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Written by Brandon King   
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Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Pop Culture

The Greenest Characters in Pop Culture… Let’s take a look at some of the most enduring environmental figures in American pop culture. They are the products of imagination that brought environmental awareness to those too busy, or lazy, to pick up a copy of Silent Spring.

In 1942, Bambi’s mother was shot dead on the big screen, and tearful children have been asking mommy “why?” ever since. Some argue that Walt Disney’s Bambi provides the first instance of enduring ecocriticism in American film, saying that it “continues to play a key role in shaping American attitudes about and understanding of deer and woodland life.”1 Others see it as not much more than “anthropomorphic garbage.”2 Regardless of how seriously you take Bambi, though, it is hard to argue that it doesn’t place hunting in a seriously negative light.

Instead of competing for resources, Bambi and his friends, including rabbits and skunks, frolic together and communicate in a shared language. Survival of the fittest has little meaning in this pastoral woodland, where all is wonderful. However, this changes with the arrival of a hunter, who shoots Bambi’s mother. This act disrupts the harmony of the forest and plunges Bambi—along with the viewer—into a state of despair. The historian Ralph Lutts calls Bambi “the single most enduring statement in American popular culture against hunting.”3

Smokey the Bear
While he has evolved to represent a commitment to the environment, Smokey the Bear actually has political origins that date back to WWII. The relationship between forest fires and WWII is an interesting one. In 1942, one year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of California and “fired a salvo of shells that exploded on an airfield near Santa Barbara, California.”4 This act, combined with an unsuccessful attempt by the Japanese to set Oregon’s forests ablaze, alerted the American government to the danger of forest fires. Capable of destroying vast material resources, and also of diverting the manpower of young men as they worked to put them out, forest fires were viewed as a potential weapon in the Axis powers’ wartime arsenal.

One of the earliest posters in the campaign against forest fires showed the visages of Hitler and Hirohito looming in front of a forest fire, with the caption, “OUR CARELESSNESS: Their Secret Weapon.” Needing a more likable face than the Fuhrer’s to popularize the dangers of forest fires, the United States government secured a one year loan from Walt Disney to use his character Bambi in its ads. When that year expired, a new animal was needed to be the face of forest fire prevention, and Smokey the Bear was created. His most famous tagline, “Only YOU can prevent forest fires,” endures to this day. In 2004, Smokey celebrated his 60th anniversary.

The Weeping Indian
On Earth Day, 1971, Keep America Beautiful and the Ad Council released a public service announcement (PSA) featuring Chief Iron Eyes Cody, a Native American actor.5 The announcement showed a somber Cody with a single tear rolling down his face and came with the caption: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”6 The Crying Indian, as Cody came to be known, quickly cemented himself into American popular culture, so much so that Ad Age magazine named the PSA one of the top 100 ads of the 20th Century.7 Sure, the campaign perpetuated the historically inaccurate idea that Native Americans were guiltless stewards of the earth, but at least it did so for a good cause.

Captain Planet
The first green cartoon character in an animated TV series, Captain Planet was created by Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle in 1990. In the beginning of the Captain Planet series, the earth’s living spirit, Gaeia, assembles a group of five Planeteers to protect the earth. When the Planeteers combine their powers, they summon Captain Planet, an anthropomorphized version of the planet complete with green hair and blue skin. Captain Planet’s villains are mostly of the anti-environmental variety; some of them combine to create Captain Pollution, “whose abilities derive from radiation, deforestation, smog, toxics, and hate.”8 Captain Planet ends each show by saying, “The power is yours!” which is a message to the viewers that it is up to them to protect the environment. An innovative approach to environmentalism, Captain Planet “broke new ground by successfully merging children’s entertainment programming with educational programming.”9 Co-creator Barbara Pyle went on to found the Captain Planet Foundation, which funds environmental projects for youths.”10

The Lorax
Long before Captain Planet proclaimed “The power is yours!” a curious creature named the Lorax11 warned us of deforestation. The Lorax is an illustrated children’s book written by Dr. Seuss in 1971, and is the story recounted by a man named The Once-ler to a young boy. The Once-ler explains to the boy how he exploited the barren land on which they stand by chopping down all the Truffula Trees in order to make Thneeds, a garment which “everyone needs.”12 As the Once-ler continued to ravage the land, the Lorax appeared, saying that he “speaks for the trees, as the trees have no tongues,”13 and asked the Once-ler to stop. Instead of stopping, the Once-ler continued chopping down the Truffala Trees until there were none left. The disappearance of the Truffala Trees affected the rest of the ecosystem: the Bar-ba-Loots developed a disease called ‘the Crummies because of gas and no food in their tummies’;14 the Swomee-Swans could no longer sing; the Humming-fish couldn’t hum. Lyrical and fantastic, The Lorax is a powerful critique of unregulated logging, and, more than that, a critique of unchecked greed. It struck such a tone that it was famously banned from some school libraries in Northern California.

Consider this article to be a humble tribute to those fictional characters that helped make environmentalism as widespread as it is today. Without the tragedy of Bambi’s mother’s death, or Captain Planet’s inspired butt-kicking, eco-attitudes would have been slower to catch on in mainstream culture. Among America’s growing legion of carpoolers and composters are many who can trace their start back to an animated character, be it Bambi or the Lorax.

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 09 October 2012 )