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Why I Hated Wall-E

Hollywood envisions the utility of the future.

Fortnightly Magazine - August 2008

the charm of this story managed to obscure Wall-E’s preachy and hypocritical PC message. While castigating America for corporate greed and mindless consumerism, Disney-Pixar Studios created its own pile of useless junk by distributing cereal-box quality Wall-E wristwatches to children viewing the film.

But that’s not what caused my negative response to Wall-E. After all, I’ve endured lots of Hollywood-soapbox movies without apparent ill effects. Only after brooding for a week did I finally figure out why Wall-E bummed me out.

Green Jobs & Pizza Plants

I doubt Wall-E’s producers realized it, but they created a cynical metaphor for the U.S. utility industry.

Like Buy n Large, regulated utilities in most states make money building and operating as much infrastructure as the economy’s insatiable appetite can afford. The billing cycle is designed in a way that discourages any thought of conservation, or even price sensitivity. Rather, it encourages a huge peak demand, requiring massive extra capacity in the rate base. The regulatory structure protects the utility franchise, marginalizing competition or forbidding it outright.

Like Buy n Large, the utility industry is blamed for global environmental problems. And like Buy n Large, the industry hopes to solve these problems with grandiose technology. But instead of a robot army, carbon capture & sequestering technology promises a tidy solution to climate change, without forcing major changes in the way we produce or sell electricity. And in the worst-case scenario, a privileged few will be safe inside a nuclear-powered, air-conditioned cocoon, while the rest of the world either burns or drowns in rising seas.

A harsh assessment, I know—but maybe it’s not far off. This is why Wall-E bummed me out.

At the end of Wall-E, when the spaceship actually lands on Earth and the captain and passengers toddle out, the captain jovially tells some dazed-looking children, “You guys will grow all kinds of food: corn plants, tomato plants, pizza plants!” … (or something to that effect.)

On the surface, this seems like a hopeful ending to a fairly grim movie. But in fact it’s not hopeful at all; the idea of these human weebles rebuilding civilization is as absurd as the idea of plants sprouting pizza. The moral of the story: We humans are too far gone to recover from the disaster we’ve wrought.

I hope that’s not true, but when I hear politicians talk about conservation, renewable energy and “green jobs,” it sounds like naïve promises. Sure, renewable energy and conservation industries are creating jobs, but those numbers are puny compared to the number of jobs eliminated by spiraling energy costs and shrinking manufacturing industries. And sure, a smarter power grid can bring tremendous benefits from distributed resources—both demand and supply. But consumers can’t curtail their appetite for energy. They don’t know how, and they won’t even try as long as the Buy n Large utility construct continues feeding them as it always has.

This industry faces difficult times ahead. Fortunately, there’s a big difference between our world and Wall-E’s world. Namely, our disaster hasn’t happened yet. Unlike Buy n Large, our companies