Public Interest Advocacy

Tomorrowland and the Causes of Poverty

TomorrowlandDisney’s Tomorrowland is a great piece of family entertainment that I would encourage for families with elementary school children. It's visually exciting and promotes imagination and optimism as solutions for the world's problems.

The plot stumbles a little, however, when it tries to explain the root causes of the problems it finds in our world. While Tomorrowland seems to endorse technology as a panacea, reality requires a more nuanced approach. In fact, some of the world's problems are the result of technology. Solutions to those problems may require more work in the area of ideology and governance than in the infusion of more technology.

[Spoiler Alert: The text which follows contains some discussion of the movie's plot.]

The movie’s main character, Casey (Britt Robertson), is a young teenager living with her single father and younger brother near Cape Canaveral, Florida. Casey is a scientific whiz kid, but has been using her extraordinary ability to simply “know how stuff works” to break into NASA’s facility at nights in order to stymie the cranes that are disassembling the place.

Casey’s greatest dream is to be an astronaut and she despairs that if NASA stops exploring space that she will be unable to realize that dream.

While getting bailed out of jail after getting arrested for trespassing at NASA, she finds a Tomorrowland pin. When she touches the pin she is instantly transported to “Tomorrowland” - a separate world where hover crafts and other Jetsons-technology makes the world a happy and shining place.

She sets off in search of the person who must have left the pin behind only to be accosted by evil robots (imagine Terminator 2-like creates with plastic smiles and only Disney-levels of malice). She is befriended by Athena (who we later learn is also a robot) who eventually leads her to Frank Walker (played by George Clooney) who has to reclaim his own sense of optimism and imagination in order to help the trio find their way to Tomorrowland.

They arrive at Tomorrow - via an interdimensional rocket hidden inside the Eiffel Tower - to find that it is in disrepair and dying, headed by Governor Nix (Hugh Laurie) who is a dystopic Wizard of Oz. He explains that the world is dying and will soon be destroyed (in 58 days, no less) and that the end is not only near but inevitable.

The spunky Casey and the always earnest Frank Walker save the day (and the world), however, when they manage to disconnect the interdimensional "feedback loop" that has prevented young Earthlings from imagining a better world. The movie ends with Casey and Frank re-starting Tomorrowland's "recruitment program" which aims to find "dreamers" on earth who are willing to try to make the future a better place.

All of that is fine and I wouldn't have given it a second thought, however, if it weren't for Nix's (Hugh Laurie's) diatribe on all that is wrong with people today. Among the various ills he complains of (global warming, pollution, etc.) is poverty starvation. He rants, "we simultaneously have a crisis of obesity while a third of the world is starving! Explain that!"

Disney isn't the first organization to note the strange fact that the world suffers from both obesity and hunger. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that one in nine persons suffer from chronic undernourishment. At the same time the World Health Organization estimates through roughly 38 percent of adults over age 18 are overweight.

These problems have a variety of sources (including easy access to technology, the transition from manual work to intellectual work, globalization and access to greater amounts and varieties of food, war, and government corruption) but one source of the problem is not an inadequacy of technology or science.

On the contrary, science and its fruits (globalization and the ubiquity of global markets) has made food more available than ever before. The average citizen in North America and western Europe today eats food of a quality and variety that would make a medieval monarch blush. At a modest lunch you can have tuna (caught in the Pacific and shipped to you in a can), on rye bread (baked within the past 48 hours at a bakery near you) with a Snapple (made from the finest stuff on Earth) and a handful of grapes (picked in Chile and flown to you while fresh). Such variety and quality would have been unthinkable 50 years ago.

At the same time, undernourishment and starvation aren't so much the result of shortages of food as much as they are shortages of access and logistics. In Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that has suffered the greatest numbers of famines in the 20th century, a chief cause of famine has been the lack of food security, caused by war and government corruption.   Populations that lack the ability to generate enough food are forced to import food. When drought, war or revolution disrupt the supply chain, people go hungry. Food aid, sent from western nations, often fails to reach those who need it because of a lack of security or the corruption of governments in the area.

So, while Tomorrowland's optimistic view of a future where happiness closely follows technology might be a good lesson for your kids, it's not a great model for explaining the world. We can always bring technology to bear in the struggle to improve our lives, but how we govern ourselves and how our government interacts with other states will often play an outsized role in determining our happiness and the happiness of others.

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