by Muhammad Asy’raf
Andrew Stanton’s WALL-E (2008) portrays earth approximately 700 years into the post-apocalyptic future as an uninhabitable barren wasteland—overrun with mountains of trash and abandoned by the human race. The only being left on earth is a robot named WALL-E, tasked with the unending responsibility of tidying the heaps of garbage irresponsibly left behind by mankind.
In the film, garbage plays a significant role in the central imagery of earth’s eco-apocalypse, painting a dire setting of earth’s landscape that has been submerged and damaged by towers of trash. Garbage is put to blame as the primary cause of the environmental degradation on earth. Interestingly, despite the prominent damaging impacts of garbage on earth’s landscape, the film still projects a peculiar fondness and sentimentality towards the destructive garbage that WALL-E collects. With his understanding of the pre-apocalyptic environment through VCR videos and old pictures, WALL-E manifests a human-like ‘nostalgia’ (Anderson, 2012) over his trash collection, projecting a longing for past relics and an innate hope to recover what was lost of humanity in the eco-apocalypse. This contrasting portrayal of garbage motivates this article’s exploration of the role of garbage as more than just a destructive element, but also as a beacon of hope for the recovery of earth’s environment to what it was pre-apocalypse.
However, I argue that even in the presence of such optimism portrayed by the film, there still exists a pessimistic view of futility and hopelessness towards post-apocalyptic recovery, that can coexist with the film’s hopeful tone. Although the initial portrayal of garbage’s intrinsic sentimental value evokes temporary hope for a renewed environment, I argue that this sentimentality is problematised by the very nature of mankind’s cyclical consumerism that fosters those feelings of ‘nostalgia’ in the first place. Such consumerism indicates a perpetual destruction towards the environment, and posits an improbability for post-apocalyptic recovery. Nonetheless, my pessimistic view on recovery does not necessarily negate the film’s optimism, but rather complements it, because both sentiments ultimately chart a common direction towards creating different versions of a new world to progress from the post-apocalyptic landscape.
‘Garbology’ in WALL-E
My thesis can partly be developed by Chistopher Todd Anderson’s (2012) exploration of William L. Rathje’s concept of ‘garbology’ in ‘Post-Apocalyptic Nostalgia: WALL-E, Garbage, and American Ambivalence toward Manufactured Goods’. In his analysis of society’s consumerism from the study of garbage, Anderson (2012) posits a tension in the film’s ‘nostalgia’ towards garbage that perpetuates a ‘paradoxical celebration of consumer goods within a narrative that ostensibly condemns consumerism’ (p. 269). He reconciles this tension by arguing that while such ‘nostalgia’ for consumer goods depicts humanity’s consumerism and its perpetual destruction of earth’s environment, it also projects a longing for the past and the desire to recover the lost environment—an optimistic end to mankind’s destructive consumerism. However, in contrast to Anderson’s (2012) optimism, I subvert his argument, asserting that consumerism is in fact cyclical, due to the continuous waves of consumerism present even in a non-human agent like WALL-E. This indicates continuity, rather than an end, in consumerism and environmental destruction, supporting my thesis that even amidst the film’s optimistic view on post-apocalyptic recovery, there still exists pessimism towards it.
On the surface, the film projects garbage as a prominent symbol of destruction of earth’s post-apocalyptic environment into disrepair. In the opening scene, we see that garbage has taken over the city in its towers that imitate skyscrapers of a new garbage-laden city skyline. It is indicative of garbage’s replacement of both the physical and the human environment and suggests its complete displacement of earth’s landscape in this post-apocalyptic setting. Garbage not only consumes the landscape in its heaps, but also creates structures that evoke a sense of permanence to earth’s degradation. Such permanence is notable in WALL-E’s garbage-collecting function, limited to only compacting and compiling the garbage, with no means of making garbage disappear from earth. Hence, garbage is trapped on earth’s surface and unremovable, highlighting an impossibility of return to normalcy.
As Anderson (2012) posits, garbage attributes such degradation to mankind’s excessive consumerism. Juxtaposed with the already tall and dire heaps of trash, conglomerate ‘Buy N Large’ billboards stand even taller and brighter, obnoxiously advocating for the excessive consumption of manufactured goods. Such is the reflection of the ‘hyper-capitalism’ of ‘Buy N Large’ that facilitated the ‘destructive cycle of mass production and consumption’ and led to environmental degradation (Anderson, 2012, p. 268). It pushes the blame onto the consumerist attitudes of humans, suggesting that their excessive ‘patterns of consumption … have suffocated the planet and [made it now] uninhabitable’ (Anderson, 2012, p. 268). The fact that these billboards still stand tall even in earth’s desolate post-apocalyptic landscape reflects how pervasive, persistent and deep-rooted consumerism is in humanity. Hence, trash not only depicts earth’s physical damage, but is also central in positioning the blame towards consumers, whose irresponsibility led to the devastating environmental destruction.
Trash or Trinket?: Desire for Recovery
However, a tension in the film exists where amidst the dullness and doom of trash’s destruction of earth, there still is a spark of hope and desire to recover the environment to what it was before such devastation. This is apparent in WALL-E’s collection of trash (or to him, trinkets) which he gathers and displays in his makeshift bachelor’s pad. The objects range from discarded entertainment items such as a retro Atari Video game and a VCR, to fascinating human inventions like the spork and bubble wrap, all of which shapes WALL-E’s understanding of a romanticised pre-apocalyptic world. With this newfound pre-apocalyptic worldview, WALL-E displays an attachment to many of his trash-turned-trinkets, sentimental to the signs of life and humanity that existed pre-apocalypse—a feeling in which Anderson (2012) describes as ‘nostalgia’ for these retro items: ‘a reverence and longing for a lost past’ (p. 274). The collection of such memorabilia serves as a reminder of what was exceptional in the past and reflects an innate desire to return to the pre-apocalyptic environment. Anderson (2012) also echoes Elizabeth Guffey’s take on the concept of ‘retro culture’, where WALL-E’s love for old trinkets is indicative of a ‘dissatisfaction with the present’ and a ‘subversive attitude towards the past’ that encourages a form of ‘revivalism’ to reignite the memories of earth’s pre-apocalyptic landscape (p. 276). This gives the film an initial hopeful tone, mirroring a positive outlook towards apocalyptic recovery.
Trinkets Problematised: Cyclical Consumerism in Garbage
However, I believe that this singular positive outlook towards recovery is too simplistic, particularly due to WALL-E’s projection of consumerism in his collection of trinkets that presents a hopelessness towards post-apocalyptic recovery. While Anderson (2012) postulates that WALL-E’s ‘nostalgia for … twenty-first-century products is seen largely as a positive quality’ (p. 268) due to his romanticised optimism in humanity, I would argue that it actually problematises this hope for post-apocalyptic recovery because WALL-E’s love for manufactured products ultimately perpetuates the consumerism that led to earth’s degradation in the first place.
WALL-E’s love for trinkets is problematic because in his love for manufactured goods, it actually paints WALL-E as a consumer himself. In his collection of various consumer goods for keepsake, he is in fact perpetuating the consumerist ideals which instigated the initial eco-apocalypse. This irony introduces an unending cycle of consumerism and degradation of earth’s landscape, where even after the ‘original consumers’ in humans have left earth, the values and ideologies of consumerism still remain. Just like the very garbage portrayed in the film, consumerism seems to have no escape from earth, continuing to breed in non-human agents like WALL-E. This ultimately prevents the reconstruction of the environment because mankind cannot seem to break out of this cycle of consumerism that is continually being passed onto earth’s next dweller. It also emphasises humanity’s struggle in juggling their consumerist mindset with the environmental concerns of recovery to become a ‘responsible consumer’.
In addition, the trinkets that WALL-E finds also symbolises contrasting meanings towards hope for a reconstruction of the environment. The lighter in WALL-E’s garbage collection acts as a double-edged sword: the flame represents a burning passion for renewal of earth, a bright symbol of hope. Yet at the same time, fire is a destructive element, representative of the burning in deforestation and environmental degradation. This further emphasises the problematic nature of WALL-E’s trinket collection that perpetuates destruction rather than hope. Examples of such trinkets that WALL-E innocently collects are suggestive of a force that holds mankind back from the reconstruction of the environment, because even with WALL-E’s good intentions, he is ultimately falling into the same consumerist and destructive trap that humans fell into during the eco-apocalypse. As a result, hope for the recovery of the environment, at this point, seems unattainable.
Bin Your Hope: Futility in Post-Apocalyptic Recovery
Furthermore, I believe that there exists an extensive degree of hopelessness and futility in the recovery of the environment due to WALL-E’s constraints in understanding the pre-apocalyptic environment and his rudimentary garbage-cleaning function, that leaves him unable to recover earth’s environment.
While traces of humanity have indeed been found in the intrinsic value of WALL-E’s trash-turned-trinkets, these traces of life have been fragmented and shattered into pieces all over earth. The imagination of the past can only be recovered in broken parts, and can no longer be fully reconstructed into what it formerly was. WALL-E’s understanding of humanity in his VCR videos only gives him a myopic view of earth’s previous landscape and cannot accurately depict the pre-apocalyptic environment. This shows that total recovery is no longer possible when the remnants of the past have been disintegrated to disrepair.
There is also an added futility in the efforts at reconstruction of the environment, particularly seen in the function of WALL-E on earth. I observe that even in his attempts at cleaning up and rebuilding earth, WALL-E is ultimately still limited to his rudimentary capabilities of a garbage-collecting robot. In his resting state, WALL-E folds himself up in a cube just like the very trash he collects. We also observe similar models of WALL-E on earth that are all dead, broken and unusable, lying in the very heaps of trash that he collects from. Such persistent comparisons of WALL-E with the surrounding trash paints him as simply a piece of garbage, collecting garbage, waiting to eventually become part of the garbage. WALL-E’s life cycle of garbage-to-robot-to-garbage perpetuates the cyclical nature of the post-apocalyptic recovery efforts that never ends and only results in the collection of more trash in the form of WALL-E’s body. The efforts at recovery are made to seem pointless with no longevity in the solution. Hence, there appears to be a hopelessness in the efforts at recovery of the environment because such efforts only lead humanity back to where they started from—an uninhabitable barren wasteland.
Coexistence of Pessimism and Hope
Yet, despite the conflicting sentiments between the probability and improbability of post-apocalyptic recovery, it is imperative to understand that my pessimistic argument and the film’s optimism are not mutually exclusive, but rather can coexist with one another, because both views ultimately project a shared direction towards a new (albeit different) world in order to progress from the post-apocalyptic landscape.
The film’s optimism projects a possibility of a ‘potential emergence of a renewed, perhaps better world’ (Anderson, 2012, p. 267) in the recovery of the pre-apocalyptic environment. This is particularly seen in WALL-E’s discovery of the first plant on earth in 700 years, proof of life that indicates earth’s ability to finally sustain growth once again. The plant, representing life that existed before the apocalypse, suggests that pre-apocalyptic lifeforms can indeed be recovered and regrown on earth. This paves way for a new world in which the pre-apocalyptic environment can be restored to what it was before.
Simultaneously, my pessimistic view also projects an image of a new world, though with a different outcome: a new world where, despite the improbability of complete recovery and the irreversible impacts of environmental damage, it is still possible for life to coexist with the environmental destruction and garbage present. In the final images of the film, we see sprouting seedlings that represent earth’s new sustained growth of life. However, it is notable that these seedlings neither replace, nor displace the post-apocalyptic environment, but rather grow alongside the damaged soil and piles of garbage that now inhabit earth. This no longer suggests a recovery of the past, but instead highlights a coexistence between new life and the past destruction. In many ways, this complements the film’s optimistic view: partially conceding that life can indeed be grown on earth, but with the condition that it grows alongside the post-apocalyptic landscape of earth to create a new world consisting of past and present elements.
Hence, in progressing from the post-apocalyptic world with the creation of a new world, both pessimism and hope for post-apocalyptic recovery can coexist to chart the various possibilities of this new world.
In conclusion, I observe that garbage portrays a complex coexistence between both the hopefulness and hopelessness of apocalyptic recovery that creates different versions of a new world. With this new world, mankind can work towards the second coming of earth’s colonisation post-apocalypse. However, one must still question the sustainability of this new world, particularly with mankind’s track record of cyclical consumption, which could possibly instigate a second wave of environmental apocalypse in the new world.
Anderson, C. T. (2012). Post-apocalyptic nostalgia: WALL-E, garbage, and American ambivalence toward manufactured goods. Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, 23(3), 267–282. https://doi.org/10.1080/10436928.2012.703598
Stanton, A. (Director). (2008). WALL-E. Burbank, Calif.: Walt Disney Home Entertainment.