Truth be told, I’m usually a cartoon humbug. But from the opening frame of this summer’s Disney/Pixar movie Wall-E — a view of Earth from space, but not our familiar blue and green home, instead the planet is brown and gray and orbited by a thick ring of galactic trash — I realized that this movie had a message above and beyond the usual gooey, goofy animated fare.
It’s the year 2775 and Earth has been abandoned by everyone and everything except for a lone robot and a swarm of immortal cockroaches. The iconic New York City skyline is dwarfed by skyscrapers of trash and Wall-E, short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth-Class, is the architect. He spends his days scooping waste into his trash-compactor stomach, burping out cubes and stacking them into towering piles.
Humans may have been heinous waste-mongers (encouraged by the ubiquitously advertised “Buy N Large” bulk empire), but not Wall-E. Every morning the oddly endearing robot recharges using solar power (the familiar Mac power-on chime when he’s fully charged got a lot of laughs during my screening) and he’s also a diligent recycler, reusing tire treads and parts from other defunct robots when he needs repairs. In this manner, Wall-E has lived sustainably while cleaning up our mess for more than 700 years.
All that time alone has made Wall-E sentimental. As he sifts through our trash he finds treasures — a rubber ducky, an iPod, bubble wrap, a Rubik’s cube — and takes them back to his Christmas-light-lit lair. Wall-E’s nostalgia sparked my own, not for the things he finds but for the healthy blue sky and growing green Earth missing from Wall-E’s bleak world.
But one day everything changes. Wall-E is joined by a visitor from space, a sleek robot named Eve. Wall-E falls instantly in robot-love and when Eve departs on her spaceship, he hitches a ride. After the rocket punches through Earth’s orbiting trash into space, it flies by a montage of space icons — sputnik, the golden LEM and Neil Armstrong’s unwaving lunar flag — on its way to the Axiom, the colossal spaceship home to the even more colossal human race. Thanks to hover chairs — “No need to walk!” — and liquid meals like cupcake-in-a-cup, this version of mankind has become grotesquely obese and mentally more robotic than the heroic Wall-E.
Wall-E’s nonstop adventure and superb Charlie Chaplin-style physical comedy (there’s almost no dialogue) will certainly appeal to kids, but the flick has a lot for adults too. Wall-E’s commentary on our waste woes and the cultural quirks that contribute to our environmental problems is razor-sharp: In an old clip from 2110, the world’s head waste-monger dismisses the need to become more sustainable, stubbornly declaring, “We must stay the course!” In fact, Wall-E is so sharp that by the end, I was relieved to be watching a cartoon where a robot’s love and eternal optimism can save Earth from a bleak future that is all too real.
Wall-E opened in theaters June 27; the DVD release has not been scheduled yet.
The years have not been kind to Africa’s wilderness. Over the past three decades, forests have disappeared, lakes have shrunk and glaciers have melted. But because such changes happen gradually, they’re often overlooked. A new book released in June by the United Nations Environment Programme, however, aims to drive home the message that Africa’s landscape is drastically changing.
Africa: Atlas of Our Changing Environment presents 316 stunning satellite images spanning 36 years. These “before” and “after” shots highlight how development, population growth, climate change and conflicts have changed the face of Africa. The picture that emerges isn’t pretty: Africa is losing 40,000 square kilometers of forest every year, 60 percent of its farmlands are degraded and 300 million people face water shortages. An influx of refugees has damaged the delicate ecosystems of the Jebel Marra foothills of western Sudan. In Rwanda, much of the Gishwati Forest Reserve has been harvested for charcoal, timber, medicine and food. Over the past 35 years, Lake Chad — which is bordered by eight African countries and supports roughly 20 million people — has shrunk to just a tenth of its former size.
Still, success stories do exist. In Tunisia, for example, grasslands have rebounded dramatically inside Sidi Toui National Park, which is protected from grazing cattle.
The entire atlas is available for download at www.unep.org/dewa/africa/AfricaAtlas.
Space travel may seem routine today, but it hasn’t always been that way. That’s one message of the Discovery Channel’s recent documentary, “When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions,” which chronicles NASA’s 50 years of manned space exploration.
The documentary was born last year, when NASA gave the Discovery Channel access to its film vault. After screening 500 hours of footage, the Discovery Channel transferred more than 150 hours of film to high definition and selected six hours, including rarely seen recordings, for its six-part miniseries, “When We Left Earth.” The miniseries debuted in June and is available — along with four extra hours of footage — on DVD and Blue-ray Disc at http://shopping.discovery.com.
“When We Left Earth” weaves its images with interviews from astronauts, flight directors and astronaut spouses to tell its tale. The usual players — John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong — are all there. But some of the documentary’s most captivating, entertaining perspectives come from astronauts who may not be household names, such as John Young, a prolific, quirky astronaut who flew the first manned Gemini spacecraft, walked on the moon and piloted the space shuttle’s first trip to space. The on-the-ground viewpoint of retired flight director Gene Kranz, who sat in Mission Control for more than 30 years, serves as a source of continuity as the series progresses from the early days of manned space exploration with the Mercury and Gemini projects to the Apollo moon missions to the current age of the space shuttle and the International Space Station.
The documentary also reminds viewers that NASA has provided the world with some of the most iconic images of the 20th century. Watching Neil Armstrong touch the moon’s surface is still amazing and seeing the Challenger explode is still shocking. Some of the documentary’s best footage is less dramatic and gives viewers a new perspective on space — a cockpit view of John Glenn as he talks with Mission Control during his orbit around Earth or liftoff from the space shuttle’s perspective.
Space buffs will likely enjoy this touched-up look at a familiar subject, but “When We Left Earth” may be most appreciated by younger viewers who are not old enough to remember NASA’s exploration milestones. However, the film’s footage clearly drives the documentary’s story. Some viewers may yearn for more details and development of the cultural and historical context in which NASA’s missions emerged. For example, the documentary dives right into the Mercury project with little explanation of why the United States formed NASA in the first place.
But in an age when remotely operated rovers beam down images of the Martian landscape to Earth and astronauts live in space for months at a time, “When We Left Earth” reminds viewers of the reality of space exploration: Although space travel seems routine, traveling through space is anything but ordinary.
In the discussion about climate change, melting ice sheets, sea-level rise and extreme weather take center stage. But archaeologist Brian Fagan says that our preoccupation with these dramatic events has led us to ignore a much greater threat: drought. We need only look at history to see the enormous power droughts have over the fate of humans, he says. In his new book, The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations, Fagan takes readers on a journey through the Medieval Warm Period, a time of unusually warm weather between about A.D. 800 and 1300. Linking historical events with climate clues that scientists gathered from sea and lakebeds, ice cores and tree rings, Fagan shows us how drought contributed to the struggle and collapse of ancient societies, such as the Maya civilization.
Fagan devotes almost the entire book to exploring what happened at various parts of the planet during the Medieval Warm Period, but the last chapter delves into future predictions of drought conditions. His narrative style makes The Great Warming an interesting read and the book provides the lay reader with an engaging account of not only what has happened, but also what may lie in store for us in the future.
Fagan spoke with freelance writer Nicole Branan about the Medieval Warm Period and the lessons it holds for today’s societies.
NB: When you set out to research this book, did you expect to see that drought played such an important role in the fate of ancient civilizations?
NB: Are we more vulnerable to drought today than human societies were a millennium ago?
NB: But our scientific knowledge and our water treatment technologies are much more advanced today than they were during the Medieval Warm Period. Isn’t that going to make a difference?
NB: In coming decades, who is going to get hit hardest by drought?
NB: What do we need to do in order to avoid a catastrophe?
NB: Is there anything else you would like to add?