As I left the theater the other night after seeing Wonder Woman, my thoughts kept landing on how Diana’s story was an excellent allegory for a conflict I see play out frequently in the environmental movement. Perhaps now you’re thinking, Really, you’re trying to link a superhero movie set during World War I with environmentalism? Sounds like quite a stretch. Maybe so. But if Wonder Woman taught me anything, it’s that a woman can do whatever she sets her mind to. Just kidding! Imperator Furiosa taught me that way back in 2015.
Anyway, the connection came near the end of the movie (spoiler alert if that didn’t clue you in). As Ares, God of War, tries to convince Diana that mankind is not worth her protection and compassion, and that she should unite with him to let men fight themselves to extinction, he shows her a vision of a world without them. The grim palette of destruction, bloodshed, and pollution fades away, replaced by trees bursting with verdant foliage, bathed in a soft, golden light. A veritable garden of Eden springs up before her eyes, where the cries of men killing each other have been usurped by bird song.
Of course, Diana ultimately rejects Ares’s offer and defeats him, fully coming into her own as Wonder Woman and a compassionate protector of mankind, however flawed they may be. But as I was driving home, that scene of inhuman paradise lingered in my mind, much longer than the frenzied fire-and-lightning battle scene that followed it. Reader, I am ashamed to admit that as I thought back on the alternate world Ares showed Diana, a little part of me thought damn, if I were her I might take the deal. Hey, I never said I was a role model (warning: harsh language from Natalie Portman lies beyond this link).
I see this line of thinking echoed by some of my environmentalist acquaintances. It often pops up in reaction to news stories on my Facebook feed about a particularly charismatic species nearing extinction, or a recent horrifying revelation about accelerating climate change. Humans are parasites, someone will say. We should be getting rid of humans, not the Amazon rain forest.
And yes, I get that those comments are often said in a moment of frustration, not meant to be taken literally. I have to hope that given enough thought, most people realize that since they would never dream of offing themselves for the sake of the environment, they shouldn’t expect it from others. But the implication is clear- human needs should take a backseat to environmental concerns. Considering environmental progress depends on the support of large numbers of people, as a rhetorical device the sentiment is… unwise. But it’s so much more than that. To have been born in a wealthy nation, reaped all the benefits of industrialization, and then disdain those who want similar advancements and opportunities is, frankly, gross. Western environmentalists in wealthy nations sometimes develop a myopia around what environmentalism should look like, focusing all of their energy on conserving pristine wildernesses that many of their fellow citizens may never even get to visit, or funding well-intentioned projects in developing nations that fail to improve the lives of the people that live there (the Tres Reyes butterfly project described at the beginning of this article is a great example).
Over the past couple of decades, we’ve realized that promoting women’s education and economic independence is a far better way to slow population growth than creepy “population control” policies. I am hopeful that we can put a similar attitude toward environmental conservation in our toolbox. Like escaping a riptide, conditions that are better for the environment are sometimes best achieved indirectly, or at least concurrently with advocating for the economic empowerment of the people living in that environment. That is not to say we should abandon environmental regulations. Quite the opposite- much of the fallout from environmental disasters, from toxic spills to climate change, impacts marginalized and impoverished people the most, even though poorer countries emit the least Carbon dioxide. Many of these populations are already reckoning with the impacts of climate change and coming up with solutions, such as Mayan farmers in Mexico modifying their centuries-old farming techniques to use less land and water.
My suggestion to fellow environmentalists frustrated by the state of the world is to focus less on some kind of mythical environmental “purity” and more on empowering people (as individuals and collectives) to make responsible choices about the environment. That includes regulating large corporations that are profitable off the back of the environment, while acknowledging that people who depend on using their region’s natural resources to survive will probably need an economic incentive to stop. And to their credit, many environmental organizations are way ahead of me, and have already modified their mission statements to include people. But I still see those pesky comments equating humans to leeches (which maybe shouldn’t be considered an insult since leeches are pretty cool), and I fear they are alienating a lot of people who have a vested interest in sustainability but have been primed to think of environmentalists as snobby tree-huggers who care too much about polar bears. That this stereotype is exploited by fossil fuel executives as a way to promote false ideas about “job creation” is a whole ‘nother problem I won’t get into here, but let’s not do their work for them!
Depending on which origin story you deem canon, Wonder Woman‘s Diana is half-earthen (literally, as in made out of clay) and half-God, and so is able to bridge both worlds. We humans of the 21st century are a bit similar to Diana. Though we often chastise our fellow man for holding himself above all other organisms, the truth is we are very powerful beings, capable of great and/or terrible manipulation of our world. And yet we should never forget that we are of this world too, and that its fate is inescapably bound up with our own. Wonder Woman‘s central arc, and what makes it so profound, is that it doesn’t just take up the task of showing you what Diana is capable of, but also why and how she should wield her formidable power. Though given the chance to exact vengeance and punishment on humans for their selfishness, Diana realizes that maximizing the conditions for them to do good is a more powerful tool. Her power is drawn from her fundamental compassion for mankind. A valuable message for all of us.