Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Simpsons and the EPA

For obvious reasons, over the past year I have become a complete and utter nerd about anything to do with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. I've had my pop-culture feelers uniquely attuned to EPA-related tidbits, and I have to say, for all the non-stop talk about the environment, the EPA is almost never the focus. Environmental stories are often about global warming (which isn't really the EPA's beat...yet), or more interested in the polluters (think Erin Brockovich) than the cleaner-uppers. The agency simply doesn't have the cultural cachet of NASA or the FBI. Not too surprising, I guess.

With one recent exception: the Simpsons Movie.

For the record, I thought TSM was hilarious and awesome, even apart from the EPA-related plotline. The movie gets a lot of comic mileage out of portraying the EPA as a ruthlessly efficient SWAT team for the environment (heh, if only) whose slick administrator, Russ Cargill, has President Schwarzenegger's ear:

Another quote:
Cargill: You know, sir, when you made me head of the EPA, you were applauded for appointing one of the most successful men in the America to the least successful agency in government. And why did I take the job? Cause I'm a rich man, and wanted to give something back. Not the money, but something. So here's our chance to kick some ass for Mother Earth!
To me, the message here is a little muddled, but no matter. The show's libertarian and skeptical (nay, anarchist!) tendencies are apparent in the plot, which involves an environmental catastrophe and the EPA's modestly proposed "solution." The disaster is visited on Springfield not by Mr. Burns (who, sadly, only merits a short scene), but by Homer's stupidity. It's an actual environmental threat, but the EPA's over-reaction might have been scripted by the Heritage Foundation. The bottom line for the Simpsons: the people in charge don't care about you! And that goes equally for politicians as for sinister nuclear plutocrats. If anyone is going to save us, it will probably be Lisa Simpson.

To peel back another layer, the DVD has an alternate deleted scene of the meeting between Cargill and the President. In this scene the EPA head is an entirely different character. This model of Cargill is a dowdy, earnest, Mr. Rogers-looking bureaucrat (perhaps a scientist?) who goes through a complicated, Al Gore-like pantomime to try to communicate the pollution problem facing Springfield:

The Simpsons Movie: Deleted Scenes

So it seems we can't quite decide if we think the EPA is meek and competent, or forceful and misguided. Maybe it's funny both ways? Sadly, in the real world, the current EPA administrator seems to combine the worst of both worlds. For example, NRDC's John Walke provides the insider details of EPA's attempt to set ozone air pollution standards and getting totally pwned by the White House.


Jackie said...

Thinking about the disconnect between the Hollywood version and the real-life version, the bad guy in the first X-Files movie was FEMA. Even in 1998, it seem implausible. I'm assuming that FEMA won't be the bad guy in the new X-Files -- that'd be considered too absurd nowadays.

t said...

Hi Jackie - Heh. Yeah, I was actually thinking about FEMA and the X-Files when I wrote this. I guess there aren't too many federal agencies that I would describe as "ruthlessly efficient" these days. Even the CIA is looking pretty incompetent.

Jackie said...

But without at least the polite fiction that the CIA is "ruthlessly efficient," you'd eliminate the plot of 42% of Hollywood action movies.