Before Gore, Greta, and the Green New Deal: Part One
On February 12, 1958, Frank Capra's Unchained Goddess aired nationwide on CBS, warning viewers about rising CO2 in the atmosphere.

Before Gore, Greta, and the Green New Deal: Part One

Some unlikely, unsung Green heroes from pop culture's past.

What do the Three Stooges, Godzilla, Frank Capra and a 1960's Los Angeles Garage band have in common? They all snuck a bit of environmental storytelling into their art.


On February 13, 1958, three early pioneers in environmental communication brought one of the first mentions of "smog" to the big screen.

The Three Stooges had been in business since the 1920's. Larry Fine hit the big time in the 1930's, with a lineup of Larry Fine, Moe Howard, and Moe's little brother, Curly. When Curly was incapacitated by a stroke in 1947, they repurposed Moe's oldest brother, Shemp, to continue the act. Shemp died in 1955, and the Stooges retrofit a particularly unfunny TV comic, Joe Besser, to replace him.

Using about 95 percent recycled joke content and short film plots, the act persevered. One of their last shorts, "Quiz Whizz," released to theaters, had a plot loosely based on Joe's investment in a Los Angeles business called "Consolidated Smog." As a public service, here's a link to the entire fifteen minute film. But feel free to click ahead to 2:30 for the first smog reference, since IMHO, none of this is particularly funny.

Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster 

With the possible exception of James Bond, no movie star has captured the global box office better than Godzilla. From the beginning, he (or she – there's debate about Godzilla's gender) had a strong anti-nuclear side, waking up from eons of slumber to curb-stomp Tokyo after nuclear weapons tests aroused him/her.

By 1971, Godzilla became Tokyo's savior rather than its stomper. Japan's meteoric postwar recovery had created massive industrial pollution, and an environmental movement similar to America's sprang up.

Enter Hedorah, a literal slimeball who grows bigger and stronger by ingesting pollution, belching the toxics back out as a defense against environmentalists. Godzilla Versus the Smog Monster teamed up the G-Man (or G-Woman) with a band of hippies whose dress and manner were over the top even for the LSD-soaked era.

I won't give away the ending, but this was Godzilla's eleventh feature, and (s)he has made 24 more since.

Doctor Research 

And I love this one. Frank Capra is the Hollywood legend who directed, wrote and produced some of cinema's most enduring feel-good flicks like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It's a Wonderful Life. In the 1950's, Capra honchoed a series of science shorts, sponsored by Bell Labs.

On February 12, 1958 – a day before the Stooges' smog gags played in theaters — Capra's Unchained Goddessaired nationwide on CBS. A central-casting scientist, Doctor Research (not his real name), warned about rising CO2 in the atmosphere:

"Even now, man may be unwittingly changing the world's climate through the waste products of his civilization. Due to our release through factories and automobiles every year of more than six billion tons of carbon dioxide, which helps air absorb heat from the sun, our atmosphere seems to be getting warmer. …. a few degrees rise in the Earth's temperature would melt the polar ice caps."

There is no record that Dr. Research, who was ably portrayed by UCLA English prof Frank Baxter, was accused of making it all up for the grant money back in '58. Or the residuals. But since then, our global CO2 output has increased by more than a factor of six.

Dirty Water 

Then there's a college-age garage band from Los Angeles. The Standells made Boston's "Dirty Water" famous without staining their carbon footprint by actually ever travelling to Boston.

The 1966 song didn't chart highly, but it remains an anthem for Boston and its sports teams, even as the Charles River has substantially cleaned up.

Next week, we'll visit some of the unlikely environmentalists in politics.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences. He can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org.

Extreme heat poses serious health risks to children, experts warn

With record-breaking heat waves sweeping the nation, researchers are highlighting the unique dangers that extreme temperatures pose to children.

Victoria St. Martin reports for Inside Climate News.

Keep reading...Show less
Senator Whitehouse & climate change

Senator Whitehouse puts climate change on budget committee’s agenda

For more than a decade, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse gave daily warnings about the mounting threat of climate change. Now he has a powerful new perch.
Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way
Coast Guard inspects Cameron LNG Facility in preparation for first LNG export in 2019. (Credit: Coast Guard News)

Amid LNG’s Gulf Coast expansion, community hopes to stand in its way

This 2-part series was co-produced by Environmental Health News and the journalism non-profit Economic Hardship Reporting Project. See part 1 here.Este ensayo también está disponible en español
Keep reading...Show less
30x30 environment goal
Credit: James Marvin Phelps/Flickr

President Biden's conservation efforts face uncertainty as Trump eyes return

President Biden's ambitious plan to conserve 30% of US land and water by 2030 is making progress, but a potential Trump return threatens these gains.

Oliver Milman reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less

Tornado hotspots shifting from Plains to Southeast, raising risks

A new study reveals tornado activity in the U.S. has moved from the Great Plains to the Southeast, increasing risks for denser populations and mobile home communities.

Matthew Cappucci reports for The Washington Post.

Keep reading...Show less

Supreme Court pressured by far-right groups to protect big oil

A campaign led by far-right fossil fuel allies is urging the Supreme Court to shield oil companies from lawsuits seeking billions in climate damages.

Dharna Noor reports for The Guardian.

Keep reading...Show less

Alabama residents endure lack of public water access for over a decade

In rural Marion County, Alabama, hundreds of households, including the McClungs, have been waiting for public water access for over a decade, relying on private wells to meet their daily needs.

Lee Hedgepeth reports for Inside Climate News.

Keep reading...Show less

Legislators in Pennsylvania push controversial carbon capture bill

Pennsylvania legislators are backing a contentious bill to establish a carbon capture industry, raising environmental and public health concerns.

Audrey Carleton reports for Capital & Main.

Keep reading...Show less
From our Newsroom
planetary health diet

This diet will likely keep you alive longer — and help the planet

New research finds the Planetary Health Diet lowers our risk to most major causes of death.

environmental justice

LISTEN: Jose Ramon Becerra Vera on democratizing science

“In their own way, they’re becoming experts, not just of their experiences but also of the data collection process.”

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

The oil and gas industry’s radioactive problem: Q&A with Justin Nobel

“Of all the levels of radium in produced water or brine around the world that I’ve looked at, I have encountered none that are consistently as high as what comes out of the Marcellus Shale.”

environmental justice pittsburgh

Environmental justice advocates find hope, healing and community in Pittsburgh

Advocates and researchers gathered to not only discuss ongoing fights but victories, self-care and cautious optimism about the path ahead.

air pollution pittsburgh

Amidst a controversial international sale, U.S. Steel falls behind in cleaner steelmaking

U.S. Steel’s proposed sale to Nippon Steel stokes concerns over labor rights and national security, all while the company continues to break clean air laws in Western Pennsylvania.

Stay informed: sign up for The Daily Climate newsletter
Top news on climate impacts, solutions, politics, drivers. Delivered to your inbox week days.