially. Got good pieces both here and earlier in the interview about how in the Clinton administration nothing happened. He talks about Gore should have done more -- and he talks about why he was hamstrung. We got a decent piece about how he had to lose the presdiency to become the oracle. Most powerful in here is a bite about how “An Inconvenient Truth” really turned the issue, and may have saved us.

I had him do arcs of the movement again, related to US abdicating its international leadership and Europe rising in its place.We talked of energy and sustainability. Then I brought up the theme “It's not just climate change.” He did a powerful thing here about the poisoning of the whole world, every kid, every fetus, every child yet to be born -- all the chemicals ( he mentions the trillions of tons produced every year in US).

Finally we talked of now and the future. Again he has become pessimistic in the last ten years, thinks our species is a failed evolutionary experiment. Then he closed with a quote by Ortega y Gasset from his book -- he read it once and then closed the interview delivering it straight to the camera. I can't quite remember it.

The mood, after Elizabeth Kolbert and then Phil Shabecoff, is getting rather doom and gloom. But we all agree that's not a bad thing, so long as we intercut with other views. All in all Phil was a strong, very useful interview. I’m sure he’ll work as a main thread.

Turning into June it feels like lots is coming together. Wrapping up deals with First Run Features to do theatrical distribution and Bullfrog Films to do non-theatrical, educational and community engagement. Laying plans for a fall release.

Read more: 6/01/12

Santa Barbara benefit was beautifully done by Lois Phillips. Brought a dozen sponsors aboard, got a great audience. Demonstrated the importance of organizing. But also the limits of what we can handle for now.

Read more: 5/05/12

Working on adding to the end of the film a call featuring activists of today. Idea is to have up to twenty people emerge from the mosaic of protest to say a line or two about what they are fighting for.

Read more: 5/15/12

A Fierce Green Fire is done but not quite done. A few tasks and costs remain:

Read more: What will it take to put A Fierce Green Fire out into the world?

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  1. A Fierce Green Fire

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“Oscar-nominated filmmaker Mark Kitchell (Berkeley in the Sixties) winningly spans the broad scope of environmental history in this comprehensive doc, connecting its origins with the variety of issues still challenging society today.”
Justin Lowe, The Hollywood Reporter

"The material is vast, and it’s an incredibly dynamic film. It’s shaping up to be the documentary of record on the environmental movement.
I think it’ll be hugely successful."

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