Your Chance to Live: Pollution

Defense Civil Preparedness Agency


The 1970's saw the birth of a new era in American civil defense, one which focused less on the possibility of a nuclear attack and more on conventional disturbances like mass power outages and natural disasters.  Spearheading this change were the policy makers of a new federal authority, The Defense Civil Preparedness Agency (D.C.P.A.) which was created in 1972 as a successor to The Office of Civil Defense.(1)  The tone of the D.C.P.A. was radically different than its more conservative and straight-laced predecessors.  Using absurdist art, humor and folk music, the early years of the agency were marked by an effort to use civil defense to present a liberal message about respecting the power of nature.  Nowhere is this environmentalist message more visible than in the D.C.P.A.'s first information campaign: Your Chance to Live.  In September of 1972 an extensive booklet was published under that title.  Over the following two years a series of motion pictures were released with each one corresponding to a chapter in the booklet.  Covering disaster situations like hurricanes, floods and forest fires, each film addresses its topic in an offbeat way, often relying on creative narration, dark comedy and folk rock music.  Even the final installment, which talks about a nuclear attack, does so by self-reflexively following a director as he wrestles with the morals of producing a civil defense film.  One film in particular takes this environmental approach further than all the rest.  Pollution, released in 1974 as the 8th film in the series, is set in a world where toxic contamination has killed off all humanity.(2)  The narration consists entirely of an ode to Makind's time on Earth.

"Once in his life, a man ought to concentrate his mind on the remembered Earth, to again hear its sounds, to imagine he touches it, to recall the feel of the faintest wind against his face..."  Peter Thomas, the prolific voice-actor who provides narration for the entire Your Chance to Live series, uses this contemplative verse to introduce the film.  His words open an eerie scene.  The camera pans across the abandoned grounds of The Playland Amusement Park before focusing on the ghoulish head of a mannequin jester.  A hissing wind is the only soundtrack and trash blows across the pavement.  Stalking across the frame, far beyond the shuttered ticket booths, is a figure in a black cloak.  As Thomas continues, in verse, to reflect on how pollution choked off life on the planet, aerial shots of strip-mining operations and overflowing garbage barges show the toll Mankind's lifestyle takes.  The film continues to show these consequences in a marshland as the black cloaked figure gazes over trees felled by machines.  Sludge pours from pipes into a raging river as trash and oil wash up its banks.  Frogs, coated in slime gasp for air.  Smokestacks belch smog into the air and a crop duster sprays chemicals over a peaceful farm field before the camera cuts to the twisted and contorted corpses of dead birds.  The hooded figure wanders the streets of an empty shore town.  There is a flashback to the crowded streets of 1970's New York City with people jammed up heel to heel on the sidewalks.
Cutting back to an autumn forest with gray skies, the camera focuses a slow zoom on the black cloaked figure.  He is an older man with gray beard and a large gold pendant around his neck.  Birds chirp lively in the background.  The man stands at a stump in front of a tape recorder.  When he pushes the stop button, the wildlife noises cease.  Peter Thomas concludes poetically as the film flashes in reverse through the pollution scenes.  "I speak from memories of how it was.  Of a time when there still were choices..."  It must be asked what prompted a federal agency to invest in such a film?  What merit did the government feel this threat had?  The opening words to the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency's first annual report sheds some light on this new role of emergency preparedness.  "In the late 1950's and early 1960's, 'civil defense' became a household term.  To nearly everyone it meant preparation to cope with effects of an attack.  For a long time it brought to mind hardhats and CD armbands.  The image was World War II vintage.  Civil defense has come a long way since then.  Today, 'civil defense' really is preparedness to meet a full range of emergencies and disasters in peace-time as well as providing preparedness against the effects of nuclear attack.  Today, we face a new world-with new needs and new responsibilities for public safety."(3)  It seems that as the Cold War calmed down in the 1970's, it led civil defense planners to think beyond the immediate threats of nuclear war and natural disasters to a future where mankind would suffer long term consequences from their decisions.  In this light, pollution becomes a lurking danger in need of immediate address to prevent the empty world depicted in the film.  This message struck a chord with audiences and critics alike, as the film was translated into Spanish for use in Puerto Rico and South America and was entered into five film festivals in 1975. It won the Golden Eagle Award at the Council on International Nontheatrical Events and tied for 1st place with a film from the USSR at the International Festival of Films on Ecology in Belgrade. (4)

Your Chance to Live: Pollution may be viewed, in its entirety,  HERE.

1. Civil Preparedness: A New Dual Mission. D.C.P.A. Annual Report FY 1972.  Government Printing Office.  1973. iii.
2. Mandate for Readiness.  D.C.P.A. Annual Report 1974.  Government Printing Office.  1975.  34.
3. Civil Preparedness: A New Dual Mission.  D.C.P.A. Annual Report FY 1972.  Government Printing Office.  1973. 1.
4. Taking Measure: Annual Report 1975. D.C.P.A. 1976. 39-40.