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On Earth Day, a few of our favorite books, movies and art installations

Carol Yepes
Getty Images

In 1969, Cleveland's Cuyahoga River went up in flames when a spark from a passing train ignited oil-soaked trash floating in the water. The latest in a series of environmental crises, it inspired activists to organize environmental teach-ins and demonstrations across the country.

That activism gained momentum, leading to the first Earth Day, which took place the following year. Since then, the environmental movement has transformed into a significant force in American political life. In the years that followed, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and went on to sign a number of environmental policies – including the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act – with broad bipartisan support. Now, Earth Day has gone global, and activists continue the work of getting politicians to pass environmental regulations and combat the disastrous impacts of climate change.

From documentaries to artistic projects, NPR has collected some of our favorite ways to celebrate the Earth and think about what we can do to protect its flora and fauna.


What to watch

An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore woke up the world with this cinematic PowerPoint lecture. An entertainingly vivid cinematic call-to-arms. —Bob Mondello


The title is a Hopi word meaning "life out of balance," and the film illustrates that phrase by juxtaposing glorious images of nature with the frantic activity of humans in a busy city. —Bob Mondello


Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust

This is a fascinating documentary looking at Los Angeles' fraught history of how it gets its water sources. It includes the stories of Native Americans forced out of Payahǖǖnadǖ, now the Owens Valley; Japanese Americans incarcerated there during World War II, and farmers and ranchers bought out by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. The film premiered at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival in 2021. —Mandalit del Barco

Planet Earth and Life

These two BBC-originated documentaries can be found here and there, and while they might be a sort of obvious pick, they are genuinely very beautiful, and make great use of the bigger HD TVs a lot of people have gotten in the last decade or so. —Linda Holmes


Pixar made the story of a plucky Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class (WALL-E) robot cleaning up the mess humanity made at once hilarious and touching. Though it depicts an environmental apocalypse, WALL-E will inspire kids of all ages to try to do better. —Bob Mondello

What to read

The Overstory: A Novel by Richard Powers

Some of the main characters in this book are trees, but more broadly it also touches on how we as humans are inextricably linked to forests: economically, politically and even socially. It's also a great tale to read. —Kirk Siegler

What to listen to

The Hotelier, "Soft Animal"

Really the whole album this comes from could fit, but the image at the center of this song — seeing a young deer and the mere sight of it filling you with such a swell of emotion that, yes, maybe the simple interaction can leave you feeling like you don't have to die — is such strong Earth Day message. I was gonna select a dour and pessimistic metal trilogy based on Watership Down, but I think it's better to point out what's at stake and what we stand to lose. —Andrew Limbong

What to see

Applause Encouraged #111415 by Scott Polach

<em>Applause Encouraged #111415</em> by Scott Polach
Courtesy of the artist
Applause Encouraged #111415 by Scott Polach

This simple art piece reframed my whole attitude about nature. Everything on this Earth is such a gift — the spring flowers, the sound of birdsong, crashing waves, the moon, the starlight — and it is a privilege to get to experience it. In his installation, Polach treats the Earth thusly. He sets up a viewing of a sunset in San Diego as a VIP, red carpet event. Participants are invited to sit and watch the 45-minute procession of the sun sinking into the ocean and the brilliant colors in the sky that follow. No photos allowed. Just you and that wonderful treasure of a moment. It's how we should treat the Earth every day. —Malaka Gharib

HURT EARTH by Jenny Holzer

Since the 1970s, the conceptual artist Jenny Holzer has become known for putting out big ideas about power and its abuse out into the world — whether that's been through projections on sides of buildings, large text on billboards, or plaques on benches. Last year, she created a series called HURT EARTH, consisting of projections displayed around the UK during the 2021 United Nations' Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. Each displayed passages from speeches or writings by a climate activist or expert, including Greta Thunberg, Elizabeth Kolbert and Robin Wall Kimmerer (author of Braiding Sweetgrass). It's both in-your-face and provocative, a hallmark of a good Holzer artwork. If you weren't in the UK at the time, the artwork lives on digitally; you can check out her Instagram to see several videos of the installations. —Natalie Escobar

The Great Animal Orchestra by Bernie Krause

The Great Animal Orchestra is an immersive aural journey into various natural biospheres currently on view at the Peabody Essex Museum. Sitting in wonder with a roomful of fellow humans listening to sounds slowly slipping from the planet felt like a profound moment of reflection and a call to action. —Neda Ulaby

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