Friday, May 29, 2015

Captain Planet - Mangled Ecology

I'm going to try something different today, I am not going to talk about World War 2, and I am going to talk about what I find to be the major problems in the public perception of environmentalism, ecology and sustainability.

"The power is yours!" - Environmentalism in entertainment

I think, given the pop culture focus of this blog it would be fitting to start off this trip by talking about one of the internet's favorite whipping boys: Captain Planet & the Planeteers!

Captain Planet & the Planeteers gets a bad rep, it is very much a product of it's time and has a lot of things going for it, but make no mistake, it is awful. In a lot of ways it examplifies everything wrong, not only with the way popular culture treats environmentalism, but also with day-to-day environmental discourse.

Captain Planet & The Planeteers

If you don't know, Captain Planet & the Planeteers revolves the spirit of the Earth, Gaia, who after being awoken by the antics of Hoggish Greedly, sends out 5 magical rings to 5 chosen youths from around the world: Kwame, from West Africa, Gi, who is either from Thailand or Malaysia, Ma-Ti, who is from Brazil, Linka who is from the Soviet Union, and finally Wheeler who is from Brooklyn. Together these five fly around the world in their solar-powered jet, righting wrongs and stopping polluters. The magic rings given to them by Gaia allows each to command one of the classic Greek elements, and "heart". Together they can summon Captain Planet, a powerful pun-spewing superhero who can only be hurt if he comes in contact with pollution. The 5 (6 if you count the Captain, 7 if you count Ma-Ti's pet monkey) frequently encounter the so-called Eco-Villains, a loose association of douchebag polluters with names like Verminous Skumm, Looten Plunder and Duke Nukem among others.

The Eco-Villains (clockwise from the big yellow guy): Duke Nukem, Dr. Blight, Verminous Skumm, Hoggish Greedly, Sly Sludge & Looten Plunder in the center

With that out of the way, let us begin:

"Be part of the solution, not the pollution!" - False dichotomies

If any of you native English speakers would like to understand why your language can difficult to master, look no further: "solution" and "pollution" rhyme, even though there is a whole "L" between them. Anyway, Captain Planet, the titular superhero can be hurt by pollution, it is his kryptonite. He is weakened by chemical waste products, smoke, radioactive material, residual waste, and crude oil. Crude oil! Despite this Captain Planet seems perfectly capable of interacting with metal, carbon, plastics, paper, and chemicals on a daily basis. Perhaps the comparison to kryptonite wasn't very apt as the good Captain's Achilles' heel seems entirely contextual, as he does not seem to weakened by the elements that make up "pollution".  I think this view of pollution perfectly examplifies one of the central problems with a lot of environmental discussions, specifically the view of pollution as being a singular "element" and industrially manufactured products and materials as being "unnatural". Although we now live in the anthropocyne period and humanity's effect on the state of the biosphere should be obvious to anyone who isn't willfully ignorant, I personally find the natural/unnatural paradigm to be ludicrious, especially in environmental discussion. This idea that sustainable solutions are always "closer to nature" are slathered in romanticism and leads to people making ludicrious statements like saying that cleaning clothes with gasoline is more "natural"*. One of the major political party's here in Denmark want more "untouched" forest area in Denmark, despite the fact most recent studies have found that uncontrolled green areas are, at best, carbon neutral. The reason why the "untouched" part is essential is because it is built on this idea that we as a race have wronged nature with our unnatural activity and that the only way we can atone is by creating more nature. This mentality is much like the world of Captain Planet is predicated on magical thinking and romanticism: there are two basic forces in the world, nature (good) and pollution (evil), "chemicals" are a product of industry and not a general description of a substance that cannot be seperated into components by physical means of seperation. The reason why this type of reasoning is so popular among environmentalists, is not only because it ties into romantic tradition, which means it resonates more easily on a cultural level in Europe and North America, but also because it's simple, it's unscientific which makes it easy to relate to, you don't have to worry about the structural sustainability of our society, as long as the things are "organic", "ecological" or "natural".
An "organic" Christmas tree farm, basically a pine-shaped indulgence
Picture taken from

"My evil work's just starting!" - Eco-Villains

I watched 22 episodes of Captain Planet in preparation for writing this post, I also watched Ferngully and the 2012 adaptation of Doctor Suess' The Lorax. Doctor Suess' work is notoriously difficult to translate, especially into Danish, as such they do not have the same ubiquitous status they have in English speaking countries, this meant I knew next to nothing about the Lorax before watching it. From what I understand this abysmal adaptation diverges rather severely from the source material, as it changes most of the plot to a degree where it completely undermines the point of the story. One of the changes was changing the central antagonist from the Once-Ler to the villianous O'Hare, a character created for the movie. O'Hare is a smug, blatantly evil caricature, who pollutes for the hell of it, he even has a song about it! Just like Hoggish Greedly, O'Hare is a businessman, although the wares and services they provide are rarely mentioned and if they are they are framed as being necessacities for life cruelly being kept from the public until they're willing to pay up. Thus framing "polutting" industries as being inherently  unnecessary and ultimately tools of supervillains who hate nature, unlike Mazda or iHop which are both nice corporations...

To Captain Planet's credit, a fair deal of focus is placed on teaching "those poor silly humans" lessons about not polluting and leading a more sustainable life and although it does not focus as much on the structural causes for pollution as it probably should, this "Starfish Story"-esque approach is admirable. However it is completely undercut by the presence of the Eco-Villains! One of the producers of Captain Planet said that they did not focus much corporations or the actual causes for pollution is because the production team was concerned that it would make the children uncomfortable if they knew their parents might be part of the pollution and not the solution. This is a perfectly valid concern, but it raises the question: "Why did you decide to frame conflict in absolutes if weren't willing to commit to those absolutes?" It's like saying Batman can't fight crime, because it might make crime look wrong.

There was a big discussion on CBI about the merits of educational entertainment, and I remember someone saying that teaching children about the evils of pollution was more important than teaching children about pollution. Call me old fashioned, but I believe a lesson is only worth teaching if it is taught correctly. We don't teach children that drug abuse is caused by demonic possession until they're old enough to understand how drugs work, we don't teach children that the world is a complicated and scary place because nazis are secretly making it that way, until they're capable of understanding the intricacies of international politics. The facts are just as important is the truth, Don Quixotes of the world.

"I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues" - Ecology and Environmentalism

For most of this article I have talked about how Captain Planet misrepresents environmentalism, and perhaps I should rectify that. You see, there is some debate in the academic community as to whether or not a distinction should be made between enviromentalism and ecologism. The argument is basically that ecologism focuses on increasing society-wide sustainability by increasing the ecology of our society, I.E. integrating man-made systems with natural systems whereas environmentalism just focuses on "saving the environment" without any unifying theoretical framework. If this sounds like all the academics making their own special clubhouse where politicians and hippies aren't allowed, then you're absolutely correct, however if we accept the distinction between ecologism and environmentalism then Captain Planet might actually be an accurate representation of environmentalism.

"It's not about what it is, it's about what it can become" - Conclusion & Summary

One of the many reason why Wall-E is leagues above both the Lorax, Captain Planet and most other environmental themes, is because it recognizes that technology and nature aren't opposites, and that living a more sustainable lifestyle involves a lot of hard work. Wall-E makes tells a story about ecology, not just a story with environmental flavor. Ultimately Captain Planet was limited by cowardice and a religious adherence to genre convention. So in conclusion: Go see Wall-E, I guess.
Anyway, thanks for reading. Please leave a comment, I would love to discuss these topics with you all.

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