Captain Planet Economics

Yes, the power is yours

Ecology can be fun. Nothing taught me that more than the corny 90’s cartoon “The Adventures of Captain Planet and the Planeteers”. At age five, I had dreams of becoming an environmentally responsible super-hero—definitely not the guy with the Heart ring, though. Let’s face it: They could have used one more Fire dude instead. At age 20, I still have the desire to incinerate agents of waste and entropy, but spend most of my time writing away at my laptop.

In the yard on Wednesday I once again felt the power of Captain Planet. Yes, Al Gore has little in common with the conservation commander—he lacks the grass-green mullet, sleeked and chiseled cerulean features, loyal friends, and a propensity for victory—but he did his best to echo the vibe and that got me thinking about the Captain and how I can champion his values.

Policymakers, developmental economists, and international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) would be wise to note the Planeteers’ two most salient lessons. First, the human race has never been in harmony with nor entirely an enemy of nature, but rather has oscillated somewhere in between. We are too weak to forgo exercising power over other life forms, but strong enough not to be indifferent. The second lesson, trite as it may seem, is that human ingenuity and creative collaboration can overcome problems of exploitation and steer a sustainable cultivation of the planet.

Some of the most innovative work in the world right now is being done on the interface of ecology and economic policy, between the distribution and abundance of life and the distribution and abundance of goods and services. The overarching theme is that saving the environment is a frontier of the imagination, and can synthesize the best of our thoughts on organization of the natural and social worlds.

In the developed world, much of this work is done in the spirit of “green development,” or use of the de-carbonization movement to propel growth rather than impede it. That movement in and of itself is incredibly unique, as environmental communities in high-income countries have generally been divorced from the rest of the polity. Phil Angelides, director of the Apollo Alliance, an American energy independence project, believes that a global transition to a low-carbon economy would create jobs and over time become the primary engine of development. Angelides notes that between now and 2030, 75 percent of the buildings in the U.S. will either be new or substantially rehabilitated. Why not make them solar? Why not hire those unemployed due to housing crisis to build them? Blue-collar “Joe Construction Workers” can transform into a green-collar heroes.

In the developing world, ecological modernization—or Captain Planet Economics (CPE)—is mostly a low-scale endeavor. The results are even more striking. For years, the buildings of the late vernacular architect Laurie Baker have helped alleviate poverty in India and done nothing to worsen climate change. Baker’s adobe abodes, which constitute the majority of the edifices in Thiruvananthpuram, Kerala are made mostly out of a resource requiring zero fuel: mud. The buildings often lack doors and have awkward gaps between the bricks to facilitate cooling. Baker’s team, the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development associates and follows Mahatma Gandhi’s edict that all materials be found within a five-mile radius: wood, bamboo, stone, cactus milk, pig urine, and recycled bottles, to name a few. The result is cheap, safe, high-quality, and environmentally friendly housing that appears to simply grow out of the ground.

The possibility of imaginative “CPE” is even more exciting in emerging market economies, like Brazil and South Africa. These countries have abundant ecological resources and are essentially taking their first look at the relationship between intense development and the local environment. For them, policies espousing only environmentalism or economic development and not both are self-defeating. The Brazilians continue to struggle with deforestation, as illegal logging clears room for cattle grazing, but solutions are being created to allow for the use of the Amazon’s bounty without destruction. This summer the government began the profitable and heroic production of condoms from rubber tree plants. Hydroelectric dams are also being built and activities which do not produce smoke are being subsidized, like bee-keeping, fish-farming, and forest management.

Green-collar movements in the United States and the United Kingdom, vernacular architecture in India, and the harnessing of the Amazon all are vested in the new idea that growth and conservation are not mutually exclusive terms. It’s paramount to recognizing that CPE is a complete reversal of the old way of thinking. It combats both “neo-liberal” corporate executives and overly protectionist environmental activists trying to bootstrap a green revolution.

As we continue to battle global warming and other dangers, as Al Gore ’69 strikes his silly messianic pose, and as the generation that watched sappy early 90s cartoons comes into its own, it would be wise to remember the lessons of the noble Captain Planet: Dauntless thinking-outside-the-box, teamwork, and being a participant in the world’s growth rather than an enemy fighting for its resources, can overcome even our most formidable problems. The power is YOURS!

Raúl A. Carrillo ’10 is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.