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Disney’s Moana: a narrative on the economics of Climate Change

November 27, 2016
Tamatoa and the two faces of Te Fiti.

Tamatoa and the two faces of Te Fiti.

note: (I moved the first paragraph to the end of the post. When I wrote this I was not aware of all the other academic work on the subject here, herehere, here and here, which I apologized for inadvertently and categorically dismissing.)

The narrative of Moana is typical of the new Disney, shifting the resolution of the narrative away from the male-hero and onto the female. Considering that there’s an entire movement now waxing anti-feminism, I wonder if eviscerating Maui to continue with the theme of promoting gender equity may be a well-timed corruption of his persona.

It is a well-known fact that Disney co-opts and is an integral part of the globalization machine, but that should not close the discussion. Rather, it should open the discussion up to whether the Pacific is part of the global economy or not. I would argue that it is, but that should not mean that it surrenders to the neoliberal privatization and free-marketeering that is associated with globalization. There really needs to be a more open and honest discussion over how Pacific Island governance and civil society should engage in globalization. I should also add that by globalization, I’m not speaking about commercialization and the ubiquitous chatzki of Disney characters.

In a 2012 email discussion I had with someone from Disney’s development over cultural co-option, he/she said:

“Modern indigenous artists are often stuck between two unsavory choices.  Either they fulfill the once-upon-a-time model, and create work that is indistinguishable from their own grandparents, or they must abandon any connection to tradition altogether and create work comparable to an urban gallery artist in New York City.  If they try to create something contemporary, the once-upon-a-timers will reject them.  If they try to respect traditional modes of expression, the modernists will accuse them of nostalgia and craft-fair mawkishness.  In this way, one of the key components of cultural reinforcement, and identity…that is art…is kept in an ineffectual limbo where it can neither advance indigenous cultural ideas, nor participate in the dialogue of mainstream idea brokers.

This is all bound up in the origins of modern art itself, which fetishized indigenous art for all the wrong, patronizing, and frankly racist reasons…innocence, savagery, primitivism, childlike simplicity….try reading the first generation of modern artists writing about African and Oceanic art sometime.  Once the standard of unblemished tribal innocence is set, by the empowered consumers and creators of the discourse, then one must either play the assigned role of tribal innocent, or join the ranks of the fully urbanized and modernized disconnected commentator.  There is no role for art that expresses traditionally informed but ongoing cultural evolution because that would raise indigenous art out of tribal innocence and into competition with the main owners of the field of art.  More to the point….If indigenous art was never tribally innocent, primitive, and savage to begin with…then, what exactly is the superstructure of modernism built upon?”

In Disney’s Moana there is an unambiguous metaphor over the economics of climate change where Tamatoa the crab represents Wall St’s neoliberal capitalization of the Pacific. The dual persona of Te Fiti represents how the Pacific should engage in the global economy: either succumbing to the post-colonial resource theft by large economies or ecologically integrating as a sovereign region as a means to protect its people, its customary “Pacific” ways, and its ecological biodiversity.  Without the heart of the Pacific– without the Pounamu stone — the sacred valuation of its biodiversity, the Pacific will “rot.”

With so many threats confronting the Pacific at this time, Disney has– for better or worse– an unparalleled global reach that has the potential to introduce these themes across every region. Considering the negative messaging that Disney could’ve promoted, I wonder if we should give credit to Disney for producing a film that promotes mālama honua, the same ocean governance issues that the Vaka Moana Pacific navigators who are circumnavigating the planet are addressing.

With the threat of Deep Seabed mining in the Pacific about to be ruled upon by the International Seabed Authority, Disney’s Moana presents a useful metaphor for opposing an industry that is stealing the Pounamu stone.

Disney’s Moana addresses artisanal fishing as well.  Marine Protected Areas like the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and other protected areas require fishing permits that hinder customary and artisanal fishing. Potential new rules of access for shoreline and nearshore fishing now pits ecological priorities against customary rights.

Even piracy was literally addressed and defeated by the muscle and heart of Pacific peoples. If we think of Wall Street financialization and investment regimes as legalized piracy, we should note that fisheries is one of the few trade sectors left that Wall St. does not control.

The criticisms over the Disneyfication of the Pacific misses a really important aspect of this film, and that is the Moana itself. The ocean is central to the Blue Economy framework that is being discussed at the global institutional level in both the Climate COP accords and the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Blue Economy is a new environmental and economic paradigm whose framework is currently being pushed as another Green Economy, and for me Disney’s Moana evokes exactly how the Blue economy needs to be framed– not as a new privatization initiative as the Green Economy has become, but as one that builds upon the preservation of ecological biodiversity, stewarded by the people of the Pacific, and not by foreign banks and industries. I would argue that the fight over the Blue Economy framework will be the most important and strongest tool for resisting resource depletion and environmental degradation.

If we apply this to Marine Protected Areas, the current wave of enclosures targeting the world’s fisheries and ocean will take place within the same context as global land grabbing. Currently, the PNA is holding strong with their Vessel Day Scheme, but the large distant fishing nations have been trying to undermine Pacific protections with their own Quota Management System, and MPAs may be a backdoor towards undermining Pacific fisheries catch management schemes.

When the national accounting systems fully integrate with environmental accounts, MPAs will have tremendous equity in the global market, with a value that far exceeds what industrialized economies can offset their carbon deficits to. Simply pegging the value of degradation on the value of carbon expenditures seems very much like a giveaway and it’s important for the region to reassess that value appropriately.

Either the Pacific will account for them, or some private trust or partnership with ties to big industry will account for them. This has to be addressed in the context of Ocean Governance because MPAs cannot be accounted for twice. Even public-private partnerships should be reconsidered because the value of a government’s share will still be pegged to carbon pricing.

Measuring the upsurge and the changing use of land and oceans and its associated resources from small-scale, labor-intensive uses like subsistence agriculture, toward large-scale, capital-intensive, resource-depleting uses such as industrial monocultures, or raw material extraction will benefit global markets while alienating customary use. Conservation groups and financial services are already planning how to integrate and harmonize this region with extractive and depleting industries and markets.

Maybe Disney’s Moana will put discussions over the protection and regulation of the Blue Economy front and center, exactly where it should be, where it needs to be, to preserve the health of our planet at this very late stage…even if it made over $80 million during it’s five-day opening weekend.


First paragraph: (Although the academic bent on treating this film as cultural co-option has validity, it’s a narrowness that dismisses the greater potential value this film has.)

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