For many, Captain Planet is a distant Saturday morning recollection, a toothpaste-hued super dude who doled out environmental justice alongside the five Planeteers, teens with the power to control the natural elements. To us green-minded ’90s kids, the animated series was a cultural phenomenon that shaped our understanding of the environment and our power to save it. The show taught that threats to the planet often stem from human greed and exploitation of power.
Earlier this month, Cartoon Network, which owns the rights to the show, announced that it would finally release all six seasons of the animated superhero series to consumers (at $14.99 per season or $1.99 per episode). Since the show went off the air in 1996, aside from a DVD of the first season, fans of the show have had to rely on bootlegs to view most episodes. It’s a measure of the show’s global influence that in 2017, fans were willing to hunt down bootleg episodes (just ask one of the Captain Planet Facebook group’s nearly 600,000 members), and to this day, activists and environmental campaigns are proud to call themselves “Planeteers.”
In a time of mass extinction, coral reef collapse, demonstrable climate change, and a cartoonish real estate tycoon parked in the White House deregulating our environmental protections, Captain Planet seems almost prophetic. The show’s executive producer and co-creator, Barbara Pyle, has spent a career broadcasting the threats to our planet. When millennials were in diapers, she headed up environmental coverage at TBS, simultaneously overseeing environmental news at CNN, where she also drove the network’s corporate social responsibility program. At CNN, she oversaw the daily environmental report Earth Matters and produced the award-winning documentary series People Count.
With Captain Planet, Pyle helped influence a generation of young environmentalists, and then founded the Captain Planet Foundation to make grant money available for kids interested in launching their own environmental initiatives. After Donald Trump took office, Pyle left the U.S., moved permanently to St. Lucia, and emptied her American bank accounts. She is disgusted by the direction of U.S. policy, but Pyle vows to stay vigilant in her environmental activism from her new island home base. Make Change recently interviewed Pyle about modern environmental villainy and the relevance of Captain Planet today.
Fans have been asking for the show to be released for years. You’ve also been asking for the show to be released for years. Do you have any idea why it’s being released now?
I have been hammering [Cartoon Network] since 2000, to put Captain Planet back on the air. … ‘The time is not right.’—that is what [Cartoon Network] said to me for years, and then I just stopped asking because it was giving me a nervous breakdown. … It’s been the worst heartbreak of my life that we lost 15 years of Planeteers [a term Pyle uses to describe the generation inspired by the show]. … We lost an entire generation of young people who should have known the lessons of Captain Planet and don’t.
Captain Planet had a big influence on me as a kid and the show’s whole lexicon still shapes how I see the world. Who do you hope [the digital release] reaches?
It’s got to reach everybody. We’re at a moral crossroads. All of the lessons in Captain Planet have not been learned by anybody except that demographic that is now 25 to 35 years old. I designed Captain Planet in such a manner because I wanted the parents to watch this show with their children.
[The character] Captain Planet, I wrote for people of my age. He’s a flying-around goofball that makes bad jokes. … The lesson that we have to learn from Captain Planet primarily is from the Planeteers. Captain Planet doesn’t fly in and save the day, ever. It’s the Planeteers who figure it out. … The only reason Captain Planet is even there is because Ted Turner, he demanded it be called Captain Planet. Otherwise, there’d be no Captain Planet.
It’s all about empowering youth and empowering people to work together in partnership. One person can do something. You put two or three people together, they can do great things. It’s about collaboration. It’s about teamwork. It’s about joint responsibility. It’s about combining our powers to really make a difference on this planet because we are really running out of time now. With Hillary [Clinton], we would have just kept clocking along with the same old stuff that we’re used to, but Donald Trump is a whole other shade. What he’s doing is evil.
Watching it now, the show was predictive in a very chilling way.
In the Season 6 episode “Dirty Politics,” one of the eco-villains runs for president. “Delta Gone,” that’s all about the destruction of wetlands and building massive large-scale developments. … It goes on and on. … They’re still here and prospering. “Greed is the Word,” about Hoggish Greedly trying to wipe out the manatees. “Greed [is the Word]” is also about sustainable development, and it’s about endangered species. Well, the Endangered Species Act is being destroyed. There’s not going to be an Endangered Species Act.
Is there a villain in Captain Planet that you feel is a parallel to Trump?
I think that Trump is Looten Plunder, Hoggish Greedly, Duke Nukem. … He’s all of them, and he’s surrounded himself with villains as well. If you look at Hoggish Greedly in all his large-scale development and destruction of wetlands and all that. If you look at Looten Plunder, wants to kill animals. If you look at Duke Nukem, wants to nuke people. Dr. Blight, she wants to destroy science. He’s all of them.
With all the eco-villainy in the world, where do you find hope?
Really, our hope for the future is Planeteers. … The Planeteers have grown up, and they’re moving into positions of responsibility every day. They’re running for office. … They’re organized. … You guys are taking over.
I haven’t slept since Nov. 8. I have been glued to my cell phone since. I sleep about two hours a night, and I look at what’s ahead of us, and it’s wicked work, but we are working for the universe. We are working for the planet. We are right.
But there is hope, and it’s the Planeteers. … The [environmental] destruction that is going on now is completely unacceptable to any human with a conscience, who cares about anything besides themselves. I firmly believe that most people are inherently good. … We can bring back love to this planet because that’s what it’s all about. Caring, compassion, empathy, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s simple.
Captain Planet can be purchased and downloaded at iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Vudu, Playstation Store, and Xbox Store.
This interview has been edited and condensed.