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All of this is much easier to see in retrospect, which I think is telling. It's hard to see bias in the moment, and it's easy to feel justified in simplifying the stories of your adversaries when you're in the middle of what you see as a war. But that's why it's good to look back at things like this.

I think it's fine to create content for any age that accurately portrays the difficulties we face as a species...that's a completely apolitical act. But while the creators of Captain Planet will tell you that each of the villains represents the extremes, not the norms, none of those things are (at least in the beginning) modeled in nuanced ways. I am particularly troubled by the portrayal of the laborers as sub-human. It's one thing for billionaire Looten Plunder to be terrible (and yes, his pony tail is appropriately grotesque) but modeling the people who are laboring as garbage collectors or machine operators as monsters, at this point, downright pisses me off.


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Good morning John.

When I was growing up there was a TV show called 'Captain Planet and the Planeteers'. I always knew it was, like a bad tv show, but at least it was a good message. It taught kids that the world was in danger and that the power to save it is yours.

But when I started my master's degree in Environmental studies I was surprised to find a lot of ambivalence and even outright distaste for Captain Planet. That's weird so I wanted to talk about it. 

First, though, a synopsis. Gaia realizes she's been napping for too long and that humans are at it again. So she gives some rings to five teens and they get special powers and can work together to call a blue guy with a mullet and bad puns. And I like puns, these ones are just bad.

The idea is that it's half fun adventure and half "here's what you can do to lessen your impact on the environment." And that's how, for the first season at least, it was sold to a ridiculously star-studded cast: Whoopi Goldberg, Meg Ryan, LeVar Burton, Sting, and this greedy, big-nosed rat-looking guy poisoning the water supply played by, oh my god, Jeff Goldblum, why?! The entire project was conceived and funded by Ted Turner, who also owned the TV stations that it ran on.

So why do I, a definite environmentalist, have a problem with this? Well, kids shows have to have villains, but when that dynamic is being applied to real world discussions and issues, that villain becomes a straw man for someone real. They're caricatures, subhuman evildoers destroy the environment, for fun? Almost all of them with some kind of physical deformity, and many coded to be lower class for some reason?

Most of these villains work in extractive industries: timber, mining, oil, energy, and we never see any examples of this work being done responsibly. One of the villains is a garbage collector, like why is that bad? The lesson seems to be that this work can't be done sustainably, and the people who do it, do it because they're monsters. That isn't fun for the people or families who depend on that work, and it's also not honest. It might to some look like a bunch of rich people living in big buildings made out of mined minerals with lives powered by fossil fuels portraying the people who provided those luxuries as evil. Like, Ted Turner has a non-zero number of private jets.

We don't rip trees out of the ground for fun, we do it to build homes and make paper. We don't drill for oil so we can dump it on the ground, we drill for oil because people buy it so that they can get to work and to the grocery store. The people who work in extractive industries are real people, not pig-man. And environmentalists have to work with those real people when trying to get policies passed. They become their friends, or at least their colleagues, and seeing examples of being literally dehumanized by the movement that now suddenly wants to have a good faith discussion isn't helpful.

I'm not saying that captain planet did no good, people did learn good behaviors, and it created a group of young people who loudly supported environmental regulation and sustainable energy. But a lot of that energy came from vilifying a lot of people who had to swallow their pride and come to the negotiating table despite being portrayed as monsters because they help provide the energy and resources that we all use.

I know that children's television is not the place to go for political nuance, but maybe that's a good reason to not have children's shows about politics. If it was only about respect or love or appreciation for the environment that would be fine, but it's not. And while some of the after-episode mini-lessons provide nuance, the stories rarely do.

It looks to me like an intentional formation of a rift. Teaching children that the problem is bad humans, not hard problems, and that when people disagree it's because they are monsters who love to destroy beauty. It looks a little like a microcosm for all politics these days. Captain planet helped us win some good policies, but in the process it deepened the rift. We did that, and I think it's worth thinking about. 

John, I'll see you on Tuesday.