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Robots and redemption: 5 things Wall-E tells us about caring for Earth

environmentalism in Wall-E

It may have been released in the ancient mists of time (aka back in 2008) but I think Wall-E is still one of the best examples of environmentalism in popular culture.

The film manages to make a deep point about human’s relationship with the Earth and even offers a critique of consumer capitalism from within a popular Disney film with mass appeal. The fact it also centres on an adorable robot love story probably doesn’t hurt.

It isn’t preachy or earnest, which environmental messaging can sometimes fall foul of. Pixar certainly worked their magic with this one: relateable characters, easy humour, cute moments and wonderful visuals. Yet at it’s core it offers a stark warning and also a promise about our potential future.

There’s actually quite a lot to it, so this post explores five key themes environmentalism in Wall-E.

Environmentalism in Wall-E: 5 key themes

Here we go! Five key themes that jump out at me when thinking about environmentalism in Wall-E. Get ready: it’s time for a climate cultural critique.

Destruction and dystopia

environmentalism in Wall-E
The film starts after the destruction of life on Earth. We’re not told explicitly what happened, but clearly some kind of large scale environmental degradation. Later in the film there’s a brief mention of rising sea levels, so I guess humans didn’t get a handle on climate change before it totally wrecked the planet. It’s a desolate place with no nature, just mountains of rubbish. The intelligent robot Wall-E is tasked with recycling the trash and cleaning up this dystopia. This is a stark warning of what could happen if we continue with the take-make-dispose economic model.
 

Techno-optimism

environmentalism in Wall-E
The saving grace to such utter destruction is that it happened when humans had developed sophisticated space-age technology way beyond our current inventions. Spaceships and robots – how convenient! Saved by technology – the neoliberal capitalist answer to environmental problems. In this sci-fi sctory, the robots Wall-E and EVE are key to humans being able to recolonise Earth. It would never of happened without them. The two robot protagonists also show adorably human emotions and characteristics. But the film isn’t entirely rose-tinted about technology. The ‘evil robots take over’ trope gets a look in when the Autopilot tries to stop the captain from returning to Earth. And life on the massive spaceship Axiom is depicted in a highly critical way.
 

Consumerism

environmentalism in Wall-E
The humans are fat and passive, spending all their time sitting on a kind of slow leisurely roller coaster which keeps them entertained while they eat and drink. When one falls off his mobile couch, he is too unfit even to get up off the floor. The docile humans instantly do whatever the flashing advertising says, as if in a trance. This looks like a critique of consumer TV-dinner culture, and is fairly unnerving, especially as it doesn’t seem too implausible. The passengers don’t look or act like normal humans. The spaceship is no utopia. They are alive but not well. Their humanness is tied to the Earth they left behind. Another warning.
 

Space-age Noah’s Ark

environmentalism in Wall-E

This idea that after destruction of the world you can hop in a ship, wait it out and start anew, is not original. It is a story deep in the human psyche. In this respect Wall-E is like a space age version of Noah’s Ark. But we don’t see any animals, just lots of people. In this way, it’s more anthropocentric (aka human-focused) and forgiving about the failings of humans. Also the unsaid question – who didn’t make it onto the ship? Did the human population shrink so much due to ecological destruction that they took everyone that was left? Or did they just take some people and leave most to die?

Rebirth and redemption

environmentalism in Wall-E

Wall-E differs from other techno-optimist space stories where the assumption is that humans fly away and settle a new planet. Instead, the humans return to Earth after 700 years of space limbo when Wall-E and EVE  find that plant life is finally returning to the planet. In a way this is a much more ecological message. You can’t just use up one planet, chuck it and move on to the next one. Planets are not consumer goods. We only have one planet.

Yet in another way, it lets us off the hook by being overly optimistic: don’t worry, you can have a second chance. The idea that the planet would again become hospitable to plants and humans after such total destruction is dubious to say the least. But in this story it does, and we can imagine the humans look after their planet better this time and have learnt their lesson.

But would we have the luxury of a second chance? Probably not. The Earth itself is the only spaceship we have and we can’t fuck it up.

 

Note: The images in this post are screenshots from Wall-E (2008) directed by Andrew Stanton. The use of these images comes under ‘fair use for criticism and review’ in UK and US copyright law. 

So what do you think of my mini analysis of environmentalism in Wall-E? Let me know your own interpretations in the comments or on Twitter at @TheClimateLemon. 

And if you liked this post, please share on social media or send the link to a friend who’s into this stuff!

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Hey, I’m Tegan

I’m a passionate sustainability enthusiast, blogger and communications professional. I live in Brighton, UK, with my boyfriend and tortoise. Can usually be found reading, writing or eating chickpea burritos. Wanna chat? I’m at @TeganTallullah on Twitter.

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