If any of that introduction sounds familiar to you that means two things. Firstly that your childhood was amazing and secondly that as a child you watched a show called Captain Planet. If this isn’t ringing any nostalgic bells more explanation might needed. The year was 1990 and amidst the grunge fashion and coveted walkmans our world was in peril. After a deep sleep Gaia the spirit of the earth is awakened by the sounds of a forest being destroyed by greedy developers. Upon awakening from her centuries long nap she is horrified to see the damage that careless human race has done to the planet. Desperate to prevent more ecological damage she sends five rings to five young people from all over the world. From United States Wheeler a streetwise, but environmentally uninformed city kid. From Africa Kwame, the group’s leader with a passion for plants. From Asia Gi who loves the ocean and all the creatures that live in it. From the Soviet Union (when the show premiered it still existed) the stubborn, caring, and tech savvy Linka. And last but not least from South America Ma-Ti the ever-compassionate youngest planeteer.
Respectively these teens are given the powers of earth, fire, wind, water, and most importantly heart. And as the intro says when their powers combine the greatest champion of the earth Captain Planet is summoned to save the day. Throughout the series our young heroes fight the forces of evil, which in this series take the form of eco-terrorists. More on them later.
Aside from possible references to a 70s band each planeteer and their element represents an aspect of the environmental movement and a different kind of person. Because of this in addition to being an educational tool about environmental issues Captain Planet is an excellent representation of diversity and intercultural/interracial friendships. This aspect of the show makes it possible for every person no matter where they are from can relate to them. Wheeler the short tempered New Yorker with the rough childhood and the power of fire can be seen as representative of the average American. Not because of the short temper, but because when Gaia first calls the planeteers he is the one with the least knowledge of environmentalism. The questions that he asks throughout the series provide a plot device for educating the non-environmental science majors in the audience background information on a given topic. Additionally Wheeler being pretty young and at times very impulsive at various times throughout the series has difficulty understanding how for example something as simple as owning an air conditioner could negatively impact the planet. Wheeler’s character is vital because unlike the eco-terrorists and sadly like most Americans when he does things that can potentially harm the planet it is not malicious but coming from a place of sheer ignorance.
Kwami hailing from Africa is the group’s de factor leader and by far the most level headed out of the group. Growing up in a rural village where farming was the source of food unlike our friend wheeler he has a profound understanding of the value of the planets resources and interconnectedness of everything. After seeing first hand the devastation that can occur when there are no trees because of the thoughtless way his home was deforested as a child. Although he proves more than once that he is a strong leader with a lot of passion Kwame by no means perfect. At one point after going to a town overrun by garbage because the citizens do not care enough to recycle, Kwame loses hope feeling that people are simply too selfish and no matter what the planetteers will not be able to make a difference. Character development aside, this moment is pivotal as it shows viewers that not everyone wants to admit. Fighting to preserve the planet is no easy task and at times is downright frustrating. Of course (spoiler alert) after seeing the dedication of one little girl to recycling Kwame is inspired to once again become a planeteer, but this shows that even the most passionate of activists feel discouraged at times.
Ma-ti the youngest and most vulnerable planeteer is an especially important character although the reasons why are not clear at first. Ma-Ti is from South America and was raised by a village Shaman as his parents were political activists tragically killed during a prostest. He is not street wise in the way that Wheeler is or tech savvy like Linka. He does not have the ability to control major elements as the rest of the planeteers do. Physically as he is the smallest he is not the strongest. And yet in spite of all this, his power is the most important. Ma-ti has a natural sense of empathy for those around him. Those who are human and non-human. If necessary Ma-Ti can communicate telepathically with those around him. Whenever the planeteers are feeling particularly discouraged he offers them comfort. Also, in situations where compassion is in short supply Ma-ti finds himself acting as the voice of reason. Being the youngest and smallest Ma-Ti does not always feel needed within the planetteers who seemingly have more useful powers. As a result of his size and age he sometimes doubts if he can really make a difference. This is a feeling many young people can relate to.
Captain Planet is targeted at children. When you are a child, people often underestimate you and rarely listen to you. Our young friend Ma-Ti frequently deals with this, but time and time again throughout the series his compassion and empathy for others is what saves the day. The character of Ma-Ti shows views, who are more likely than not pretty young, anyone no matter how small can make a difference. As Gaia says in the pilot, “You cannot save the planet without heart.”
Within the series an eco-terrorist is usually representative of some environmental problem plaguing the planet. There is the wealthy and greedy Lutton Plunder who will do anything for money. Weather it’s is encouraging a nuclear war or draining precious water supplies if it means making money he doesn’t care about the consequences. Lutton Plunder (the pun is totally intended) is meant to represent greedy corporations who cause damage to the planet for financial gain. Hoggish Greed the half man and (you guessed it) half hog who over uses and abuses for his own personal gain. He is meant to represent (let’s face it) American overconsumption and it’s consequences. The sinister and power mad Dr. Barbara Blight who uses and abuses technology in a quest for power. And of course Duke Nukem (this show liked to pun) who lives off of nuclear waste.
In 1996 Captain Planet went off the air, but it’s legacy is still going strong not. In 1991 the Captain Planet Foundation was founded. Believing that children are one of earth’s most valuable resources the organization provides grants to young people who are members of their own planeteer clubs all over the world to do projects that help preserve the planet. The Captain Planet Foundation also focuses on simply educating students using campaigns that represent the five elements that made the planeteers: earth, wind, water, fire, and heart. In addition to its one-liners and fun theme song it stressed that any person no matter how young can make a difference and that every little action helps. Maybe at the time the children who watched it, were getting a lot of information about real world problems. Without being too preachy at the end of every episode there would be a public service announcement that would tell the viewers a change they could make in their every day lives to help the planet.
Twenty years later sadly our world is still in peril. Lutton Plunder and Hoggish Greed were of course fictional characters. However the greedy corporations that Mr. Plunder was meant to represent however are very real. And in America where more, bigger, and better is a way of life there are plenty of Hoggish Greeds walking around. It goes without saying that none of issues the planeteers were dealing with have not been solved.
Malcom X said, “The media is the most powerful entity on the earth. They have the power to make the innocent guilty and to make the guilty innocent, innocent and that’s power. Because they control the minds of the masses.” Television has the ability to impact behavior. More often than not this is usually thought of as a bad thing, but it’s not always. For years television has been a way to tackle real world issues by making it personal. The Golden Girls discussed LGBT rights in a time when no one wanted to. All In the Family tackled Prejudice. The Brady Bunch represented blended families. Most people no matter where they fall on the political spectrum watch television.
That brings us to a predicament. In this age of political polarization we are in a situation where half of country does not trust the information it’s being given from the other half and vice versa. This means that half of the country does not believe the information about the problems facing the environment are real. Captain Planet had a character for everyone. It addressed real world problems in a way that was easy to understand stressed their importance. In order for the environmental movement to keep going it needs young people on board.
That is why Captain Planet and media like is important and needed. Before the distrust set in and before partisan attachments were fully formed called young people to action and empowered them to make a difference. For many it greatly influenced their worldviews. It showed children that no matter who they were or where they were from they had the power to effect change. Captain Planet realized something that even now some environmental movements have missed: young people are an invaluable natural resource.