“The Power is Yours!” – How Captain Planet Got it Almost Right, But Also Quite Wrong
On the climate crisis and the plastic crisis, Briony Bennett asks: where does individual responsibility end, and collective responsibility begin?
I will be 30 in January. More greenhouse gases have been released into the atmosphere in my lifetime than in the entire 240-year period from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, in 1750, up until my birth. The massive acceleration in fossil-fuel consumption and combustion since 1990 is not my fault – though sometimes it feels that way.
Self-blame is a potent political narrative, on the right and the left sides of the political spectrum. The argument runs as follows: if individuals are informed and educated, and consciously shift their personal behaviours and consumption patterns, we can dramatically reduce emissions. We must all do our part, so the argument goes, by recycling, composting, making use of public transport and participating in meat-free Mondays. And no generation has embraced this rhetoric of individual responsibility as much as millennials.
My cohort and I are labelled millennials because we came of age in the new millennium. We are also generation zero: the first generation that will live with the palpable effects of climate change throughout our adult lives. The generation invoked, at every business and climate change conference I attend, as the source of ingenuity that will help us deal with the current climate crisis. Yet few (if any) people under the age of 30 sit on the board of New Zealand’s biggest-emitting companies. Few of us are making significant decisions in politics or business. Looking to the next generation for solutions is just another delaying tactic. Instead of denialism, we now have delayism.
One of my earliest memories of climate change, then called the greenhouse effect, features my geography textbook. I learnt about greenhouse gases in my first year at secondary school. I vaguely recall projects featuring sea-ice melt and polar bears earlier in my schooling, but sitting in a sun-filled classroom in the middle of summer, this felt pretty distant. The greenhouse effect does not sound that terrifying. It sounds like something that helps plants grow. In fact, one of the earliest denial theories argued that increasing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide would improve tree growth and crop yields.
I started to learn about climate change even earlier than this, though. Like many other children of the 1990s, I grew up watching the Captain Planet and the Planeteers. The Planeteers, youngsters hailing from five different continents, fought eco-villains like Hoggish Greedly, Dr Blight and Duke Nukem, in order to protect locals from environmental crises.
In the theme song, we hear that Captain Planet is “gonna take pollution down to zero”, a catchphrase that genuinely inspires me to this day.
The Captain Planet cartoons were immensely popular. Recently, I looked up the episode list online. In the very first episode, aired on 15 September 1990, the Planeteers battle against an oil-rig operation that threatens a marine environment. There were over 100 episodes, running into the mid-2000s, covering a broad range of environmental, social and political issues including nuclear waste, gun violence, dynamite fishing, wildlife extinction and indigenous rights. The storylines remain relevant today.
In the theme song, we hear that Captain Planet is “gonna take pollution down to zero”, a catchphrase that genuinely inspires me to this day. Our hero is fighting on the planet’s side, but we as individuals, the children of the 1990s, have a powerful role to play. He calls us all to the fight: “The power is yours.” Given this childhood programming, it’s no surprise climate change features prominently in my politics.
I am often asked why I care about the climate crisis. It’s simply because it is unjust. The communities that are particularly vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change have made only minor contributions to the causes. Many of the countries at risk of worsening drought, heat waves, storms, floods and sea-level rise were colonised by the wealthy countries that industrialised by consuming huge amounts of fossil fuels. Yet wealthy countries have taken pains to ensure they’re not liable to provide any material compensation; the United Nations document detailing the decision to adopt the Paris Agreement explicitly states that Article 8, on losses and damages, “does not involve or provide a basis for any liability or compensation”. Another key villain in the Captain Planet cartoons that feels relevant here is called Looten Plunder.
It is no coincidence that individuals like myself feel the weight of responsibility. The climate crisis has been deliberately framed as a social failing
Returning to the beginning of this essay – I said that I often feel personally culpable for climate change. I am not trying to be a martyr. It is no coincidence that individuals like myself feel the weight of responsibility. The climate crisis has been deliberately framed as a social failing – just like the plastic crisis.
In 1988, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher shared her views on littering with reporters as she picked up rubbish for a photo opportunity in St James’s Park: “This is not the fault of the government. It is the fault of the people who knowingly and thoughtlessly throw it down.”
In the 1970s, Coca-Cola set up some of the earliest container deposit schemes. It also sponsored public communications agencies, like Keep America Beautiful (KAB), partnering with PepsiCo to promote household recycling. For Earth Day in 1971, KAB ran an advertisement with the slogan “People start pollution. People can stop it.” Just like Captain Planet and Margaret Thatcher, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo tell us that we have the power to prevent plastic waste.
The idea that we’re individually responsible for minimising plastic waste is the result of concerted lobbying, but manufacturers also played a key role in introducing plastic into the economy in the first place. Before corporate entities worked hard to replace existing arrangements, we had a circular economy for wrapping food or carrying liquids. The older generation remembers when Kiwis were still using paper bags or boxes in the 1970s, even as we started to shop in supermarkets rather than small local grocery stores. New Zealand’s reusable glass bottle scheme for milk was not phased out until 1989, although plastic milk bottles had been common in other countries since the 1970s.
There were some early attempts to regulate plastic production in the mega-economies of the US and the UK. Corporate lobbyists fought against a proposed US congressional ban on non-returnable beverage containers, debated in 1973, arguing it would result in manufacturing job losses.
Plastic is now near impossible to avoid in modern society. As well as milk, many other basic foods such as bread and cheese are almost impossible to buy, affordably, without some form of plastic packaging. And even if we do the utmost to reduce, reuse and recycle in our own homes, we frequently lose control of our waste in the workplace, when we visit others’ homes or when we travel. I have never been to a conference that spurned plastic entirely.
Plastic is difficult to recycle. Unlike aluminium or glass, it degrades quickly. Recent scientific research has improved our understanding of the plastic lifecycle. We now know that human-made textiles, like polyester, shed tiny polymers with each wash and abrasive plastic microbeads, used in industrial processes or beauty products, leach into our waterways and oceans. These microplastics are eaten or absorbed by fish, which are subsequently consumed by humans. Now that plastic has entered the food chain, it seems more like a dangerous chemical or pollutant, similar to lead or asbestos. You cannot simply collect this plastic from parks and beaches, because you cannot see it with the naked eye.
Recycling is no solution to eliminate this type of pollutant ... Plastic needs to be regulated, replaced and – ultimately – removed from circulation altogether.
Recycling is no solution to eliminate this type of pollutant. It is not up to New Zealanders to get better at recycling a material that is mostly unrecyclable. Plastic needs to be regulated, replaced and – ultimately – removed from circulation altogether.
My news feed is filled with personal lifestyle ‘hacks’ to reduce waste or minimise your environmental footprint, like eating a plant-based diet, taking glass jars and canvas bags with you to the supermarket, choosing to fly less – or never – and walking, cycling or using public transport in lieu of driving. All of these things matter. I have advocated for them, as have others.
Yet these things can be a distraction. If we frame the problem as one that individuals can solve, we ignore the fact that infrastructure, institutions and regulation continue to place real limits on what we can achieve, and work against our best efforts to live sustainably.
Before I had finished this essay, Mary Annaïse Heglar had written her own. She identifies the victim blaming at play when we are admonished or feel guilty about our carbon footprints and plastic use. Heglar says, “we need to let go of the idea that it’s all of our individual faults, then take on the collective responsibility of holding the true culprits accountable.”
Our dependence on fossil fuels and plastic has been constructed and reinforced by corporate interest and decades of lobbying that thwarted environmental regulation.
We never asked for plastics. Likewise, citizens do not want fossil fuels. We want warm homes and safe, inexpensive, convenient ways to travel. These things can be delivered with less impact on the environment. Our dependence on fossil fuels and plastic has been constructed and reinforced by corporate interest and decades of lobbying that thwarted environmental regulation.
In New Zealand, road infrastructure investment has dwarfed public transport investment for decades. Private vehicle use is the single greatest contributor to New Zealand’s carbon dioxide emissions. Our car-dependent culture was no accident, rather the result of central and local government decision-making in favour of infrastructure that locks us in to emissions-intensive lifestyles. In 2017, car ownership reached its highest level ever, at 792.5 light vehicles for every 1000 New Zealanders. This is among the highest levels of vehicle ownership per person worldwide. Councillors’ myopic focus on building more roads to reduce congestion, rather than investing in more buses or trains that can move more people more quickly, cheaply, safely and with less environmental impact, limits how New Zealanders move around and between cities.
The plastic crisis and the climate crisis are often conflated. I have conflated them in this essay. This is not a mistake. Many fossil-fuel companies are also plastic producers, and vice versa. Almost all plastic products are produced from fossil fuels. When Heglar urges us to hold the true culprits accountable, it is appropriate to turn to these corporations and the governments that fail to regulate them.
Solutions should be applied at the point of production – the source of the problem.
Recently, researchers found that Coca-Cola and Pepsi made up a quarter of branded plastic waste found on UK beaches. Similarly, statistical studies have shown that over half of global greenhouse-gas emissions over the past three decades can be traced back to the production and sale of fossil fuels by just 25 corporate and state-owned companies. What these statistics tell us is that solutions should be applied at the point of production – the source of the problem. Instead we rely on millions of individuals to figure out how to reduce, reuse and recycle the deluge of rubbish introduced into their lives, and cut their individual carbon footprints.
Personal actions do matter, but you are not in this alone. You can do more than be a conscientious consumer. You are a citizen. Vote, protest, join a political party, donate to a political party, visit your local member of parliament, make a submission to parliament and convince your friends and family to do the same. Run for office yourself. If you cycle to work or have given up meat, then make sure you tell everyone about it. Write an article. Call talkback radio. Ask your Kiwisaver provider for a fossil-fuel-free fund. We need activist shareholders, lawsuits and new policy.
We give up our power when we imagine that it is individuals’ responsibility to solve the climate crisis or the plastic crisis. It is a collective and political responsibility. My childhood hero Captain Planet was almost right. The power is not yours but ours.