A girl from a small island embarks on a voyage to find a demi-god, defeat a volcano monster, and save the world. That girl’s name is Moana, and she is a Disney heroine for the planet. Moana stands out from other Disney folktales and fairy tales for various reasons. Not only is she a person of color, Moana’s tale is based on real folk tales of the Pacific Islands. Unfortunately, those islands are now being swallowed by the ocean due to climate change.
The story of Moana is based on real islands in the South Pacific. In fact, the Disney creators felt authenticity was important, so they made various trips to Samoa, Tahiti, Moorea, Fiji, Bora Bora, Tetiaroa, Juri, and New Zealand in order to be as accurate as possible. They also created the Ocean Story Trust,made up of various people from different walks of life. They’re academics, archaeologists, anthropologists, linguists, historians, but also tattoo masters and navigators, fishermen, elders, and artists. They shared their knowledge and stories with the production and were available to the filmmakers and crew for questions throughout the process.
Samoa, as it is known today, is different from American Samoa (Moana voice actor Dwayne "The Rock” Johnson is of Samoan heritage). The two are divided by east and west. Samoa, the independent country, is the western part. It is governed by a Unitary parliamentary democracy with eleven administrative divisions. American Samoa, the eastern part, is a U.S. Territory. Samoa is a part of a cluster of islands in the South Pacific. Archaeological records support oral tradition and native genealogies that indicate inter-island voyaging and intermarriage between prehistoric Samoans, Fijians, and Tongans. Contact with the Europeans did not occur until the early 18th century. Our heroine’s story takes place 2000 years ago, long before the divide of east and west or European contact. But her voyage of saving her people is incredibly relevant today.
In the film, Moana has been chosen by the ocean to restore the heart of Tafiti in order to save her people. Tafiti is the goddess of life and death and because her heart was removed by Maui, plants and fish are dying. It is up to Moana now to save the world.
Just like in Moana’s story, islands in the Pacific and around the world are suffering but from a different monster, climate change. According to the Pacific Climate Change Science Program, “Satellite data indicate the sea level has risen near Samoa by about 4 mm per year since 1993. This is slightly larger than the global average of 2.8–3.6 mm per year.” In addition, acidification in the ocean is increasing as well. About one-quarter of human-emitted carbon dioxide is absorbed by the ocean; this extra carbon dioxide mixed with the sea water causes ocean acidification. The ocean acidification makes the corals unable to absorb the calcium carbonate needed to maintain their skeletons. The decline and death of coral reefs is cause to worry since they are vital to the ocean's ecosystem.
The ocean is only one part of the climate change problem. The beautiful islands the film takes place in are also suffering from floods and droughts caused by climate change. These serious problems are not only a harm to the beauty of the environment they are also affecting Samoa’s infrastructure and economy.
“We can no longer grow or develop as a nation unless we ensure that every investment, whether it is in infrastructure, food security, watershed management, health improvement, or tourism, is informed by the most up-to-date data on climate change projections and expected impacts, particularly related to extreme weather events and resultant disasters,” said Suluimalo Amataga Penaia, CEO of Samoa’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.
Scholars, policy-makers, economists, and everyday people are rapidly working together in order to help reverse the current effects we are seeing. Moana is a small piece of that positive change. By creating a heroine who embarks on a journey to save the dying plants and fish, Disney has created one of the most relatable and heroic characters of all time. In the film, she sets out on a voyage to save her people, and like most heroes, she learns who she is through this voyage. We can all be modern day Moanas. We can be heroes to save the planet!
Currently, women only make up 25.7 percent of environmental scientists. In addition, only 19.3 percent of women graduate with higher education degrees in engineering and 39 percent in physical sciences. This film may be an inspiration for women both young and young at heart to pursue a science focused career.
If, like Moana, you are a girl who loves the sea and it calls you, environmental or oceanic science might be the field for you! And even if we don’t each become scientists, or go on voyages with demigods, we can help save our oceans ecosystems with our everyday actions.
And who doesn’t want to be a badass not-a-princess heroine chosen by the ocean to save the world?
Top image: Moana
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Isabel Sophia Dieppa is a writer and actor. She is a part of the performance duo Of This World in Chicago, IL. Dieppa is the recipient of a 2018 Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant, which she has used to report on property rights in Puerto Rico. Her interests lie in science, art, and history. Past writing includes interning for the Chicago Field Museum ECCO program, the national theater blog HOWLROUND, music reviews for UR Chicago, and in a former life was a beat reporter for the Indiana Daily Student. She loves archaeology, kitties, and dancing. The next big adventure may include an archaeological dig in Peru. Follow her on twitter @isabelsdieppa.