Television sitcoms are unlikely sources for meaningful stories about the environment. But there are exceptions. I found one of them in Jim Henson’s Dinosaurs, a puppet show that ran for four seasons from 1991 to 1994. Dinosaurs takes place in 60 million years BC and follows the lives of a typical dinosaur family: Earl Sinclair, father; Fran Sinclair, mother (voiced by Jessica Walters, for all you Arrested Development fans out there); Robbie Sinclair, son; Charlene Sinclair, daughter; Junior Sinclair, aka The Baby; and Grandmother Phillips. The show is a satirized portrayal of the American household; each episode typically features the family dealing with topical issues of the day. The LA Times described the show as a “consistently funny comedy to chew on, the only spot on television where the Mesozoic Era intersects with witty social commentary.” Many regarded the show as a unique blend of The Honeymooners, The Flintstones, and All in the Family.
The series finale titled “Changing Nature” revolves around Earl’s irresponsible actions towards the environment, and provided an emotional and lasting experience for me as a young teenager. After a recent watching (one can readily find the episode online), I believe that the episode is an Ekostory that provides useful insights into our attitudes towards culture and nature.
Changing Nature begins with the dinosaur civilization anticipating the return of the bunch beetle, massive swarms of insects that migrate back to the continent of Pangaea every year precisely on May 14th. But something is wrong this year; only one beetle named Stan returns. In the absence of the bunch beetles, a form of creeper vine grows unchecked, threatening to overgrow everything and causing major day-to-day inconveniences. Charlene and Stan soon discover the swampland that the bunch beetles rely on as a breeding ground has been paved over to make room for a new Wesayso wax fruit factory; all the beetles were wiped out in the construction process.
More worried about public relations than the actual ecological consequences of the company’s actions, B.P. Richfield, manager of Wesayso Corporation, puts Earl, one of his employees and a joe-average citizen, in charge of a task force to bring the vine problem under control. Earl, enamoured with technology and progress, proposes the use of a defoliant to destroy the vines. The plan works, but also has the unintended consequence of killing all plant life on the planet. Concerned but still optimistic, Earl supports Richfield’s plan to drop bombs in volcanoes in order to create clouds. After all, everyone knows that rain leads to plant growth. But the resulting dark clouds prove to be so dense that they blot out the sun and cause global cooling; dinosaur scientists estimate it could take tens of thousands of years before they disperse.
Richfield is overjoyed, saying that the Wesayso Corporation is enjoying record profits due to sales of blankets and heaters. By this time, Earl realizes at last the ramifications of his actions and apologizes sincerely to his family. The show ends with the news anchor looking at the bleak forecast and signing off with “Good Night and Goodbye”, implying that the extinction of the dinosaur civilization is nigh.
Attitudes to Technology and Progress
Earl Sinclair: Destroyer of dinosaur civilization. Oops. From imdb.com
Earl is my favourite character in the show. He works as a tree pusher for the Wesayso Corporation (pronounced We Say So) under his B.P. Richfield, a constantly angry and completely amoral Styracosaurus. Earl is portrayed as a Homer Simpson-esque character, an average joe who loves to drink beer, hang out with his buddies, and has well-meaning intentions for his family.
Earl’s worldview and value system is usually contrasted with the rest of his family’s, especially his children Robbie and Charlene. He sincerely believes that progress is the greatest thing to come out of the dinosaur civilization, which is built upon a capitalistic industrial economy reliant on intense, exhaustive exploitation of natural and dinosaur resources. He is enamoured with the luxuries provided by modern society: wax fruit, TV, basically any new gadget that will make his life easier. In Changing Nature, there are several scenes that illustrate his enthusiasm for progress, including one in the very beginning of the episode where he tries to figure out his brand new grill:
“Earl: There’s always resistance to the new. But I’m not afraid. Modern technology may be daunting to smaller minds, but when I master this Pyromatic 5000, we’ll be eating the future!”
Throughout most of the episode, he dismisses many of the objections his family raises towards his unshakable faith in technology and progress. When Charlene, his daughter goes to the media to disclose how the Wesayso Corporation eradicated bunch beetles, a keystone species in the ecosystem, he speaks up to defend his faith:
“Earl: It’s time for a responsible opposing viewpoint: You’re full of it! Progress is good. It’s progress that puts electricity in the toothbrush! Progress that put potato chips in a tennis ball can…
Stan the Bunch Beetle (in the background): That’s true!
Earl: Oh sure, some sacrifices have to be made along the way, a forest here, a few species there, but in the end, wouldn’t you trade all that for great advancements like …. Uh.. Oh! Microwave Toast! Yeah, you wanna talk about progress – this takes all the hassle out of making toast.”
I really can’t stay mad at such a hilarious character and such a funny exchange. But beneath it lays the commonly held view that continuous progress is necessary for prosperity. In the real world, this paradigm has brought about undeniably better standards of living for millions, if not billions of people, over the last several centuries. Advances in food production, improvements in sanitation, and the discoveries of modern medicine have improved our lives in monumental ways. But is a model of progress for progress’ sake and growth for growth’s sake still desirable in a crowded and environmentally degraded world? What does genuine progress mean after our basic needs have been met? Is this way of thinking and the system it is responsible for still serving our needs and making us happy and fulfilled individuals? These are serious questions that we as a global community must reflect on.
No plant life left? No problem – “There are a wide variety of commercial snack foods with no natural ingredients.”
Back to the story: Earl’s faith in technology and the Wesayso Corporation is finally shaken after he sees the resulting wasteland that the defoliant has caused. Nevertheless, he still remains optimistic about technology’s ability to save the day. Towards the end, he finally comes to realize that his actions have actually doomed civilization. I know it’s terrible to laugh at the end of the world, but it’s still so funny upon a recent rewatch. The apology that he offers to his family is genuine, but comes too late:
Earl: But it’s just so easy to take nature for granted, because it’s always there. And technology is so… bright and shiny and new!
It is difficult to resist the allure of the “bright and shiny and new”. As a species, humanity has always relied on technology to survive. From the fire to the spear to the computer, technology has had a profound and integral role in the shaping of our thinking and our societies. I don’t believe shunning technology because it has the potential to do harm is a constructive nor feasible stance to take. What we must determine is how to align its use in ways that help us prosper. Technology should serve us, and not the other way around; it must be appropriate and suitable within its context. Of course, what is deemed appropriate and what is prosperity have always been the trickiest parts.
- As environmentalists, we are interested in affecting change. What is the difference between change and progress?
- How do you define progress?
- How do you define prosperity?
Will someone please think of the children?
Remember “I’m the Baby, Gotta Love Me?” If not, you’re probably too young for this entry.
Changing Nature provides a very clear reminder that what we do today will affect the world we leave to future generations. Earl speaks to Baby after he realizes that he has most likely doomed the dinosaur civilization:
Baby: Understand what?
Earl: Well little guy, what happened was.. Daddy was put in charge of the world, and he didn’t take very good care of it. And now it looks like there isn’t much of a world left for you and brother and sister to live in.
Baby: Are we going to move?
Earl: Well no… there’s no place to move to. This is the only world we got.
Baby: What’s going to happen to us?
Earl: Well.. I don’t exactly know.
Earl’s heartfelt exchange with his son is filled with uncertainty and regret; he understands that he failed in his responsibilities as a parent because of his reckless actions towards the environment. Baby’s naive question about moving is a reminder that mobility is not an option in a finite world; there is no “away”, nowhere to escape to.
As a primetime sitcom, Dinosaurs catered to two different demographics: kids who watch it for the animatronic dinosaurs and parents who understand and appreciate the humour. At the time of the airing, Changing Nature carried a special parental warning in TV Guide that cautioned parents that the subject matter might frighten or disturb younger viewers. Noted environmental educator David Sobel stated that children, whose sense of time, place, and self are still forming, should not be exposed to environmental tragedies for fear that they may be overwhelmed by the scope and magnitude of environmental problems. As a teenager, Changing Nature shocked me with the bleakness of its ending, but I did not find myself falling into despair or hopelessness. The sadness of the story ultimately made it enduring and memorable; it served as a cautionary tale that helped shape my thinking around humanity’s currently dysfunctional relationship with nature.
- Do you agree or disagree with the maxim of “no environmental tragedies before the fourth grade”? Why or why not?
Satire : Social commentary and Criticism
Imagine a world without fine wax fruit. I certainly can’t.
Dinosaurs is a heavily satirical show; that’s the main reason why I loved it. One of the roles of satire is to confront us with the absurdity of a potential situation. Satire is meant to be comical, but it also has a greater purpose of conveying constructive social criticism through the use of wit. We see examples of this throughout in Changing Nature:
- Who would be crazy enough to defoliate the world?
- Who would drop bombs in volcanoes to make it rain?
- Who would wipe out entire species to build a wax fruit factory?
- How absurdly stupid would corporations have to be to revel in the destruction of the world?
The unsettling feeling comes when one realizes that these supposedly absurd scenarios don’t stray too far from reality. There are people in power that don’t understand our dependence of the food web. There are politicians who lack a basic understanding of science and the scientific method. There have been examples in our recent history where humanity has carelessly wiped out species that numbered in the billions within a single generation. Perhaps most troubling of all is the resemblance between the fictional Wesayso Corporation in Dinosaurs and the ones in real life.
BP Richfield, by Themrock.
The short-term thinking shown by most corporations is well-documented. There are more examples than not of environmental and social problems being framed strictly as public relations and image issues. Within the last decade, the unchecked pursuit of financial profit regardless of external costs has been responsible for major world economic instability. For me, the funniest and scariest exchange from Changing Nature was when Earl confronts his boss on the global cooling that could end the dinosaur civilization:
B.P. Richfield: This sudden cold snap is a godsend! Dinosaurs are flocking to stores buying Wesayso heaters, Wesayso blankets, and Wesayso old-fashioned hot cocoa mix. [Laughs] We’re going to have the best third quarter in history!
Earl: Uh.. Sir, I think this could be the last third quarter in history.
Richfield: Oh, don’t turn into one of those environmental doomsayers, Sinclair! Boohoo, it’s raining acid, there’s a hole in the ozone, you’re hurting Flipper! Blah! Bunch of tree hugging pantywaists! They’re always standing in the way of progress, and it’s our job to pave right over them!
Earl: I think you’re missing the point, sir. The world may be coming to an end!
Richfield: Well, that’s a fourth quarter problem! We’ll drop a bomb on that bridge when we come to it! Right now, my biggest problem is trying to figure out what to do with all this money! *Evil laugh*
That’s a fourth quarter problem! We’ll drop a bomb on that bridge when we come to it: A hilarious, unnerving phrase that represents the intersection of satire with reality. But how far is this from the truth?
- Have any satirical stories out there really made you think about deeper societal issues?
Walking the line: From Preachiness to Poignancy
I’ve read many of the reactions surrounding Changing Nature. Some people were angry at the finale because they expected Dinosaurs for strict entertainment purposes. Others regarded it as a thought-provoking and intelligent piece of television. It is difficult to craft any issues-oriented story that is affective and meaningful without being manipulative and preachy. Personally, I think Changing Nature can come across as being a little heavy-handed, but ultimately it is a funny and poignant story that succeeds in being both entertaining and educating. I would invite you to check it out and tell me what you think.
Next Week: The REAL reason why Dinosaurs are extinct.
Images and footage of Dinosaurs © 1994 Jim Henson Productions. All rights reserved.