Tag Archives: environmental issues

Captain Eco and the World of Tomorrow

My set the inaugural Green Showoff last night was also a chunk of my talk at the Story today, so I thought I’d post it here.

eco books

I did my PhD on kids science books. When I tell people this, they often get a sort of “aww bless” expression on their faces.

Patronising f*ckers.

Written by one generation for the next, children’s books are full of concern over what aspects of the past to maintain and what might be different in the future. They can be deeply anxious often self-conflicted cultural products; both futuristic and nostalgic at once, full of guilt and pride about what sort of world we leaving along with fears and hope for the future. Such anxiety is especially obvious when adults try to tell stories to young people about the environment. There are all sorts of inter-generational hang-ups going on here and it’s bloody fascinating.

There was a boom in kids’ environmental media loosely surrounding the 1992 Rio summit and another running up to Copenhagen in 2009. I have a small collection of the books that were part of that, which I thought I’d share with you, and I want to focus on something interesting I found in them – the recurring character of the eco-superhero.

At first I wanted to turn my nose up at these characters. Who needs a bloody superhero to save us? I kind of find it offensive even. I don’t like a great man view of history, why the hell should we have it about our future? We need to find ways of talking about mass, cooperative action, not some magic pseudo-religious superhero savor from the sky. But – actually looing at the books – these eco-superheroes are quite diverse (well, gender aside). Some are, indeed, quite patronizing. But others take the piss. And they all sit an a social context which say something about our ideas of agency with respect to climate change.

Books aren’t the only place you see this character. Flying far above all eco-superheroes stories is TV star, Captain Planet. As the theme tune repeatedly told viewers, “he’s a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero”. Created by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle, the show ran from 1990-1996 and is still syndicated today. Though Gaia “the spirit of the Earth” was awakened by human destruction of the planet (a nod to James Lovelock) and sends five magic rings to five chosen young people across the globe, “the Planeteers”, to fight environmental destruction and, occasionally, social injustice. When the Planeteers faced a particularly tough foe, they could pool their magic rings to create the superhero character of Captain Planet. This caped crusade may fly in to assist us, but as a booming voiceover informed audiences every episode, it is only “by your powers combined” that change really happens.

Captain Planet is anything but subtle, and very earnest in its message of world peace as well as care for nature. There was a memorable episode where Captain Planet and the Planeteers tacked peace in the West Bank, South Africa and Northern Ireland, as well as episodes on animal rights and attitudes to HIV (there are quite a few online, google). When a movie remake was announced last year, Funny or Die satirised this tone, as well as contemporary inaction, with Don Cheadle as the Captain gone rouge; cynically loosing faith in humanity he manically turned people into trees ignoring the pleas of preppy Planeteers before switching his hand from a peace sign into single middle finger and shouting “the power is MINE” as he flies off.

As earnestly played as the original Captain Planet, but published more recently, in 2007, is “Understanding Global Warming with Max Axiom”.

Max Axiom  and Global Warming

Part of a series of science-themed comic books, Max is a muscle-bound (and not always fully clothed) character who, after being struck by lightening, was inspired to travel the world collecting degrees in as many subjects as possible to become a Super Scientist. His lab coat allows him to travel through time and space, he has x-ray sunglasses and the ability to shrink to the size of an atom. Other books cover photosynthesis, bacteria, sound or light. Importantly perhaps, here the heroism is less about saving the planet, and more about the adventure of finding out.

It’s not just Americans who apply superheroes to green issues. Take, for example, Jonathan Porritt’s 1992 large full-colour hardback, “Captain Eco and the Fate of the Earth”. We’re told Captain Eco comes from the Earth, angry with the way humans are mistreating it (again, perhaps a nod to Lovelock) he flies around waggling his finger at everyone for being lazy or stupid.

Captain Eco

After being introduced to “Clive” aged 9 and “Michelle” aged 12 (both more interested in books, television, sleeping, music and football than the environment) Captain Eco exclaims “Suffering Solar Systems! If these are “standard” earthings, no wonder the Earth’s in such trouble”. Whereas Captain Planet was powered by the collaborative action of young people (albeit in response to a supernatural force), Captain Eco only really features child characters to be spoken down to.

Fast forward to 2009, and the Science Museum’s “Your Planet Needs You” takes a very different approach. Here the superhero character is called upon from space by politicians but, with very British tongue in cheek, he is clearly constructed as possessing more glamour than intelligence and has to turn to a group of young people to explain the problem of global warming. They take him to their climate club where the force of knowledge is clearly introduced as the science teacher, Miss Weatherbottom. He’s a joke, as well as a sort of scientific straightman the explanations can be told to.

Equally interestingly, the Eden Project’s “George Saves the World by Lunchtime”, from 2006, features a small child dressing up as a superhero, making small changes around the home. Similarly, in “Michael Recycle” (2008, Ellie Bethel and Alexandra Colombo) we see a superhero fly in from the sky, but it is one with a colander as a helmet, clearly painted as a child playing fancy dress. Further, crucially, change here is enacted by people in the polluted town in question talking to one another (there’s a joke about threads of environmentally friendly toilet paper connecting them).

In these last three books, the superhero guise is a bit of a joke, domesticated and made juvenile, with a knowing rather postmodern incredulity for saviour narratives. Like Don Cheadle’s satire of Captain Planet, they laugh at the earnestness of the 1990s and yet, less cynically, they seem to revel in the basic narrative too.

Perhaps they are best described as having their superhero and eating it.

Looking at my collection of eco-superheroes as a whole, one omission was strikingly recurrent: a clearly articulated villain. Some locate blame with human stupidity or laziness but its usually kept vague. The closest we get to anything concrete is Captain Planet, though even here it is a cohort of baddies symbolizing a range of problems such as misapplied, uncaring science or reckless business as well as characteristics such as greed, gluttony or hate (and interestingly specifically, nuclear power). In a few episodes they even join forces in an echo of the composite powers behind Captain Planet to make an alter ego, Captain Pollution. Environmental problems have multi-causal, complex explanations, even on the Cartoon Network.

Whether this relative lack of baddie is because such stories accurately depict the abstract nature of climate change or more simply because media producers are too nervous to point fingers at people who might advertise with them, I’m not sure.It might also reflect an approach to climate communication which focuses on the positive actions people can take. One might argue fantasy super-villain characters devolve public responsibility as much as the idea of a savior from the sky, so perhaps it is for the best.

Moreover, Captains Planet and Eco, Michael Recycle and Max Axiom are merely the stories adults offer to young people. They may be offered ready-made, but they can be re-made by their audiences too, or simply ignored. There is Captain Planet fanfiction if you know where to look. I’ll leave you with that thought, and you can make your own mind up about what it means for public engagement with climate change.

inside captain eco

What is science news and who gets to decide?

Public art in Trafalgar Square. I think it’s something to do with Rio+20.

I was on the panel for the ABSW annual debate last night. Our topic was the rather broad question: What is science news and who gets to decide? This post is an extended version of my talk.

I think lots of things are science news, and lots of people should have a role in defining it. I’m not sure policing the conceptual boundaries here is all that helpful. It feels rather limiting, and I don’t think science news is something that should be limited. I think science news is something that should be allowed to be a bit out of control.

But I want to offer something provoke some debate, so: (a) it strikes me that environmental politics is increasingly part of science news, in ways which invite us to reflect upon the politics of science; (b) the scientific community shouldn’t be scared to work with environmental NGOs. I don’t think they should get to decide science news, but we should see them as a player. I don’t think science should treat these groups uncritically, but equally science shouldn’t be scared to be criticised either. When I say environmental NGOs I mean the World Wildlife Fund, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, though we might also include think tanks too, as well as what might be dubbed “non-traditional environmental NGOs” such as the Global Warming Policy Foundation or the Heartland Institute.

It can be tempting to cast groups like this as a bit of a problem when it comes to the public debate about science and technology. Lacking scientific expertise they sensationalise and polarise debate. Too quick to reject science (GMOs) whilst, at the same time, too keen to claim scientists know the incontrovertible truth when it suits their campaigns (climate change). The worst extremes of bad science, at once: both too credulous and too critical of science. I think that would be an oversimplification though.

It’s worth remembering that environmental NGOs are in many ways quite scientific creatures. Or at least we might see them as a product of science, often taking inspiration from science and technology’s ability to alert us to human impact on the planet (see, for example, the early history of the WWF). As a colleague put it recently, the green movement is unique amongst contemporary political ideologies in that it is so rooted in science. As a scientific creature, it’s maybe understandable then that it manages to be both overly strident and riddled with doubt. (That’s the scientific way, no?). Moreover, just because the green movement has critiqued aspects of science, doesn’t make it hostile or ignorant of the whole enterprise. Green campaigns are often less “anti-science” and more a hopeful attempt at harnessing the power of science and technology for maximum social good. We can have a fight over what we think counts as “social good” – just as we might fight over what counts as “science” or “progress” – but that’s politics, isn’t it? Indeed, I’d argue that’s the politics of science, and environmental NGOs are a key player in inviting us to discuss what science could and should be.

Sociologist Steven Yearley has a long-standing interest in the green movement’s relationship with science. As he notes in a 2008 essay for a slightly rare textbook, there are plenty of examples of environmental NGOs being a bit loose when it comes to science but they often depend on a lot of science too. With particular reference to anti GMO protests, he notes that campaigns are not always rooted in mainstream science: both in terms of making the sorts of claims scientists might laugh at, but also because they base some of their critique in economics and policy analysis, highly attuned to the ways in which, under close inspection, scientific expertise can soon loose its straightforward appeal. And yet, when it comes to issues like climate change, he notes the ways the same groups seem to feel obliged to suggest the public simply take the scientists’ word for it (see also Mike Hulme on this). As Yearley dryly puts it, this may lead to “rhetorical difficulties” when it comes to environmental NGOs’ use of science.

Personally, I suspect there is as much truth in the idea environmentalists are overly pro-science as any claims anyone is actually straightforwardly anti-science (i.e. not much, really). Moreover, I think we can turn these rhetorical difficulties in on itself a bit, or see it as a possible advantage for science communication. That power to scrutinise claims to scientific expertise, especially when it comes to political and economic interests, might have seemed annoying with GMOs, but can be a powerful resource for scientists interacting with aspects of the climate sceptic community. I think we can see this with work unravelling the interests of the GWPF, for example. That’s not to say science lacks expertise entirely here, or that this is the only place to get it. But it’s a place to get it. Critique is a central part of science, and I don’t think science communication should be scared if parts of it are a bit critical at times. The same, arguably, goes for odd moments of stridency and emotion.

There are other things the NGOs can provide too. They have expertise in lobbying and media relations, which again the scientific community has itself and can find elsewhere, but is worth engaging with. They can also flag up topics for public debate outside of the standard science news patterns of scholarly publishing (e.g. creating news events through protest). They can provide access to unusual places or people and work on investigations. They also have networks of supporters and some public trust and authority. This can all work a range of ways, especially in the ideologically charged world of environmental politics. Many people are turned off by a green label and some fo the topics environmental NGOs will want to flag up won’t necessarily make life comfortable for all scientists. Still, they are groups worth working with, just as members of scientific community might work with a range of newspapers and political parties. Environmental NGOs do not exist to serve the scientific community, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be understood as a player within it.

Mark Henderson ends his recent book on science and politics, “The Geek Manifesto“, with a chapter on green issues. Like Yearley, Henderson argues the green movement can be both too credulous and too antagonistic towards science. He argues that scientist members of environmental groups should stand up for scientific evidence and method from within, just as he councils scientist members of political parties to do. Ok, but I think they should take the chance to listen too. As with much of Henderson’s book, I found myself thinking yes, but if science is going to play with public policy it has to be willing to listen as well as teach, and possibly change in the process. I’m not saying FoE and the GWPF should fight it out over whether climate change is happening, but it might mean being open to thinking differently about how we organise, direct and apply science. (let’s not conflate science, a thing people do, with nature, the thing they look at). I think we all need to be open to conversations about how science and technology could be mobilised differently.

To end by bringing us back to the broader issue of science news in general, I think we can agree that the ease of self-publishing and increased opportunities for interactivity provided by online communication has disrupted traditional top down models of experts speaking to the public. It’s easier for all of us to listen to a load more voices. If you come to this noisy new world thinking you might learn something, well, you might just learn something.