Remember, we aren’t meeting as a class today or next Monday, 11/27.
Wall-E and Environment
For today’s notes, I want to point out some obvious environmental messages in Wall-E. I think it’s safe to say that one interpretation of the film is a not-so-subtle indictment of consumerist excess: Basically, we’re destroying the planet with all our trash. Wall-E is a classic example of the speculative fiction plot stemming from “if this continues…” The film is a warning about what we do to the environment when we throw everything away. The message is that our current practices are unsustainable.
This film’s message might be uncomfortable for many of us because, if we’re honest and think through our choices, we’ll conclude that we are all part of the problem of trash. We create a lot of trash. Take a moment to recall what you throw away. Even better, keep a record of everything you throw away in a week–including the bottles and cans of beer servers and bartenders haul away from your table. Trust me, I don’t like thinking about that.* Consider the following estimates for trash from “The Trash One Person Produces in a Year” (Bonnie Gringer uses the EPA’s data from 2013 found here):
- 38 pounds of newspapers
- 48 pounds of books
- 25 pounds of office papers
- 22 pounds of paper plates or cups
- 28 pounds of aluminum beer and soda cans
- 77 pounds of plastic bottles and jars
- 90 pounds of tossed-out clothes and shoes
- 77 pounds of cardboard boxes
Gringer also goes on to point out a startling statistic on food waste: “Each year, each person tosses out roughly 220.96 pounds of food waste.” That’s a tremendous amount. It would probably be less per person if we took out extreme outliers like a family I used to know who throw away probably 1,000 lbs per year…but that’s a topic for another time.
On a historical note, some of you will be stunned to hear that throwing one’s garbage out of a car was normal. People would just toss their used wrappers, cups, cans, and bottles out the window of their moving cars. It wasn’t until the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 that changed people’s beliefs about litter. The act didn’t ban littering at a federal level, but it drew people’s attention to the benefit (perhaps just an aesthetic benefit at first) of scenic highways. Junkyards and other eyesores couldn’t be along highways, and advertising (billboards and such) had to be more regulated. Bob Greene attributes an increase in anti-littering laws to this act. It’s hard to think one act caused a paradigm shift, but people’s consciousness of the environment started to increase throughout the 1960s. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio actually caught fire several times in the twentieth century. People’s consciousness of pollution was an impetus for pushing for the Clean Water Act of 1972.
My point for bringing up this history and how it relates to Wall-E is that when people don’t pay attention to their consumption, they don’t recognize their own culpability in environmental damage. Our trash and recycling (although less plastic is getting recycled) get hauled away, so we don’t see it’s final destination. If we’re lucky, our trash gets dumped in a landfill (which still can have harmful effects on drinking water if not properly maintained). However, and I’m sure many of you are aware of this, our trash often ends up in the ocean, killing marine life. Here’s some more information on The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Interestingly, how many of you followed the news about environments improving while people were sheltering in place during the first several months of COVID-19 lockdowns?
Let’s get into the subject of privileging the human over the animal. The term Anthropocene refers to the current geological time period that is characterized by human activity significantly changing the planet. The term is actually a proposed term and not considered the agreed-upon scientific term, which is Holocene. However, the move is a political one that could gain more traction as the effects of a warming and polluted planet become impossible to ignore. Besides carbon pollution from the Industrial Revolution through today causing the atmosphere to warm, humans have devastated the environment in many ways:
- Air particulates–soot, smoke, smog, and dust
- Water pollution–ocean, rivers, drinking water, etc.
- Microplastics–tiny fragments that end up in water
- Nuclear weapons testing–specifically in the United States, increased rates of thyroid cancer (Remus Prăvălie, 2014)
- Deforestation–human encroachment into forests, razing trees for homes and land to graze
- Mercury–contaminating oceans and marine life from burning fossil fuels
- Pesticides and herbicides–harmful to humans, soil, rivers, marine life
The proposed name makes sense when we consider the ways human activity has altered ecosystems on the planet. Another term that’s completely without controversy is ecocide,* human destruction of the environment. It has a sinister etymology for an English professor because it has a connotation of suicide: we kill the environment and ourselves. But don’t worry. Environmental destruction, like traffic, is someone else’s problem–not yours. Here are some sites I found in and around Charlotte:
- Birkdale Shopping Center
- Neighborhood in North Charlotte
- What happens to all that trash you produce?(required viewing)
- “Methane has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over the first 20 years after it reaches the atmosphere” (Environmental Defense Fund)
- “Find that inner nerd!”–Of course, you need to communicate these messages, so technical communication is important.
- What Can and Can’t I Recycle Curbside in Charlotte?
- Not everything is recyclable
- Also, notice things must be clean to go into recycling–even that sticky peanut butter!
Science fiction, to return to the topic for today, often has post-apocalyptic settings because the authors project contemporary issues into a future setting. But environmental destruction isn’t an imaginary thing. This year’s COP27 in Egypt or last year’s COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, UK, as well as the Paris Climate Agreement are attempts to lessen the impacts of environmental destruction. Notice I didn’t write “halt”…
Solutions You Can Do!
- Bug burgers and beetle wings!
- Carbon offsets…well, there’s an issue there
- NPR’s Marketplace discussed carbon offsets (11/08/2021)
- “Oxfam has calculated that the total amount of land required for planned carbon removal could potentially be five times the size of India, or the equivalent of all the farmland on the planet” (Oxfam, August 2021, p. 7)
- I mentioned this earlier in the semester
- Drive less; walk more
- Protect your fruit!
For more information, look at an Anthropocene timeline.
Now, on to Wall-E
- BnL–Buy n Large is a play on “buying large” (or livin’ large) and “buy and large”
- Layer of space junk orbiting the moon, although exaggerated in the film, is a serious national security concern
- Consumerism is out-of-this-world–Outlet Mall Coming Soon to the Moon
- The space station humans have atrophied…they use no muscles
- This atrophy extends to their brains–even the Captain can’t open a book
- Wall-E and EVE represent curiosity and help introduce that to the captain and John and Mary
- This is also a comment on revolution, for Wall-E’s curiosity leads him to the ship where he introduces dirt, causing the Captain to do research and overthrow, eventually, the robots in charge
- “Auto,” the ship’s autopilot is an obvious allusion to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
A Note on Axiom
The ship, Axiom, alludes to the idea that humans just accept the ship as reality. Axioms are self-evidently true ideas accepted by groups.
We’ll continue with Wall-E Wednesday and discuss some analysis of the film. Make sure to read David Whitley’s “Download Whitley, David. “Wall⋅E: Nostalgia and the Apocalypse of Trash” and Katherine Ellison’s Katherine’s “Talking Trash.”
*A friend who used to live next door to me had a kegerator. I and others would give him money for the keg, and we would use it all football season. We went from needing to make 4-5 recycling trips a week to maybe 1 or 2. We just weren’t producing the waste we used to make, and we could return the keg to be re-used! Unfortunately, the kegerator broke (think of all the inebriated users…), and we decided it made us drink more because we had too much access. One day…I’ll get a kegerator and do my part to save the planet!