Moana’s Environmental Message

*Author’s note: this post will contain heavy spoilers; read at your own risk.

The latest Disney Princess flic, Moana, is at once buoyant, beautiful, and poignant—and it tells simultaneously two stories: one about a Polynesia teenager satisfying her wanderlust and saving her home, and another about us—the collective viewers.

In the film, Moana, a girl who has always yearned to venture out onto the open ocean, heard as a youngster the tale of how the demigod Maui stole the Heart of the nature goddess Te Fiti but lost it in the ocean when he was struck down by the volcanic demon Te Ka, thus becoming trapped and inadvertently releasing a blight of decay and darkness into the world.

Moana eventually goes on a quest, after receiving the Heart from the ocean and discovering the blight on her own island, to force Maui to restore the Heart of Te Fiti.

Maui reveals that he originally took the Heart with good intentions: to gift it to humanity and bestow the power of creation. He eventually, grudgingly, agrees to help restore it. However, when his magical hook, the main source of his power, is nearly broken in the first confrontation with Te Ka, he almost abandons Moana completely. Only when she continues on her own and is put in mortal danger does he return, sacrificing his hook in the melee.

Moana discovers that destructive, volcanic Te Ka is actually the heartless, enraged form of Te Fiti. She makes peace with Te Ka and so is able to restore the Heart and end the darkness.

This is the first, overt story told by the film. But I saw another, hidden within the images. In this story, the stakes are higher, the challenges greater, the scale vaster, and Moana and Maui represent not individual characters but aspects of us all.

During the Industrial Revolution, humanity thought to dredge up the compressed bodies of millions-of-years gone plants and plankton from the depths of the earth and burn it for fuel and energy1. In our modern day, we continue this through ever-escalating means and also extract ores by tearing apart mountains; furiously produce animals via factory to feed our growing hunger; hunt and persecute wildlife; and fracture2 our Earth from horizon to horizon with roads, housing, farmland, and industry.

We used it to generate energy to fuel civilization and technology through continuous growth3. We have improved medicine and increased life expectancy4. We can sustain more humans than ever before, and more humans are enjoying a higher quality of life and leaving poverty5.

But this initial abundance and harvest have come with a cost.

We have released a darkness of our own making unto the world. Wild creatures and intact, pristine land have declined sharply, even into extinction6. We have polluted land7, sky8, and water9, making these unsafe for ourselves. We have altered the climate and the chemistry of the oceans. Decay and death are following in our wake.

We’ve even pushed nature to violence—a corrupted form of itself—with heightened likelihoods of severe storms, wildfires10, and even earthquakes11 due to resource extraction and waste disposal12.

Now we have the option to act.

Like Moana, upon learning of this blight, will we strive with all our might to fix it?

But, as in Maui’s case, perhaps this will take sacrifice.

To completely restore our biosphere’s heart we will most likely need to live less consumptive, smaller lifestyles. We also may need to give over a greater proportion of our economy to ensuring a future for natural systems. We must focus more on well-being and less on growth13.

There are some big steps humanity must take to end the darkness: eliminating the use of fossil fuels; restoring some breathing room to wild spaces; and vastly diminishing waste, pollutants, overdevelopment, and overharvesting. To these ends, we should look for ways to help in our everyday lives and support leaders, creators, and innovators who work for healthy natural systems.

Going on as we are will only lead to greater destruction, but there is one piece of knowledge we can hold dear:

It’s not too late to restore the heart.



Works Cited

1. “Fossil Fuels.” Institute for Energy Research.

2. Carrington, D. “New map reveals shattering effect of roads on nature.” Dec. 15, 2016. The Guardian.

3. “Global Economic Outlook 2017-Home.” The Conference Board.

4. Roser, M. “Life Expectancy.” Our World in Data.

5. “Global Monitoring Report 2015/2016.” The World Bank.

6. Ceballos, G., Ehrlich, P. R., Barnosky, A. D., Garcia, A., Pringle, R. M., & Palmer, T. M. 2015. “Accelerated modern human-induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction.” Science Advances 1.

7. Dalrymple, A. “Oil pipeline spill near Belfield, ND, estimated at 176,000 gallons.” Dec. 13, 2016. WDAY.

8. Phillips, T. “Beijing smog: pollution red alert declared in China capital and 21 other cities.” Dec. 16, 2016. The Guardian.

9. “Flint Water Crisis Fast Facts.” Updated Dec. 21, 2016. CNN Library.

10. “Understanding the Link Between Climate Change and Extreme Weather.” US Environmental Protection Agency: Climate Change Science.

11. “Induced Earthquakes: Overview.” USGS.

12. “Induced Earthquakes: Myths and Misconceptions.” USGS.

13. “View the Book (Overdevelopment, Overpopulation, Overshoot).” Global Population Speak Out.

Header Image: “Bora Bora” from mariamichelle on Pixabay.


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