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When these powers combine …

Observer Viewpoint | Wednesday, October 4, 2006

One of the best cartoons on television while I was growing up was Captain Planet. The show’s premise is this: Gaia, spirit of the earth, is fed up with humanity’s destruction of the planet. She gives five rings to five teenagers representing different areas of the world and turns them into the Planeteers. The rings give them elemental superpowers – earth, wind, fire, water and heart (because compassion matters too). When they combine the powers of their rings, they summon the superhero of the earth – Captain Planet.

Captain Planet had all the superpowers you could ask for: flight, shape-shifting, super strength, telekinesis and pretty much any ability the specific dilemma demanded. His only weakness was exposure to smog, radiation, toxic waste or any form of pollution. The evil villains Sly Sludge, Hoggish Greedly, Doctor Blight, Looten Plunder, Verminous Skumm and Duke Nukem all attempted to thwart the Planeteers’ environmentally restorative goals.

I was hooked on this show. I mean, I even had the Captain Planet action figure that turned brown when you applied heat to it (you had to dunk him in water to heal him and restore his natural healthy colors of blue and red). The lessons of the show really hit home. I tried to turn off lights in rooms when I left, and I occasionally cut up the plastic six-pack binding so it would not strangle fish. This was serious stuff.

The show’s message was beautiful: you can make a difference. Even as a kid, I think you realize that most cartoons are there just to occupy your time and energy. But this was different. This was a cartoon that actually told you to go out and do something when you got done watching it. It was groundbreaking and it was genius. Above and beyond all that, it was the only cartoon I knew featuring a green-mulleted superhero in tights.

Then, somewhere along the way, something happened to me. I stopped watching, or the timeslot changed, or I got too old for cartoons. Suddenly, Captain Planet was no longer a part of my life. I graduated from the Planeteers – but the real tragedy was that nothing replaced it or carried on the environmental message as I grew older. Maturing meant losing my idealism and skipping straight to cynicism.

Part of this, I realize now, is the intense apathy directed toward the subject of environmentalism. We think the problem is too big, too distant and too broad to solve. The people we turn to when faced with trouble – the government – end up being one of the biggest obstacles to progress on the issue. And every time a politician tries to make a case for improving our environmental standards, the bigwigs and talking heads scream out ‘interest group.’ We look for a power play behind every eco-decision. Case in point: Al Gore.

Everyone knows about “An Inconvenient Truth,” and almost no one can hear about it without wondering if Gore has plans for holding office in the future. I realize that his movie is going to be politicized under the most intense scrutiny. There is nothing wrong with that. The man ran for President, so he can expect the general public to see bureaucratic aspirations precipitating his every move.

It is also acceptable to disagree with global warming based on the facts. There is a lot of information out there on the subject, and if you take the time to examine the data seriously and still conclude that the whole concept of global warming is bogus, you are entitled to such an opinion. But what no one is entitled to is using the “political motivation” argument as an excuse for inaction. What have we got to lose by working toward cleaner energy, fuel-efficient transportation and eco-friendly housing? You can complain about Al Gore and crazy wilderness people all you like, but in the end, such statements serve only as an excuse for laziness. Hating Al Gore is no defense for owning two SUVs.

That was the beauty of Captain Planet. It was not just about some superhero saving us. There were normal kids (with magical rings, true) that saw problems and took the initiative to solve them. People disdain lectures about responsibility, but that is precisely what we are burdened with – a responsibility to protect our planet.

At the end of every show, Captain Planet bid the audience farewell by reminding us: “The power is yours!” Implicit in this sign off was a reminder of duty: the responsibility is ours. Previous generations have used the excuse of “not our problem” and have passed off the issue to their heirs. This excuse may not be possible for much longer, and it was never a good one to begin with. Our generation has the unique opportunity to turn things around, to take responsibility and to make sure that we are doing everything we possibly can to protect our environment. The resources are there, new avenues are open; all that remains is dedication on our part.

Because if not us, who?

James Dechant is a junior English and theology major. Questions,

comments and rude remarks can be sent to jdechant@nd.edu

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.