When it comes to geeks trying to save the planet, things can get complicated. It either tends to be really heavy-handed and naïve or to demonize anything involving saving the planet.
The big conflict is often between saving the environment and the march of progress, and many stories tend to proclaim one as good while demonizing the other, which is obviously problematic.
Let’s start with some examples of “people who want to save the environment are crazy extremists.”
The most obvious is Batman. In the animated series and many versions of the comics, characters like Poison Ivy, Catwoman, and even Ra’s al Ghul are shown to be crazy ecoterrorists. Catwoman is probably the most sane of the three, but many versions of the character are portrayed as someone willing to do anything, even break the law in dramatic ways, to protect animals. To be fair to Catwoman, though she often only attacks corrupt companies and people that are trying to hurt the environment, she doesn’t just hate people in general.
Poison Ivy, on the other hand, is portrayed as the classic ecoterrorist. She hates all people (except for maybe Harley Quinn) and wants to destroy humanity to let nature take over once again. Ra’s al Ghul, although he is more complex in other versions of Batman, is portrayed in the animated series as mostly an ecoterrorist who believes that humanity has polluted the planet and that the Earth needs to be cleansed of all humans that Ra’s al Ghul views as being unworthy.
Why is this bad? Well, if you constantly portray caring about the environment as something insane or crazy, then people may come to associate all environmental activists with these types of characters.
However other shows that try to be more pro-saving the environment tend to be either extremely preachy and heavy-handed and/or are completely anti-progress.
The most recent example of this is James Cameron’s Avatar. Avatar, while still being a stunning and interesting movie, constantly portrays corporations and industry as purely evil entities. The movie seems to uphold the message that everything about our society is evil, but everything about the nature-loving Na’vi is good and pure and perfect. The one point Avatar tries to gloss over real quick is that the Earth is dying, because we used up our resources. So by Jake Sully helping the Na’vi achieve victory, he actually condemns his own people. Furthermore, he never actually discusses with the Na’vi what the humans need from them and why, which is his mission.
Most people I talked to who left the theatre after Avatar felt confused and felt like the issues in the movie were much more complicated then James Cameron was trying to say they that they were.
Many pro-environmentalist movies ignore issues like creating jobs for people and the benefit of progress in general for society, and they sometimes even ignore simple logic. For example, it’s obvious the way the Na’vi live in harmony with nature. They can literally hook themselves up to a tree or a horse and commune with them. If humans could talk to pigs and trees, I bet our whole philosophy about the environment would change.
The best shows that promote environmentalism are the ones that recognize how complicate these issues are. The two best examples are probably Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax—the original book and cartoon; I mean, the new movie sucked—and Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Most of Miyazaki’s works tend to have environmentalist themes, but I chose to focus on Princess Mononoke, because out of all of them I feel it deals with the issues the most intelligently and directly.
The Lorax leans more heavily toward the environmentalist end of things, but there is complexity to the story. At one point in the story the Once-ler, who is destroying the environment, asks the Lorax what he wants him to do. He asks if he should fire all his workers and close down his shops, then says, “How’s that good for the economy?” The Lorax responds simply by saying that he doesn’t have the answer. (The conversation begins at 18:41 on the video.) Balancing between what is good for the environment versus what is good for the economy is a tricky issue. Dr. Seuss didn’t endeavor to try to explain it, but rather simply admitted that the issue was difficult. That shows more complexity and maturity than anything Avatar did.
Princess Mononoke is probably one of the best movies to ever deal with these issues. San, a girl who was raised by wolves and has a hatred of humans, goes to battle with Lady Eboshi, an industry leader who is hurting the environment. Ashitaka is a young boy who goes between the two women, trying to resolve their issues without violence. From San he learns of legitimate concerns about how Lady Eboshi is harming the forest and all the animals who live there and who were there long before humans. Lady Eboshi, however, tells Ashitaka of how the industry she created is helping people. She has built a town that helps and employs social outcasts like lepers and prostitutes. The great thing about Princess Mononoke is that there is no clear-cut villain, which allows the viewer to see how complicated these issues are and form more thoughtful opinions on them.
So future writers and directors, next time you write about the environment, take a hint from Miyazaki and Dr. Seuss and write something that’s more complex and looks at both sides. It will help you better get your point across and actually inform them about the issues, instead of just force-feeding them your point of view’s propaganda.