In the throwback block, researcher Joonas Vola looks back to his early childhood experience on the subject of raising environmental awareness through popular culture and cartoon.
Do you have an early memory, from childhood or youth, of being influenced by some shape of form of raising environmental awareness? (What) Did you learn from it? Was this done by the means of stories, songs, entertainment or other form of education? Have the issues changed, in nature or by name, or have they remained the same? Have we passed the issue, or do we move on circles, still facing the things that we thought we have left behind?
One of those dreamy childhood mornings, very likely on Saturday, I exceeded my regular cartooning time, and saw a series that where directed for a slightly older children, those that where capable of following undubbed programmes with subtitles. The episode that I saw, left an impression, with its catchy theme, character design, speedy animation, and the feel of danger with a good moral behind it all. It was Captain Planet and the Planeteers, an American animated environmentalist Superhero television series, broadcasted in Finland on channel MTV3 staring in 1991.
The plot states that our world is in peril due to the environmental destruction, and the planet’s spirit Gaia sends five magic rings to five young people, to become the Planeteers, covering geographically Africa, North America, Soviet Union, Asia and South America. Besides the four classical elements, earth, fire, wind and water, governed by them, the fifth one is the element of ‘heart’. It enables the four others to join together harmoniously, and summon Earth's greatest champion, Captain Planet. With the ability to utilize the natural elements, his only weakness is, what else than environmental pollutions. The villains of the story appeared alongside different disasters, such as whaling, drug abuse, oil drilling and melting of the ice at the Poles. The common keyword at the time was ‘pollution’ and the attempt to take it “down to zero”. If one is ought to imagine a comeback of the series in 2020, the theme song would likely go: “Gonna take carbon down to zero”.
Besides of Captain Planet’s appealing groovy colouring, toned body, and shameless mullet in the form of action figure, not lacking a punch due to its hidden mechanism, and cool temperature activated pollution stain, the story had its educational and societal message to tell. In the cartoon, besides presenting, environmental-political and social-political issues, the viewers where called to contribute to solutions, and fight the pollution. Interestingly the approach highlights global responsibility that requires seamless cooperation between the people despite of national, political or ethnic differences. While the four natural elements appear as powerful and clearly definable, the most elusive and vague, ‘heart’ is also the most important one, whether it equates with empathy, mediation or love.
Not surprisingly, this fiction laid the responsibility on saving of the world to the shoulders of the youth. Nevertheless, it also emphasised the meaning of the younger generation, as the one influenced by the environmental calamity, but also given important agency in caring and rebelling, in order to aid Gaia against the negative effects of the humankind. Even though the Captain Planet represents the superior and powerful collective body, he is also caught in trouble, and cannot manage the problem without one’s help and actions in a dire situation. That is the lesson, that heroism needs both ‘big’ and ‘small’.
Therefore, be a Planeteer!
Text and photo by Joonas Vola