Retroactive Continuity: OK KO S1E33 “The Power is Yours”

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We have already discussed the degree to which OK KO is a recreation of creator Ian Jones-Quartey’s childhood. It is thus perhaps inevitably that some earnest, well-meaning, terrible cartoon of the 1980s would be featured or parodied, and there is perhaps no better example of the genre than Captain Planet and the Planeteers. (The fact that it aired 1990-96 doesn’t change that it is a prime example of this genre of 80s cartoons–that’s why we have long decades.)

Captain Planet is everything that the Animaniacs singled out for mockery in “Back in Style”: stiffly animated, repetitive, poorly characterized, and painfully, intensely determined to hamfistedly hammer home the same prosocial lesson every episode: pollution bad, environment good.

Which, of course, is true, but that doesn’t make Captain Planet‘s delivery any less patronizingly simplistic or painfully unnuanced. It showcases the biggest problem of trying to use the structures of heroic narrative in a socially responsible way: heroic narrative is predicated on a Great Man theory of history. In Captain Planet, the destruction of the environment is the result of a few bad actors, who are doing it because it makes them money (somehow), and can likewise be stopped by a combination of the titular team’s superheroics and viewers being responsible, “green” consumers, as instructed by episode-ending “Planeteer Alert” segments in which the show’s characters gave advice on how to “save the planet,” always ending with “The power is yours!”

The show thus hides in the ambiguity of the term “Anthropocene.” Proposed by Eugene Stoermer in the 1980s (although it was used in a different sense by Russian geologists in the 1960s), the Anthropocene is a proposed name for the geological period in which we now live. The Holocene (the period between the end of the last major Ice Age 12,000 years ago and modernity), Stoermer and later users of the term argue, has ended as a result of human activity; climate change and the ongoing, largely human-caused mass extinction event–already the largest mass extinction since the death of the non-avian dinosaurs–are in the process of creating a distinct divide between the Holocene and what comes after much as the retreat of the glaciers created a divide between the Pleistocene and Holocene.

The problem with the name “Anthropocene,” however, is that it lays the blame on either humanity–which is to say, all of humanity, equally, and with the implication that this destruction is an inevitable part of who we are–or humans, individual bad actors. But neither is true. Yes, mass extinctions have occurred anywhere humans have gone on this planet–it’s essentially a truism in paleontology that as soon as humans arrive on a landmass, any animal bigger than us goes extinct–but after the initial shock of our invasive species showing up, things generally settled down. It is only in the last few centuries that the pace of mass extinctions has increased again, and only in the last few centuries that human activity has significantly impacted the climate. Climate change and mass extinction are thus not a natural consequence of some innate human savagery; at the same time, no one person causes an extinction or changes the climate, and no one person can change it.

Environmental historian Jason Moore (not to be confused with the Pitch Perfect director of the same name) thus proposes an alternate term for both the mass extinction and the period it ushers in: the Capitalocene. It is capitalism run amok that is “destroying the planet” (or, rather, rendering it inhospitable for many species, possibly including us and almost certainly including our civilization). As individuals, there is nothing we can do to save the planet–there is, as the saying goes, no ethical consumption under late capitalism. It is only by fundamentally changing the assumptions, processes, and power structures upon which our culture is built that we can hope to stop the Capitalocene–if it’s not already too late.

Which is where OK KO comes in, ready to mock the earnest futility of Captain Planet. The opening scene sets the stage: efficiency expert and Captain Planet villain Dr. Blight (voiced by Tessa Auberjonois, because her original voice actress, Meg Ryan, is too high-profile for this, and her second voice actress, Mary Kay Bergman, is too dead) and her sidekick MAL (unvoiced, because original voice actor David Rappaport is likewise too dead, and second voice actor Tim Curry too ill) tells Lord Boxman that he can make his evil corporation more profitable by using a giant machine she happens to have that does nothing but spray pollution into the atmosphere, because it’s a “scientific fact” that pollution leads to profit. This scene is doing a lot of work: on the one hand, it is mocking the capitalist definition of efficiency. Pollution is inherently wasteful–it is made of waste products, after all–but efficiency for a corporation doesn’t mean lack of waste, it means spending less money, and pollution is a way of dumping part of the costs of production on the community. Cleaning up a mess requires labor and equipment; if the community has to do it instead of the corporation, then the corporation saves those labor and equipment costs. If the mess is left uncleaned, as it often is, the cost is instead paid by the environment itself. This is why people pollute: not because it somehow creates wealth (quite the opposite), but because it’s cheaper and easier for the polluter than being actuallyefficient, and therefore clean.

Put this way, the solution to pollution is obvious: use regulations and fines to ensure that polluting ceases to be cheaper and easier than not polluting. Unfortunately, just because something’s obvious doesn’t mean it’s politically easy or even feasible: between regulatory capture, government corruption, and neoliberal distaste for regulation of any kind, corporate pollution remains economically viable.

And pollution is far from the only form of environmental destruction. Direct destruction itself–fracking, deforestation, overfishing–is driven by the demands of late capitalism for perpetual growth, that an already unsustainable economy must always keep getting bigger, and thus constantly dig deeper and go farther to fill an insatiable appetite for resources and raw materials.

Capitalism is the real villain that Captain Planet tries to reify in its cackling industrialist supervillains, but in so doing it misses the point, just as badly as it does in its “Planeteer Alert” segments. You can’t kill capitalism by killing billionaires (though it’s a start), any more than you can kill it by buying “green” products or recycling. The only way to save the world is to change the world, and the only way to change the world is collective action to fundamentally alter the structures of power.

But, of course, finding a villain to kill is much more heroic, much more fun. We can just sit back with our recycling bins, feeling like we’re doing our part, and hope five magic teenagers and an Earth elemental take out the bad guys. That’s where the bulk of the episode finds its humor, with the arrival of Captain Planet hero Kwame (voiced by his original and only actor, LeVar Burton). The rest of the Planeteers quit to get “real jobs,” he explains: in other words, they were swallowed by the engines of capitalism, forced to concede the idealism of their youth by the desperate struggle to survive that capitalism imposes on working-class adulthood. He recruits the OK KO cast to wear the rings and summon Captain Planet, but after Blight and Boxman defeat him, the new Planeteers fall apart in squabbling. The natural formation of the left is the circular firing squad, after all: every setback is an opportunity to turn on one another, because that’s so much easier and more satisfying than endlessly chipping away at structures that feel as big as civilization itself.

Fortunately, KO is there with the power of Heart. In Captain Planet, Heart was talked up as the strongest of the five powers granted by the Planeteers’ rings, as it should be–the other four being the traditional alchemical elements of Earth, Fire, Water, and Air (Wind), that makes Heart the show’s name for the quintessence, the aether, the substance of which the heavens and human soul alike are made, the philosopher’s stone that grants the ultimate power: the power to change.

In KO’s hands, it becomes the power of solidarity, of remembering who your allies are. It allows the group to resummon their elemental hero, and this time defeat the evil polluters and save the plaza–leaving the rest of the planet in ruins. The show here transitions to its own version of a “Planeteer Alert” segment, with even the art style changing to match Captain Planet, while the characters give advice such as unplugging unused cell phone chargers and separating compost from recycling while all the coastal regions of the world are flooded and most of the world’s atmosphere is toxic. It is hard to imagine a more comically inadequate response, and yet that is exactly what “green” consumerism entails: futile, solitary action while the ice caps melt and the forests burn.

It might not have to go this way. If every household in the world recycled… the rain forests would still be destroyed, and the seas overfished, and the mountains blown up for strip-mining. But if we rose up to impose limits on the corporate actors that do these things… well, it’s conceivably possible that it’s merely almost too late. And even if it is too late, well, at least the last years of our civilization, and possibly species, could be a bit more equitable than they otherwise would have been.

The power is, or at least could be, ours.

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