Sunday, January 24, 2010

Wall-E: Embedded Messages of Sustainability

In 2008, Walt Disney Pictures released the movie Wall-E. For those of you who haven’t seen this movie, it’s a rather exaggerated portrayal of what our consumption habits here on Earth can do to our civilization and our environment. In the movie, centuries have passed since humans lived on Earth; their departure a result of their excess consumption and waste, which has left the planet entirely devoid of life. In a last ditch effort to clean up the waste and save humanity, humans created thousands of little robots to clean up the mess before leaving on a giant spaceship to survive. ‘Wall-E’ is the last remaining robot on Earth and, true to his programming functions, continues to take on the daunting challenge of cleaning up the waste humans have left behind. The hope was that one day life would once again be supported for humans, at which time humans could return. 700 years have passed since their departure, and the movie humorously depicts humans as morbidly obese with everything they could possibly need at their fingertips.

The combination of subtle and explicit messages conveyed in this film is quite impressive. Not only is it an educational flick on the environment for children but it carries some very powerful messages for adults as well. Here are a few:

First, explicit in the movie is the fact that humanity has grown comfortable on their movable couches on the spaceship with technology allowing them to have everything they need from food, entertainment, exercise, and sport, within the reach of a click. Consequently, the human population on this spaceship is morbidly obese to the point where they’ve lost, from an evolutionary perspective, the ability to walk. Clearly this exaggerates our rather addictive quest for convenience, making fun of a range of behaviours such as our use of remote controls, the use of drive-thrus, vehicle cup holders to eat and drive whenever possible, standing lazily on escalators rather than actually stepping up or down, using elevators rather than the stairs, among others behaviours.

Second, the robot itself (Wall-E) represents the many technological fixes we tend to presume will save humanity. I’m consistently shocked by the growing traction of ‘climate change technofixes’ that author Dianne Dumanoski and others argue represent a dangerous allure:

Giant sun reflectors to cool the earth and the use of volcanic ash to cloud the atmosphere are becoming increasingly realistic and now, more and more, spoken not as part of a joke but as possible solutions. In the movie, humanity similarly leaves the problem of waste and its seemingly irrevocable impact on life to, you guessed it, a technological solution - in this case robots cleaning up the mess while humans continue with their reckless consumption elsewhere. Today, governments around the world continue to advocate for green technological solutions, consistently ignoring the giant elephant in the room associated with behavioural change (see page 3 of the following link):

Elephant in the Room (Valente, 2008)

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them" (Einstein, 1905).

The day will have to come when we begin to accept that addressing these social, ecological, and economic issues is not always going to be through producing and selling more of something else.

Third, ‘Buy-N-Large’ is the major corporation in the movie, meant to mimic, more obviously, major bulk retailers like Wal-Mart and Costco in the West yet perhaps more implicitly the dominating presence of the private sector in society. I grew up in Sudbury, Ontario and when I visit I'm always intrigued by the growing population exhibiting an obsession with Costco (and Wal-Mart for that matter), as I’m sure other cities are. In the movie, Buy-N-Large seems to be the only private sector company owning all supply chains and producing and delivering all products and services. The name of the company carries an important meaning of course. Does it imply ‘buy everything large (in bulk)’ as the trend today in society reveals? Is it also meant to imply that the act of buying will make you large (over-weight), as the movie portrays. Whatever it is, it’s shocking how much this bulk trend is escalating. When I was home for the holidays, I noticed that several houses in a particular neighborhood had the same Costco holiday wreath hanging on their house. It felt kind of surreal.

Now I don’t want to belittle Costco’s and Wal-Mart's business prowess. They’ve clearly perfected the model and have successfully captured a substantial chunk of the market. But the important connection between Costco and Wal-Mart and the movie is the unnecessary consumption of bulk products and low quality junk and the waste it creates. I recently had a good conversation with a colleague about whether it is possible for business to adhere to principles of sustainability when, inherent in their strategic trajectories, is growth that presumes a limitless environment. I recall seeing a coupon from Costco for an air compressor. Part of their business logic is to present consumers with deals for items they may or may not need, leveraging their purchasing power to offer such prices. But one doesn’t buy an air compressor because it’s on sale, one buys one because it's needed. This is not a brand of tissue or toothpaste where you’ll eventually run out of the product thus buying it in advance makes sense. Since when does an air compressor represent an impulse purchase? What’s next: “Did you find everything you were looking for today sir? Did you want to include a big screen television because it’s on sale even though you have 3 of them in your house already?”

Fourth, I’ve posted a few stories on this blog related to the role of the private sector in filling public service gaps and indeed influencing public policy (see Google on this blog). Notice that the president of the Earth is the CEO of Buy-N-Large perhaps unintentionally flagging the increasing neoliberal political power of the private sector by suggesting that the leader of the most powerful company is also ‘naturally’ the leader of the planet. With the world leader possessing mental models of profitability and growth, is there any wonder why humanity is in the predicament it is in? This message i find most alluring. On my final exam in an undergraduate course called Business and Sustainability, I had a question asking students to discuss how the movie Wall-E is related to the concepts and objectives of this course. I commend those students that noticed this particular message. When we think of the most powerful people in the world, we no longer think of prime ministers, country presidents or kings, we think of CEOs of companies like Nike, Procter and Gamble, General Electric and Nestle. Are they making decisions on behalf of this planet? Should we be concerned when they do not possess the democratic incentives to act on behalf of the public? Does this mean that we need to strip business of this power and put it in the hands of the public or does it suggest that we need to alter the incentive structure of business so that they effectively use this power for society?

I’m sure there are other interesting messages that we can take away from this movie. Please add yours.


  1. Interesting post. I did not see that movie, but I have seen a few movies that parallel some important issues. District 9 brought to light some nasty truths about racial issues that are going on around the world, specifically in South Africa. Also, there is a new Disney movie out called Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and I felt that it was trying to send a similar message to that of Wall-E. A young man invents a device that enables the sky to produce food in massive quantities. The mayor of the town becomes obsessed with the machine and soon the whole town is in a pandemic of hyper-consumption – always wanting more. Meanwhile, a huge mountain of food waste is piling up outside the town. The message from the movie is clear – we want too much stuff and we do not need most of it. I am happy that movies like this are coming out and kids are seeing them.

    Interesting comments around the massive bulk stores such as Wal-Mart and Costco. To an average consumer, I can see why they are a great place to shop – cheap and easy. People do not realize that they really do not need about 90% of the stuff that is in there. The consumerist era has made people believe that these stores have it all and they will always get the best deal when shopping there. The force at play here is the domination of corporate giants – and their financial domination has given them power over people’s minds, attitudes, beliefs....and lastly, their wallets. The average consumer has been told to value cheap and easy, so they do. I wonder how people’s perspectives could change to value food more. For example, many students refuse to buy local food because they say it is too expensive and too hard to find. After speaking with someone who works at a vegetable farm up island, I realized how their prices are extremely fair and how hard it is for small guys to compete with huge food conglomerates such as Agrafoods. After this conversation, I began to really think about my food differently and started to value it more – I do not mind paying a bit of extra for local beef or carrots (and sometimes, they can be the same price or even cheaper than regular bulk food). The other benefits that stem from buying local are numerous – strengthens the local economy, produces healthy food with no pesticides, reduces carbon emissions associated with food transport and mass production, etc. I wonder if all students at UVic had the opportunity to have the conversation I did with the woman from a farm up island – if they would think about their food a bit differently and make an effort to buy local and forgo their weekly shop to Wal-Mart for groceries...

    1. This movie is amazing and it definitely promotes sustainability. I have to do a school project on this and I found this very good.

      Keep up the good work guys