News Story

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice Scene From Fantasia Captures the Spirit of Earth Day

Every December millions watch an array of familiar Christmas theme movies — "Scrooge," "A Christmas Story," "It’s a Wonderful Life" and so on. No similar tradition has been established for Earth Day, but if there were an appropriate selection would be The Sorcerer’s Apprentice scene from Disney’s classic movie "Fantasia." As explained below, the mousey parable is a metaphor for what has happened the environmental movement.

When Earth Day was created in 1970 the environmental movement advocated practical approaches to real problems. The air and water, cities, rural areas and woodlands were being used as waste dumps. A broad consensus for reform existed among average voters, politicians and industry.

In response, laws were passed to reverse decades of using natural resources irresponsibly, and innovators discovered new ways to clean up the environment. The initial successes were nothing short of remarkable. Markets expanded for safer, healthier products, and industry discovered these made for excellent public relations. Plus, they discovered that doing things in cleaner, more efficient ways often saved money in the long run.

Unfortunately, mankind’s capacity to subvert noble causes to promote self-interest is perennial. After achieving much in a relatively short period of time, by the mid-1980s the environmental movement felt a need to continually conjure new reasons to justify its existence. By this period practical, sensible means to reduce pollution met little resistance, and without a sense of crisis, social movements wither. In short, the environmental movement needed to either find a crisis or invent one. The one it found was man-made global warming.

Man-made global warming was not invented by the environmental movement. It was an obscure theory dating back to the 1880s. The fact that temperature increases predicted by its adherents hadn’t materialized by the 1940s (sound familiar?) seemed to have doomed it to remaining obscure.

Ironically, the roots of man-made global warming’s revival can be traced to, of all people, Margaret Thatcher, prime minister of the United Kingdom from 1979 to 1990. Thatcher was a conservative who in many respects might be considered the UK’s equivalent of Ronald Reagan.

Thatcher seized upon man-made global warming at the suggestion of Sir Crispin Tickell, who was the UK’s ambassador to the UN. Tickell pointed out that virtually all international statesmen were scientifically illiterate and Thatcher could gain respect internationally by promoting the issue. He might well have added that most politicians and most average folks are scientifically illiterate as well.

In addition, Thatcher was constantly battling the National Union of Mineworkers in the UK, which could be damaged economically and politically if a reason could be found for the nation to turn away from coal. Thatcher aggressively promoted man-made global warming in both international and domestic politics as a legitimate and important issue, while advocating for more nuclear power.

Politicization of man-made global warming offered enticements to so many people that it was bound to rise to prominence. Besides providing easily dispensed demagoguery for politicians and the environmental movement, it held the promise of allowing researchers, universities, and corporate-welfare exploiters to plunder public coffers throughout the Western world. In addition it has given nations, both friends and foes, an excuse to vilify the U.S.A. for our economic vigor.

Before Disney turned The Sorcerer’s Apprentice into the well-known classic cartoon feature, it was a poem-ballad written in 1797 by German writer and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

The tale begins with the old sorcerer retiring for the night and leaving his apprentice with instructions to do some chores. The apprentice decides to use the sorcerer’s wand to enchant a broom to do the work for him. The enchanted broom begins fetching water with a pail and goes about the task of filling a cistern, which was the first chore the apprentice was supposed to tackle. But after the cistern is filled, the broom doesn’t stop. It keeps fetching more and more water and then emptying it into the already overflowing cistern. The apprentice can’t make the broom quit; it just continues fetching water and throwing it in the cistern. Meanwhile, the room is becoming drenched and the water on the floor is getting deeper by the minute.

Panicking, the apprentice grabs an ax and splits the broom — then each splinter of the broom turns into another broom with another pail and suddenly there are several brooms fetching water, carrying it back and dumping it in the cistern, even though the room has become flooded and the apprentice is forced to swim in the torrent. But still, the brooms continue to relentlessly fetch more and more water. Finally, the old sorcerer returns to save the day.

The apprentice was guilty of what many people do. He set forces in motion that took on a life of their own. Ultimately his original purpose — his original cause — was drowned in a swirling sea of perpetuation for its own sake.

Sadly, that pretty well sums up what Earth Day now represents.