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Why Robert Redford Wants to Save the West (and the Rest of the Planet)

Robert Redford in Utah
Redford in the Utah mountains in 1970 -- the year of the first Earth Day.

Forty years ago, at the time of the first Earth Day, Robert Redford had just skyrocketed to fame in the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when he got the idea to ride the old outlaw trail -- a string of hideouts where rustlers and bandits once gathered, safe from the law, protected by natural geography. Redford spent five weeks winding down the Montana border, crossing Wyoming, and then passing through Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. "As technology thrusts us relentlessly into the future," he wrote, documenting the trip in National Geographic, "I find myself, perversely, more interested in the past. We seem to have lost something -- something vital, something of individuality and passion. That may be why we tend to view the western outlaw, rightly or not, as a romantic figure."

Insofar as Redford himself is a romantic figure, it may be because he has spent much of his career seeking to restore this missing piece of our humanity. A trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council since 1974, he was an early proponent of renewable energy, such as solar power, and has been a fierce protector of Western wildlands. Escaping the director's chair, where he's currently at work on his latest film, The Conspirator, he spoke with OnEarth about the changing face of environmentalism and how the arts and conservation may converge.

>> ONEARTH MULTIMEDIA: Hear excerpts from this interview and see images from Redford's life and career

What was your impression of the first Earth Day back in 1970?

At that time, I had been involved in environmental activism probably for about a year and a half, pretty well centered on the passing of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 [which requires federal agencies to consider the impact of their actions on the environment]. So Earth Day was a sort of celebration of what a lot of people thought would be a new movement. It got a lot of attention, mostly from young people. Then it flagged for a while. It didn't have the sustained momentum. As a result, I think the Earth Days that have occurred since then have not had the power of the original.

At the time, Earth Day had a lot to do with infusing the energy from the student anti-Vietnam War protests into the environmental cause. How have you seen ecological activism evolve since the 1970s? Looking at the younger generation today, do you see a big difference in how they engage with these issues?

I do. What happened was that, as the post-Vietnam movement began to die away, it was slowly, through the late seventies and early eighties, replaced by a whole different way of thinking. It was a time when greed was licensed by the government, when Reagan came in and said, "Get what you can." And that, in turn, seemed to produce in the nineties a younger generation that was more apathetic and more cynical. Now I think that generation has been replaced by a new energy, which I find quite exciting. Despite skeptics on the global warming issue, it's to me undeniable that human effort has created a great consequence. I think young people are saying, "Wait a second, before you destroy our planet, we want to step in and play a role in protecting it."

What galvanized you to become part of the environmental movement so early -- before it was really a "movement" at all?

There were three events going back to my childhood growing up in Los Angeles. One was that when I was about 15, I went to work at Yosemite National Park. That was a transformative experience for me, because I could actually be in the environment -- in particular, one that was just so overwhelmingly beautiful. Nature had carved it. It was like nature's own sculpture -- and I was a part of it.

The next big event was watching the city I knew as a child, Los Angeles, disappearing under my feet. When World War II ended and money was returned to the overall infrastructure of the United States, suddenly development was rampant and out of control. And there was no land-use plan. Los Angeles had a kind of gold rush mentality, where people were flooding into the city.  As a result, a lot of the natural beauty that I grew up with as a little kid disappeared quickly. Cement replaced grass. Bad air replaced good air. Traffic replaced wide streets. There were so many changes that it had a pretty profound effect on me. I felt like I was losing a place that was my home.

The third thing was going to a conference in Vail, Colorado, in 1973, where I saw something put on a screen that I thought was so obviously simple and clear and irrefutable. They showed what the United States commitment was to nonrenewable energy sources -- oil, gas, coal, so on -- and the amount of energy and interest that was put to new energy sources -- wind, solar, and whatnot. It was so imbalanced. I said, how can anyone not see where this is going to go if it doesn't get rebalanced? I think I made a commitment then to reach to a higher point of political activism.

Around the same time, the state of Utah was planning a road through this particular canyon that was very beautiful. They were going to try to put an eight-lane freeway in there, and I thought, this is so stupid. Why would they kill the beauty of the natural environment with a road that's so unnecessary? That got me galvanized.

Since then, you've been a strong advocate for preserving Western wilderness. What role do you see the West playing in our American identity? Even for those of us who don't live in these landscapes, what's at stake in confronting their loss?

The West is probably the last large available space in America, and it's already diminished. There's certainly no frontier left. There's just what used to be a frontier that we like to sloganeer about. When there's an IMAX movie that shows the Great American West, there are these anthems that play over helicopter shots of beautiful, natural landscape. We're also, at the same time, destroying it pretty rapidly. It's kind of a horse race as to how much people will wake up and figure out a way to preserve what can be preserved while still developing -- because whether we like it or not, we're a development-oriented society, and so that has to happen. But at what point to do you say we better start balancing protection as well, otherwise there will be no resources left?

It's interesting that you bring up the way the West is portrayed in film. I wonder what you think the role of film and narrative should be in conservation?

I think it's a very strong one. When I was filming Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid near Zion National Park, I realized you could use film to say, "Gosh, isn't this beautiful territory? All of it is under threat now."

In portraying these landscapes that you love though, is there a risk of romanticizing them and drawing more people into the wilderness? I was surprised to read that your 1992 movie A River Runs Through It actually attracted a lot of novice fishermen to Western rivers.

I know! It's kind of ironic. Film history is very problematic in that it has romanticized the West since the get-go. It is a romantic place, but in a far different way than Hollywood has presented it. You have to be in it and experience it to know exactly what that value is. It's tough, and it's raw, and nature is unforgiving in certain ways, and beautiful in other ways.

As we approach the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, I wonder what you see as the most pressing environmental issue of our day.

If I had to step back and say, what is the single greatest threat that affects the entire planet, not just individuals of various communities, it would be global warming. I think that's undisputable. It's pretty clear what the cause is -- it's human activity. And I think it's time to put aside the skeptics' argument and accept the fact that we all better start doing whatever we can before it's too late. I think it's doable, but we've already lost a lot of time and a lot of our resources.

You've been promoting renewable energy for decades. In 1978, you helped establish "Sun Day," the solar equivalent of Earth Day, meant to rally support for solar power. What happened to that?

That was too early. It was one day where you would follow the sun from its rising in the East to its setting in the West, and the television news channels would cover various events going on across the country. It didn't go anywhere. People just were not ready to focus on it. Big Industry still had an iron grip on the media and people's way of thinking. It's always jobs versus the environment, and we were trying to say, no, it doesn't have to be that.

When you've been at it forty years or so, you're going to have some wins and losses. The losses always hurt, but they're to be expected. Certain things have been too soon, too early. You get all excited, because you see something clear as a bell, and you think, gosh, we can get the word out, and it will have an effect. Very often you're wrong. It takes a long time for things to evolve out of one thing into another.

View more photographs of Robert Redford's favorite western landscapes at LIFE.com.

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Emily Voigt is a freelance writer and producer in New York. Her work has appeared in the science section of The New York Times and on "This American Life," among other places. She is the recipient of a Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship from the... READ MORE >

Is Robert Redford not saying that we simply need to think and act small and sustainably not bigger and unsustainably; that the transition from what is unsustainable to what is sustainable can be achieved? Does the human community not benefit if we encourage one another to summon our collective will for the purpose of speaking truth to the powerful, advocating more simple and sustainable lifestyles, and in this way at least begin doing right things? As President Obama, (quoting former President Abraham Lincoln) recently reminded all of us: we are not bound to win but we are bound to be true; we are not bound to succeed but we are bound to live up to the light we possess.

The ideas generated in this discussion remind me of the importance of a courageous willingness to consider new, even unlikely possibilities and to think outside the box in reasoned and sensible ways. We need not be ensnared by past decision-making or led to believe only what appears to be so in the present moment is all that can be in the future. The future is open; breakthroughs of one sort or another do occur. Necessary course corrections in the direction of sustainability can be made.

Imagine the workings of a kaleidoscope. Perhaps a kaleidoscope of ideas could juxtapose thoughts in innovative ways. This blog would benefit from some kaleidoscopic thinking. What we can no longer abide is stony silence regarding scientific evidence and conscious denial of what could somehow be real because events will likely eventually get beyond our control... when outcomes derived from unsustainable human global overgrowth activities can no longer be altered by human action. At least to me, unstrategic approaches such as sticking heads-in-the-sand, electing mutism, not doing anything, having the 'courage' to do nothing and "better not to try" are anathema.

JUST AS ROBERT REDFORD WANTS TO SAVE THE WEST. I ELLEN GROSSMAN FEEL THE SAME THING. TO SAVE A BEAUTIFUL LAND THAT HAS BEEN THEIR FOREVER . AND THE REST OF THE PLANET.

I applaud him!!!

I belitve in saving the planet . We had this industry come into our state and make these ponds of chemicals and they put chemicals in the river and killed pour fish and wild life in the river and now they are packing firing our men or laying off our men moving to another country and doing the same thing there in brazil for the mighty the dollar. The dollar is worth mor than the man. This company has even killed men with cancer. The industry is called Internationational Paper.
The City it is coming from now is Franklin, Va
My husband and I live in Eure, North Carolinia.
Many families and businesses will be affected by this company too. But mostly rivers, air you breat for so longthe ponds are still there
people who have worked there may have cancer later on in life andd even there family members could have gotten it.. thank you so much for your time
Rita B. Felton

Thanks for these inspiring and encouraging words from one of my "heroes," strong environmental protector and human Robert Redford. I have always admired and respected his eagerness to use his fame to espouse social and environmental causes and preserve Earth. Always a pleasure to see his views and opinions published as a counterbalance to BigBusiness Republican efforts to marginalize environmental protection. (One final non--environment related applause line: see "Brubaker" again, everyone. One of Mr. Redford's most courageous and overlooked film protagonists.)

Everyone is going to have to speak out. In the last decade the collusion, corruption and cover-up of massive fraud in the global economy by greedy, self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe among us as well as their willful blindness and elective mutism in the face of the rampant dissipation of natural resources, relentless pollution of the environment and reckless degradation of Earth's ecology is as unconscionable as it is unforgiveable. The fulmination of irresponsible leadership in the first decade of Century XXI gave rise to the cratering of the world's political economy and to the irreversible destabilization of the Earth's climate.

From 2000 to 2008, whatsoever was politically correct, economically expedient, socially convenient and culturally prescribed was automatically espoused loudly as "the truth". Ideological idiocy prevailed over science. Greed ruled the world. Intellectual honesty, personal accountability, moral courage and doing the right thing were eschewed. Gag rules were enforced. As a consequence, the human community was persuaded to inadvertently make a colossal mess of our planetary home, Earth. Everyone could see what was happening, but few people were willing to speak out. No one with power listened to those who did speak out about what was observed occurring around us. Millions of people were encouraged to engage in conspicuous per-capita overconsumption and scandalous individual hoarding of resources; in megabillion-dollar pyramid schemes and unsustainable large-scale industrial enterprises.

Nothing can happen until many people speak truth to the greedmongers and power-hungry.

New leadership and a new direction such as the one presented by President Barack Obama need to be freely chosen and actively sustained.

Thanks to Robert Redford for his efforts over the years to make a difference. He is to be commended.

I find it interesting that Robert Redford comes to the conclusion that something must be done to preserve the planet from certain and irreversible destruction while he was born and raised in an urban area. I was born and raised in rural upper Michigan, where I was taught by my extended family to steward the land and wildlife and protect the environment from the encroachment of humanity. It's very encouraging and refreshing to find the parallels in our activism when we come from opposite ends of the envrionmental spectrum.

I applaud Mr. Redford for his outspoken activism and actions on behalf of the natural beauty of the land, and would like to invite him to consider joining the Global Stewardship Initiative - a grass roots effort to engage people to become stewards and take ownership of the planet in order to save it. We're on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/globalstewardshipinitiative - Robert Redford rocks for the planet!

I live in Utah and feel proud to have Robert Redford as the eloquent and sensible spokesperson that he is, speaking for so many of us who care deeply about our environment here and all around the world. Change is slow, but I've seen it occur over the past 20 years that I have been a practicing environmentalist. Thank you Robert Redford, Sir, for your commitment and dedication to this vital endeavor. Your steady voice and life-long work is greatly appreciated.

I support the effort Robert!

Preserve the beauty of the world. It's easy isn't it? All you need is love...

I admire Mr. Redford more than I can say for his decades of advocacy. He not only has long voiced the need to protect our planet's beautiful places, he also has consistently reinforced his words through eloquent action.

Since the underlying theme of his interview is the tricky balance we need to reach between development and conservation, I'll take the opportunity to flag a documentary currently in production on this very topic.

"The Genius of a Place" tells the story of Cortona, a small town in Tuscany which suddenly became a popular tourist destination following the publication of the best-selling book and then Hollywood film, "Under the Tuscan Sun", both set in Cortona.

The town, understandably, has welcomed the extra revenue yet is also grappling with a host of development issues linked to such rapid growth.

I'm the film's creator and co-producer. We are using the example of one place to tell the story of many places around our beautiful and fragile planet. Our ultimate aim is to encourage audiences to take care of places they love, wherever they are.

I hope anyone reading this will consider becoming a fan on Facebook. Among the videos on our page, you'll find our 3-minute trailer.

Here's our link:
http://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/The-Genius-of-a-Place/223595413144?ref=ts

May we all discover and take care of the genius of our own little corner of the world.

I would love to see Robert Redford get involved with the Orion Project, which would help us establish free, clean energy for EVERYONE. The Project needs funding, and we need to spread the word....The Orion Project. Please look it up.

Thanks,
C.Murphy