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Could Guillermo del Toro's 'Pinocchio' solve global warming with lies?
He wants to be a real boy, and we want this to be a real solution to climate change.
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio recently premiered on Netflix. In the acclaimed director's take on the familiar fairy tale, the action takes place in 1930s Italy during the heart of Mussolini's fascist reign. This isn't the Disney film you're familiar with, but it has similar beats and a whole lot of heart. It also benefits from an aesthetic that is del Toro distilled, the blue fairy replaced with a sphynx-like wood sprite with too many eyes and a little wooden boy capable of sprouting fully grown trees from his face.
That's the trick we're going to focus on today. We're going to take del Toro and co-writer Patrick McHale (Over the Garden Wall) at their word and assume we live in a world with book-writing crickets and many-eyed forest spirits who can and do bring puppets to life. Then we'll ask the obvious question: how can we exploit this naïve but immortal being, to fix one of humanity's biggest problems?
THE BENEFIT OF LYING
Within the narrative, Pinocchio's ability to grow his nose when he lies is seen as a bad thing. It refers back to a story Geppetto tells about how lies are as obvious as the nose on your face, visible to everyone but you. It's a way of visualizing whether Pinocchio has achieved the goal set out for him, to be good. The implication, of course, is that lying is always bad. But, that attitude may be the result of a lack of imagination on the part of Geppetto and the wood sprite. Pinocchio's nose-growing ability isn't a curse, it's a superpower.
By 1930 the Industrial Revolution was in full swing and scientists were just seeing the first warning signs of looming climate change, but Geppetto wouldn't have known about that. Scientists wouldn't start getting really serious about climate change for a couple more decades and by then Pinocchio would be untethered, roaming the world as a source of good.
That part is important too. The movie goes to great lengths to establish that Pinocchio, while unrefined and ill-mannered, is good. We wouldn't really be exploiting him because once we presented the climate problem and its solution, he would want to help. The secret, of course, is Pinocchio's ability to seemingly create solid wood out of thin air with nothing more than an untruth.
There's a scene in the movie where everyone we care about is trapped inside of a whale. Actually, it isn't a whale. That's a misconception we can blame on the 1940 animated Disney film. In the book, and in del Toro's adaptation, The Terrible Dogfish swallow our heroes. In order to escape, Geppetto pleads with Pinocchio to lie, his nose growing with each additional untruth until they have a bridge to freedom.
Often, lies start small but become increasingly complicated and difficult to manage as they stack on top of one another. The same is true of Pinocchio's nose. At first, he grows only a few inches of tangled branches but by the third lie, the newly formed sapling is about two feet in length. By the seventh lie, it's a full-grown tree roughly 40 feet in length. The whole endeavor took 30 seconds from the first lie to the last and Pinocchio didn't even break a sweat.
According to the Sierra Club, a mature tree will sequester about 400 pounds of carbon dioxide in its trunk and Pinocchio might be pulling the wood out of thin air, but that's okay because the air is where the carbon is. It's estimated that since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, humans have released roughly two trillion metric tons — that's about 4.4 quadrillion pounds — of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Pinocchio has a lot of work to do.
COULD PINOCCHIO SAVE US FROM OURSELVES?
Rough math suggests he would have to produce roughly 11 trillion trees in order to entirely reverse humanity's carbon impact on the climate. Let's figure out how long that might reasonably take him to achieve. Assuming an ordinary workday of eight hours, five days a week — accounting of course for lunch and paid breaks, we're not monsters — and a consistent rate of one full-grown tree every 30 seconds, Pinocchio could fill a lumber yard each day with 960 trees. In the process, he would have sequestered 384,000 pounds of carbon. That's about 192 tons, which isn't bad for a day's work. That's equivalent to all of the carbon emitted by about 11 people in the United States over the course of a year. But there are a lot more than 11 people in the world and Pinocchio has his work cut out for him.
In an average work week, he'd produce 4,800 trees and sequester nearly a thousand tons of carbon. By year's end, we'd have nearly a quarter of a million trees piled up and roughly 50,000 tons of carbon pulled out of the air. The trouble is, we're creeping up on 40 billion tons released globally each year.
Okay, that's not going to work. What if we work Pinocchio around the clock? That would triple his output but even then, we're talking about ten-thousandths of a percent. We'd need an army of 800,000 Pinocchios in order to keep up with global carbon output.
A single Pinocchio working reasonable hours, with healthcare and holidays off, could consistently care for the carbon footprint of about 2,700 people, assuming an average yearly footprint of 18 tons apiece. Taken in this microcosm, we can see an interesting economy rise up in which choices of the people in your Pinocchio-powered town have an equivalent cost in lies. We know from the dogfish scene that Pinocchio sequestered 400 pounds of carbon with seven lies, giving a carbon sequestration rate of 57 pounds per lie.
There are about 20 pounds of carbon dioxide in a gallon of gas, which means filling a 15-gallon tank has a cost of about five and a quarter lies. We have to imagine — or hope — that we might try harder to minimize our footprint if it was directly tied to the labor of a child, even a magical one. We're pretty sure Ursula K. Le Guin had something to say about this. Maybe climate change is a problem we should solve ourselves.
Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio is now streaming on Neflix.
Stream The Day After Tomorrow, a Pinocchio-free movie about climate change, on Peacock.