Thursday, March 3, 2016

Sympathy For the Captain

You’ve probably heard the story of the girl and the starfish, but here it goes anyway. There’s a girl throwing beached starfish back into the ocean. An adult tells her that there’s no way that she can get all of these starfish back into the water. She keeps throwing. Adult tells her that what she’s doing doesn’t matter. Girl says, “It mattered to this one.”

And this is a great story and a cute story. It exemplifies “Think Globally, Act Locally”. It fits in with narratives of personal recycling, waste reduction, individual activism, and giving to charity. There’s only one problem: it’s an unnecessary and useless guilt trip.

As far as I know, Captain Planet was an idea spawned by activists and pitched to Ted Turner, then head of TBS. The idea was simple, and effective: teach kids to take care of the environment by having a green (or blue?) superhero defeat polluting villains. The symbolism was clear-cut: five kids, representing people all over the world, had to join together and use their powers to call on Captain Planet, defender of the Earth Spirit, literally (Gaia was actually a thing). Cap smashed the bad guys, and they ran with their tail between their legs while their apparatus of destruction was dismantled. Then there was a small end-cap piece about reusing milk jugs or some shit.

Here’s the thing: Captain Planet got the message across. Saving the world is important! And it inadvertently sent the exact right message, even if that wasn’t really the intent. That message is that pollution is largely the result of selfish decisions made by unchecked industrialists looking to make a quick buck. The amount of time the cartoon spent on punching bad people in the face vs. teaching kids to put their aluminum cans in the right bin was about perfect, but unfortunately, we continue to spread the toxic meme that it’s the fault of the average consumer that the world is going to pot, and that if we all just got our act together, it could be rescued. This is not the case.

Notice that there were kids from around the world fighting the forces of pollution, including a kid from Africa and a kid from South America, places that are far from making a dent on the global climate. We all have to pitch in, right?

This meme of personal responsibility is an easy gift we give to people who destroy in the name of personal gain. We blame homeowners for the housing crunch, we blame the homeless for being homeless (never mind that many cities are finding homelessness a relatively easy problem to solve from the top down). When we move on from victim-blaming, we tend to adopt self-blaming as a next step. This is the famed “liberal guilt” and it is insidious. Climate change is our fault, economic failures are our fault. Homelessness is our fault. Institutional racism is our fault. No. Stop. There are clearly groups responsible for all of these things, and in fact there’s quite a bit of overlap in the culprits. They are not shadowy, conspiratorial forces, but corporations you interact with on a regular basis, and politicians that represent you in the government. The only guilt we have is not having torn these institutions down yet.

And while we must laud the girls on beaches around the world, throwing starfish in against the powerlessness of the receding tide, we must also refuse to get sucked into believing that this “pitching in” is the best use of our efforts, or that thinking globally excuses a lack of scope for our actions. Do, please, give to worthy charity, and THEN vote for candidates who will promise to end corruption and greed, even if they’re not in the “Big Two” parties, or your local equivalent. Sign petitions. Start petitions. Participate in boycotts. Start boycotts! Say these things to people you care about, especially if they differ from you in opinion on these matters. Perhaps consider running for office yourself. Act locally, yes, but also act globally.

1 comment:

  1. Great post - thanks for your thoughts, Ben.