Sex, Lives and Red Tape

Public health lessons from “WALL-E”

The Public Health Film Festival took place last month, and on Sunday 29th June screened the heart-warming Pixar film “WALL-E”. Unfortunately I was unable to attend, however having rewatched the film last night I’ve blogged some thoughts regarding how WALL-E exemplifies some important public health issues.

Public health lesson #1: Sustainability

Sustainability is the idea that we are able to meet the needs of today without compromising the needs of tomorrow. In the film, the resources on planet Earth had been used up and the whole landscape was dominated by junk and waste. As life was no longer sustainable on Earth the human population abandoned the planet for over 700 years. Quite drastic measures you might think – yet its not beyond the realms of possibility…

The story of Easter Island is often highlighted as a warning of the consequences of living unsustainably. Easter Island inhabitants began using up their natural resources to provide for their growing population; this lead to deforestation and soil erosion, which in turn lead to food shortages and the eventual collapse and destruction of their society on Easter Island. True story.


Easter Island – a lesson for sustainable living?

The film also highlights the joy that can be gained from living sustainably and taking care of your environment. We see WALL-E making a hobby out of collecting old relics and living off items discarded in a wasteland. When the humans return to Earth they start working together to preserve their environment, learning from the lessons of the past. The take home message from the film: living unsustainably has negative consequences for individuals and society, however its not too late to change and there are many benefits to living sustainably.

Public health lesson #2: Obesity

Humans depending on a life of convenience

Obesity is the problem of excess weight which is harmful to health. People who are overweight are more likely to develop a range of complex health problems (such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancers) as well as psychological and social problems. Obesity is a growing problem (pun intended), and by 2050 it is predicted to affect 60% of adult men, 50% of adult women and 25% of children.

In WALL-E, we observe humans travelling around on hover-seats, consuming all meals through drinking straws and being plugged into entertainment/technology systems. The consequences of this lifestyle of convenience is inactivity, social isolation and obesity – none of which are good for health. The film has been criticised elsewhere for its depiction of obese people being lazy, however I would argue that what this film does very well is demonstrates the concept of an obesogenic environment – that is surroundings which encourage obesity (why walk when you can float everywhere on a scooter device?).

In reality, obesity is a complex issue and there are many factors which contribute. The take home message from the film: the environment we live in can influence obesity.

What other films highlight public health issues?

When I was preparing for my MFPH exams, it was great to be able to watch films with public health themes as an alternative way to think about public health. Here are some of the films which I think are great for generating public health discussions:

  • Contagion (2011) health protection, infectious diseases
  • Outbreak (1995) health protection, infectious diseases
  • Thank you for smoking (2005) health promotion, marketing, smoking
  • An inconvenient truth (2006) climate change
  • Sicko (2007) comparative health systems, health inequalities
  • Super Size Me (2004) obesity, nutrition
  • The motorcycle diaries (2004) global health
  • One flew over the cuckoo’s nest (1975) mental health, medical sociology

NB: The University of Otago have compiled some great public health film recommendations here: movies for undergraduate public health teaching


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