A Dirty Picture For Patriots Of All Ages

07/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011


Forget about science fiction; WALL-E is séance fiction -- it channels the soul of our land-loving founding father, Thomas Jefferson. Now that a handful of loose wingnuts is denouncing WALL-E as a piece of pro-planet propaganda, I'd like to note, for the record, that Jefferson would have absolutely loved WALL-E.

Normally, I wouldn't presume to speak for the primary author of the Declaration of Independence, but given Jefferson's reverence for our most precious resource, i.e., the soil, he surely would have appreciated the underlying message of Pixar's latest animated opus -- that it's our civic duty to be good stewards of the land.

Yeah, yeah, I know that WALL-E's creator, Andrew Stanton, is insisting that WALL-E is first and foremost a love story, but the whole plot hinges on another relationship: the one between us and the dirt beneath our feet. Jefferson was an early advocate of maintaining soil fertility through such practices as crop rotation, and would doubtless be horrified by the pollution and depletion of our topsoil that's become standard operating procedure since the advent of industrial agriculture.

(Of course, he'd also be appalled that the Fourth of July has turned into a giant meat-fest; Jefferson was an unabashed lover of fruits and veggies who maintained that produce should dominate our diet and meat should be used sparingly, as a "seasoning" or "condiment.")

Set in the year 2815, 700 years after the Earth's been trashed by mindless consumers and a monolithic corporation named Buy n Large, WALL-E depicts a nation whose excesses have launched it into perpetual astro-exile on a fleet of super-duper Buy n Large-sponsored spaceships. Its morbidly obese, infantalized citizens, too fat to stand upright, zip around aimlessly on their hovercraft-style loungers sipping sodas, playing video games, and awaiting the day the Earth will have detoxed enough to be "recolonized."

Some folks are eager to dismiss this cautionary tale of a corpulent corporatocracy as a far-fetched scenario aimed at advancing some eco-extremist agenda, but it's an eerie echo of the warnings from Jared Diamond, the Pulitzer-Prize winning UCLA professor of geography and author of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. In a precursor to Collapse that Diamond wrote for Harper's back in 2003, he challenged the conventional wisdom that we have to weigh environmental concerns against economic considerations, citing the popular misconception that:

...we must balance the environment against human needs. That reasoning is exactly upside-down. Human needs and a healthy environment are not opposing claims that must be balanced; instead, they are inexorably linked by chains of cause and effect. We need a healthy environment because we need clean water, clean air, wood, and food from the ocean, plus soil and sunlight to grow crops. We need functioning natural ecosystems, with their native species of earthworms, bees, plants, and microbes, to generate and aerate our soils, pollinate our crops, decompose our wastes, and produce our oxygen. We need to prevent toxic substances from accumulating in our water and air and soil... Our strongest arguments for a healthy environment are selfish: we want it for ourselves, not for threatened species like snail darters, spotted owls, and Furbish louseworts.

In WALL-E's world, mankind has failed to recognize this inexorable link, forcing a mass exodus into outer space and leaving behind a barren landscape littered with post-consumer crap and unable to support any vegetation.

Watching WALL-E trundle through this lifeless landscape on his daily rounds, compacting garbage and salvaging such manmade marvels as a spork and a Rubik's cube, you realize that it's not about saving the earth. The planet will, in all likelihood, be able to withstand whatever drastic alterations to its ecosystem we've unwittingly unleashed. It's ourselves we have to save.

Will we figure this out in time to avert the kind of catastrophic future portrayed in WALL-E? As Diamond notes in Collapse:

:Perhaps the crux of success or failure of a society is to know which core values to hold onto, and which ones to discard and replace with new values."

If only we had a clue about what to discard and what to replace. After leaving a matinee of WALL-E last weekend, I stopped into the Chelsea Home Depot, which, in a rare concession to place, is housed in an elegant turn-of-the-century cast-iron building. On my way to the garden department to buy mulch for my windowboxes, I passed a display of cheap kitchen faucets with a sign reading, "Why Fix It When You Can Replace It?"


No wonder we're the trashiest people on the planet. If the Great Pacific Garbage Patch grows any bigger, we'll have to colonize it and declare it the 51st state. The signs that our habitat's under siege are everywhere, but our "Drive All You Want, We'll Drill More" culture motors on, oblivious. With the cost of a barrel of oil setting new records each day, more and more Americans reportedly support the idea of offshore drilling, despite the fact that it can't possibly solve the underlying problem that demand is increasingly going to outstrip supply as China and India follow in our tire tracks.

Sadly, WALL-E's anti-consumer, anti-corporate message is undermined by the regrettable array of cheap, mass-produced WALL-E tchotchkes destined for the garbage heap. It's a shame that Pixar couldn't pass on the obligatory merchandise tie-ins, but that doesn't diminish the importance of the film's S.O.S: Save Our Soil. It's a message that this nation of babies, big and small, needs to heed. Colony collapse disorder--it's not just for bees!