The Superhero Issue

How Captain Planet inspired a generation of Millennials to save the world

“You all are now Captain Planet,” says Barbara Pyle, who helped create the eco-friendly superhero. “You are now the superheroes.”

Existing in 2021 may feel like living through history, but the early ’90s were no different.

On a global scale, the years between 1990 and 1996 were particularly notable. The Hubble Telescope launched into orbit, the Human Genome Project began, and the internet took off. The world watched as American troops marched into Iraq — then changed the channel to watch MTV and The Simpsons.

Perhaps most importantly, it was in those years that 100 countries and 200 U.S. markets met the world’s first eco-superhero.

The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.

Captain Planet emerged on the scene with skin as blue as the sky and a green mullet that symbolized nature and forests.TBS

Captain Planet hit the scene with skin as blue as the sky and a green mullet that symbolized nature and forests. He fought villains with names like Verminous Skumm and Looten Plunder, took on corporate greed, and tackled pollution with the same valor.

He was unlike any other superhero the world had seen.

“The entire creation of Captain Planet happened in the span of one hour.”

He didn’t work alone, either. Captain Planet could only appear when summoned by a team of five young heroes, known as Planeteers. Racially and geographically diverse, the Planeteers were gifted rings by Gaia, the spirit of the Earth. Each ring represented an element. And when earth, fire, wind, water, and heart were combined, Captain Planet appeared to save the world.

Captain Planet co-creator Barbara Pyle tells Inverse that, without the Planeteers, Captain Planet would be indistinguishable from any other superhero. He not only exists but thrives through the combined powers of teenagers who need him.

“All I can say is thank goodness that I came up with these five Planeteers,” Pyle says. “This was a defensive move. We had to make our eco-hero unique.”

“Our move to save the earth was to put the power in the global rallying cry of the Planeteers.”TBS

In most episodes, Captain Planet would appear when summoned to deliver a few bad puns and his catchphrase — “By Your Powers Combined, I am Captain Planet” — before returning to his underground headquarters.

“Our move to save the earth was to put the power in the global rallying cry of the Planeteers,” Pyle says.

Over thirty years later, Captain Planet may have succeeded in its mission. By inspiring an entire generation of future environmental activists, Pyle and her collaborators helped create a set of Planeteers just as passionate as those in their series.

A brief history of Captain Planet

Barbara Pyle with her creation, Captain Planet, in 2011.Ben Rose/WireImage/Getty Images

The year was 1989, and Pyle was Corporate Vice President of Environmental Policy at Turner Broadcasting System. At an executive meeting with the eco-minded media mogul Ted Turner, she was shown cut-outs of a superhero and told his name would be ‘Captain Planet.’

“Well, I went bonkers and just started talking,” Pyle says. “The first character I came up with was Gaia, and then the Planeteers came flowing out. The entire creation of Captain Planet happened in the span of one hour.”

The show’s premiere made it clear that Captain Planet would tackle complex problems. In many senses, the hero and his Planeteers were not fighting traditional comic-book baddies.

Episode 1, “A Hero for the Earth,” introduced viewers to Hoggish Greedly, voiced by the late Ed Asner. In the opening scenes, Greedly bulldozes through a wildlife sanctuary. During his quest to make millions from the oil industry, he razes a pristine forest and sends animals scampering to safety. Greedly, in other words, represents corporate greed at its worst.

“It’s those poor, silly humans again.”

The following scenes show Gaia reflecting on human activity and unsustainable practices across the preceding 100 years on Earth. We see grim images of deforestation, plastic waste, and nuclear runoff, as well as pollution across the land, air, and sea.

“It’s those poor, silly humans again,” Gaia laments. “They’re going to destroy my planet if they keep going on like this.”

These ominous words paved the way for the next 112 episodes. Overfishing, species extinction, wildlife poaching, irresponsible waste disposal, and whaling factored into some episodes, while others tackled poverty, unsustainable food production and consumption, land degradation, and rising ocean temperatures. Suffice to say, the long-running series covered issues no children’s cartoon had dared broach before.

“The reason I went to work for Ted Turner in the first place was because he gave me editorial freedom,” Pyle says, adding that she couldn’t have made Captain Planet without one other collaborator.

“Nick Boxer was a writer who could successfully blend the complex science involved with action and adventure,” she said. “In addition, Captain Planet looks uncannily like Nick.”

Some scenes in the series were so directly political that critics at the Christian Science Monitor called Captain Planetradical.” Was global warming so dire as the show presupposed? Was deforestation worth talking about? And, surely, biodiversity loss couldn’t be that severe. How could we be running out of time to save the Earth?

Fast forward three decades and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that “human influence has warmed the atmosphere, ocean, and land, leading to extreme heatwaves, droughts, and flooding.”

“You all are now Captain Planet.”

Today, the UN classifies half of all agricultural land as degraded. Floods, droughts, and heatwaves account for over 90 percent of all disasters in Latin America and the Caribbean across the last 20 years. The Atlantic Basin saw 30 named storms in 2020 alone, and two Category 4 hurricanes created history by making landfall in Nicaragua within two weeks of each other. Fires rage in the world’s largest forests, species collapse into extinction, and poverty levels rise – the world is in the throes of concurrent climate, biodiversity, and food crises.

As the world faces such perils, where is Captain Planet?

During an early September call this year with a group of self-styled Planeteers, Pyle wished Captain Planet a happy birthday as he turned 31.

“You all are now Captain Planet,” Pyle said over Zoom. “You are now the superheroes.”

That includes people like Illac Diaz.

A new generation of Planeteers

Barbara Pyle with Planeteers and young climate advocates at the 2019 Climate Strike.Captain Planet Movement

The Planeteer Movement is a worldwide collective of young people inspired by Captain Planet to fight for a better environment. Pyle directly supports the organization, which boasts over half a million active members across more than 100 countries.

Among its members is Diaz, an MIT grad and the founder of Liter of Light. This grassroots organization teaches vulnerable communities to make solar lights for homes and streets using plastic bottles and other recyclable materials. The organization has spread its affordable model of hand-made lights and mobile chargers to over 32 countries.

Liter of Light “started in the Philippines because of the massive storms and the first Category 5 hurricane that started hitting my islands,” Diaz tells Inverse. “The hurricane hit more than 4 million houses, and we lost more than 10 million lives. That was where I came in. Most of the power plants are right next to the coast, and because they got hit by 20-foot storm surge waters, this place would have run out of power and would not have been able to have light for a year.”

“When I was young, the heroes were always Americans or Europeans, but never somebody of my color.”

Diaz, an expert in alternative construction, was called in to help. In the absence of electric lighting, he observed that families were using kerosene lamps in the tents that they now called home. But heating kerosene in such a small space was dangerous and reports of children receiving third-degree burns from the hot oil were rising. In other cases, tents would go up in flames.

Diaz considered using solar power instead, but ordering solar lights was expensive and would take months to arrive on the islands. Instead, Diaz decided to build solar products using panels produced in the Philippines. “It brought jobs to hundreds of women, who build solar lights,” he says. “Within three months, we had 7000 lights. For every 30 minutes that it takes to assemble it, you have five years’ worth of light.” In other words, the families could stop using kerosene.

It’s a project Captain Planet, one of Diaz’s childhood heroes, would have admired.

Illac Diaz building solar lights in Colombia.Liter of Light

“When I was young, the heroes were always Americans or Europeans, but never somebody of my color,” Dais says. “I’m from the Philippines. I am a tropic boy; and in the Planeteers, I saw someone like me. I saw Captain Planet saving the world and asking everybody to be at the table, wherever they are. He told us that each of us had the power to make a difference.”

This year, Diaz is helping young people across the globe get their pleas to world leaders ahead of the Glasgow Climate Talks, the most anticipated climate conference since the Paris Climate Agreement. Diaz will take the youth message to this political high table in one of the ways he knows best: with sustainable lighting.

His program, called “The Messages of Hope,” will source messages for the future from young people around the world. Diaz will then write out those messages with 100-meter-long lights placed in public spaces.

“We will illuminate city streets and public parks, using major cities as a canvas for their messages to be heard,” he says.

The Planeteer Movement

A group of Planateers celebrate with Captain Planet.The Ghana Planeteers

Diaz isn’t alone. There’s a legion of millennials who grew up watching Captain Planet. Today, they are part of the Planeteer Movement, an army of adults working to create a sustainable world.

Ian Storrar, a longtime Planeteer and one of the group’s first members, says the series directly inspired his environmental activism. In 2009, he reached out to Pyle directly to thank her.

“I grew up playing Captain Planet with my brothers and friends and thinking about trying to stop pollution, pick up litter, and activities like that,” he tells Inverse. “There are tens of millions in America, and tens of millions around the world, who were influenced by it. That was the start of the movement.”

“We are Captain Planet and we are the only people who are going to save the planet.”

Like Pyle, Storrar believes Captain Planet is only as powerful as his Planeteers around the world. That message is clear for present-day fans.

“Captain Planet was a cartoon,” says Storrar. “It was a brand and it gave us a sort of an emblem or a flag to rally around. But what needed to happen, and still needs to happen, is that millennials and Gen Z — really everybody in the world, regardless of their age — needs to take action. We are Captain Planet, and we are the only people who are going to save the planet.”

Barbara Pyle visits the Ghana Planeteers.The Ghana Planeteers

Diaz adds that Captain Planet fans have taken the message of the original Planeteer to heart: it’s not enough to pledge your support, because what’s needed is activists who lead by example.

“Captain Planet is inspiring children of the past and children of this generation to be that example,” he says. “Not to look up to him, but stand side-by-side. That is what I feel the modern Captain Planet is. He is the millions of people coming together — not what one person can do.”

The Inverse Superhero Issue challenges the most dominant idea in our culture today.