Fern Gully (1992): The Last Rainforest is one of my personal favorites. I’m old enough to remember Fern Gully when it was new (when I anthropomorphize pollution in my head it sounds just like Tim Curry). Fern Gully was heavy handed and pretty much hit all the high points of environmental concerns- animal testing, native rights, logging, eco feminism. This was a movie for the 80s and 90s crowd raised on the even heavier handed Captain Planet. Our little hearts ate up these messages and we swore to always protect the mythical, magical rain forests of the world. There was no guessing what this movie was about- save rain forests from logging!
In addition, while searching for her parents, Dory swims through a desert of rusted out automobiles, broken bottles, tin cans, and tires but this is just background. Trash doesn’t stop her from seeing her parents’ shell directions and it doesn’t get her lost in the first place. In fact, during her search she comes across a graveyard of rusted metal containers serving as hiding places for a variety of sea creatures all of whom warn Dory to be quiet or she will wake the squid. Instead of appearing out of place, these cans and containers serve as useful housing for creatures just going about their lives.
At no time in the movie is the case made that the pollution is bad or that it hurts any of the animals in the ocean. Adults recognize trash in the ocean (and therefore in the illustrated ocean) as being bad, but can we rely on subtle messages where children are concerned or does this depiction without comment possibly naturalize garbage in these environments?
What is interesting to me is how common images of ship wrecks our in my imagination of the underwater world. So much so that sinking ships to create artificial reefs has become fairly common. Instead of questioning the role of ships in underwater reef building- do these things really belong?- we just keep adding more.
There are ongoing debates about these artificial reefs and the possible positive and negative impacts on ecosystems. Studies show that rigs and ships (along with concrete pyramids) are successful in facilitating reef growth. However, the question is, at what cost? Some suggest that, while these spaces increase fish stocks, they also allow poachers and illegal anglers to hone in on fish attracted to these areas easily; instead of large fish being spread around a large area, the reefs concentrate these fishes and make poaching easy. Basically, it gives new meaning to "shooting fish in a barrel". In addition, questions have recently been raised about the impact of these spaces on the spread of invasive species. Some researchers suggest that these wrecks amount to a disturbed ecosystem and allow invasive species to build strong communities that will then increase their numbers and allow them to spread more rapidly though the ocean. Most reports are relatively early on the colonization of these spaces by corals, but most suggest that these spaces grow more slowly than natural reefs and support smaller coral (although some researchers believe this could change over time). Most of these studies are from the last 15 years and many in the last 10, with researchers calling for more expansive research on the impact of disintegrating ships on the health of these ecosystems long term.
What is interesting to me is the way that we take for granted (politicians and the public) that we already know the answers to the questions. Most people don't bat an eye at the idea that there is a ship being sunk to create a reef.
It is this type of naturalization that I fear where rigs and small level pollution are concerned. It is true that we currently recognize sunken cars, rusted cans and broken bottles, and floating plastic, as not belonging in the marine environment. But Finding Dory did something concerning- it normalized that trash by having characters co exist without struggle.
So the question is, would it have been better for conservation goals to draw the ocean without pollution in the hopes that children would imagine it as such (and be startled when it is trashed) or is it better to show it as a site of trash in the hopes that children will want to clean it up.
I'm of the thought that the former is more useful than the latter. I'm open to conversation.