Finding Nemo, Losing Fear

Many thousands of children and their parents were entranced this year by Pixar's excellent movie Finding Nemo, whose combination of inventiveness, comedy, and emotion made it an early candidate for the Best Picture Oscar (though given last year's precedent, Best Documentary should not be beyond its grasp). Yet it contributed something to the world besides making so many people happy. It is one of the most powerful statements in a long time against a pernicious and retrograde idea that has enthused regulators and nanny statists all over the world.

That idea is the so-called "Precautionary Principle," which, broadly speaking, says that no new technology should come into use unless we are certain that it will do no harm to life or the environment. The European Union is so enthusiastic about this idea that it is not only looking to enshrine the principle in its proposed constitution, but is even thinking of applying it retroactively, by testing chemicals that have been in everyday use for centuries to see whether they are safe enough by today's standards. A moment's thought reveals the Precautionary Principle to be an insidious idea: If applied throughout history, it would have left us trapped in caves, without tools or fire. It is a worldview that sees any risk as unacceptable, even if this condemnation costs us the chance to progress.

It was therefore delightful to see this view challenged constantly throughout Finding Nemo. The story is about a clownfish, Marlin, and his son, Nemo, the only survivor of a barracuda attack that killed Nemo's mother and siblings. As a result of the tragedy, Marlin has become overprotective of his son. But when Nemo is captured by an Australian diver on his first day at school, Marlin must leave the safety of his anemone and brave the vastness of the ocean — with its sharks, currents, and fearsome anglerfish — to rescue his son. In the course of his adventures, he meets Dory, a kindly blue tang with short-term memory loss, whose boundless optimism ultimately gives him the strength to get to Sydney and be reunited with his son.

Dory's optimism provides many of the film's funniest and most poignant moments. In a pivotal scene, she and Marlin are taken into a whale's mouth, and when the whale prepares to blow them out, the water level decreases. Marlin exclaims in fear, "It's already half-empty," to which Dory replies, "Really? It looks half-full to me." These conflicting viewpoints are clearly reflected in many real-world debates, including the one over global warming. The Marlins of the world are terrified that carbon dioxide will cause an apocalyptic temperature rise that will create droughts, floods, and deserts. The world's Dories, however, see the rewards that modest temperature increases could bring, such as warmer winters in colder climes, and the already-demonstrated benefits of increased vegetation and reduced desert areas.

Later on, as the whale raises its tongue out of the water, Marlin clings on for dear life while Dory urges him to let go so the whale can blow them out. Marlin fears the whale intends to eat them and asks Dory, "How do you know something bad won't happen?" "I don't," she replies, letting go. Marlin realizes the wisdom in her words, and lets go too.

When presented with an opportunity that entails risks, we don't know whether something bad might happen. The precautionary, Marlinesque approach, however, presumes that something bad will happen, so nothing ever gets done. During the same whale scene, Marlin tells Dory that he promised Nemo that he would never let anything bad happen to him. Dory comments, "What a funny thing to promise. Then, nothing will ever happen to him." Once again, Dory's wisdom illuminates many current issues in science, technology, and the environment. If we do not take risks, we cannot advance. Sometimes we need to leap into the dark. The fact that it is dark does not mean the leap may not be worth it.

In the DVD edition, the film's director, Andrew Stanton, comments that "the movie is about the battle of hope versus fear, optimism over pessimism; it's half-full versus half-empty…. You can either hide in life or you can enter it, take your chances and engage." The philosophies of Finding Nemo and the Precautionary Principle stand in stark opposition to each other — which makes the movie's popularity very good news.

Originally posted at National Review.