Beyond 'The Electric Company'

Can a bunch of toddlers watching television save the world?

The power is <i>yours</i>! – Captain Planet
"The power is yours!" – Captain Planet

A bunny cowers in fear. A shadow spreads across the ground.

Through a canopy of trees crashes a four-legged mecha – like an AT-AT, but less trademarked.

"With this giant land blaster, I'll be able to drill for oil anywhere!" snorts the driver, who is exaggeratedly porcine and wears olive-drab fatigues.

"Yeah, boss!" snickers his weaselly henchman. "Even in a wildlife sanctuary!"

The machine's arms hack down limbs, scatter birds, trample trees. As it steps off the shore and into the water, a family of endangered sea lions flees. The machine extends an auger and plunges it violently into the seabed, breaking through to magma, bordering on camp.

Gaia, the spirit of Earth, has had enough. "I need young people to help now," says she, who is old but still hot in a Lynda Carter kind of way, with flowy hair and an asymmetrical cape.

Enter the Planeteers, media mogul Ted Turner's teenage cartoon eco-heroes. With the help of sidekick Captain Planet, this multicultural crew of five combated environmental destruction for six broadcast seasons.

If trends in children's television are a bellwether of adults' fears about the future, Captain Planet typified Americans' concerns circa 1990: strip mining, the ozone layer, old-growth deforestation. The usual posse of lefty celebs guest-starred: Sting, Meg Ryan, Tim Curry, and Martin Sheen. Captain Planet himself had Chess King good looks, chiseled cheeks, a cyan complexion, and grass-green hair perfectly fossilized: part mullet, part high-top fade. He intoned the show's inspirational catchphrase – "The power is yours!" – in red short-shorts, knee-high boots, and a sort of dickey.

Perhaps due to these considerations, no one in my own household took Captain Planet quite seriously. However, we did learn to recycle, which at the time seemed like a big deal.

There has been environmentalist messaging in children's television at least since the days of Sesame Street, when songs like "We Are All Earthlings" and "On My Pond" encouraged awareness of natural resources. I recall with ease the public service announcements that aired during The Muppet Show in prime time so that the whole family would catch them, such as "Doin' the 55" and "Don't Be Fuelish." Both admonished adults to consume less for kids' sakes, at least while we were in crisis with the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

Saturday morning's first environmentalist superheroes may have been the Barbapapa family, shape-shifting cartoon blobs based on the children's books by Annette Tison and Talus Taylor. (Barbapapa's New House was a favorite of mine; for years I encouraged my parents to build us an interconnected series of domes.) These gentle creatures appreciated and defended nature, and the one called Barbazoo protected animals. Schoolhouse Rock had "The Energy Blues," which almost 30 years ago wished for "a fuel that never runs out": something my generation hasn't grown up to invent or discover after all. At least not yet.

So, if we can't do it, we have to somehow get our kids to do it.

All of this suggested that kids, not adults, were the rightful custodians of Earth's resources. They were the ones upon whom education was not wasted. As the voice of TV's Gaia, Whoopi Goldberg expressed no interest in middle-aged Planeteers; old people would not come forth from the five corners of the globe and combine their powers to summon a blue-skinned guy in a half-shirt. It would have to be kids.

"It has long been accepted that children should be educated about 'nature,' and we think of kids as closer to nature and animals than adults," says Ellen Seiter, a professor at USC's School of Cinematic Arts and author of books including Sold Separately: Parents & Children in Consumer Culture. "Back to the 19th century, elite boarding schools in Europe would have a big emphasis on nature learning."

Kids these days get nature learning at least partly from television. Certainly environmentalist messages remain, and certainly the kids are watching. Two major studies released earlier this month demonstrated that even very young kids watch TV regularly, despite recommendations otherwise from the American Academy of Pediatrics. One study, Digital Childhood: Electronic Media and Technology Use Among Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers (pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/content/abstract/119/5/e1006?etoc), found that on a "typical" day 75% of kids age 6 and younger watched broadcast television and 32% watched DVDs or videos for an average hour and 20 minutes of total exposure.

The other study, Television and DVD/Video Viewing in Children Younger Than 2 Years (archpedi.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/161/5/473), found that 40% of children watched some form of television, including videos, by the age of 3 months. By age 2, 90% were watching.

What are they watching? Environmentally themed movies like Happy Feet and Finding Nemo currently dot Amazon's top 25 sellers in its "Kids & Family" category, along with the DVD collections of nonfiction titles like Planet Earth: The Complete BBC Series (see "Chewing Up the Scenery," p.75) and The Blue Planet: Seas of Life. Dora the Explorer's former sidekick, jungle boy Diego, famously rescues wolf pups, jaguars, dolphins, and other endearing baby creatures of the rainforest on Nick Jr., while Discovery Kids offers Kenny the Shark, an unassuming cartoon about a shark on land that's been nominated twice for awards from the Environmental Media Association.

This year PBS commemorated Earth Day with a daylong block of programming called "Share the Earth." The Dragon Tales kids saved a lagoon, Clifford planted flowers, and Buster made friends with the grumpy old guy at the community garden – and then created a barter market for homegrown tomatoes and tomato products. ("We'll call it 'Buster's Own,'" Muffy suggested. "And we can charge more because it's organic.")

But the jewel in PBS's environmental crown is It's a Big, Big World, a high tech preschool puppet show which joined the morning lineup last year. The show teaches more than conservation, civic beautification, and recycling at home. Focused on a single tree in a rainforest ecosystem, it emphasizes interdependence of species and the importance of habitat preservation, nearly to the point of anxiety. Burdette, a bossy quetzal bird, panics after exhausting her supply of wild avocados, and Bob the very nervous anteater flirts with veganism: "Do you think the flies get mad when spiders eat them?"

Though Bob's dilemma may have radical implications, Seiter suggests that such messaging is ultimately less controversial than other socially relevant topics, like race and class. "The environmentalism is never pushed very far politically, or in ways that would threaten sponsors," she explains.

Seiter adds, "Usually the environmental messages in kids' TV are pretty mild, and always favoring individual action – pick up your trash, don't use plastic water bottles – rather than more effective action at the level of business, or the law, or the nation." Even Captain Planet took for granted that polluting the environment and drilling preserves at least involved breaking laws.

However, the message might change along with the medium, as the very concept of "children's television" expands to include other modes of broadcasting. The Digital Childhood study found that 27% of 3- to 6-year-olds used a computer for approximately 50 minutes every day, and most young children's programming is already tied to feature-rich Web destinations with interactive content.

PBS's portal has its own mascot – Dash, a loopily-animated boy – who appears in spots throughout the programming day and is hyped by on-air host Miss Lori. Online, kids will find EekoWorld, a site funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that fosters environmental awareness with Flash movies, a moderated discussion board, and a multiplayer game with virtual animals. There's also a face-to-face component in the form of guided workshops conducted by partner schools and PBS affiliates WFSU-TV and UNC-TV.

"We're not trying to create some kind of major social movement," says Layla Masri, president and co-founder of Bean Creative, the Web agency responsible for EekoWorld, which touts greasel and toothbrushes made from recycled yogurt cups. "Just little things that you can do every day. If we all did them, it would make a significant impact."

"There's definitely a good mix of local awareness, what you can do in your own vicinity, and the world at large," Masri adds.

What else can you do in your own vicinity? You could make your own kids' show about the environment. Consider Desert Survivors, a hosted reality series about the Mojave ecosystem produced for cable-access by graduate students and faculty in biology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. With 12 episodes soon to be streamed online, all the world's a stage for red-spotted toads and the endangered Ash Meadows pupfish. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Planeteers, Captain Planet, Desert Survivors, Layla Masri, It's a Big, Big World, Ellen Seiter

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