I recently read an essay calling for the reboot of the nineties cartoon Captain Planet, where five teenage planeteers from around the world work together to stop evil villains who are hurting Gaia. The author made a strong case, arguing for the diversity of the cartoon cast, the opportunity to introduce viewers to the many countries and cultures (as the planeteers fight around the world), and of course exploring positive, and more nuanced, environmental messages.
Some months before that, I had actually shown my son the first episode, remembering it fondly from my own childhood. And while I wanted to like this ecoeducational series, it was pretty farcical. The first episode starts with Gaia—in human form and narrated by Whoopi Goldberg!—waking up to find Hoggish Greedly, a piggish eco-criminal (complete with snort and snout), crack her sleeping dome while drilling for oil, which was set in a cavern under a wildlife preserve. Gaia, in distress to see how much damage humans could cause in a century, gives out five magical rings to a diverse set of teenagers from around the world. And ‘when their powers combine’ they can summon Captain Planet, which of course they only do in the final climatic minutes of each episode (like in the final confrontation in every episode of The A-Team). And yes, as with The A-Team, the villains are regularly stopped by the kids. Yet somehow, the bigger underlying systemic issues—whether capitalism, extractivism, imperialism, the global spread of consumerism, our reproductive overexeuberance, or our disconnect from Gaia*—are never addressed.
Resurrecting Captain Planet?
So if I had a magic ring (or a blank check, as that’d be more useful in this case) to resurrect Captain Planet, would I?
On the one hand, it’d be nice to have a TV show encouraging heroic action in defense of planet Earth: eco-propaganda to attempt to counter all the consumerist propaganda children see on TV day after day. But would I really want to see Gaia personified?
No. First, this just primes the pump to believe in gods/Gods and move the focus away from humans as responsible for Gaia’s troubles and capable of solving the problems we created. God or Gaia is not at fault here, nor does He/She need to be saved, and no anthropocentric personification is going to step in and help save us (in this world or an afterworld). We made the mess; either we clean it up or we die.** Plus, Gaia is far more beautiful and mysterious than an anthropomorphized deity, no matter who plays Gaia’s voice. Though I guess that could be easily resolved if Gaia only came to the kids in their dreams—then Gaia could come in culturally relevant ways (whether as a spirit animal, a sheep or pet perhaps, an angry bulldozer, or even an anime character, which could be fun).*** Then Gaia wouldn’t have a body, or a unified voice but just call in unique ways to the different protagonists (which sounds closer to real life).
But if we do away with Gaia incarnate, it’d probably make sense to get rid of the magical superhero Captain Planet as well. Or we’ll have just substituted in a visible demigod and invisible god for the tangible one (does that sound like any other religion you know?). But there’s a bigger reason as well: if Captain Planet followed Gaia’s law—i.e. that maintaining the stable, healthy whole is the ‘prime directive’ (to awkwardly marry Aldo Leopold and Star Trek), he would not be helping the five planeteers, but more likely turning all the ecovillains, and probably all hyper-consuming humans everywhere into trees. “You’re a tree! You’re a tree!” (which makes for a great Funny or Die sketch, but not so much an ongoing cartoon series for kids).
Empowering Tomorrow’s Ecoheroes
The bigger question is, do we really want to communicate that you need superpowers to save Gaia? That feels like a disempowering message, not an empowering one (even if the show’s motto was “The Power is Yours!”). Unless, that is, the superpowers are stubbornness, persuasiveness, richness, inventiveness, and cleverness—but jinkies!—this suddenly feels more Scooby Doo than Captain Planet.
So you’ve got five “special young people” trying to fight eco-criminals and human short-sightedness—propped up by corporations, corrupt legal systems, bribable police forces and strong-armed militaries around the world, not to mention a culture that distances the vast majority from Gaia and celebrates growth and consumption at every turn.
Frankly, it might be a one-episode series, with the five kids ending up burned out, ground up, worn down, and spit out within the hour. Or it might be quite unwatchable. There’s “Greta from Europe” sitting in front of the city hall for the four-hundredth Friday in a row! Cue action music and montage: someone is talking with her. Taking a photo. Greta eating lunch! More talking (the light changing all the while until it’s dark and she’s gone). “Tune in tomorrow for more exciting adventures!”
Then again, I guess that beats the alternative of a post-collapse series with five kids working together to help make their community livable again—for example, fighting local thugs who have filled the power vacuum as governments fail. Or this strange post-collapse cartoon, Reset Earth (recently produced and paid for by UNEP!), where three adventurous teens—Sagan, Terran, and Knox—go back in time to stop the creation of the ozone hole. Really? With climate change about to derail civilization is a cartoon about the ozone hole and time travel where UNEP should have invested?
Perhaps Captain Planet will get remade one day—and done in a way that mobilizes a whole new generation of heroic environmentalists (we’re gonna need them). But if not, the good news is that there are already some amazing cartoons you can plop your kids in front of that will get them feeling ecoheroic. Octonauts for younger ones, The Magic School Bus (and ok, the reboot The Magic School Bus Returns), the Soviet classic Cheburashka, and especially the entire suite of Hayao Miyazaki anime films: Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Or better yet, bring your little ones out to the woods or along a plastic-strewn river near you and create your own heroic adventures. After all, the power is yours!
*And considering their magical powers and awareness that Gaia is actually a living goddess, you’d think they’d try to convert people to a Gaian religion or something!
**And by clean it up, I mean start living within the limits of the planet, and healing the damage done, not geoengineering the Earth and treating it like some machine in human service.
***In fact, that’s kind of what happened when the planeteers originally received their rings. But then they were whisked away to meet Gaia, which was kind of a weird juxtaposition.