Programming young environmentalists?


As a professional actor, Stuart Evans is used to appreciation from audiences.

But nothing prepared him for the adulation he got from a crowd of children recently at the Bushnell Memorial in Hartford, Conn., while playing a TV cartoon character called Captain Planet, an environmental superhero.

Schoolchildren mobbed the 28-year-old Wethersfield, Conn., actor and clamored for autographs. Many grilled him about his exploits battling eco-villains such as Hoggish Greedly, Looten Plunder and Duke Nukem.

The response wouldn't have been surprising to observers of children's television, who see a budding trend toward environmentalism.

In "Captain Planet and the Planeteers," the superhero is summoned by five teen-agers to use the Earth's natural forces to battle oil spills, smog monsters and the slaughter of endangered animals.

One of the highest-rated syndicated programs for children on television, it is watched each week by an estimated 7 million people, mostly children.

Environmental themes are evident not only on television but also in children's books and movies.

Whether youngsters will grow up to be much "greener" than their parents remains open to debate. Moreover, some observers worry about the trend, saying that shows such as Captain Planet could cause children to view all effects of civilization and technology on the environment as necessarily bad.

Some industries have complained about inaccuracies in some of the environmental tips and messages. The aerosol products industry, for example, has complained to producers about a "G.I. Joe" cartoon and about an environmental tip given by the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

The complaints were that both programs incorrectly said that aerosol sprays harm Earth's protective ozone layer. In fact, aerosol sprays have not contained chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, the chemicals that eat the ozone shield, since 1978.

Among children's shows that incorporate environmental themes are the public television productions of "Barney," the purple dinosaur popular with preschoolers, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" and "Sesame Street."

Nickelodeon, the children's cable service, also has weighed in. It sponsored an Earth summit for children in Orlando, Fla., last April, and frequently airs stories about environmental topics on its weekly news program called "Nick News."

Jonathan Adler, an environmental policy analyst at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank that favors free enterprise and limited government, says most TV programs for children "substitute politics for science and anti-technology blather for sensible discussions of important issues." Mr. Adler said that Captain Planet is part of a larger effort to "greenwash" America's youth into believing that humans and civilization are bad.

But Dan Gottlieb, an associate producer at Turner Broadcasting Systems in Atlanta, says Captain Planet "doesn't point fingers." The villains don't represent actual business people or other people, he says. "They represent the problem."

The goal of the show, he says, is to teach children that they "are going to be the solutions" to the problems.

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