Like a lot of folks, I read the October report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change with a mixture of horror, numbness and a morbid curiosity.
I wondered how my disabled family members would fare if emergency travel were required in the coming years and whether it still made sense to purchase land on the African coast. Amid the worry, and the strategizing, my mind kept drifting to a cartoon. An early ‘90s cartoon called “Captain Planet and the Planeteers,” to be specific.
Sticking out from the crowd of giant robots and magic sword-wielding pirates was a group of teens from every corner of the (Soviet-era) globe, led by a Black woman who was the living embodiment of the Earth.
For a young person of color, specifically Black/African descent, the inclusion of a POC leader was a big deal. And there wasn’t just one! The “unofficial” leader of the team was a young African man voiced by LeVar Burton. It was defining.
Unlike many other cartoons of the era, the stakes were high on this show, and relatable. In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, governments and corporations were beginning to respond to climate scientists’ repeated warnings that global warming was coming. One strategy was education through media, or “edutainment.” So we got a fantasy show where the future of human life and the health of the ecosystem depended on five kids.
Considering the amount of marketing, commercial power and cultural icons that lent their energy to Earth Day and the environmental cause, it was easy for us to assume that the adults had it under control.
Now, over twenty years after Captain Planet ended, we find ourselves facing a catastrophe that the Eco-Villains would be proud to have engineered.
Despite the best and brightest making (pretty terrifying) predictions for decades, it turns out that even they were wrong in their dire prophecies. It’s much worse than they thought. Climate change has accelerated faster than they imagined.
The reality is that the two-degree warming goal mentioned in conjunction with the climate report may be overly optimistic when we consider our current level of technology and the state of global politics. Innovative ideas such as “scrubbing” the atmosphere to remove carbon are still years away from scalability, making a goal of keeping warming to two degrees Celsius a tall order.
Even at three degrees of warming, we’re losing Miami Beach, and the wildfires currently enveloping parts of California could be six times larger. And that goal is only possible if every nation in the world were to honor the Paris Agreement.
Technology won’t get us out of this problem as quickly as it got us into it. Instead, the answer to our problem may be cultural. To turn it around will take radical, widespread social, cultural and economic change.
Thankfully, we’re just the generation for the job.
We’ll need that familiarity with change and discomfort brought on by the Information Age and the rapid acceleration of technology.
We’ll need to lean into progressive politics that seek racial, gender, and class equality as well as tackle tough subjects like reparations and animal rights. Not for our comfort, or because we want to be woke, but because these issues are part of the system that brought us to the place we are now.
We may not have magic rings that shoot fire and talk to animals. However, there are still many lessons to be learned from Captain Planet:
Explore the philosophies of Black and indigenous cultures that have survived the collapse brought on by colonization. Gaia is essentially an anthropomorphized portrayal of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) eco-based spiritual practice. Not only do some of these cultures retain knowledge on how to coexist with the eco-system we’ve divorced ourselves from, but they’ve developed effective means of resilience by resisting oppression and genocide.
Center Black (women’s) leadership. An inconvenient truth is that Black/African people, by the numbers, bear the brunt of most of the inequality this planet has to offer. Climate change is no different. By heeding the knowledge of those hit “first and worst,” we can better grasp the problems, and answers, by the root.
Build cross cultural/national coalitions. The multi-national team was a popular trope in the ‘80s in the midst of The Cold War. These days, with nationalism on the rise across the globe, bridging those cultural gaps across borders is more important than ever. Concepts like the “revolutionary intercommunalism” of Dr. Huey P. Newton and direct dealings between cities may need to become the norm if national governments refuse to cooperate with the changes we need.
Lift up community power over individual power. Sure, the Planeteers were powerful on their own — although in retrospect, Wheeler’s ability to shoot fire out of his ring wasn’t that practical. Anyhow, the point of the show was that even though they had some power individually, they were much more effective as a group. In the same way, we must be willing to question the effectiveness of our cultural attachment to individualism. We’re part of an interconnected web, and we need to start taking advantage of that.
Love is the most powerful weapon. Over and over in the Planeteers series, it was clear that the heart ring, wielded by the indigenous Brazilian, Ma-ti, was the most powerful ring. We’re social creatures. Our survival is contingent on our cooperation, right? Empathy is one of the tools we use to get there. Are you able to give someone a ride? Share a funding opportunity? Start a rent pool that includes equity across race, class and gender?
The last network lineup of Saturday morning cartoons ended five years ago. But we can still be the heroes we used to watch on TV.
“We’re the Planeteers, you can be one too ‘Cause saving our planet is the thing to do.”
Cir L’Bert Jr. is a writer and creator interested in afrofuturism, the people’s history and pop culture.