If you were a 90s kid like me, you’ll probably remember watching a cartoon about five kids with magical rings that could summon a green haired dude in red speedos to help protect the environment from bad guys.
Any self-respecting member of Gen Y loved Captain Planet. The series aired from 1990 to 1996 and had everything a child could possibly want from a show: cool pollution-fighting teenagers known as the Planeteers, an idolised super hero who always defeated the evil characters contaminating earth, and a Planeteer Alert at the end of each episode in which different environmental messages were delivered to the audience.
It’s fair to say that as a kid, I didn’t fully grasp the significance of the lessons being communicated by the show’s creators, Ted Turner and Barbara Pyle. And it wasn’t until I decided to revisit my childhood and re-watch the series – head’s up: I’m nostalgic af – that I realised how good this show actually was.
Captain Planet was, without a doubt, a revolutionary cartoon. At a time when environmental concerns were gaining momentum in the, the show was making ideas of sustainability, renewability and conservation understandable and accessible to young children through mainstream pop culture.
The show dealt with environmental degradation and climate change as a global security threat requiring urgent action on both a grassroots and governmental level. It pointed out the idiocy of nations spending millions (if not billions) of dollars on weapons for national security, but failing to take action to defend themselves from the dangers of irreparable environmental damage.
As an adult, I now appreciate the show’s diversity of characters, particularly when most series these days continue to be whitewashed. In keeping with its central message of environmental action being a global responsibility, the five main characters hailed from different parts of the world – Kwame was from Africa, Wheeler was from North America, Linka was from the Soviet Union (later changed to Eastern Europe after the fall of the USSR), Gi was from Asia, and Ma-Ti was from South America.
It’s now 21 years since Captain Planet aired its last episode, and in that time, the children who once watched it have become adults living in a world where human induced climate change has had a number of devastating impacts on the planet. These include the arctic ice declining at a rate of 13.3% per decade, some marine species’ populations decreasing in number by 49%, and the first species of mammal – the Bramble Cay melomys, which once was found in an island off the coast of Queensland — becoming extinct.
But these Captain Planet devotees have not been idle in the face of such irreparable damage. Although Captain Planet was once merely a cartoon advocating proactive environmental action to children who they recognised as future environmental leaders, it has now become a social movement led by adults across the world passionate about saving the environment.
I reached out to Barbara Pyle – the self-proclaimed “mamma” of Captain Planet – to discuss her thoughts on the series’ lasting impact, and her grief at the pitiful state of the environment.
“How could we know Captain Planet [would be so popular],” questions Pyle.
“We wanted it to be popular, we put our hearts and souls into it, but who could ever believe that it would impact your entire generation? Our mission was to arm children with the facts, so that they could grow up to be environmentally literate adults”.
And so the Planeteer Movement was born, a worldwide organisation bringing together environmentalists working to spread the message of Captain Planet. As the movement’s website acknowledges:
“Captain Planet and the Planeteers armed an entire generation with an environmental vocabulary and the power to change the Earth’s future. Inspired by the messages of the series, the now adult Planeteers around the world are now working together in tandem to create a sustainable future.”
These planeteers have established over 60 environmental networks in various countries across the globe, including Australia. Ghana’s planeteer movement remains the largest in the world, with over 500 active members. Through Facebook groups, members are able to draw attention to environmental atrocities and take necessary action.
Pyle herself is currently living in St Lucia, where she and other planeteers are devoting much time and energy to preventing the opening of a captive dolphin park and protecting the island’s mangroves.
“[These planeteers] are not just people who liked a television show; it’s a generation of youth that have taken the information [in the show], incorporated it into their world view, and are living their life in a way that does not harm the environment and makes the world a better place,” explains Pyle.
There is also the Captain Planet Foundation, which focuses on empowering today’s children to become global environmental changers through the provision of educational resources and funding grants.
The Foundation was established with money raised from a 15 per cent licensing fee Pyle imposed on environmentally friendly Captain Planet merchandise – including Marvel comics made from recycled paper, and sustainably made toys. The aim of the foundation is to facilitate the growth of youth-led projects of benefit to the environment and local communities.
There’s no denying that Captain Planet was one of the best things to come out of the ‘90s. The show’s teachings undoubtedly left an indelible mark on its young audiences, empowering them to grow up to be, in their own small way, environmental activists. Thanks to this show, a generation of children has grown up to become adults conscious of their power and responsibility to protect the environment.
“You guys grew up,” says Pyle. “I blinked and you guys are adults now, and you’re taking over, and not a second too soon. Not a second too soon.”
Pyle emphasises the importance of the planeteers remaining determined and vigilant in the fight to protect the environment, particularly now that the “proverbial shit has hit the fan” and the “orange monster” has become US President.
“We’re losing every piece of environmental legislation in the United States,” says Pyle. “What’s happening in America is so much worse than the worst episode of Captain Planet. I could never even imagine this.”
But as she points out, things aren’t faring much better in Australia with the continued destruction of the Great Barrier Reef under the Turnbull government.
“We’ve got this crazy government here, and you’ve got a pretty nutty government in Australia,” says Pyle.
“You guys have just got to get rid of that government, and we have got to get rid of our government. The only solution is for the planeteers to run for office. Replace them, and send the looters and polluters home.”
The only way to protect the environment, Pyle tells me, is through global compassion and co-operation.
“I’ll tell you an interesting thing, and most people haven’t worked this out,” Pyle says.
“Captain Planet was called by those five planeteers. So basically, Captain Planet is just a metaphor for teamwork, and he really lives only in the imagination of those five kids. He wasn’t a physical being – the real work was done by the planeteers.
“Captain Planet himself tells you that. When he [is summoned], he says ‘by your powers combined, I am Captain Planet’. So basically, he’s saying, all I am is you guys working together.
“And when he goes back in the ground, he says ‘the power is yours’.
“It’s the truth, the power is ours.”
Photo: Captain Planet.