Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Wall-E: our new brave new world...

Are we humans rendering our planet uninhabitable? I thought the idea was still controversial in polite society, but apparently it's hit the mainstream -- at least enough to form the premise of a Disney/Pixar animated blockbuster: Wall-E.

Wall-E's setting is essentially a modernization of the tradition of 1984, Brave New World, Soylent Green, etc.: here's a scary and weird possible future for humanity. But what most surprises me about it is to see such a clever retooling first from Disney/Pixar, as opposed to coming from some more obscure indie literary channels. Admittedly, I don't know the obscure indie world well enough to say there's not a whole new genre of stories about how human society is going to evolve in the next fifty-to-a-hundred years (given climate change, diminishing fossil fuels, etc.). But before Wall-E, I hadn't seen anything that comes close to an interesting modernization of the question of where society may be heading -- just lots of the usual, cliché "post-nuclear-holocaust" premise that has been repeated so many times since the fifties.

Now, Wall-E is a comedy for kids, and it's very clear that it's not at all meant to be taken as something that could seriously happen in the future. Yet it's amusing to see how much social commentary there is in it.

It's not just that the Earth is covered with too much trash,

to the point where leaving the atmosphere entails pushing through a carpet of junk satellites...


The first scene where we see live humans reminded me of my two colleagues who chat with one another through skype even though they sit right across from one another:


Even if it weren't for the garbage,

the consumerism is, itself, a problem.


Americans have been sufficiently innoculated against communism that there's not much danger of a "government" taking over everything, but so what? It's not as though It's not as though there aren't other giant, powerful human organizations that have a huge control over the choices available to you in your life.

More stores don't necessarily mean more choices, particularly if you want the type of life that can't be bought in an ultrastore.


As "the Other Maria" points out in her insightful review, there's really no villain. This is, perversely, an improvement over 1984, which gives you the standard "blame the bad guy" out. But, here, it wasn't some sinister, evil person or organization that destroyed the Earth and ground the meaning out of these people's lives -- it was just a whole lot of people following the comfortable path of least resistance, to this.

As I said, this particular future couldn't happen -- it's meant to be a joke, an exaggeration. Yet it's an interesting to see how much it challenges a lot of the "common wisdom" I talked about in my New Year's post. And the fact that has arrived (controversy-free) right in the middle of the consumerist mainstream? It makes me wonder -- maybe attitudes are changing...?

16 comments:

C. L. Hanson said...

p.s. The bonus material on the second D.V.D. is quite entertaining. They've got the history of Buy N' Large and an extended publicity spot for riding on the Axiom. I especially like the part about playing virtual golf in the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt -- like the Oort Cloud -- is one of those things I learned about from my kids' astronomy hobby! :D

Aerin said...

I loved this movie - I even guessed that the musical was Hello Dolly - while it might not be completely obvious the first time around. I loved the friendship message, the exercise message - the step away from the pc message...the anti-consumerism message.

The non bureaucrat in me also loved that the journey had been estimated at five years but had taken over 700 years. That never happens.

Chris said...

Great review. I loved the movie, too.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Aerin!!!

It was also a little like the Minnow's three-hour tour. ;^)

Thanks Chris!!!

The Sinister Porpoise said...

Wall-E isn't so much an environmental statement as it is a conservationist one.

However, I take Wall-E to be much more of a gentler, playful form of the usually much darker Cyberpunk Genre, and instead of 1984, it is a dystopian future in the tradition of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

Both 1984 and Brave New World are Dystopian futures -- but the governmental style is much kinder in Brave New World. People are simply conditioned not to mind. (Never mind sleep teaching has been disproven.) It even has one key feature of cyberpunk -- a mega corporation that controls everything.

Now, there's no violent underworld of malcontents in Wall-E, but the effects of it can be just as harmful. People have come to rely on technology a little too much in the time spent on the ship.

Now, what Wall-E has that other films I enjoyed this year didn't was a really good story. The future of Wall-E technically isn't possible, most trash items would decay well before 700 years.

I would see Wall-E's political leanings as being similar to those of Theodore Roosevelt, than the political viewpoint espoused by the modern environmental movement.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sinister Porpoise!!!

Very good points! It's true that (like in Brave New World) the government in this one is essentially benevolent, and the people are just conditioned to like their current society (which is why I mentioned that novel as well). OTOH, even in 1984, most of the people cooperate with the government because they've been conditioned to think it is good and everything is okay. Part of the point of the story is the main character coming to realize something is amiss.

Interesting point about cyber-punk -- I wasn't aware of the connection since I don't know anything about that genre.

I'm not sure I would specifically box this film into "conservationist" as opposed to "environmentalist" (at the exclusion of the other) since the two are closely connected these days. The thing that makes this film an especially modern take on conservation/environment is the fact that it takes for granted that -- not only are we destroying something precious and irreplaceable when we fail to conserve nature -- we're actually rendering the planet uninhabitable to humans.

As far as the trash not degrading is concerned, that's one of many points that make this future impossible. The one that jumped out at me was the fact that the people on the Axiom were just blowing their trash out into space -- unless they have some other source of raw materials, they'd have to be recycling essentially everything on the ship in order to keep things running for seven hundred years. But I think the writers were more interested in making joking commentary on our current society than they were in coming up with a plausibly consistent future.

What I think would be interesting would be a story set a hundred years from now (or so) when the lack of fossil fuels (and perhaps other trace metals that our technology requires) starts to be felt in earnest. How will people's daily lives be different then?

Rebecca said...

SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!!!

I love that movie.

Have you seen Idiocracy? It's pretty stupid, but I guess that's kind of the point. It's another take on where we're headed, though not so much from a conservationism/environmentalism standpoint as from a consumerism and intelligence standpoint.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Rebecca!!!

lol.

No, I haven't seen Idiocracy, but it sounds interesting. :D

Eugene said...

We do love believing we're bad, bad people. As Molly Worthen quips about the Fundie Calvinist movement, "The doctrine of total human depravity has always had a funny way of emboldening, rather than humbling, its adherents."

Indeed, the NYT's John Tierney takes a look at the economic realities of recycling and concludes that it is "essentially a religious sacrament."

Julian Simon calculates that "If all the U.S. solid waste were put in a landfill dug 100 yards deep the output for the entire 21st century would require a square landfill only 9 miles on a side."

We've got quite a ways to go, and will probably get a lot more inventive in the meantime (like plasma incineration).

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Eugene!!!

I don't think Wall-E is about human depravity, nor is that the point I'm making about it.

The point is that sometimes an organism -- through its own natural processes -- alters its own environment, to the point where the organism can no longer survive there. The classic example would be yeasts causing grape juice to ferment into wine. The yeast eats the sugar and produces alcohol as waste. Once the concentration of alcohol reaches a certain level, the environment becomes toxic to the yeast, and it dies. Now, I certainly wouldn't call the yeasts "depraved" for eating food and producing waste, but the scenario is kind of sad for them because at the end they're all dead.

With humans, by contrast, we're capable of recognizing and understanding that we could potentially render our environment uninhabitable to us. This is a remarkable thing -- not a cause for humility -- because we don't know of any other organism (besides us) that is capable of comprehending such a thing.

Now, the question remains: Are we of acting on this comprehension and altering our actions to create a sustainable society? Maybe, maybe not, but I hope we are.

p.s. it's interesting that you have such a low opinion of religion. I thought you were religious.

Eugene said...

I had cable in college, and now and then I'd get bored and tune into the 700 Club or whatnot. Aside from the usual nonsense, what was truly appalling was how excited the Evangelicals got over whatever bloody catastrophe was going on in the Middle East. Prophesies being fulfilled before our very eyes!

Except that China or the USSR was always supposed to invade Israel at some point (I didn't follow the Biblical logic, but they were very insistent), and they never did, and people eventually got tired of killing each other (for the time being, at least), and, well, never mind. The Second Coming wasn't right around the corner after all.

When it comes to crime and porn (to take two examples), I get the same vibe from even reasonable Mormons. They're actually offended when you don't go along with their doom & gloom scenarios. How can you not believe the world is going to hell in a handbasket? How can you not believe everything is getting worse all the time?

Environmentalists as well have glommed onto this human-centered, apocalyptic mindset. Everything is OUR FAULT! Yet in OUR POWER! And it's the end of the world if we don't act RIGHT NOW!

The irony is that this "sinners in the hands of an angry god" scaremongering is a big reason things do improve. Children across the developed world are told how much worse the environment is getting day by day, and so having ingested that lie, set out to improve an already improving situation. The religious mindset is very useful in this regard.

But I'm a great believer in representative democracy largely because of--not despite of--the fact that it's a giant slug of a creature whose greatest attribute is its inability to do anything quickly. When it tries to sprint, all kinds of bad things happen. Most of the cures will be proven worse than the disease. So take a deep breath, grab a towel, and Don't Panic.

(P.S. Our society is sustainable. When it stops being sustainable, the variables will change and we will adapt. Imagine our ancestors trying to engineer 21st century "sustainability" based on 19th century technology. They'd cause the very disasters they were trying to prevent.)

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: Children across the developed world are told how much worse the environment is getting day by day, and so having ingested that lie, set out to improve an already improving situation.

I'm not clear on which part you think is "a lie": that it is theoretically possible that humans could permanently alter their environment in ways they would deeply regret, or whether that is happening right now...?

Re: The religious mindset is very useful in this regard.

Wow, so you don't defend religion. This is the sort of opinion I hear all the time from atheists, but it surprises me to hear it from someone religious.

Re: But I'm a great believer in representative democracy largely because of--not despite of--the fact that it's a giant slug of a creature whose greatest attribute is its inability to do anything quickly.

This is very true. Major change can't and doesn't happen quickly -- the mass of people have to change their minds. Typically no amount of evidence can cause this to happen in real time -- only with a change of generations since people typically stick with the worldview they develop as young adults.

Re: When it stops being sustainable, the variables will change and we will adapt. Imagine our ancestors trying to engineer 21st century "sustainability" based on 19th century technology.

Absolutely society changes and adapts when faced with problems. In the 19th century, most people had absolutely no reason to imagine that humans needed to think about the effect they were having on the environment. There was some idea of sustainability, such as learning about crop rotation -- but in general the question wasn't relevant at the time the way it is relevant now. Now, our dependence on fossil fuels is already a problem economically, and in terms of national security. And -- as you predict -- society is starting to adapt and deal with this problem. And society will continue to adapt more as the fuel and climate problems become more acute.

Eugene said...

Note that I wrote: "Children across the developed world are told how much worse the environment is getting day by day." Call it the "reverse Grandpa Simpson" syndrome: "Everything was better when I was your age!" (Funny how the religious fundamentalists toe that same line.)

This is how ideologically-rooted ideals undermine the pragmatic goal of finding applicable solutions (not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good) that won't get chewed up by the gears of government. I believe it would be far more constructive to teach children how much we have accomplished--that our air and water used to be a lot more polluted, and that we have made enormous strides in cleaning up the environment.

Modern sewer systems and water-treatment plants are marvels of the modern world, and largely responsible for our current lifespans. Even back in the early 1600s, the British Parliament banned the burning of wood in glass making and granted patents promoting the use of coal. Coal saved the forests of England and New England, and oil saved the whales. There's nothing new about the problem or the solutions.

Coal is undoubtedly the worst way to generate electricity (because of SOx and heavy metal pollution, not CO2). But idealistic environmental campaigns to decommission nuclear plants during the 1990s now means that more coal-fired power plants than ever are being built in Europe. When the end-time environmentalists talk about the looming catastrophe, I hear Elmer Gantry telling us to trust him to lead us to the promised land--which turns out to be over that cliff over there.

I'm more comfortable trusting long-tested human skepticism about the next "great leap forward" and the long-proven human ability to muddle through with an ugly, sausage-making mixture of compromise and ingenuity.

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: "Children across the developed world are told how much worse the environment is getting day by day." ... I believe it would be far more constructive to teach children how much we have accomplished--that our air and water used to be a lot more polluted, and that we have made enormous strides in cleaning up the environment.

Absolutely we need to talk about the solutions and success stories when discussing environmental problems. For example, the last time I saw a documentary/program about deforestation, there was a segment about agriculture of fast-growing trees as an alternative to cutting down old-growth forests (though, not wasting paper and wood is also important). Similarly, another program about worldwide depletion of shallow-water ecosystems and fisheries talked about the success in some areas of setting aside a protected area (a breeding ground, if you will, along the same ideas as hunting only during the right season), which as a result produced bigger end yields than the free-for-all bottom-dredging and catching everything. This is the sort of solution that requires cooperation, so naturally people need to be aware of it in order to carry it out.

Personally, I've never said "everything's getting worse." You read my blog, thus you should already be aware that I've talked about positive strides in society at both a macro and a micro level. Frankly, I think your position and mine aren't all that far from one another except for the fact that you seem very intent on defeating your straw-man fundamentalist environmentalist.

And, while not everything is getting worse, there are some very specific problems that are getting worse:
1. deforestation and habitat destruction, especially in rain forests and in the ocean,
2. climate change, due to putting carbon into the atmosphere,
3. population pressure -- six billion and growing, without any handy "new frontier" that we can easily expand into,
4. fossil fuels -- and this is the biggie because if we keep using them at the current rate, we will run out, within not too many generations. Human civilization is strongly dependent on cheap energy through fossil fuels, and we have no particular reason to believe the solution or transition will be simple, so we need to start thinking about solutions now.

Re: This is how ideologically-rooted ideals undermine the pragmatic goal of finding applicable solutions

Yes, exactly. Your ideologically-rooted insistence that we must battle this nebulous enemy of "environmentalism" is a perfect example of ideology standing in the way of finding pragmatic solutions.

Re: Modern sewer systems and water-treatment plants are marvels of the modern world, and largely responsible for our current lifespans.

Absolutely, and I am grateful for this every day. Of course, pulling fresh water out of the ground can and does lower the water table, so if we want this marvel to continue, we need to be aware of how it works in order to use it in a responsible and maintainable way.

Re: Coal is undoubtedly the worst way to generate electricity (because of SOx and heavy metal pollution, not CO2). But idealistic environmental campaigns to decommission nuclear plants during the 1990s now means that more coal-fired power plants than ever are being built in Europe.

Interesting that you're so quick to blame "environmentalists" for the dirty problem of coal power. I thought you were the "let's applaud the successes" guy who would have pointed out how fab it is that environmentalists pushed for improvements in wind farm technology or something.

But, the need for new power plants is not caused by "environmentalists". Environmentalists are the ones who are at the forefront of reminding people that we need to find energy solutions other than burning more carbon. (Global warming anyone? Or was it the conservatives that discovered that? And also responsible for all that pollution cleanup that you were lauding above...?)

Saying "Hey, don't talk about the strengths and weaknesses of our various energy options" is a sure-fire way of ensuring that no one will bother to try to improve them...

Re: I'm more comfortable trusting long-tested human skepticism about the next "great leap forward" and the long-proven human ability to muddle through with an ugly, sausage-making mixture of compromise and ingenuity.

Exactly. Human ingenuity and compromise can help us to muddle through and continue to survive. That's exactly what I'm doing with this post and the other one -- encouraging the use of these human powers to deal with the challenges facing our generation. The only thing I don't get is why you're so intent on trying to stop it.

lma said...

Just a few thoughts based on what I've read here:

I'm not sure I understand why some people are not in favor doing things like recycling and reducing emission of greenhouse gases.

Even things are not getting worse, and even if human activity is not causing any worsening of conditions that are present, what does it hurt to recycle instead of throwing away? What does it hurt (beside corporate pocketbooks, some corporations would have us believe) to develop and use cleaner technologies?

Do most of us live in dirty homes because it is easier and cheaper not to clean (some of those cleaning supplies are pretty pricey these days) and it might not really hurt us that much? Of course not. So why would we want to live on a dirtier Earth just because it might not be "that bad" and it saves a little money and effort?

In reality, nearly all the science shows that we are causing harm through the byproducts of civilization. Most of the protests of that truth turn out to be ideological rather than scientific in origin. We need to find cleaner ways to exist on the Earth, since there are no big programs to get us off the planet anytime soon. But even if that weren't so, isn't it just more pleasant to live on a cleaner Earth?

Oh, and by the way, I found it interesting that Wall-E was nominated not only for Best Animated Feature by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, but also for Best Original Screenplay...that's exceptionally unusual for an animated film.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Ima!!!

Exactly. And that's great that Wall-E is up for some awards!