When the tanker Exxon Valdez ran aground on a reef and spilled its oily guts into Alaska’s Prince William Sound in the spring of 1989, environmental groups like Greenpeace and the Sierra Club quickly tried to organize a worldwide boycott of Exxon. Various government and journalistic investigators reported that the ship was understaffed (the number of crew members had been cut in half; they were working 12-to-14-hour shifts); a tired third mate was at the helm; the ship’s radar hadn’t worked in more than a year. And there were rumours that the vessel’s captain, Joe Hazelwood, had been drinking and was asleep in his bunk at the time of the accident.
Public outrage and lawsuits against Exxon dragged on for years. The loathing and resentment escalated when a multi-billion dollar damage award was overturned by appeal court judges. In all the sturm und drang the Exxon boycott somehow failed to materialize. But an ad agency working for Greenpeace came up with what I thought was the most diabolically clever bottom line ever delivered about oil-spill disasters.
Instead of scapegoating one man, they printed a dark and gritty snapshot of Captain Hazelwood with the following headline:
“It wasn’t his driving that caused the Alaskan oil spill. It was yours.”
The fine print below was equally brilliant:
“It would be easy to blame the Valdez oil spill on one man. Or one company. Or even one industry. Too easy. Because the truth is, the spill was caused by a nation drunk on oil. And a government asleep at the wheel. But together we can curb our nation’s dependency on oil. We can shelve Bush’s plan to lease the continental shelf to off-shore drillers. We can put pressure on Washington to restore the funding Reagan took away. We can convince U.S. automakers to market more fuel-efficient automobiles. Together, we can put the brakes on our nation’s oil dependency before it’s too late.”
So simple; so true; and so not the message most eco-warriors wanted to hear. The ad campaign was quickly abandoned. How can an environmental group criticize the general public for being “a nation drunk on oil”? How do you condemn the behaviour of the people who buy Greenpeace memberships and send money to fund eco-warrior campaigns? No, no, no. It’s much easier to pick a single scapegoat. Easier to blame a company than its customers. Or yourself.
The Greenpeace poster was a perfect illustration of how difficult it is to be (and remain) an idealist in a constantly changing world where truth is a moving target and things are always more complicated than they seem.
At a well-lubricated social occasion one night long ago, a right-wing professor of economics I knew pointed his finger at me and declared: “Jerry, if you’re not a socialist at twenty, your heart is in the wrong place. But if you’re still a socialist at forty, your head is in the wrong place.” I was too intoxicated to argue but I’ve never forgotten the slogan. I couldn’t think of a snappy comeback.
But ever since the Valdez quagmire I’ve wanted to make a film about idealism. I wanted to find out whether—or how well—civil rights leaders, early feminist pioneers, and environmental crusaders of the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies were able to maintain their beliefs over the long haul. Did they still believe at forty (or fifty, sixty or seventy) the radical things they’d said at twenty? How have their thoughts and ideas matured or evolved? I still want to know.