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In Defense of Disney's Strange Solarpunk World

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    Disney’s Strange World is a colorful,
    sometimes silly
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    adventure through an exotic
    alien landscape
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    It's definitely a movie that’s geared
    toward a younger audience
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    but that doesn't mean its message is
    childish or shallow
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    To explain why, let’s jump to
    the halfway point in the story where
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    we find our heroes have passed their journey
    to play a board game called Primal Outpost
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    Ethan: A little Primal Outpost?
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    It’s sort of a mashup of Magic The Gathering
    and Settlers of Catan
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    but the goal isn’t to defeat monsters
    or expand territory
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    Ethan: A daemon spider!
    Jaeger: Kill it!
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    Ethan: Ah ah the point is not to kill it.
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    instead the players are supposed to
    cooperate to build a better world
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    Ethan: The objective of Primal Outpost is
    to live harmoniously with your environment
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    That goal is also a distillation of
    the larger message of the movie
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    There is no Disney villain to defeat.
    instead the heroes must convince their society
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    to abandon the fuel source that powers the
    comforts and conveniences of their daily lives
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    before it destroys their world
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    As far as ecological parables go
    that’s a surprisingly radical one
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    Strange World's visuals are borrowed
    from old pulp adventure magazines
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    but its theme has much more in common
    with solar punk narratives
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    Solar punk is a relatively recent artistic,
    literary, and media trend
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    that uses science fiction as a lens to tell
    stories about regenerating ecosystems,
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    futuristic permaculture farming, mutual
    aid networks, and sustainable urban living.
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    The idyllic themes and visuals are evocative
    of and often inspired by Studio Ghibli films
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    that predate the term by decades,
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    especially Castle In the Sky, Princess
    Mononoke, and Nausicaa of the
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    Valley of the Wind.
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    At the moment, solar punk is less of a full
    fledged genre in its own right,
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    and more of an aspirational idea of a genre.
    But it's growing rapidly to include video games
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    Game narrator: Use toxin scrubbers to cleanse
    the soil and sea. Pumps and irrigators
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    get clean water everywhere it needs to go,
    allowing the natural greenery to grow.
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    My favorite example of works explicitly
    written as part of the solar punk trend
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    are a pair of novellas by Becky Chambers
    published as the Monk & Robot series.
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    At its core solar punk is an optimistic
    reaction to the cynical dystopian narratives
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    that saturate much of popular culture
    wherein hyper-capitalism has thoroughly
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    ruined the world in one terrible way
    or another.
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    At this point most of us have seen so many
    spectacular global catastrophes that the
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    end of the world can start to feel both
    mundane and inevitable.
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    Robot: You've seen one post-apocalyptic
    city, you've seen them all.
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    You might have run across a paraphrased version
    of this oft quoted passage by author Fredric Jameson
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    from his 1994 book, The Seeds of Time.
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    "It seems to be easier for us today to imagine
    the thoroughgoing deterioration of the earth
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    and of nature than the breakdown of late capitalism..."
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    "...perhaps that is due to some weakness
    in our imagination."
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    I'd argue that failure of imagination is,
    at least in part, the fault of an entertainment
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    industry that keeps churning out stories
    set in neon-infused corporate dystopias
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    and devastated post-apocalyptic landscapes
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    where the fate of the natural world has
    already been sealed.
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    At their best dystopian stories can serve as
    warnings about the trajectory of the real world
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    But bleak visions of the future have
    become so ubiquitous
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    and so defanged of socioeconomic critique,
    that much of the genre
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    has been reduced to a series of
    stylistic choices and narrative cliches.
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    From time to time, we do see fleeting glimpses
    of possible better futures momentarily peeking
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    through in otherwise dystopian settings
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    Vi: Is that a real tree?
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    Ekko: Pretty cool huh? When I first saw it
    I knew this was the place.
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    Ekko: If a single seed can male it down
    here, so can we.
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    But even those brief visions of ecological
    sustainability only seem to exist as part of
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    an impossibly distant future, in some alternate
    universe, or inside of a virtual simulation
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    Strange World offers a refreshing
    break from that pattern
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    because although the environment
    is in great parallel,
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    there’s still time to save it
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    In the opening scenes we learn Avalonia
    progressed from a pre-industrial village society
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    to a techno-futuristic one thanks to a newly
    discovered energy source called Pando.
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    Though grown and harvested like vegetables,
    Pando is a pretty clear metaphor for fossil fuels.
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    Searcher: Hmm, Pando battery is dead.
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    Meridian: That doesn't make any sense,
    I picked those pods an hour ago.
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    When Pando begins to mysteriously fail,
    The Avalonians embark on an expedition
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    save their way of life.
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    Callisto: Our mission is to follow these
    roots until we reach the heart of Pando...
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    Callisto: ...and stop whatever's harming it!
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    They're determined to find a way to keep
    their fuel flowing.
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    Even if that means going to war and
    exterminating an entire alien species.
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    Since this is an on-the-nose allegory for
    climate change, it turns out that
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    Pando is a parasite, which is very literally
    killing the world.
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    Ethan: This place is alive. It's a living thing!
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    Searcher: So, all this time we've been
    living on the back of this giant creature?
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    Ethan is the first to make the connection
    and understand the severity of their situation.
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    Ethan: And Pando is killing it.
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    And after convincing his family to join
    the cause, they all demand change.
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    Ethan & Searcher: A giant creature!
    Others: What? A giant creature? You can't be serious.
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    Searcher: Okay, listen, this place, this world
    that we live on is a living thing
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    and Pando is killing it. If we wanna
    survive Pando has to go.
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    Others: What?
    Callisto: You want us to Pando?
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    Jaeger: They don't know what they saw
    out there!
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    But their leaders are dead set on maintaining
    the status quo, and deny the truth of
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    what's happening to their ecosystem.
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    Searcher: Callisto?
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    Ethan: Dad!
    Meridian: Get your hands off me!
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    Callisto: Emotions are running really
    high right now, and I don't know
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    what you think you saw, but we came down
    here to save Pando. That plan hasn't changed.
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    Searcher: You have no idea what you're doing!
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    Ethan and his family are even arrested and
    briefly imprisoned for pointing out
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    the scientific reality.
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    Searcher: You're making a big mistake!
    You can't do this!! You have to listen to me!
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    The conflict is short-lived and the deniers
    are soon convinced.
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    Meridian: Now do you see what we're
    dealing with? That's a heart.
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    But the scenario mirrors our own struggles
    over the environment here in the real world.
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    Ethan: ---aaaand, times up!
    Okay, fine. It's dead. See. You killed it.
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    Jaeger: That's what I'm talking about!
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    Just like we saw during that game of Primal
    Outpost, the goal of ecological sustainability
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    is self-evident to younger people.
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    Ethan: For the 27th time, there are no bad
    guys. The objective isn't to kill or destroy
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    monsters. You're just supposed to build a
    working civilization utilizing the environment
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    around you.
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    But the older generations express confusion
    and frustration at the idea.
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    Jaeger: Uh-huh, yeah, I don't get this game.
    Searcher: Ptth! Me neither.
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    Ethan: Oh come on! It is not that complicated!
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    Searcher: No bad guys? What kind of game
    has no bad guys?
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    Jaeger: That's just poor storytelling.
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    Ethan: Okay, you know what? You want bad
    guys? Fine! You two are the bad guys!
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    They're stuck in their ways, comfortable in
    their lifestyle, and the can't fathom making
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    the sacrifices necessary to solve the crisis.
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    The real villain in this story isn't a person.
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    It is instead a rigid worldview that
    refuses to accept the need for change.
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    In the end the people of this strange world
    are convinced to destroy Pando and
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    give up the creature comforts that it
    provides in order to save their world.
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    On one level, this is exactly the type of
    happy ending we've come to expect in
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    animated movies--the revelation that the
    planet and everything living on it
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    are all interconnected is something
    we've seen before.
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    What's different here are the messages
    about our future and how we get there.
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    Meridian: Alright, next stop no power,
    cold coffee, and angry masses!
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    Meridian: Who's ready to go home?
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    In most family-friendly movies with
    environmental themes, saving the earth--
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    Linda: There are rare birds living around
    here! You can't cut down these trees!
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    --is framed in terms of conservation
    rather than systemic change.
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    Ted: And we can start by planting this!
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    And the solution almost always involves
    promoting some small, personal action
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    like picking up litter, turning off the
    lights, or planting a few trees.
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    Planeteers: Go Planet!
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    Captain Planet: The Planeteers want you to join
    them in keeping our planet clean, healthy, and beautiful.
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    Wheeler: It's completely uncool.
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    Captain Planet: The power is yours!
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    This type of message is designed to shift
    the onus for change away from the large
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    institutions who are actually at fault and
    onto individual people.
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    What makes Strange World.so different is
    that the environment isn't saved as the
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    result of a bunch of personal choices. It's
    saved by fundamentally transforming
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    the way an entire society operates.
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    They must quit Pando cold-turkey.
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    The allegory for us in the real world is pointed.
    We must follow the example of the Avalonians
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    and stop extracting and burning fossil fuels.
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    And we can't do it slowly over ten, twenty,
    or thirty years. The transition to green energy
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    needs to be immediate.
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    Contrary to what big energy companies want
    us to believe, there's no quick technological
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    fix just around the corner that will stave
    off climate collapse.
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    Husband: Smells so clean!
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    Coal Rep: Is regular clean clean enough for
    your family?
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    False solutions like clean coal, carbon
    capture, or hydrogen fuel is just
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    smoke-and-mirrors greenwashing campaigns
    meant to distract the public from our
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    continued investment in dirty energy.
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    Coal Rep: Clean coal is supported by the
    coal industry--the most trusted name in coal.
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    If we really want to save planet Earth, we
    simply cannot keep producing and consuming
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    in the wildly unsustainable ways that
    we do now.
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    Now of course reorganizing an entire society
    that's been dependent on harmful energy
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    will require enduring an uncomfortable
    inconvenient period of readjustment.
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    But eras of great transformation can also
    spark creativity and innovation.
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    The Avalonians in Strange World don't need
    to permanently return to an agrarian way of life.
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    They work through a period of hardship,
    no power, and cold coffee, but they do
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    it together as a community, and eventually
    start inventing renewable, wind-powered
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    technology to get the lights back on and
    the airships flying again.
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    The optimistic message that ecological
    harmony is in fact achievable puts
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    Strange World squarely in the solar punk
    camp, despite the lack of solar panels
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    in the story. It is a little ironic that a
    story about radical environmental
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    sustainability comes from the Walt
    Disney company,
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    though it's not the first time filmmakers
    have snuck calls for systemic change
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    into a piece of corporate media.
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    These clips of a beautifully animated
    futuristic farm, for example, are part of
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    a yogurt commercial of all things.
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    Brands have long tried to associate
    themselves with visions of the future,
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    and we can appreciate the rare positive
    message while also recognizing that
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    in a truly better world there is simply
    no place for the corporate structures
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    and systems that have brought our planet
    to the brink of annihilation.
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    When Strange World was released in theaters
    it faced calls for boycotts from reactionary
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    pundits who were angry about its diversity
    and its storyline, where being gay is
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    framed as a completely normal thing
    that's no big deal.
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    Ethan: That's really sweet!
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    The film's choice to center characters of
    color is reflective of another critical
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    element in solar punk world building
    because it acknowledges that many of
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    the ideas surrounding the idea of sustainable
    ecology aren't drawn from far-future science fiction
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    but are instead rooted in African and
    Indigenous traditions developed
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    well before Europeans colonized the planet.
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    Lyla June: By tapping into preexisting
    natural systems, Native farmers have
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    been able to cultivate the same plots of
    land for centuries without ever depleting the soil.
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    The rise of solar punk media underscores
    an important truth--
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    Computer: Mega-restricted area.
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    --while it is necessary to understand the
    severity of the climate crisis that we face
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    grim proclamations of our impending doom
    aren't enough to spur people to mass action.
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    Stories that instead helps us envision the
    kind of future we actually want can be
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    motivating, inspirational, and, critically,
    make that better future feel like it's
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    within our grasp.
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    Thanks so much for watching!
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    I've got a bunch more video essays in the
    works, including one on colonialism in
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    board games, one on the myth of the alpha
    male, and another about how male
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    characters often find redemption only
    through death in Hollywood media.
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    So make sure you're subscribed for those.
    I'll see you again very soon.
Title:
In Defense of Disney's Strange Solarpunk World
Description:

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Video Language:
English
Duration:
16:10

English subtitles

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