Do Disney nature movies inspire people to care about the environment? They do, argues a book published by a Cambridge University lecturer and reviewed during Earth Week by The New York Times.
In his book, The Idea of Nature in Disney Animation, lecturer David Whitley argues that the exquisite production quality and powerful storytelling of Disney movies like Bambi press the emotional buttons that must be mashed in order to inspire people to care about Ma Nature and her critters.
But when it comes to movies, everyones a critic. Disney fare, some counter, smears nature with a gooey sentimentalism that hides from innocent eyes the less inviting aspects of the wilderness predators must kill their prey, cute furry creatures wreck ecosystems when their populations run amok, and there are all sorts of indifferent natural phenomena that can destroy us without so much as a how-do-you-do.
Speaking of which, ever heard of gamma-ray bursters? Those are extremely ill tempered celestial objects that shoot out narrow beams of gamma rays, the most intense form of high-energy radiation. A gamma ray burst that hits earth at a close enough distance could flick off a substantial portion of the atmospheres protective ozone layer like dandruff.
WR-104 is a binary star system 8,000 light-years away from us just across town in celestial terms. There is evidence that its business end is aimed at us, and astronomers say its possible that one of the WR-104 stars could go gamma.
But theres not much we can do about that. And Disney is not likely to make a movie with such a downer plot anyway.
Besides, nature gives as well as takes. Our very existence depends utterly on natures rhythms, driven by solar energy and moderated by a symphony of geochemical cycles that keep us warm and oxygenated, support habitat, produce food and drink, and recycle wastes.
One of the down sides of industrial civilization is that it separates us from intimate contacts with nature that would keep these facts of life at the forefront of our attention. In a world where food shows up magically on store shelves and city lights blot out the stars, nature is seen as something out there, at best an amenity, at worst an obstacle.
A half-century ago, conservative Republican Congressman John Saylor pressed for passage of the Wilderness Act with an eloquent plea to keep some lands wild, if only as a reminder of the old verities: In the wilderness, we can get our bearings, Saylor declared. We can keep from getting blinded in our great human success to the fact that we are part of the life of this planet, and we would do well to keep our perspectives and keep in touch with some of the basic facts of life.
A wilderness journey accomplishes exactly what Saylor said it would. It is a far more powerful learning experience than any movie could ever be. But in living a citified lifestyle, its a once-in-a-while thing. In between trips into the wild, a well-crafted movie that gives nature a sympathetic supporting role can provide a cleverly packaged bit of moral instruction about our stewardship duties.
Lets hope that Disneys newly announced nature documentary production unit takes note.
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