April 22nd was Earth Day, and I spent most of it contemplating the ecopolitics of Pixar’s WALL-E. I’ve been revisiting some of the animation studio’s best achievements (The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Soul) but I’ve never found a movie as gutsy as this animated space opera about a little trash robot. More impressive than the dialogue-less Act One and the movie’s exquisitely adorable animation style, WALL-E offers a surprising critique on capitalism and consumption, and places that critique against an ending that calls for a radical agro-futurist return to humanity’s roots. Yes, it seems that our brave little robot is actually part of a much larger political-ecological revolution. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
If you haven’t seen the movie, here’s a quick synopsis: humans, led by the corporation Buy n Large, have trashed Earth in a mad dash of conspicuous consumption. This same company—which has some eyebrow-raising similarities to Amazon—built a spaceship somewhere between Noah’s Ark and a cruise liner, which ferried everyone off the doomed planet. WALL-E, our adorable titular robot, is left to clean up the trash left behind. The movie picks up 700 years after humanity has abandoned Earth, and everything is still garbage in the most literal sense. WALL-E and a new friend find a plant on Earth, take it back to the space luxury liner, and eventually get the captain to return to Earth where they reforest the planet’s surface and create an agricultural utopia (at least if the end credits are anything to believe). It’s far from climate realism, but it gets the point across to younger viewers.
I rewatched this movie a few months ago with some friends, and the first thing I thought of was, of all things, an idea presented by Slajov Zizek in his movie The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology. In it, he discusses how Capitalism provides the illusion of solutions to the very problems it creates. His example: Starbucks donating money to impoverished African nations when a customer buys a cup of coffee. Buy n Large does this exact thing, except on a much grander scale—building the savior vessels needed to escape the environmental destruction they created. Like the portion of your Starbucks order that gets donated, this solution is more of a bandaid than a cure. Indeed, it was supposed to be only temporary, and many of those on board still believe that one day they will be able to return to Earth. The CEO of Buy n Large, of course, knew better; later in the movie, the audience learns that he never had any real hope that WALL-E and the millions of other trash-compacting robots like him would really solve the environmental disaster.
Technology’s failure to solve our planet-scale waste problem points toward the movie’s most radical proposition: that our inventions won’t save us, and we instead need to return to traditional practices and a caring relationship with the Earth. These regenerative practices have been used by indigenous communities for thousands of years, and they are a proven remedy for some of the greatest environmental challenges facing society. The end credits’ hieroglyph and cave-painting style art—while more than a bit appropriative of indigenous cultures—points toward this anti-technofix mentality, as do the pictures of humans living in intimacy with nature (note the space luxury liner in the background being overtaken by plants). In recent decades, films about climate change have pitted human ingenuity and grit against the Earth’s disasters (I’m looking at you, Interstellar—we all know you’re just propaganda for Elon Musk’s classist Mars colony wet dream). Many climate anti-capitalists have preached this doctrine in recent years, most notably Naomi Klein, who championed that “The Billionaires Won’t Save Us” in her 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate. Yes, it would be very convenient if companies with benevolent, omnipotent names like Global Thermostat could suck up all of CO2 emissions and allow us to keep living our consumptive western lives, but their technology is still nascent, energy intensive, and probably not doable at the scales we would need. Anti-capitalist movements such as agroecology have known that environmental technofixes cannot be entirely relied upon, but I never expected a Pixar movie to also champion this cause.
That’s not to say I’m going to credit the megacorporations of Disney or Pixar with taking on destructive capitalist systems. Writer/director Andrew Stanton even claimed that he never had a political or ecological agenda when he set about creating the movie. Perhaps this was just a response to conservative media attacks on the film soon after its release, but I am willing to bet that he never intended a college student to think of WALL-E as a call-to-arms for the creation of a post-capitalist agrarian future. It’s idealistic at best, but I still cling to the hopeful suggestion that we might finally move past our collective idolization of human genius and finally focus on nurturing the planet that sustains us. Until that happens, do yourself a favor and rewatch WALL-E.