Earth Day 2014: 'American Masters: A Fierce Green Fire' marks 50 years of environmental activism

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"All the social and political ferment that was going on in this country was building up ... and on Earth Day 1970, it was like water bursting through a dam."

Those words, spoken by journalist Philip Shabecoff in "A Fierce Green Fire," airing on PBS' "American Masters" Tuesday, April 22 (check local listings), are a callback to a defining environmental battle of the 1960s. That's when the Sierra Club fought the U.S. government's proposal to build dams in the Grand Canyon -- and won.

Mark Kitchell's film, based on a book by Shabecoff, chronicles five decades of environmental activism.

Act 1, narrated by Robert Redford, recalls the dam battle and other issues at the forefront in the '60s, when the primary goal of the movement was conservation. Later, concerns about pollution became the rallying point, as Act 2, narrated by Ashley Judd, illustrates with the story of Love Canal, the Niagara Falls, N.Y., neighborhood contaminated by industrial chemical leaks, and Lois Gibbs, the Love Canal mom who spearheaded the effort to relocate residents.

Environmental advocate and civil rights activist Van Jones takes over in Act 3, detailing the growth of environmentalism in the 1970s, when the anti-war movement began channeling its activism into ecological issues. It was this era that spawned the first Earth Day and the birth of Greenpeace.

Global activism is the focus of Act 4, narrated by writer Isabel Allende. Its focus is Brazilian rubber tapper Chico Mendes, who rallied his comrades to fight the destruction of the Amazon rain forest by cattle-ranching interests and paid with his life.

Act 5, narrated by Meryl Streep, brings the story into the present with the debate over climate change.

Distilling 50 years into a single hour is no easy task, and "A Fierce Green Fire" falls short in places. That's probably unavoidable, given the complexity of the issue.

"It's not a movement," author Paul Hawken says. "It's, in a sense, humanity's immune response to the despoliation of the environment, to the degradation of living systems, to the corruption we see in economic systems and the pollution of the environmental system."
Photo/Video credit: PBS