Yesterday, I was reading an obituary written by Robert Poole, of Reason Magazine, for Dave Nolan, the recently-departed founder of the Libertarian Party. In it, he says:
Dave and I came to libertarianism by similar paths, growing up reading Robert Heinlein’s individualist-oriented science fiction and then discovering Ayn Rand’s writings.
For some reason, this sentence really struck me. Libertarianism, the belief system to which both Poole and Nolan dedicated virtually their entire adult lives, was a theory they were introduced to through what probably seemed like innocuous sci-fi. Certainly, few sci-fi readers pick up Heinlein or Asimov asking to learn about alternative political theories, yet there it is. Heinlein in particular had far more lasting influence than you might expect a sci-fi writer to have: his 1961 book Stranger in a Strange Land, which imagined a world with a “free-love” religion, was very influential on a number of early hippies, and Heinlein’s term “grokking” is often used amongst atheists to describe the religious feelings they’re trying to avoid ascribing to God.
Anyways, it got me thinking about the political and religious messages which were pushed on my generation when we were growing up in the late 80s and early 90s. One thing came immediately to mind: Captain Planet. The show was actually spearheaded by Turner Broadcasting’s VP for environmental policy as a way to influence “2 to 11 year-olds” into adopting popular liberal mores on issues like environmentalism and “safe sex.” There’s an infamous episode, “A Formula for Hate,” which explained to 2 to 11 year-old kids how AIDS was transmitted.
But that’s not the one I remember — the one that stuck with me for years was the episode “Population Bomb.” The episode was fittingly named after the thoroughly-discredited book by Paul Ehrlich which predicted, amongst other things, that global starvation would ravage the West in the 1970s, as overpopulation outpaced our ability to feed ourselves. Here’s the statistic you need to know: global food production grows at a much faster rate than population. This is true empirically, and the logical conclusion is hard to miss: we (globally) currently produce more food per person than at any point in history. There’s just not a risk that there’s not enough food to go around. In fact, one of the major complaints West African producers have is that the US is bringing food to African markets so cheap that domestic producers can’t compete. There’s too much cheap food. That’s literally the opposite of the problem Ehrlich predicted. This is true of almost all of Ehrlich’s predictions: the major problem facing the West is now underpopulation, as most Western countries, and particularly Japan, aren’t even having enough kids to replace the people who die every day. A major risk now is that there are too few young people, and that within a few generations, it will be a real challenge for the relatively-few working aged people to support all of the retirees. In other words, Ehrlich wasn’t just wrong, but dangerously and disasterously wrong, like someone who encourages you to have your roof removed, so you don’t get too hot in the winter. The economist Dr. Julian Simon actually got Ehrlich to put his money where his mouth was, wagering on commodities prices over a ten year period. Ehrlich chose the five metals he thought would have skyrocketing prices over the span of a decade. Every one saw its price fall, and two of the metals saw prices plummet. The thing that made Ehrlich most dangerous is that he advocated forced population control to combat the false bogey-man of overpopulation.
In any case, Captain Planet picked up this theme and ran with it. Here’s a plot summary of the episode:
Introductory voiceover: “Our world is in peril. Gaia, the spirit of the Earth, can no longer stand the terrible destruction plaguing our planet.” Gaia has provided five teenagers of different races with magic rings. When they use the rings together Captain Planet — the superman figure — appears on the scene to right ecological wrongs.
Captain Planet tells the five youngsters: “If the number of people on our planet keeps growing the way it is, soon there will be too many people everywhere.”
The youngsters debate this: “I think people should have fewer children.” “In some countries the government recommends that a couple only have two children.”
However, the American teenager Wheeler is the ‘redneck’ who goes against this ecological wisdom: “No one is going to tell me how many kids I can have!” Then, Wheeler goes windsurfing in a storm and is washed up on a strange land, Miceland, inhabited by mangy, cross-breed mice. He is captured by mouse guards and taken to a food factory to be ‘processed’ so that the mice can eat him. The food technician — a ‘good’ mouse called Piebald — saves him. Piebald explains to Wheeler that Miceland used to be a paradise, but the mice destroyed the land by having so many babies. They turned the country into an ecological hell with no trees, serious pollution, not enough food, poisoned oceans and no fish.
A brutal dictatorship rules the people. Piebald used to be a scientist but when he tried to warn against having too many babies, jackbooted guards took him away from his family and he was stripped of his status. Wheeler asks him why people don’t stop having large families. Piebald answers: “Everyone wants a big family — it’s tradition.”
When the mouse dictator, General Claw, finds that Wheeler comes from a beautiful, fertile island — Hope Island where he lives with the other planeteers — Claw decides to invade and destroy it to take the food needed for his growing population. The other four planeteers arrive by ‘eco-copter’ to rescue Wheeler. The mice people start to riot against their brutal repression by General Claw. He fires a Sonic Canon, which starts an earthquake. The island starts to sink under the sea. Wheeler tries to save his friend Piebald and his mouse family (Piebald has responsibly had only one offspring), but Piebald tells him: “My people and I are doomed but yours can still be saved. Don’t let this happen to you — don’t let there be more people than your world can hold.”
Wheeler wakes up to find it has all been a dream, but he has learned his lesson. “Did you know the population of the world is now 5 billion,” he says “and it’s increasing by 90 million people each year. But the earth is not getting any bigger, so when it is your turn to have a family, keep it small.”
The irony here is that the true brutal dictatorships were those countries that “recommends” people to only have two children, often through forced abortions (China) or involuntary sterilization (India).
And just so we’re clear, that last sentence wasn’t some dialogue between characters. At the end of the episode, the characters would break the fourth wall to make sure kids understood the preachy message of that episode, in case they hadn’t been over-the-top enough. Here, each character turned to the screen and instructed 2 to 11-year old kids (including a young me) that when it was my turn to have kids, we weren’t supposed to have more than two.
If you’re finding it hard to believe that a Saturday morning cartoon was such brazen propaganda for a controversial agenda many parents (rightly) wouldn’t have approved of, see for yourself.