Benjamin Brooking: A talk with the captain behind Captain Planet

 “…truth, honour, justice, and environmental integrity and sustainability. Once you have these things in your head they’re there, you can never be an asshole basically”.

If you’re lucky, and you have the time between meetings, writing, lobbying, or whatever you’re trying to achieve at COP, you can get the chance to meet some fairly influential people. I wasn’t one of the YOUNGO’s selected to join Al Gore’s high level breakfast, and Aunty Helen was rushed away to the airport before our delegation could greet her. But, I did get the opportunity to meet someone whose name may not ring any bells, but who was the force behind the first environmental champion you probably ever met.

Barbara Pyle, executive producer of the cartoon Captain Planet, was kind enough to give me an hour of her time to chat about all things Captain Planet, environmental education, and combining our powers to save the world. The following are selected excerpts from our conversation.

Barbara Pyle, on attending COP and other conferences:

I went to a conference in 2009 and I had this bag [She points to a tote with a large effigy of captain planet printed on the side]. And it starts with “where did you get the bag?”, and then when I tell people where I got the bag and the next thing is an instant fall-apart, faint, oh my god, you did what! “I’m a Planeteer you can be one too”. I hear it from everybody.

I came [to COP] to see the Planeteers, basically. I’ve kind of lost faith in the UN system. However the Planeteers that are working within the system have given me a tremendous amount of hope… What gives me hope about these negotiations is that there are so many dozens, if not hundreds, of young people who are now part of this system, and they will be the system, and it will be a different system.

Once the problem goes away, I’m looking at it [Barbara is looking at a group of older negotiators at a table behind me]… That’s your problem right there, old thinking. Old thinking is capitalistic thinking, proprietary thinking. It’s greed. It’s how much can I get. How many people do I have to screw over to get it? How cheap can I get my workers to work? How much more product can I crank out of the earth? How many more? How much more? More, more, more. When that philosophy is dead and gone it’ll be a clean sweep. And that’ll be probably in ten years. That’d be my guess.

On the importance of education:

I had been making funny, educational documentaries, but there were no children watching those. The people who were watching those documentaries were fans. They were people who already understood the issues… They don’t need to be taught anything. They already have an understanding and they’re watching it because they care about the issue. If you want to do something that will reach a large number of people it needs to be simplified. Not dumbed down, it needs to be dumbed up if you will… You can’t tell everyone everything about everything. So basically you try to give the essences of the facts. And then you make it fun… Captain Planet was the natural follow on. Because Captain Planet was just the cartoon version of the documentaries. That’s all it was, it was a natural progression. It was the same stories we told in the documentaries. The same locations and the same people… Easy peasy.

So we went for the obvious easy catch, the low hanging fruit, which is my documentaries. Because we could take a story, warp it out to the insanely absurd, and there you have it, a captain planet episode. But then now of course it’s all happened. So it might have been insanely absurd in 1991, but now it’s real… Like we started out [episode one] with a major oil spill, this was before Valdez.

On Captain Planet’s teachings:

Basically Captain Planet is an anti-superhero. He is nothing. He’s actually a fantasy. He’s a figment of their imaginations. He is their powers combined and magnified. He wouldn’t exist without the Planeteers. He flies in and does a little bit of heavy lifting and makes some bad jokes, but, it’s the Planeteers themselves who create Captain Planet so he becomes a metaphor for the exponential power that you gain from working together with one effort. Because, nothing great can happen alone and if you have people of one mind working together towards it to solve a problem this problem will be solved… Basically I just took my entire world view and put it into a cartoon.

Planeteer values aren’t just kid values, they’re grown up values and once you have these values of truth, honour, justice, and environmental integrity and sustainability. Once you have these things in your head they’re there, you can never be an asshole basically… once you understand the truth you can never go back to the lie.

On her motivation.

I believe that we can save this damn thing. Or we can at least save some of it for the next generation. Your generation, and the generation younger than you are. Our generation doesn’t deserve to be saved, quite honestly, and neither do most of the middle [generations] either. They’ve been a big part of the problem… if you’re not part of the solution you are the problem as far as I’m concerned. If you’re not working to make the world a better place, then stand aside, get out of the way. Because there’s only room now to work on an emergency basis. Because, we are in a global emergency and most people don’t even get it. But, you guys get it because you watched captain planet.


All posts by Institute delegates reflect their own thoughts, opinions and experiences, and do not reflect those of the Institute.

Posted on January 2, 2015 and filed under UN Climate Talks 2014.