WALL-E and the myth of Progress

For the record, I liked WALL-E.  Really, I did.  A Buster Keaton robot love story with an eco-message, what’s not to love?  But something about the end credits always felt weird to me.

If you don’t remember, the credits depict the robots and humans returning to earth to rebuild their world together, depicted in a beautiful series of artistic styles, starting with cave-paintings and followed by Egyptian relief, Greek black-figure, Roman mosaics, Asian sketches, Impressionism, pointillism, and finally some Van Gough-esque oils.

This works on two levels.  First, the artistic style reminds us of the sum of our human history, which in the world of the film, has finally caught up with us, resulting in the human abandonment of a used-up, dustball Earth.  Second, the scenes presented in these artistic styles are (I think) supposed to show some kind of real sustainable future to which we should be attaining (or something).
But it doesn’t really work.

Here’s how it goes: the space-people and robots come back, live communally, start planting and irrigating crops, catch fish, and suddenly they’re rebuilding a pretty standard-looking city.  What’s wrong with this?  These artistic vignettes depict—in a stylized manner, of course—the process of ‘progress’ that terminates in our modern, unsustainable world—the same world the characters in the film left behind in the first place.  (On a technicality, I’d like to know where all the sea turtles and birds and fish came from in the first place, as the used-up Earth we see in the first half of the film is only home to a cockroach, and there didn’t seem to be much wildlife on the Axiom.)

My problem with the whole thing?  You really cannot expect a spaceship full of Wal-Mart-born-and-raised human jellybeans to suddenly care about Nature despite having never known of it, yet the film (and its credits) seem to suggest that simply by being exposed to a solitary live plant in a boot, humans’ latent biophilia will magically reemerge, stronger than ever, and give their society the strength to suddenly change course, overcome its Nature-deficit disorder and build a brighter, truly sustainable future.  Unfortunately, the problem is inertial: the longer a Nature-deprived lifestyle is allowed to continue, the harder it becomes to heal the gap.  And what’s even more troubling is that while the scenario presented by WALL-E may be science fiction, we as a society are heading down the same track.  It’s easy to look at the infantile human characters and think, ‘Oh, that could never happen to us.’  But, it could.  And, it is.

Since WALL-E’s success at the Academy Awards, the film’s writer and director Andrew Stanton has since explained how the even bigger woe of society isn’t just disconnection from Nature, but from each other as well:

“I think a lot of people attach a little too specifically to the ecological aspect or the complacency aspect of humanity. But I use those as devices to focus on the biggest issue, which is people caring about one another. People connecting with one another.” “Whether that’s literally love between two characters like robots or just you acknowledging that your neighbors (are) right next to you as opposed to being blocked between a cell phone or something. I felt that disconnection is going to be the cause, indirectly, of anything that happens in life that’s bad for humanity of the planet, so to me, my focus was connectivity.”

Mr. Stanton is absolutely right, and since our current system doesn’t seem to be designed with human connections in mind, it might be time for a new one…

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