Call me a nattering nabob of negativism, but I don’t think Ariel can pull it off. Maybe a perky, animated mermaid in a purple clamshell bikini top can have success and a happy ending in the movies, but reality is another story. And yet the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Environmental Defense, and the Ad Council have teamed up and launched a PSA campaign that features Disney’s sea princess as the mascot for a very real cause: cleaning up our trashed seas.
Part of my skepticism that Ariel can help save our polluted seas comes from the fact that the anti-litter icon of my generation faced comparable obstacles. The “Crying Indian” campaign was launched in 1971 on the second national Earth Day by Keep America Beautiful, the nation’s largest nonprofit community improvement organization. This campaign — credited with fanning the fires of the then nascent environmental movement — aroused a powerful mixture of shame and pathos. Who among us (of a certain age) can forget the single tear that rolled down the cheek of the actor Iron Eyes Cody as he surveyed his soiled homeland? To this day I can’t pass a crumpled gum wrapper without scooping it up and mentally reciting, “People start pollution … people can stop it.”
The Oceans Awareness campaign, meanwhile, not only has star power and a jingly steel-drum theme song, but also a website with handy links and interactive features. On the home page you can click on a plastic bottle to learn about its passage to the sea, or on a discarded balloon, which a sea turtle can choke on after mistaking it for a jellyfish. Such features might reach a new media-savvy generation, but feel weirdly and inappropriately lighthearted when — how to say this delicately? — the oceans are screwed beyond belief. Reefs are dying, hypoxic dead zones float around like the Son of Blob, and now, thanks to that familiar old climate change foe, carbon dioxide, ocean acidification threatens not only marine life, but also the food chain and thus life in general. With apologies to choking turtles, the bigger picture makes flotsam and jetsam look small in comparison. Eco bad-boy Ed Abbey certainly had a similar perspective when he tossed beer cans out of his car window. To him, litter was insignificant compared to the ugly highway that ripped through his beloved landscape. He had, pardon the expression, bigger fish to fry.
So, if not Ariel, who should tell the children about the imperiled oceans? A surly lobsterman? An animated chunk of bleached coral? A grave marine biologist in a white lab coat, wielding a pH stick? Al Gore with a scuba mask and laser pointer?
I’d cast my vote for Hans Christian Anderson’s little mermaid, the one who knew something about danger, suffering, sacrifice, and redemption. She aimed not merely for romantic love but for an immortal soul. Then, after considerable sacrifice (her tail, her voice, her way of life) and pain (her new legs hurt), she was rejected by the prince. In the end, she chose suicide over murdering him and was rewarded by becoming a spirit. Her hard-knock story makes her a half-human creature to reckon with. And as much as I don’t want to scare the little ones (this sorry mess isn’t their fault, after all), I think we need a more potent spokesperson than even Iron Eyes Cody. Thanks to him, my generation wouldn’t dare to toss a beer can out of a car window, yet our apathy and cupidity have laid waste our children’s sky, land, and oceans even as we stooped to pick up litter.