Environment Personal Essay

Saving the World: Individual Action and Systemic Change

Captain Planet exhorted 90s children to save the world — while also showing us how large industry and government inaction stack the cards against meaningful change. Thirty years on, was Captain Planet right?

Was Captain Planet right?

This article was originally published in The Hindu’s Open Page.

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In primary school I watched the US animated series Captain Planet. This series follows the adventures of five teenagers, who use magic rings to save Earth from environmental degradation. Pollution. Deforestation. Acid rain. This children’s series was clear about its heroes – the five Planeteers, and their ringleader, the superhero Captain Planet. It was also clear about its villains: evil industrialists who sacrificed sustainability for profits. The closing-credits song was a rousing call to action: “We’re the Planeteers / You can be one too / Saving our planet is the thing to do / Looting and polluting / Is not the way…”

Captain Planet’s message was clear: individual action can save the earth.

I was sold. Earth was in danger, and I had to save it. Over the next two decades, I found numerous causes for worry; and, for each, another way to minimise my consumption. Rubbish was choking the earth. So I forfeited new clothes, forewent use-and-throw containers, and clung on to malfunctioning electronics. The carbon cost of growing animal products exceeded the cost of growing vegetable food. So I went vegan. Forests were disappearing. So I forewent my chief pleasure: hard-copy books. I even considered abandoning running: for when you run, you generate more carbon dioxide.

My efforts felt isolated and hopeless. Here I was, making all these sacrifices – and nobody else around me seemed to care. Endangered elephants, rhinos, and tigers were being poached. Lakes choked with toxic rubbish were catching fire. Once-in-500-year wildfires and hurricanes were happening every year. Football-field-sized swathes of forest were disappearing every day. All my lifestyle changes added up to carbon savings so tiny that they felt meaningless.

Frustrated, I turned my back on saving the earth. The problem was too big, and it wasn’t my fault, and it was too painful to keep struggling in vain.

Then I began speaking with friends. I found I’d been wrong: other people do worry about the earth. Like me, they find individual action inconvenient, sometimes unaffordable – e.g. switching from conventional to organic produce. Above all, people are daunted by the magnitude of the problem, and by the tiny effects of individual action. Does my switching from a petrol-fuelled to a battery-operated car really matter – when our households, offices, and industries are fuelled by coal- and oil-burning power-plants?

Commentators draw our attention to a simple fact: environmental degradation is a systemic problem, and requires systemic change. The global economy has a deeply unsound basis. Maximise private profits at the cost of the vulnerable: marginalised human communities, wildlife, and their habitats. The economy depends on continual growth. As individuals, our self-worth depends on how much we produce and consume. Corporations evade anti-pollution laws, bribe or lobby governments to turn a blind eye to social and environmental disasters, and view social-ecological responsibility as an optional add-on to a fundamentally unsound modus operandi. Just as corporations pass the environmental costs of business to citizens – in the form of morbidity and mortality from air and water pollution – so, too, corporations are happy to pass on to us the responsibility for environmental action. Ironically, evil corporations would endorse Captain Planet’s message to individual worriers: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

Captain Planet was wrong. Individual action cannot save the world. I could reduce and reuse all I want – maybe I could even find a recycling plant in India. But, without large-scale systemic change from governments and major corporations, individual action is a drop in the rising seas.

Reducing our consumption does matter. But, to tip the scales, we need to unite as advocates for systemic change. We need to demand that nations and corporations value tomorrow’s existence as much as today’s profits.


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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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