SAN FRANCISCO - Is there anyone who's never seen a Roadrunner/Wile E. Coyote cartoon? Someone who's never heard of Acme? Over the years, Warner Brothers' cartoon division has produced some of the funniest cartoons and one of the most colorful and identifiable casts of characters in the history of animation. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig, Sylvester and Tweety, Speedy Gonzales, Yosemite Sam, the Tasmanian Devil - these are a few of the Warner characters who have become more or less permanent fixtures in American pop culture.
While never having attained the mega-popularity of superstars like Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck, the Roadrunner/Coyote series and the endless chase they embody have nevertheless achieved a fairly universal level of familiarity. Hundreds of millions of people across the globe recognize these characters and have even discussed the apparent futility of the coyote's efforts to catch the elusive bird.
This is what interests me about these cartoons - the hopelessness of Wile E. Coyote's endeavors. Why does he persist in his fruitless pursuit? Why, indeed, does he not just use some of the money he wastes on Acme products to buy himself a good, hot meal? Warner brothers produced at least 36 of these cartoons, and director Chuck Jones, a major force in their creation, says that it took about 11 "blackout gags" (each scene fading to black and fading back in to the next) to properly "fill out and pace" a single cartoon. This equals roughly 400 attempts to catch the Roadrunner. All unsuccessful. In all of which the coyote was responsible for his own demise, the victim of effects caused by himself and his instruments. Yet still he tried, and tried again. But why? For what profit? What reason? Some cynics might believe the endless pursuit of money by a cartoon studio seeking to profit from popular characters to be the reason, and that would not be far removed from the truth. However, I suspect that there might be something else going on here.
This whole series of cartoons suggests to me an allegory for human existence, a representation of something much larger, perhaps even a truth. They remind me of Aesop's Fables and the parables Jesus and other Biblical figures used to illustrate bits of wisdom. Consider the story of Cain and Abel in the book of Genesis. According to the Bible, Cain was a farmer and Abel a herdsman, and Cain rose up and slew Abel. This may be seen as an allegory for a period in human history when an agricultural lifestyle replaced a nomadic lifestyle.
As our "wily" species evolved, our ready adaptability and growing intelligence allowed us to succeed in all sorts of environments around the world. The subsequent population boom began to make lifestyle changes necessary, and one of these changes was a new reliance on agriculture; just before the book of Genesis was written, vast numbers of nomadic tribes wandered the globe. They followed herds of wild beasts back and forth across continents, occasionally slaying one for food and offering part of it to their gods. But if animals are slain at a faster rate than they reproduce, the herds face eventual extinction. Therefore, when human population reached a certain point, we were forced to either find new ways of feeding ourselves or starve. Farming rose up to smite wandering with the herd as a way of life, and a Bible story was born!
So what do the Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote have to do with this? Consider for a moment the mindset of the herdsman. He had no books, didn't understand population growth curves and the laws of supply and demand. Everything he knew about life he learned from his elders, and they from theirs, so chasing herds back and forth across the globe as a way of life was firmly rooted in tradition, in the very essence of people who had always lived this way. Wile E. Coyote has a similar mindset - he endlessly pursues a roadrunner back and forth across the American Southwest. It's evidently all he knows, and he apparently has a hard time changing. In this situation, the Coyote represents the human race.
Throughout human history, our burgeoning population has forced us into critical positions where a transition from one resource to another have become necessary. Take for example the Industrial Revolution; before said "revolution," people across Europe relied heavily on wood. In fact, it was the principal industrial resource of the time, and its uses went far beyond mere fuel source. Wood was a primary component of homes and barns, pipes and plumbing, buckets and troughs; wooden machinery including looms, wine and oil presses, printing presses and windmills; carts and wagons made of wood, sometimes bridges and thoroughfares; rakes, hoes, shovels and plows; eating and cooking utensils, etc. Use of these same technological implements, which may as well have been purchased from Acme, figuratively slammed us directly into a wall of rock. As we felled trees to feed growing industry, farmlands expanded to feed the growing masses, but eventually Europe started to run out of trees, and that's when... wham!!! Right into a cliff.
As in the case of the herds of beasts mentioned earlier, we chopped down the forests faster than they could replenish themselves. As our race unwittingly sought to dominate nature through the very vastness of our numbers, the technologies we implemented to be so successful became instruments of our own demise. Like Wile E. Coyote, we persisted, sending away for the latest Acme innovation with renewed hope and vigor. We began to use coal as a primary resource, building factories that belched black smoke into the sky, a new, "improved" way of providing for the needs of our growing numbers. Soon, however, the problems associated with such a dirty resource led to increased environmental entropy and... fwoosh!!! Thick clouds of black, sooty smoke quickly engulfed our cities, causing health and environmental crises for millions. So we started using oil. And more oil.
Much like Europe prior to the Renaissance, our present lifestyle relies on industry made possible primarily by this substance. We use oil to transform raw materials into the products we use and the homes we live in. It is one of the primary sources of fuel for power in our homes and, refined to gasoline, the power under the hood of our cars and in the engines of our farm equipment. It powers the machines that transport our material goods from place to place. These material goods are often made of petroleum products as well - oil is the source of plastics and petrochemical substances right down to many of the clothes we wear, the carpet we walk on, the bottles we drink out of, and so on. So, what happens if we run out of oil? Slam!!! Right into an oncoming train. But we'll find a new alternative. We always do, for necessity is the mother of invention.
For example, we decided that maybe it would be a good idea to harness the power of the atom. Einstein's most famous equation spoke of the tremendous power held in these miniscule particles, so we started thinking that maybe if we could actually split them somehow, releasing their energy... Yipe!... KABOOM!!! Two Japanese cities disappeared soon afterward, and lets not forget about Three Mile Island and the monstrous Chernobyl incident that produced a slew of armless children.
Other natural laws (Newton's laws of gravity, for example) often help the Roadrunner by ultimately playing some part in the Coyote's demise. So it is with us. As our expanding population, with its increased capacity and need to expend fossil fuels, begins to warm the globe, the natural laws of thermodynamics crank the activity level of the atmosphere up a notch, and all of a sudden we have... slam!!! Multiple hurricanes ravaging Florida and decimating New Orleans, raging wildfires in California, chronic deadly heat waves in Chicago, tornadoes in Denver and Minneapolis, and million year old glaciers disappearing from Alaska and Greenland.
If the Coyote represents us, then the Roadrunner represents nature, which we will never be able to dominate, overpower or catch. Our attempts to do so will prove futile every time. Like Wile E. Coyote, understanding with the human species never comes quickly. Rather, it dawns very slowly, if at all, and usually too late. History therefore repeats itself in various guises like some tragicomic series of blackout gags "filling out and pacing" our evolution. We never manage to subjugate nature but continue to try. However, unlike the Coyote, we have access to knowledge that will lead to understanding and an eventual way out of the loop. Peace and harmony with nature. Balance. Simpler living.
Capitalism has robbed us of this knowledge, with its dependence on an ever-growing, expanding economy, a steadily outward-moving production possibilities frontier curve. Economists tell us the economy must grow because their jobs depend on us believing this, but nothing could be further from the truth. Money only has value if we choose to assign value to it. Otherwise, it's just pieces of paper with numbers printed on it. In reality, money represents the energy expended in extracting resources and transforming them into products for consumption, while inflation represents the availability of these resources and the difficulty of doing so. Maybe it would profit our species more to adhere to truly universal laws rather than man-made laws such as those that govern economics.
So far, we haven't. Every day we fall victim to our own instruments of demise; cars crash, computer systems crash, and sometimes human lives crash, taking others when they go, whether it's ostracized kids shooting up their school or a failed businessman killing himself and his family, or any of the other violent incidents of late that bear witness to the fragility of our nation, our way of life, and our twisted priorities. As our society becomes larger and more complex, more exacting in its toll on nature and ourselves, we become more and more resolved to continue in our "progress," always more determined to catch that blasted Roadrunner. Always eager to try that new Acme product which might allow us to meet our ends. Seeking some new alternative which will ultimately allow us to one-up the elusive Roadrunner. But we will not find it. Universal laws are absolute. If we choose not to adhere to them, our demise is imminent.
So, perhaps the question is, how long before we, as a species, snap out it? How long will it take before we realize that the chase is futile? Will we ever learn the moral of the story? Or will we fall into a ravine like Wile E. Coyote, his body already halfway to the bottom, neck stretched thinly with only his head showing onscreen, eyes horribly agape, face twisted into a humiliated grimace as he holds up a diminutive sign that reads, "Not again!?!" It appears this will surely happen unless we learn to control our greed, for our urge to consume has become not only an obsession, but part of the fiber of our being as Americans, and we've compromised our sanity like so many ravenous coyotes. In fact, we're compromising the environmental integrity of the entire world.
And so, like many Bible stories and the parables of Christ, Roadrunner and Wile E. Coyote cartoons may be seen as both instructive and illustrative. How appropriate that a generations of pop culture junkies might be educated through such a medium. How appropriate, indeed.