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Gibbs and Love Canal featured in PBS documentary

Robert Redford, Ashley Judd and Meryl Streep get top billing in TV Topics in the short summary of Tuesday’s episode of PBS’ “American Masters” series.

But the celebrity narrators aren’t the real stars of the documentary “A Fierce Green Fire.”

Western New York activist Lois Gibbs is one of the much bigger, lesser-known stars of the film about the environmental movement that premieres at 9 p.m. Tuesday – Earth Day – on WNED-TV.

According to a PBS release, “the film’s title is derived from pioneering ecologist Aldo Leopold’s “A Sand County Almanac” (1949), which describes his awakening after shooting a wolf while working as a U.S. Forest Service ranger: “We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes.”

Gibbs is center stage in the second act about pollution narrated by Judd in the shortened five-act version of the film written, directed and produced by Academy Award-nominee Mark Kitchell (“Berkeley in the Sixties.” ) The film documents the grassroots activism around the world from the 1960s-2009 that begins with the conservation movement and ends with the scary danger of very little being done about climate change – except for talk.

With a musical background that includes tunes from the Chambers Brothers and Joni Mitchell, the film premiered in 2012 at the Sundance Film Festival at a much longer length. The “American Masters” version is 55 minutes, about as half as long as it reportedly ran in different versions.

If only humans were able to conserve our natural resources as economically.

The 12 or more minutes featuring Gibbs’ struggle to get first the state and then the federal government to accept the incredible amount of birth defects that children in the Love Canal area of Niagara Falls acquired was due to toxic waste should remind Western New Yorkers how courageous she was in battling governmental forces whose denial of the circumstances may be even more mind-blowing today.

In file footage and more recent interviews, Gibbs recounts the story of how she and fellow Love Canal residents realized “if fish and birds are dying, then we’re going to die” because 20,000 tons of chemical were buried where they lived.

Eventually, two U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials were held hostage before being released after a face-off with Carter Administration. She eventually warned if the protesters didn’t get what they wanted “what they have seen here today is a ‘Sesame Street’ picnic.”

The administration caved and soon President Jimmy Carter was at Love Canal declaring “there can never be another Love Canal.”

That uplifting end to the Love Canal is immediately followed by the reality that President Ronald Reagan was considerably less interested in protecting the environment and actually thought the scales had tipped too far in the favor of environmentalists.

Before you think the film is just another shot at Republicans who favor big business over the environment, be advised that President Nixon is looked upon favorably in the film.

Kitchell’s film was inspired by the book of the same name by environmental journalist and film interviewee Philip Shabecoff, who is one of several experts interviewed in the film.

In every one of the film’s five acts, national or global politics play a significant role in the equation as ordinary heroes like Gibbs battle unreasonable forces to save the Grand Canyon, the Amazon Forest and whales. The film also offers a counter argument to those who disagree with the mounting evidence of climate change and who seem more interested in making money than whether little Johnny and Joanie will live in a safer environment in the future.

The film does an extraordinary job documenting the ordinary heroes – one of whom declares “my attitude was always to be unreasonable” and another of whom was murdered.

Of course, new environmental concerns arrive frequently so this film is just as relevant – or more relevant – that all the issues that started decades ago.

The hope is that the former heroes like Gibbs might inspire new heroes to emerge and convince local, national and world powers to consider doing do the right long-term thing for the environment instead of a short-term solution for the economy.


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