Understanding the Environmental Values of Wall-E
In Pixar’s Wall-e, a small robot is left to clean up the world after humans pollute it to an unlivable state, forcing them to flee the planet in giant resort spaceships. This robot then discovers a plant growing amongst the trash, spurring an adventure that leads to the re-colonization of the once polluted earth. This film seems to criticize consumerism and capitalism at it leads to the destruction of the planet, however Wall-e’s values become much more convoluted when the theme of re-colonization becomes a major part of the plot once life is rediscovered on earth. I contend that Wall-E’s system of values, despite its clear promotion of environmentalism, end up polarizing the spectrum of environmental values, between egocentric capitalists and environmentalists, rather than seeking to find a compromise in the middle such as sustainable development or market liberals.
The world of Wall-e is one destroyed by the fictitious monopoly “Buy and Large”, a giant department store in a similar vein to stores such as Walmart. The CEO of this corporation also serves as the president of the United States, illustrating a dystopian government completely focused on the market success and business growth with no interest in the environment. This is the egocentric environmental worldview. Merchant elaborates on the egocentric ethic stating “in America it has been the guiding ethic of private entrepreneurs and corporations who’s primary goal is the maximization of profit from the development of natural resources” (Merchant, 1992 pg. 64). This ethic is the driving force behind the state of humanity in Wall-E. Humans had become so infatuated with consumerism and egocentrism that they exploited the resources to the point where there was no longer nature, just human survival through a giant corporation.
The introduction of the plant that Wall-E discovers spurs the humans to leave their consumerist lives and return to an earth that is absent of this egocentric value. They aim to return to an agrarian life absent of the trash that had so severely polluted the planet before. This ethic could be described as Green romanticism, or the idea, as Dryzek describes, that opinions and values of humans should be changed, and that doing so would completely save the environment (Baxter, 1999 pg 9). It is essentially the opposite of the egocentrist who wants to shift opinions toward the self, and utilizing natural resources to save the self. This green romanticism is extremely clear through the almost Eden like return that the earth receives upon the human’s re-colonization. This value argues that once the humans are able to escape the grasp of consumerism then their values will change enough to support the return of life to earth and ultimately save the environment.
The polarization of these two values leads to an inability to find a middle ground between capitalism and environmentalism. By ignoring the middle ground, Wall-E creates a narrative that criticizes any form of capitalism in favor of a society that puts the environment above everything else. When applied to reality this value is incredibly dangerous, as it does not allow for both market and environmentally friendly ethics such as sustainable development. Values such as sustainable development encourage both the growth of the market but also the growth of sustainable environmentally friendly culture. The values found within Wall-E greatly criticize any degree of market presence in fear of consumer culture, however by doing so they do not allow both sides to deliberate in favor of both. Essentially, by choosing to polarize its environmental values instead of seek a middle ground, Wall-E creates a narrative that ignores the possibility of growth for both sides with values such as sustainable development. If we are to succeed in both the market and in environmentalism, we must deliberate to both sides rather than polarize, or else no progress will be made towards a successful society.
Baxter, B. (1999). Ecologism: An introduction. Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press.
Merchant, C. (1992). Radical ecology: The search for a livable world. New York: Routledge.
Stanton, A. (Director), Stanton, A., Reardon, J., Burtt, B., Knight, E., & Garlin, J. (Writers), &
Morris, J. (Producer). (2008). WALL-E [Motion picture]. United States: Walt Disney
Studios Motion Pictures.