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John Green reviews the opening scene of the movie Penguins of Madagascar and the smallpox vaccine.

Preorder The Anthropocene Reviewed book, out May 18, 2021:

Join John Green and special guests on the The Anthropocene Reviewed virtual book tour! Each ticket purchased will grant access to the respective live event and include a signed copy of The Anthropocene Reviewed. Ticket links and more information at

Tour dates:
Monday, May 17th at 4:30 PM PT / 7:30 PM ET
Northeast Event in partnership with The Wilbur Theatre
With special guest Clint Smith

Tuesday May 18th at 7:00 PM PT / 10:00 PM ET
Western Event
With special guest Sarah Green

Wednesday, May 19th at 4:00 PM PT / 7:00 PM ET
Southern Event
With special guest Hank Green

Saturday, May 22nd at 1:00 PM CT / 2:00 PM ET
Midwest Event
With special guest Ashley C. Ford

For every ticket purchased, $2 will be donated to Partners In Health. $1 is included in the ticket price, and my publisher Dutton will match every $1.

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Hello and Welcome to the Anthropocene Reviewed, a podcast where we review different facets of the human-centered planet on a five-star scale. I’m John Green and we're back! With a 4 episode mini season to celebrate the release of The Anthropocene Reviewed book, which comes out on May 18th.

The book contains many revised and expanded essays from this podcast and several all-new reviews. Also, I signed all 250,000 thousand of the U.S. and Canadian first printing of the book, so if you live in the U.S. or Canada and you want an unsigned copy of the book, too bad. But if you want an autographed one, they are available wherever books are sold. Outside the U.S. and Canada, the book is also available for preorder, although, alas, I cannot guarantee you will get a signed copy.

At any rate, today we'll be reviewing two things much on my mind lately: the opening scene of the movie Penguins of Madagascar and the smallpox vaccine.

Let's begin with Penguins of Madagascar. Unless you've lived an exceptionally fortunate life, you've probably known someone who enjoys having provocative opinions. I'm referring to people who say things to you like, "You know, Ringo is the best Beatle." In response, you'll take a long breath. Maybe you're out to lunch with this person, because lunch is a time-limited experience, and you can only bear this person's presence in minute quantities.

So you'll take a bite of your food, and then you'll sigh again before saying, "Why is Ringo the best Beatle?" Well, the provocative opinion person is very glad you asked. "Ringo is the best Beatle because...", and then you stop listening, which is the only way to get through lunch. When the person has finished at last, you say, "Alright, but Ringo also wrote 'Octopus' Garden'," and then the provocative opinion person will regale you

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with a 14-minute lecture that begins, "Well, actually, 'Octopus' Garden' is a considerable work of genius, because..."

Very few of us are provocative opinion people, thank god, but I think many of us do harbor at least one provocative opinion, and this is mine: I believe the opening sequence of the film Penguins of Madagascar is one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history.

Penguines of Madagascar is an animated kids' movie about the anthropocene. A villainous octopus named Dave has invented a special ray that makes cute animals ugly, so that humans will stop privileging the protection of adorable animals, like penguins, over less adorable ones, like Dave. The movie begins as a faux nature documentary. "Antarctica, an inhospitable wasteland," the famous documentary filmmaker Werner Herzog intones with his trademark gravitas. "But even here," he tells us, "we find life, and not just any life. Penguins, joyous, frolicking, waddling, cute and cuddly life."

A long line of penguins marches mindlessly behind an unseen leader as Herzog calls the penguins "silly little snow clowns." We follow the line back to the three young penguins at the center of the movie, one of whom announces, "Does anyone even know where we're marching to?"

"Who cares?" an adult penguin responds.

"I question nothing," another adds.

Soon thereafter, the three young penguins are bowled over by an egg rolling downhill. They decide to follow the egg, which tumbles over the edge of a glacier to a shipwrecked boat below. These three little penguins now stand on the edge of a vast cliff, looking down at an egg

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that is about to be eaten by a leopard seal. The penguins must decide - risk it all to save this egg or watch as it gets eaten? 

At this point, the camera zooms out, and we see the documentary film crew following the penguins. "Tiny and helpless," Herzog says, "the babies are frozen with fear. They know, if they fall from this cliff, they will surely die."

And then there is a moment's pause before Herzog says, "Gunter, give them a shove." The sound guy uses a boom mic to whack the penguins form behind, forcing them into the great unknown.

It's a kids' movie, so of course the penguins survive and go on great adventures, but every time I watch Penguins of Madagascar, I think of how humans and penguins rarely interact in the wild, and yet we are nonetheless their greatest threat, and also their best hope. In that respect, we are a kind of god, and not a particularly benevolent one.

I also find myself thinking about the lemming, a six-inch rodent with pert eyes and a brown-black coat of fur. There are many species of lemmings, and they can be found throughout the colder parts of North America and Eurasia. Most like to be near water, and they can swim a fair distance.

Lemmings tend to have an especially extreme population cycle. Every three or four years, their populations explode due to favorable breeding conditions. In the 17th century, some naturalists hypothesized that lemmings must spontaneously generate and then fall from the sky in their millions like raindrops.

That belief fell away over time, but another did not. We have long believed that, driven by instinct

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and/or a willingness to mindlessly follow other lemmings, the creatures self-correct for population growth via mass suicide. This myth has proven astonishingly durable, even though biologists have known for a long time that lemmings do no such thing. In fact, lemmings spread out when populations become too large, seeking new and safe spaces. Sometimes, they come to a river or lake and attempt to cross it. Sometimes, they drown; sometimes, they die of other causes. In all these respects, they are quite similar to many other rodents.

But even now, we still sometimes say that people who unquestioningly follow are lemmings. We think of lemmings this way in no small part because of the 1958 Disney movie White Wilderness, a nature documentary about the North American Arctic. In the film, we watch lemmings migrating after a season of population growth. At last, they come to an oceanside cliff, which the narrator refers to as "the final precipice."

"Casting themselves bodily out into space," the narrator tells us, the lemmings hurl themselves over the cliff in their immense stupidity, and those that survive the fall then swim out into the ocean until they drown, "a final rendezvous with destiny and with death."

But none of that is a realistic depiction of lemmings' natural behavior. For one thing, the subspecies of lemming depicted in the film do not typically migrate at all. Also, this section of the movie wasn't even filmed in the wild. The lemmings in question were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, where much of the lemming footage was shot.

And the lemmings did not hurl themselves

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bodily out into space. Instead, the filmmakers backed a truck full of lemmings up to the edge of the cliff, and then dumped the lemmings over the cliff, filming them as they fell and then eventually drowned. "Gunter, give them a shove."

In the end, White Wilderness is a documentary not about lemmings, but about the lengths humans will go to in order to hold onto a lie.

I love the opening sequence of Penguins of Madagascar, because it reminds us that humans are never neutral observers in the anthropocene, but I also love it because it captures, and makes the gentlest possible fun of, something about myself I find deeply troubling. Like the adult penguin who stays in line and announces, "I question nothing," I mostly follow rules. I mostly try to act like everyone else is acting, even as we all approach the precipice.

We imagine animals as being without consciousness, mindlessly following their evolutionary imperatives to they know not where. But in that construction, we sometimes forget that we are also animals. I am thoughtful, full of thoughts all the time, inescapably, exhaustingly, but I am also mindless, acting in accordance with default settings I neither understand nor examine. I am part of a species that runs so fast it sometimes doesn't see the cliff coming before it's too late. I am part of a species that wanders in search of safety and abundance.

To a degree I don't want to accept, I am a lemming. The lemming myth doesn't last because it helps us to understand lemmings. It lasts because it helps us to understand ourselves.

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