Friday, October 28, 2005

Depletion and the Children's Movie

Energy depletion is not normally something one thinks of when watching children’s movies. The subject itself is hardly ever considered in grown-up movies and aside from Oil Storm and the upcoming Syriana, the topic of energy has usually only played a peripheral role in most plot lines, if at all. Yet it is some children’s movies that tackle the issue of depletion head-on, often without even knowing it. The subject is just out of view, behind the dastardly villain and the deserving hero(ine)s, a convenient plot device that moves the story forward. Three children’s movies in the past few years tackle this challenging subject, albeit with metaphorical references and cartoon characters. Unfortunately for the kids watching these movies (and others like it), the message being taught is not the correct one.

The Care Bears:
Big Wish Movie (2005), a direct to video production from Lions Gate, allegorically discusses the subjects of energy usage, depletion and pollution from the perspective of those good-natured, but not too bright creatures of Care-a-Lot. Superficially the movie tells the story of Wish Bear and her pal Twinkers, a magical star that grants a seemingly unlimited number of wishes. Wish Bear proceeds to make her life more comfortable and curry favor from her Care Bear pals by asking Twinkers to do this or that. Well, as it turns out, not all of those wishes were as they seemed and it soon became apparent to the other denizens of Care-a-Lot that Wish Bear’s wishes were having some unwanted side effects. Wish Bear becomes distressed that her actions are not being welcomed as favorably as she thought that they were and wishes for some new friends that would appreciate her wish powers. These new Care Bears were not at all Care-a-Lot material and through typical cartoonish shenanigans, they acquire Wish Bear’s source of power, Twinkers and go on a wish binge of their own. Eventually two things happen: poor Twinkers finally gets tired and can no longer keep up with the wish requests and all of the bear’s wishing starts to take the “caring” out of Care-a-Lot. The new bears’ McMansions, cars and factories (no I am not making this up, they were really in the movie) start to blot out the sun, stink up the kingdom and turn the colors to gray. When the Care Bears belatedly discover their actions have caused this mess they ask Twinkers to undo it. Unfortunately Twinkers is all wished out and cannot help. So the bears roll up their sleeves and do it themselves, cleaning up Care-a-Lot and learning how to “care” for them selves and not relying on little Twinkers. At the end of the movie, all is well in the Care Bear world, Twinkers is healthy again (and sparingly used), the new Bears apparently getting along and everyone presumably lives happily ever after.

The Big Wish Movie pretty much encapsulates much of the story behind oil and repackages it into a cute and cuddly form. What basically happens in this storyline is the lead character discovers a new and potentially limitless form of energy (much like petroleum or natural gas) that can do pretty much anything desired of it. The downside to its usage is that it also creates some unwelcome impacts. At first these are mostly annoying in their level of significance (replacing manually performed tasks with artificial means without any consideration to those performing it) but as usage increases, eventually these build up to cause serious impacts to the characters’ environment (air and noise pollution). Pollution and ill will grow to the point where all involved realize there is a problem. At first, there is some disagreement to the severity or ultimate solution, much like the debate between our scientists and our economists. Regrettably for the characters in the movie at this point of recognition, the source of energy can no longer keep up with the demands placed upon it, forcing the characters to solve their problems by themselves. Just like the bears in the movie, it is only at the point of Peak Oil production that we have figured this out for ourselves as well.

This movie covers the first half of petro-industrialization well. However as it is only a movie, and children’s one at that, the allegory fails to accurately depict what will happen next. The Care Bears are not bound by the laws of physics so their solution of do-it-yourself will not cut it for us. Nor will giving our oil fields a rest result in their regeneration. The reality is that oil will not regenerate in our life times and no level of human effort can come closed to the energetic expenditures offered up to us by oil and other fossil fuels. We will not solve all of our own problems with our own human powered efforts. In fact we probably will not even be able to sustain our total numbers, let alone repair our damages. The Care Bears, as dim as they are, were smart enough not to depend on Twinkers for their own sustenance and survival.

The next movie, Barbie:
The Princess and the Pauper (2004) by Mattel looks at depletion from a more economic and geo-political point of view. Briefly, this movie is presumably set in medieval times where everything is human or animal powered. The story opens with a worrisome problem for the queen of this modest sized kingdom: her gold mines are depleted and there is no longer any source of revenue to sustain her country and her lavish lifestyle. This sets off a frantic scramble whereby she offers up her daughter, Princess Annaliese to her neighboring (and still wealthy) kingdom, soon to be ruled by Prince Dominic. With the two married, the kingdoms could be merged so that Princess Annaliese’s country could continue to be sustained while at the same time maintaining the wealthy lifestyle the royal family is accustomed to. This plan is thwarted by the royal advisor Premenger’s scheme to take over the kingdom for himself in a sanitized-for-children kind of coup d’tat. By gaining control, Premenger could rule in absolute with the financial support from the stolen gold from the mines he was originally put in charge of. His plans were ruined by the Princess, her servant, an indentured seamstress and Prince Dominic when they exposed his treachery and at the same time discovered a completely new source of income, purple gems. The princess was not forced to marry Dominic and there was no unification. Both kingdoms prospered and the princess and her pauper friend the seamstress both found love with their respective love interests and lived happily ever after.
A new natural resource is discovered
prolonging the party

This movie is the only one not directly related to energy. At no point was any of the character’s existence or well being threatened by declining energy availability. This movie does however deal with the implications of sole dependence on one source of income based on a non-renewable natural resource and the potential damage that it may wreak on a particular region, state or country. Aside from Norway, most oil producing countries have not been particularly blessed by their apparent energetic “richness”. Most are despotic and once their source of revenue dries up, so does their standing in the world. Beyond the world of energy, mining and extraction activities in general have had a long and storied history of turning outposts into boom towns before collapsing once their resource was depleted. Time and time again there were gold, silver, guano, platinum and other mineral rushes that lead to fabulous wealth for all involved. When those sources were gone it forced a scramble for alternative sources of income. Some managed and diversified their economies. Some were absorbed by wealthier neighbors. Others simply collapsed. This movie takes the easy way out. It finds a way for all involved to continue the party and postponing the inevitable day of reckoning. In other words, it presupposes that something else will come along and *poof* that will solve our problems without us having to make any hard decisions. Unfortunately for us at this point, it is highly unlikely another form of higher value energy will be developed to offset our dependence on fossil fuels, no matter how much the market may demand it. Barbie tells us a good story. Don’t expect ours to have such a happy ending though.

Finally, no children’s movie discusses energy more than that of Pixar’s

Monster’s Inc. (2001). This movie literally encapsulates today’s energy debate from a suppy-demand standpoint. The story starts out with the following premise: monster civilization has advanced to the point where its energy demands were no longer being met by supply (in this case the screams of children). Demand for energy to fuel their cars, houses, and the other trappings of an industrialized lifestyle continued to increase while at the same time the supply was leveling off or even slightly falling. In other words, they were reaching the point of Peak Scream. To deal with it, the energy company where the protagonist, Sully worked for was trying both legal and illegal technical research to boost energy supply. While most of the movie covered the inevitable results arising out of technical research gone wrong, the quest to solve Monstropolous’s energy crisis continued. Eventually Sully and his sidekick Mike Wysoski stumbled upon the fact that children’s laughs were ten times more potent than screams and just in the knick of time averted a collapse. Monstropolous was saved from rolling blackouts and the riddle of Peak Scream was solved by laughter. No discussion of what would happen when monster civilization reached the point of Peak Laugh however.

This movie’s plot line was definitely novel, something that you would expect out of Pixar. To actually discuss energy issues directly and in an upfront manner stands out from your usual damsel in distress, animal love story, or prince/princess tale. The fact that it is a children’s movie is all that more remarkable. What is not remarkable is the solution arrived upon. Peak Scream—while potentially debilitating for Monster Civilization—was ultimately not a problem as monster ingenuity, technical advances and market necessity led to the discovery and implementation of a new, higher valued (energy dense) source of energy. Like the Princess and the Pauper, this movie falls back on the very commonplace thought that somehow, somewhere we will figure something out to solve all of our problems. The only difference between the two movies is the role of technology. Monsters Inc. writers simply figure that any energy related problem will have a technical solution.

Children’s movies can play an important role in teaching kids about important elements and topic matters that adults face each and every day. Most lessons naturally focus the human relationship aspects, such as manners, good versus evil and the like. Many however will stray into broader subject matter including war, the environment and in this case depletion. As lamentable as each movie’s resolution to the issue of depletion was it is understandable. The writers of each movie are no doubt working off the commonly assumed aspects of human progress and are guided by the principles of child story telling: every one lives happily ever after.

If only it were that easy.

Energy production made easy...

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Blogger emeeul said...

netflixing these movies right now. interesting notions....

11/17/2005 1:57 PM  

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