Pixar's Wall-E sends the wrong message about obesity and the environment.

News and commentary about environmental issues.
July 10 2008 4:46 PM

Fat-E

The new Pixar movie goes out of its way to equate obesity with environmental collapse.

The hero of Pixar's new film. Click image to expand.
The hero of Pixar's new film

Pixar's new animated feature Wall-E is more than a great movie. According to the critics, it's a trenchant social commentary. New York's David Edelstein calls it "one for the ages, a masterpiece to be savored before or after the end of the world … a sublime work of art." A.O. Scott coos over "a cinematic poem of such wit and beauty that its darker implications may take a while to sink in." Even New York Times columnist Frank Rich gets in on the action, lauding the film for being "in touch with what troubles America," and providing "a gentle, if unmistakable, summons to remake the world before time runs out."

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

So what is this powerful and profound message? Wall-E tells us that if we don't change the way we live, we'll all get really fat and destroy the world. The plot begins with the idea that a megacorporation called Buy N Large has essentially taken over the planet and induced so much consumption and waste that humans must escape their dying planet on an enormous, space-faring cruise ship. Once onboard, their self-destructive tendencies only get worse: After 700 years adrift, humans have grown too bloated to walk and too lazy to think.

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It's this cartoon of—oops, commentary on—modern life that so dazzles the critics. Slate's Dana Stevens describes a "richly detailed satire of contemporary humankind," in which the world is populated by "obese, infantile consumers who spend their days immobile in hovering lounge chairs, staring at ads on computers screens—in other words, Americans." (Edelstein sums things up in five words: "You should see these blobs.")

Let me raise a voice of dissent. Wall-E is an innovative and visually stunning film, but the "satire" it draws is simple-minded. It plays off the easy analogy between obesity and ecological catastrophe, pushing the notion that Western culture has sickened both our bodies and our planet with the same disease of affluence. According to this lazy logic, a fat body stands in for a distended culture: We gain weight and the Earth suffers. If only society could get off its big, fat ass and go on a diet!

But the metaphor only works if you believe familiar myths about the overweight: They're weak-willed, indolent, and stupid. Sure enough, that's how Pixar depicts the future of humanity. The people in Wall-E drink "cupcakes-in-a-cup," they never exercise, and if they happen to fall off their hovering chairs, they thrash around like babies until a robot helps them up. They watch TV all day long and can barely read.

It ought to go without saying that this stereotype of the "obese lifestyle" is simply false. How fat you are has a lot more to do with your genes than with your behavior. As much as 80 percent of the variation in human body weight can be explained by differences in our DNA. (Your height is similarly heritable.) That is to say, it may not matter that much whether you eat salads or drink "cupcakes-in-a-cup," whether you bike everywhere or fly around in a Barcalounger. If you have a propensity to become obese, there's only so much that can be done about it.

That's not to say that our circumstances can't lead us to gain weight. But there's little evidence that overeating causes obesity on an individual level and no real reason to think that anyone can lose a lot of weight by dieting. (Most of us fluctuate around a natural "set point.") We also know that children who watch a lot of television are no less active than other kids and that pediatric obesity rates are not the direct result of high-fat diets.

Despite all this, there's an endless appetite for stories linking obesity and environmental collapse. Pounds of fat and pounds of carbon are routinely made to seem interchangeable. Two months ago, the Washington Post compared childhood obesity to global warming. Last year, an AP story called "Fighting Fat and Climate Change" claimed that we could cut annual CO2-emissions by 64 million tons if every American just got out of his car to walk for half an hour a day. (The nation would also burn 10.5 trillion calories!) The New York Times has reported that obese Americans make air travel less efficient, and that our extra pounds cost us 1 billion gallons of gasoline per year. And we didn't just figure this out, either: During the oil crisis of the 1970s, a pair of economists calculated that we could save 1.3 billion gallons by getting all overweight Americans to "optimum body weight."

These calculations show the obesity-ecology metaphor run amok. Like other spurious estimates of the "cost of obesity," they leave out important, mitigating variables. (Fat people tend to have shorter life spans, for example, thus reducing their lifetime carbon footprint.) It's pure fantasy to say that overweight Americans are causing global warming and misleading even to suggest that the two phenomena are related. After all, obesity is most prevalent among the poorest Americans, who almost by definition consume less than the skinny elite. Many live in dense neighborhoods and rely on public transportation. And the fattest people in the nation are not, as a group, the same folks you'd find driving Hummers or jetting back and forth between New York and L.A.

The desire to link obesity and environmental collapse seems to have more to do with politics than science. Eco-liberals put down their Nalgene bottles and wring their hands over the fat slobs in Middle America. It's these red-staters who are screwing things up with their shopping malls and their fast food. Of course, they can't exactly be blamed for their misfortune. Instead, we infantilize them and moan over the corporate interests that beguile our dumb cousins with super-sized portions and deceptive PR campaigns. Hence the overgrown babies of Wall-E, who have been duped into their lethargic lifestyle by the corporate overlords at Buy N Large.

All this may be enough to leave some overweight viewers of Wall-E in tears. It's easy to imagine how they might respond to Pixar's dystopic vision of our fat future, in which puffed-up bodies are played for cheap laughs. What happens when the movie ends and the lights come up? Does the rest of the audience stare at the lone fatty as she waddles her way toward the theater doors? Do they see in her body a validation of the film's "darker implications"—a signpost for what we might become if we don't change our ways? Or do they just scowl at her, convinced that she's part of the problem?

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