On Wall-E, the 2000 Watt Society and Fun

posted July 18, 2008

When I announced I was going to be giving birth in August, all my friends were horrified. “It’s the worst time of year to be pregnant!” they all chorused. “You’ll be so hot.”

Since I am usually cold and rarely hot—as in I wear socks to bed even in June, and long underwear from October to May–– I wasn’t too worried. Besides, I thought, if it gets really bad, I’ll go to the movies. What’s a better escape from the summer heat and the frustrations of everyday life than a communal air-conditioned experience?
Then the summer arrived, and I promptly wilted into a useless puddle of PermaContractions (very rare and apparently harmless scenario when a pregnant woman get Braxton-Hicks “practice” contractions if she so much as lifts a glass of water to her parched mouth). Also exhaustion, bad aches and low- (okay, mid-) level grumpiness. I began to look for a suitable flick to take my cranky self to, but somehow I forgot that going to the movies doesn’t really fit into my schedule anymore, what with my two-year-old daughter, three careers, etc.. Sex and the City came and went (in that I would have seen it the first weekend out, but the reviews made me lose interest). Then one of my clients told me about Wall-E the day after Frank Rich wrote about the movie in his Sunday Times column, and I was determined. When my OB told me I couldn’t do my scheduled show at the Boston Children’s Museum last Friday because she didn’t want me out in the heat of the day with my jumpy old uterus, I made a date with my friend Lisa, and we were off.

I’ll try not to spoil anything, but I will say this: Wall-E does not really strike me as a children’s movie. Made by Pixar, with gorgeous computer animation, there’s even a cameo by one of my favorite “real” actors, Fred Willard. It was so dark for the first 40 minutes that Lisa and I sat hunkered down in our seats trying not to let the kids in back of us know we were sobbing. It takes place circa 2800 and the only signs of life left on planet Earth are a cockroach and one little green sprout. Humankind—what’s left of it––is circling around the Earth in a spaceship equivalent of the Love Boat. They’ve evolved (or devolved) into infantilized versions of themselves: obese and unable to walk, they travel about in motorized BARCO loungers, subsisting on a diet of shakes. Even the captain is completely clueless about their history and what brought them to their current situation: an apparent take-over of the earth by a conglomerate called Buy N Large, which has literally trashed the planet. Earth is no longer habitable, and a fleet of Wall-Es (Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class) was left behind to clean up the mess, but only one seems to be still functioning at the beginning of the film.

Wall-E, unlike the viewer, does not judge humans harshly for leaving behind all this trash. In fact, Wall-E seems kind of fascinated by us, and part of his daily routine involves filling a small cooler with artifacts he finds along the way: a Rubik’s cube, incandescent lightbulbs, an engagement ring box and an old videotape of Hello Dolly!. He’s taken by our creativity and our passion, and reminds the viewer that despite the near complete destruction of the Earth, human beings were not all bad. The question the movie asks over and over is: where does creativity turn into proliferation?

I left the movie in tears, and not just because I’m pregnant and had to view apocalyptic scenes of my children’s future environment. When I got home, I curled up into bed with last week’s New Yorker and read an article about the island of Samso, Denmark, which recently won a renewable energy contest, turning a small farming community (hardly a bunch of progressives) into net exporters of energy in less than a decade. The article, by Elizabeth Kolbert, went on to discuss an equally intriguing Swiss initiative called the 2000 Watt Society. 2000 Watts is the world average of energy usage per capita per day. But the figures are skewed by the huge disparity between developing and developed nations: Bangladesh, for example, uses 2600 watts per capita per year, while we in the US use 12,000 watts per person per day.

Since reading the article, I have been combing the internet trying to find out more about the 2000 Watt Society, but I can’t find a whole lot. I want to lower my wattage to 2000 so they let me in their club and I can feel good about myself. More than that, I love the idea of making conservation a personal goal, sort of like trying to climb all 46 mountains over 4000 feet in the Adirondacks was for me and my sisters when we were growing up. One of the villagers of Samso said that once residents started thinking about creating and conserving energy in this new way, “it became a sport.”

It could actually be fun to try to save energy. Rather than see it as deprivation, I want to see it as play. And, as the founders of the 2000 Watt Society point out, reducing energy consumption needn’t lead to a lower standard of living. On the contrary. What sounds more fun: staying inside with air conditioning, or sitting with my two year old in a Freecycled kiddie pool? Driving yet again to the local fluorescent-lit grocery store or riding a bike with a trailer to the downtown farmer’s market where I am sure to meet many dear friends? Throwing out another “disposable” diaper, or hanging out a load of wet but clean cloth diapers in the warm July sun?

Of course, I am lucky that I have these choices to make. Being pregnant and on strict orders not to exercise, I actually can’t ride my bike to the farmer’s market, which makes me notice how lucky I am to live in a bike-friendly, pedestrian-friendly area instead of a megatropolis built around the automobile. At the same time, because I have to drive everywhere these days, I am acutely aware of how much I rely on technology, and how grateful I am to have my own transportation. I try not to buy plastic, AND I’m grateful that plastics have literally saved lives in their applications in various surgeries and other health related matters. (Condoms, for example. Intubation tubes and catheters for another.) I am grateful that we have electricity to power wheelchairs, elevators so that my friends who are unable to walk can bypass stairs. Moreover, the residents of Bangladesh are not living on 2600 watts of energy a year out of some desire to be eco-martyrs. The question that I kept asking after seeing Wall-E (and after seeing An Inconvenient Truth two years ago) is: where did we go wrong? Where is the line? Where does human ingenuity turn into self-destruction? Where do basic human needs get mixed up with desires for iPhones and bigger cars, not to mention hegemony over countries that are oil-rich so that we can maintain our current lifestyles?

That old bumper sticker comes to mind: “Live simply so that others may simply live.” When I first saw that, it just made me cranky. I felt preached to, scolded. I was an anti-environmentalist when I was a teen-ager, rebelling probably against my zealous mother and Birkenstock-wearing aunt. (Back then, I could not understand how anyone could allow themselves to be seen in footwear so hideous. Right this moment, I am wearing my beloved 19-year-old pair of Arizona-style Birks.) I remember freshman year in college saying out loud to a friend, “They say there’s deforestation, but look.” I pointed to the trees lining that portion of I-95, probably in Maryland. “Tons of trees.” (My brilliant point was not met with a sympathetic response.) It’s taken me a very long time to get over my feelings of entitlement and try to do my tiny part to lower my footprint, and I know that laying on the guilt doesn’t help. Like any addict, I wasn’t ready to let go of my substance (in this case, consumerism and the easy fix—“just toss it in the trash”) until I was ready.

But I do know this. It works when it becomes play. It works when you make it a game. It works when you see the gift of “less,” the gift of creativity inherent in placing limits on oneself. And it works when I see the truth that no gadget, no processed food, no article of clothing ever made me as happy as the view from the top of an Adirondack Mountain, or the sugar snap peas we grew this spring in our garden, or anything having to do with my little daughter, including her cloth diapers hanging out to dry in our backyard.

The Comments

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  1. Don’t forget the powerful role of the arts in raising people’s consciousness. Just like Wall-E and An Inconvenient Truth, but also the music of the Nields. In other words, you’re making a big difference just by being a great musician/writer, and spreading the word through your work.

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