By Jennifer Lynn Peterson, PhD (Professor, Woodbury University, Department of Communication)

In September 1970, the newsletter for the community of the National Institutes of Health, the NIH Record, published a review of The Darkening Day, an exhibition produced by the National Library of Medicine. The show drew from popular media accounts of the contemporary environmental crisis.

In examining these historic films, Dr Jennifer Peterson brings forward the work of scientists and others in the Public Health Service, and how their findings and priorities shaped health policies and public communications during the era.

A woman in a skirt an blouse sits on a railing over water holding binoculars.
Rachel Carson at Woods Hole, Massachusetts, 1950
Linda Lear Center for Special Collections & Archives, Connecticut College, photograph by Edwin Gray

The 1960s represent a turning point in popular awareness about environmental problems. While the first wave of conservationist ideas and US government policy (dating back to the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century) was concerned with wildlife and land use, centering on wilderness preservation and the formation of the national parks, the modern environmental movement that emerged in the mid-1960s and early-1970s focused on a new set of concerns such as air pollution, water pollution, and pesticides. This shift is in part due to the influence of Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which is often credited with initiating the modern environmental movement. A groundswell of activism and federal environmental legislation followed in its wake: more federal environmental bills were signed in the 1960s and early 1970s than at any other period in U.S. history. Lyndon Johnson authorized the first federal regulation on air pollution with the Clean Air Act of 1963, followed by expansions authorized by Air Quality Acts in 1966 and 1967. This legislation was expanded by Richard Nixon, who created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970, and who signed a significantly expanded Clean Air Act in 1970. As environmental historian Scott Hamilton Dewey writes, “[i]n addition to the prominence of air pollution among environmentalists and the general public, it also was one of the key issues, perhaps even the single leading issue, driving federal environmental policy during the late 1960s.”[1] Air pollution was certainly not a new problem in the 1960s (urban air pollution dates back hundreds of years), but it became a newly urgent topic in this period.

Free Films on Air Pollution pamphlet cover, 1967
National Library of Medicine #0113642

This essay considers six films about air pollution held by the National Library of Medicine that were produced or supported by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) between 1960–1972. Air pollution in the 1960s was specifically handled by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (known as HEW, it was renamed the Department of Health and Human Services in 1979, when it split off from the newly formed Department of Education). Other forms of pollution were handled by other Departments: water pollution fell under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, while pesticides were handled by the Department of Agriculture, for example. This organizational logic explains why so many films about air pollution were made by the PHS, a division of the HEW. While many government agencies produced multimedia educational materials, including motion pictures, the particular confluence of education and air pollution in the HEW may have encouraged the production of more films on air pollution than on other environmental issues in the 1960s.

An Airlie Production text on top of an image with fire
Closing credits for Beware the Wind, 1967
National Library of Medicine #101465310

The first five films I discuss focus on air pollution; the last title I discuss, released in 1972, addresses environmental concerns more generally. Co-produced by the PHS and a range of commercial and nonprofit institutions, these films reflect an era in which the government took a leading role in educating the public about environmental health threats. Multimedia approaches to public education were newly important in this period. In order to educate the public about air pollution, the PHS joined forces with commercial companies such as Westinghouse, nonprofit film production companies such as Airlie Productions, educational institutions such as the George Washington University Medical Center, and nonprofit organizations such as the National Tuberculosis Association (now the American Lung Association). With the exception of the first title I discuss here, which was shown on television, these 16mm films would have been shown in what was then known as the “nontheatrical” distribution circuit of schools, libraries, public halls, churches, and other venues outside the commercial motion picture theaters. As a 1960 government film catalog explained, “Generally speaking, government agencies use several different methods in distributing, nontheatrically, their films throughout the United States.… In so doing, the government is following the same patterns as most educational and industrial film producers who use, in variation and combination, different loan, rental, and sales outlets.”[2] In recent years, there has been a groundswell of interest in such nontheatrical films, as scholars have begun to account for the wide influence and vast number of educational films that were produced and distributed from the 1920s to the 1980s.[3]

Scientific consensus today has formed around the idea that human actions have affected Earth Systems to such a degree that we have left the Holocene epoch and entered a new epoch known as the Anthropocene.

These six films illustrate some of the ways environmentalist discourse changed across the 1960s and into the early 1970s. All of the films frame air pollution as a problem caused by human industry, and all argue that pollution can be controlled by federal and state regulation, along with personal actions. But the titles from 1960–­62 present an official, serious tone, addressing air pollution as a public health issue that citizens must be educated about. In the films made later in the decade, we see the emergence of a countercultural critique of post-World War II consumerism and waste. The last title I discuss, Countdown to Collision (1972), reflects a broader environmentalist rhetoric characteristic of the environmental movement after 1970. The first Earth Day in 1970 is heralded by environmental historians as a turning point in popular environmentalism, the moment in which individual issues such as air and water pollution coalesced into a single vision of environmentalism as a network of interconnected concerns.[4] By the 1970s, what had been presented as a matter of public health was reframed as a countercultural critique.


The post-World War II period has been called the “Great Acceleration,” a period in which fossil fuel consumption, population growth, urbanization, and consumerism grew at an exponential rate.[5] Indeed, scientific consensus today has formed around the idea that human actions have affected Earth Systems to such a degree that we have left the Holocene epoch and entered a new epoch known as the Anthropocene.[6] It is striking that even films made early in the 1960s demonstrate a nascent awareness of the Anthropocene, describing air pollution as a by-product of U.S. economic prosperity. Air pollution is challenging to visualize, but these films share several strategies for rendering it. Every one of these films includes shots of hazy skies, framed in extreme long shots or from aerial perspectives. Hazy skylines, whether urban, industrial, or rural, do not make for dynamic film images, so these shots of haze are counterbalanced by other iconographic images of air pollution such as crowded roads, smokestacks, burning tires, and incinerators.

Woman drew
A sooty coffee table serves as a title card in Public Enemy, 1960
National Library of Medicine #8800144A

The earliest film in this group, Public Enemy (1960), begins with a shot of a frustrated housewife tracing the words “PUBLIC ENEMY” in a sensationally thick layer of black soot coating her coffee table, while ominous music builds up to emphasize the danger we are about to encounter. A collaboration between the PHS and the Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, this is a black-and-white 16mm kinescope of a television program, which originally would have been seen live by millions of people. Therefore, this opening shot of a housewife is doubly appropriate: it opens this television program within the domestic space of the living room, where most televisions were then located, and it directly addresses women, who were particularly active in early anti-air pollution campaigns.

Woman in a collared shirt and pencil skirt sitting on a couch with her fist on her chin.
“Mrs. Public” contemplating her television in Public Enemy
National Library of Medicine #8800144A

This housewife reappears later in the program, where she is referred to as “Mrs. Public” as she sneezes and rubs her eyes; another housewife is shown sitting on her couch while she watches TV in a contemplative posture, while the voice-over praises the Westinghouse Broadcasting Corporation for performing a public service by presenting this program. The program has an interesting self-reflexive quality throughout, in part due to its nature as a live television broadcast.

The program next presents a dramatic montage of factory smokestacks, smoke, and black pellets resembling charcoal briquettes. While these seem to be visualizations of hopelessly polluted air, the male voiceover explains that these pellets actually represent smoke that has been removed from the air. “Industry didn’t build this equipment sooner because it didn’t know how.

4 large cylindrical tanks standing parallel to each other, next to some machinery
The Duquesne Works of the U.S. Steel Corporation, as shown in Public Enemy
National Library of Medicine #8800144A

In fact, it took over ten years to develop and to build this plant near Duquesne, in Pittsburgh, which just does one job: it removes ferro-manganese dust. And every day it builds this mountain of smoke even higher.” Although the narrator (Carl Ide) does not explain it, what this montage shows is the Duquesne Works of the U.S. Steel Corporation and its ferromanganese gas cleaning plant. While the voiceover tries to reassure us that industry is doing its own “housecleaning,” these images clearly document the large-scale environmental pollution caused by this steel works (which had been ramped up during World War II but was demolished by 1988).

The bulk of Public Enemy features talking head “pollution fighters” from Washington DC and around the country explaining specific, local problems with air pollution. “Yes, the federal government is working on the problem, but basically, it is a local job,” the narrator explains. We are introduced to a number of state and local officials working on air pollution in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, Niagara Falls, Detroit, Cincinnati, Jacksonville, San Francisco, and New York City. Some of these men show diagrams and illustrations presented on cardboard posters with rudimentary animation. The discussion of illness, symptoms, and death rates in what was then a relatively novel public health concern is data-driven and clear; and in contrast to today’s highly commercialized, polarized news media ecosystem, it is refreshingly free from sensationalism.

In a crowd of people a man rubs his eyes.
Sources of Air Pollution, 1962
National Library of Medicine #101640831

Released two years later, the 16mm color film Sources of Air Pollution sketches the problem in broad strokes, using alarmist rhetoric that builds a sense of crisis, but offers no solutions. This pointed five-minute informational short, credited solely to the PHS Division of Air Pollution, presents a montage of smoggy cities, smoke-belching factories. Some of these shots appeared already in Public Enemy, which indicates the existence of a PHS stock footage vault. In a voiceover, the male narrator (Thomas F. Williams) explains:

We have created an environment which satisfies the basic material needs of man better than any other in history. But with each year that passes we threaten more ominously our natural environment of air, land, and water. Dump the gunk into the river! Cut down the trees! Poison the land and the air! We are faithful users of soaps and cosmetics, yet we step outside into a daily bath of airborne dirt.

He lists the sources of air pollution—industry, motor vehicles, incinerators, and cities—and makes his central argument: as modernity expands, so does its air pollution. The problem seems to be intractable, which is an interesting perspective for a film made the year before the passage of the Clean Air Act. But this kind of doomsaying rhetoric was common in the period, used as a technique to spur outrage and action. The film’s bleak ending is an excellent example of this rhetoric, with its incantation of the smells of modern air pollution: “the irritating stench of sulfurous gases and the sweetly sickening smell of rotting garbage.”


Beware the Wind title screen
Beware the Wind, 1967
National Library of Medicine #101465310

By the late-1960s, we can discern a shift to a broader environmentalist critique. Beware the Wind, a 16mm color film produced by Airlie Productions in 1967, exemplifies what we might call the institutional version of late 1960s environmentalist rhetoric. Airlie Productions was the filmmaking division of the Airlie Foundation, an organization founded by Murdock Head, who is credited as the producer of this film. The film was partly funded by a research grant from the Division of Air Pollution in the PHS. Murdock Head was a colorful figure. A professor of medical and public affairs at George Washington University, his Airlie Foundation hosted conferences for government and public institutions at a large farmland facility in Airlie, Virginia. His film production unit made hundreds of educational films, funded by millions of dollars of government grant money. Some of these films won awards, but in 1978, Head came under FBI investigation for misconduct in the obtaining of these grants. He was convicted in 1981 of conspiring to bribe two U.S. Congressmen to obtain government grants, and served more than ten months in federal prison; after his release, his career seems to have recovered.[7]

a bunch of old broken cars in front a big ship
Beware the Wind, 1967
National Library of Medicine #101465310

Beware the Wind’s opening montage establishes a clear contrast between pristine nature and human pollution. We see several shots of the sun, the ocean, and birds, with a stern male voiceover intoning, “In the beginning God created the earth … and man looked around him and decided there was room for improvement.” As soon as “man” is mentioned, we see jet planes and an airport. Next comes a quick dramatic scene in which two airplane pilots (actors) discuss the “smoke problem,” followed by the title card, “BEWARE the WIND.” The film launches into a series of iconic air pollution shots of hazy city skylines, factories, smokestacks, trash fires, and traffic-choked freeways. “Into the air leaks poison. Each year, 130 million tons of it. Often, it kills.” Having defined the problem, the film continues to present an assortment of facts about and images of air pollution. Like many educational films, Beware does not follow a linear narrative logic but moves forward with an episodic, incremental distribution of information. In some educational film genres, such as travelogues, this episodic structure creates a poetic effect, which I have described elsewhere as a “string of pearls” editing pattern.[8] Here, however, the effect is more jarring thanks to the dramatic music, alarmist voice-over, and dystopian content. The educational film’s non-narrative flow of information can have various aesthetic effects. Rather than an accumulation of picturesque scenes, here we have an accumulation of devastating pollution problems.

Building in the foreground and a bridge in the background
San Francisco in Beware the Wind, 1967
National Library of Medicine #101465310

One section of the film offers panoramic views of polluted skylines around the country: in Phoenix, Denver, Washington DC, and San Francisco. In Chicago, alongside a montage showing a city office building, the air pollution control office, and a field service director at his desk, we are told that “combatting air pollution is no different than fighting any public menace. It takes organization, money, strong protest by the local citizens, and a program of tough enforcement.” The narrator explains, “Through ignorance and greed, most corporations refuse to admit there is a solution to their waste problem. There is no pollution problem that present-day technology cannot solve.” Electrostatic precipitators are shown to be an important solution, along with local citizen activists. Ending on an emphatic note, the narrator proclaims, backed by swelling orchestral music of horns, flute, and string instruments, “Ingenuity and endeavor have created for us the highest material standard of living ever known. We can’t go back to the beginning. But with only a small part of the ingenuity we’ve brought to building our enormous wealth, we can ensure that the air which gives us life no longer brings us death.”

By the late 1960s, we can hear a distinctly countercultural critique growing louder in these public health organization-funded films.

Brown smoke coming out of tall pipes from a factory behind smaller buildings.
Don’t Leave It All to the Experts, 1969
National Library of Medicine #9100602A

A number of these films foreground an important aspect of the environmental movement in this period: much environmental change was brought about by citizen outcry and activism. Don’t Leave It All to the Experts (1969) opens with a series of testimonials from people (actors) explaining why air pollution is just not their problem. The film argues against this passivity, however, listing a host of environmental problems but arguing that air pollution is the most serious threat to the environment. Citizens are urged to attend regional public hearings addressing air pollution and are cautioned to question industry and government “experts” who will try to obfuscate. Ultimately, the film is designed to support the Federal Clean Air Act of 1967. As the narrator intones at the end of the film, “Public concern is what it will take to ensure clean air in your community. … Be knowledgeable about clean air. And sound off! … It’s really up to you.”

White cartoon boy walking about of a white door with a white pillars symbol on the top of the door
Mr. Hack in The Run Around, 1969
National Library of Medicine #101622477

By the late 1960s, we can hear a distinctly countercultural critique growing louder in these public health organization-funded films. The Run Around (National Tuberculosis Association, 1969) is an eighteen-minute animated short that squarely blames corporate-run factories for air pollution and shows them refusing to take the blame. The film is a standout for its stylized, colorful animation and groovy guitar music. The main character, a man with a chronic cough named Mr. Hack, visits a factory, a power plant, and so forth to complain about air pollution, but each corrupt institutional head denies responsibility and passes him along to another organization. The film was co-directed by Amram Nowak and Antony Peters; Nowak was a director of documentary and feature films, and Peters was a writer and animator who worked for Rankin/Bass Productions in the 1960s. That company was not involved with the production of this film, however. Peters’ own animation company, Instant Miracles, is credited with the animation production on The Run Around.[9] When the animated portion of the film ends, the film shifts to a live-action concluding segment in which Senator Edmund Muskie (D-ME)—sponsor of the Air Quality Act of 1967—delivers a few minutes’ worth of solemn remarks about Mr. Hack and the menace of air pollution, urging citizens to take action against dirty air. This rather dry statement at the end dissipates the far-out energy of the animated portion of the film, but the inclusion of this official statement is in keeping with the aesthetics of a government film.


An important turning point for the environmental movement came in the wake of the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. One of the event’s founders, Denis Hayes, describes it this way:

The real situation in the 1960s is that there were people who cared about birds in the Audubon Society and the Environmental Defense Fund. There were people who lived in Santa Barbara who cared about oil spills, or lived in Gary, Ind., and cared about air pollution. There were anti-freeway coalitions in a dozen cities. But all of these groups, and dozens of others, thought of themselves as freeway groups, as air pollution groups, as bird groups. One of the most important things—I think the most important thing—that Earth Day did was to take all of those different threads and weave them together into this fabric of modern environmentalism, to help them understand that they were operating from similar sets of values and then that they could support one another and be much stronger as a whole than they were individually.[10]

This shift from individual issues to interconnected countercultural critique can be seen in Countdown to Collision, a 16mm color film made in 1972, two years after the first Earth Day. This twenty-seven-minute film moves beyond a simple documentation of pollution as a public health threat; rather, it is a veritable manifesto of ecological thinking in the early 1970s. Produced by Murdock Head’s Airlie Productions and the George Washington University Medical Center’s Department of Medical and Public Affairs, in cooperation with The American Academy of Family Physicians and the District of Columbia Medical Society, Countdown shows just how far the environmentalist critique of modern life had permeated mainstream public discourse.

Man dress in blue, white, and red holding something round, with the title
A polluting Uncle Sam in Countdown to Collision, 1972
National Library of Medicine #101465236

Countdown’s opening segment establishes a critique of development by showing, in fast motion, the razing of a field and the building of a house. At the end of this segment, a man’s hands are shown in medium shot as he opens his lunchbox and throws garbage around the construction site; the camera pans out to reveal that the man is Uncle Sam.  The criticism of mainstream American values could not be more plain. A series of “man-on-the-street” interviews follow, in which we hear women and men of different ages and demographics, from the very old to children, from conservatives to hippies, white and black, all voicing anxious and bitter critiques of the current way of life. “People think they’ve got to change everything!” “Pretty soon we’re all going to be drowned in this mess!” “I don’t expect to reach my middle age.” “It’s dirty air.” “Mass revolt.” “The whole world’s going to garbage!”

Following this setup, the film presents a nearly ten-minute musical montage that comprises the heart of the film. This narration-free sequence sums up the mainstream environmentalist perspective of this moment, which by now encompassed not just individual issues such as air pollution, water pollution, and pesticides, but a whole set of countercultural values such as care for nature, anti-consumerism, anti-waste, and revolt against the status quo. The sequence begins with a calming series of mountain landscapes, accompanied by funky contemplative music (piano, bass guitar, drums). The images quickly transition to city streets and crowds, polluting airplanes, freeway traffic, and garbage. As the sequence builds, a synthesizer is added to the now jazzy musical mix, and the editing speeds up, growing more frenetic as a rocking electric guitar begins soloing over images of polluted rivers, garbage dumps, car junkyards, factory smoke, spilled oil, leisure seekers, and protesters. The sequence ends with two silent shots of magnificent mountains and a fade to black, followed by the sound of screeching tires and a loud crash, then a series of dissolves from a cityscape out to an image of the planet, in a direct quotation of the 1968 film Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. This musical montage sequence is exciting and emotionally involving, but it does not offer a particularly focused critique, nor does it present any coherent agenda for change. Rather, it generalizes, using the fusion of images and music to produce a critical eye and a feeling of discontent.

In its use of musical montage, Countdown borrows a set of cinematic techniques from the tradition of the city symphony. Like the influential city symphony À Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930), this film uses a rhythmic unfolding of images to present a critical view of the society it depicts. City symphonies were a film genre established in the silent era (during which time they were accompanied by live music), and the genre re-emerged for a time in the 1970s and 80s with films such as Organism (Hilary Harris, 1975) and Koyaanisquatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982).[11] Some of the footage in Countdown is fast-motion, a technique that was developed more systematically by Harris and Reggio a few years later. City symphonies do tend to generalize, using images rather than words to make meaning. This visually driven approach works well in Countdown to sum up the environmentalist ideology of the time, allowing for a quick visual summation of many disparate issues that would take much longer to explain in textual form.

In its use of musical montage, Countdown borrows a set of cinematic techniques from the tradition of the city symphony. Like the influential city symphony À Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930), this film uses a rhythmic unfolding of images to present a critical view of the society it depicts.

The next sequence of the film, running at about six minutes, reverts to a more conventional nonfiction voice-over, with the music held at a more subdued level in the background. The spoken word now verbally declares what was implicit in the previous segment, once again alongside more images of pollution and garbage. Countdown is narrated by TV broadcaster and game show host Hugh Downs, who delivers an extraordinarily bleak voice-over commentary. It is a long speech, but worth quoting at length:

It must be realized that all of our environmental ills are by-products. They are the results of the way we live and eat and travel. The way we build our cities. And what we consume, and how we entertain ourselves. And all of our problems aggravate and feed upon one another in ways that we don’t yet understand. Many scientists now believe that we may be entering the twilight of human existence. And this age of affluence, of technological marvels and medical miracles, is paradoxically also the age of chronic ailments, of anxiety, and even of despair. An age in which our fellow creatures face destruction within the same delicately balanced ecosystem that supports us. And in which our legacy to our own children is a rapidly growing number of ways to die. It is as simple as that.

On the road with other cars around surrounded by city lights
Las Vegas as consumerist dystopia in Countdown to Collision National Library of Medicine #101465236

These words are accompanied by fast-motion footage of Las Vegas at night taken from a moving car, the city’s glowing neon lights visualizing the societal decay of the consumerist way of life run amok. This sort of generalized critique, offered without any solutions, actually captures well some of the contradictions of its moment. On the one hand, Downs’s commentary is not wrong; in fact, it anticipates the apocalyptic rhetoric that now appears in some climate change journalism.[12] On the other hand, it is unclear what specific goals this rhetoric aims to achieve. By this time, the environmentalist movement had reached the mainstream population, and numerous important pieces of federal, state, and local legislation had been enacted. This film demonstrates the extent to which the counterculture had gone mainstream by 1972, its resistance co-opted by official government-funded films. As much as audiences might enjoy its cool music and social critique, this film is more stylish than persuasive.

Man bottom right of screen with a picture of the United States Capitol dome
Hugh Downs in Countdown to Collision
National Library of Medicine #101465236

Much like The Run Around, Countdown shifts to a direct address speech at the end, which functions as a coda that softens the critique of the main body of the film. In this concluding segment, Hugh Downs is finally pictured, wearing a snazzy 1970s brown suit and wide tie. He explains, “There is some good evidence that most of our people are deciding on a different road to the future. It’s not without significance that the president has signed into law a unique bill establishing a national policy to permit conditions under which man and nature can coexist in productive harmony.” He goes on to list The Council on Environmental Quality, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the EPA, state and local governments, along with unions, industry, universities, and other forces all working for a more ecologically balanced future. “After all, this is what our founding fathers had in mind from the beginning,” he concludes. Such a palliative statement is a far cry from the critical image of a polluting Uncle Sam we saw at the beginning of the film. This coda functions to restore faith in the power of the government to fix a broken system. The film is progressive, but not radical, which is perhaps to be expected of a government-sponsored film: it reassures its audience that existing systems are capable of reform.


All six of these films—and especially Countdown—anticipate today’s discourse surrounding climate change, environmental calamity, and the Anthropocene. At one point, the narrator of Countdown defines the problem as “the expanding presence of man.” This certainly resonates with what many people feel today, as we face the accelerating threats of climate change, species extinction, environmental racism, and other environmental problems, yet are unsure how best to solve them. Climate activists and climate writers today continue to face the messaging challenge that had already emerged in the 1970s: how do you galvanize public action on the environment when the problems seem so overwhelming? The 1970s were an important moment in the history of environmental awareness; this was a time in which legislative successes could have been consolidated and public education expanded to address the new problem of climate change as it emerged in the 1980s. But in fact, much of the momentum of the 1960s was lost.[13] As these six films demonstrate, the federal government played an important role in educating the public about air pollution and other environmental problems in the 1960s and early 1970s. Many of us fervently wish that it would take on this responsibility once again.

Jennifer Lynn Peterson is Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at Woodbury University in Los Angeles. She is the author of Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Duke University Press, 2013). Her scholarly articles have been published in Feminist Media Histories, Journal of Cinema and Media Studies, Camera Obscura, The Moving Image, Getty Research Journal, and numerous edited book collections. She has published film, art, and book reviews in Millennium Film Journal, Film Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and

Peterson’s research and teaching interests center on cinema and media history, experimental and educational films, and the environmental humanities. Previously a tenured Associate Professor in the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado-Boulder, she has also taught at UCLA, UC Riverside, the California Institute of the Arts, and the University of Southern California. In the early 2000s she worked as an Oral Historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and briefly in the Home Entertainment division at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. She was a scholar in residence at the Getty Research Institute in fall 2012. She is currently working on a book entitled “Cinema’s Ecological Past: Film History, Nature and Endangerment Before 1960.”


Acland, Charles R. and Haidee Wasson, eds. Useful Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.

Barnes, Bart. “Murdock Head, 70, Dies.” Washington Post, July 30, 1994.

Crutzen, Paul J. and Eugene F. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene.” Global Change Newsletter, no. 41 (May 2000): 17-18.

Dewey, Scott Hamilton. Don’t Breathe the Air: Air Pollution and U.S. Environmental Politics, 1945-1970. College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2000.

Landberg, S. Topiary. “Organism in the Space Age,” in “A Field Guide to Exit Zero: Urban Landscape Essay Films, 1921 till Now.” PhD diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 2020.

Lardner, George Jr. and Bill Richards, “HEW Official Attacked Film Sales by Airlie Foundation.” Washington Post, February 25, 1978.

McNeill, J.R. and Peter Engelke. The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

Orgeron, Devin, Orgeron, Marsha, and Dan Streible, eds. Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Pazzanese, Christina. “How Earth Day Gave Birth to Environmental Movement.” Environmental Health News, April 22, 2020.

Peterson, Jennifer Lynn. Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013.

Reid, Seerly. U. S. Government Films for Public Educational Use—1960. Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1960.

Rich, Nathaniel. “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change.” New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018.

Stephens, Gregory. “Koyannisqatsi and the Visual Narrative of Environmental Film.” Screening the Past 28 (Fall 2010).

Turner, James Morton. The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since1964.  Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Wallace-Wells, David. The Uninhabitable Earth. (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019).


[1] Scott Hamilton Dewey, Don’t Breathe the Air: Air Pollution and U.S. Environmental Politics, 1945–1970 (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2000), p. 5.

[2] Seerley Reid, U. S. Government Films for Public Educational Use—1960 (Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, 1960), p. vii.

[3] Educational films were made before the 1920s and after the 1980s, of course, but I list these dates because they are particular to the history of 16mm, the “educational” film gauge of choice, which was developed in 1923. 16mm began to disappear in the 1980s with the transition to VHS tape. The emergence of the internet in the 1990s and 2000s shifted the circulation of educational films even farther away from the nontheatrical circuit to something else entirely. See Devin Orgeron, Marsha Orgeron, and Dan Streible, eds., Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); and Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, eds., Useful Cinema (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011).

[4] James Morton Turner, The Promise of Wilderness: American Environmental Politics since 1964 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), pp. 94-99.

[5] J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene Since 1945 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.

[6] Paul J. Crutzen and Eugene F. Stoermer, “’The Anthropocene,’” Global Change Newsletter, no. 41 (May 2000): 17-18.

[7] Bart Barnes, “Murdock Head, 70, Dies,” Washington Post, July 30, 1994, accessed on April 26, 2020 at; George Lardner Jr. and Bill Richards, “HEW Official Attacked Film Sales by Airlie Foundation,” Washington Post, February 25, 1978, accessed on April 26, 2020 at

[8] Jennifer Lynn Peterson, Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 149, p. 199.

[9] Liberty Studios is credited with animation photography on The Run Around, but I haven’t been able to find any information about this company.

[10] Denis Hayes quoted in Christina Pazzanese, “How Earth Day Gave Birth to Environmental Movement,” Environmental Health News, April 22, 2020, accessed on April 22, 2020 at

[11] See Gregory Stephens, “Koyannisqatsi and the Visual Narrative of Environmental Film,” Screening the Past 28 (Fall 2010), pp. 1-29; and S. Topiary Landberg, “Organism in the Space Age,” in “A Field Guide to Exit Zero: Urban Landscape Essay Films, 1921 till Now,” PhD diss. University of California, Santa Cruz, 2020, pp. 141-200.

[12] See for example David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019). Wells’s book was first excerpted as an article that gained an enormous amount of traction in the news media and on social media platforms; see David Wallace-Wells, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” New York Magazine, July 9, 2017, accessible at Although Wells’s reporting has been important for raising public awareness about climate change today, certain pieces of his data have been faulted by climate scientists for inaccuracy, and his apocalyptic tone has been a topic of debate. While it is crucial to learn about the existential threats posed by climate change, it is also true that sensationalizing journalism garners more public attention than scientific papers. This debate is ongoing.

[13] For one account of this lost momentum, see Nathaniel Rich, “Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change,” New York Times Magazine, August 1, 2018, accessible at


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