Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Tomorrowland

A couple of weeks ago while in Orlando, Florida, my family and I paid a visit to Disney World. Not surprisingly, the nagging trepidations I felt leading up to the big day were far outweighed by the all-but-uncontrollable excitement brimming from our seven year-old daughter, Jade. As it happened, we spent much of our day in and around Tomorrowland. “How bad could it be?,” I thought as we walked past Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe. After all, I’m interested in the future.

Over the next couple of hours, our futuristic adventures included Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, where we were invited to blast aliens allied with the evil Emperor Zurg (sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance). Then there was Stitch’s Great Escape, where we were trained to guard dangerous alien prisoners. Next my wife and I shared our first roller coaster experience, zooming through the darkness down Space Mountain. I was particularly intrigued to experience Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress, which blends nostalgia and futurism to show the story of a “typical” American family (read white and affluent here). Walt Disney was a futurist of sorts, and a big believer in the power of technology.

Munching on popcorn as we exited the park at dusk, I found myself reflecting on the futuristic vision of Tomorrowland—and becoming increasingly bothered. Now I realize that a kid-oriented theme park is not the first place one should seek out wise prognostications. Nevertheless, it seems likely that this wildly popular 21st Century cultural attraction conveys elements of the vision broadly held by Western societies.

In particular, I think that Tomorrowland embodies three implicit—and, to my mind, disturbing—assumptions. The first is that humans are divorced from nonhuman nature here on Earth. The only nonhuman lifeforms I saw in Disney World’s vision of the future were aliens and an ageing animatronic dog named Rover (in the Carousel). The unstated message is clear; whatever the future holds for us, it need not involve the plethora of nonhuman lifeforms currently living on the planet. I guess Earth-bound species are superfluous if we’re destined to explore the galaxy (“To infinity, and beyond!”).

The second assumption is that technology can fix anything. Got a problem? Just apply a little old fashioned human ingenuity and you’ll soon have a microwave oven, containment field, or handheld blaster that provides a solution. The third and closely related assumption is the inevitability of progress. With the ever-accelerating power of technology at our disposal, continual progress—defined mostly in terms of labor-saving devices and rocketships—is our destiny and the future looks ever brighter.

Now for the anticipated dose of reality. Contrary to the vision of Tomorrowland, we are inextricably embedded in nature and entirely dependent on its constant supply of air, water, and food. At least for the foreseeable future, we don’t have another planet, let alone a galaxy of planets, to turn to if we mess this one up. So this world must be our priority, and any vision of the future needs to feature a healthy, vibrant Earth. Technology simply is not going to bail us out of all our eco-predicaments—we also need to shift the way we think about the places we live and the other creatures that share these places with us. And finally, material progress cannot continue infinitely on a finite planet. We must rethink the notion of “progress” and redefine it in terms of human health and the health of the planet.

At this point, many of you are probably thinking, “Ok, fair enough, but Disney World? Come on. Shouldn’t Disney World just be a place of fun—a wonderworld escape from all the bad news we face daily?” In my opinion, the answer is yes and no. On the one hand, I’m certainly not advocating that Disney incorporate eco-disaster elements like global warming and mass extinction into their parks; fun should definitely be the theme. On the other, even theme parks should be conscious of the implicit messages they convey to both children and adults. The unhappy truth of the matter is that civilization and its supposedly bright future of techno-gadgets and space travel is currently in jeopardy. Arguably the greatest threat is dysfunctional human thinking, including prevalent notions like the human-nature divide, blind faith in technology, and the inevitability of progress.

Imagine for a moment if Tomorrowland became a big part of the solution instead of perpetuating the problem. On a larger scale, what might happen if Disney devoted a substantial portion of its mega-power to promoting a sustainable vision? Picture all those amazing, creative minds applying their energies to illustrate new, healthier ways of thinking. Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, and the Disney princesses could all be enlisted in the cause, helping kids reconnect with the nonhuman world and grow up to be stewards of the planet. Fantasy? Perhaps, but sustainability is going to require not only changes in parenting and education, but also in the bombardment of messages that our children receive daily and hourly through the media.

My strong hunch is that the media will not make the necessary changes voluntarily, at least as long as the mantra of materialism remains dominant. But a sufficiently large grassroots movement that set about to change the messages our children receive could not be ignored even by the largest corporations. The first steps in this process are building awareness of the problem and fostering discussion of potential solutions. For starters, think about the messages—explicit and implicit—that you expose yourself (and perhaps your children) to every day. How do these messages constrain the way we view the world and our interaction with it? Now think about changing your behavior so that you and your family receive healthier, more accurate messages that are consistent with our current moment in history.

Please understand. I do not mean to disparage all of Disney’s cultural contributions. As a family, we’ve enjoyed many Disney movies, and the Disney theme parks differ from most others in an important commodity—magic. It’s amazing to watch kids stand in awe when meeting Cinderella, or smile uncontrollably upon spotting Mickey Mouse. My wish is that this remarkable sense of magic be linked to the wonder of Earth’s natural bounty to help forge lasting connections between children and nature. Yes, I may be a naïve dreamer, but it’s a dream worthy of our energies.

(Note: all images courtesy of wdwmemories.com)

5 comments:

  1. I understand where you're coming from and agree for the most part. I do think it's important to note, however, some of the other Disney parks: Animal Kingdom, and Epcot, for example which do touch on some of these issues of conservation, sustainability, etc.

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  2. Evan,

    You are correct, of course. Disney's animal parks do address aspects of conservation and sustainability. Thank you for pointing this out. Let me emphasize that my argument is not so much that Disney and many other media-related corporations do not address any aspects of sustainability. Clearly they do. Not surprisingly, however, they also reflect the worldview of our culture, and we need to consider how we (and these media outlets) might alter that worldview toward something more sustainable.

    Thanks again. Scott

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  3. Hi Dr. Sampson,
    I totally agree with this post. This is not about Disney, this is about the view of the future. We ARE part of the nature, so nature should be in our future too: and here we have another goal to reach in our work. I fear I'm a naïve dreamer too...
    Cheers,

    F.G.

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  4. I would also like to add that part of the problem is the attitude of many scientists and public educators. Disney has repeatedly reached out to several museums and other places with noted scientists with the idea that they could lend their extensive money and experience designing exhibits that draw people in to the scientific and educational understanding of professionals in the field. Disney is almost always rebuffed because people don't want their institution "Disneyfied", they don't want to be seen as entertainment over education.
    This I think is a mistake. What better match than between peerless entertainers and knowledgeable scientists when the goal of both is to educate? Educators complain that there is never the money to do what they want, but when a commercial enterprise offers it, they snobbishly turn it down.
    If we want to impact the message that places like Disney puts out, we need to welcome them when they knock on our doors. Don't be afraid to put "this exhibit sponsored by Disney" in your museum.

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