In the United States, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood is an iconic children’s television show. It defined the genre through its slow pacing, the way Mr. Rogers spoke directly to the audience, and his constant message to children that “You've made this day a special day, by just your being you. There's no person in the whole world like you; and I like you just the way you are.”
The gentleness and positivity makes it easy to miss the work the show is doing. As the recent documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reminds us, Rogers did a series of shows on divorce when divorce rates were rising in the 1970s and on King Friday building a wall to keep out the “changers” when the country was in the midst of the Vietnam War. On a hot day, he soaked his feet in a baby pool with Officer Clemens – who was portrayed by the African-American opera singer François Clemens – during cultural debates over desegregating public swimming pools.
It should not be too surprising then, when Earth Day was set to go international in 1990, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood ran a series of episodes that focused on environmentalism.
In these shows, Mr. Rogers took an apocalyptic approach. He did use the popular idea of the apocalypse that focuses on a cataclysmic ending with all things being destroyed. This approach is problematic for children. As Susan Jean Strife argues in “Children’s Environmental Concerns,” children already “express great anxiety over the state of the natural environment and are becoming increasingly ecophobic.” Such things as the destruction of natural forests and animal habitats, global warming, air pollution, and the death and endangering of animals cause children to experience environmental problems as vast, overwhelming, intractable, “distant and abstract.” As a result, children feel “overwhelmed, helpless, and pessimistic about the state of the world.”
Instead, Mr. Roger’s apocalypticism is of a different kind. While never directly addressing faith or God on his show, Mr. Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian ministry, so he drew on biblical apocalypticism to address environmentalism. As Christopher McMahon notes in “Imaginative Faith,” biblical apocalypticism: 1) uses fantastical narratives to alert people to problems in the present social order, 2) sustains hope that the situation will improve, and 3) results in action to address “the plight of those who are suffering, and the structures which foster that suffering.”
Fantastical Narrative and the Present Social Order
Over the course of these episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, there is an ecological catastrophe building in the fantastical Neighborhood of Make-Believe. The story begins on garbage day, with Handyman Negri hearing a rumor that the dump is full. The dump is located in Someplace Else, the location of Harriet Cow’s school and Donkey Hodie’s farm. Harriet Cow informs Handyman Negri that the dump is full, so full in fact that they are building a fence to keep it from overflowing onto the farm and the school.
This portrayal of the dump critiques the social order. Trash is often transported “someplace else” so that it can be forgotten about. Its reality is removed from daily life, so the situation becomes abstract, far away, and, too often, unimportant. Further, Someplace Else is portrayed as an area of the United States known as Appalachia, from Harriet Cow’s accent to her dress, from living on a small farm with animals, to the hilly terrain. Not only is this the area from where Fred Rogers is from, Appalachia is an area of historic environmental exploitation and often forgotten about. The timber industry stripped the hillsides. The coal industry hollowed out the mountains. Now, natural gas industry destabilizes the land and poisons the water. It is and has been a national sacrifice zone. In other words, in his show, Rogers critiques how society dumps its problems, including environmental ones, on areas where the poor and vulnerable live.
From the initial voice of Harriet Cow crying out in the wilderness, the situation worsens. The smell of the accumulating trash in King Friday’s land is getting worse. Factory worker, Mrs. Dingelborder stops working on her rocking chairs to make nosemuffs for everyone so that they are not overwhelmed by the stench. This occurs in the fourth of a five-episode arc, and so, even as an adult, it is easy to wonder how it could ever be resolved in just one episode.
Despite the impending catastrophe, the scenario is meant to sustain hope. Throughout the story, the characters continually work toward solutions. The first round of solutions is to find another dump where everyone can dump the trash. This fails. The dumps in Southwood and Westwood are full. Other ideas are worse. Lady Elaine Fairchild suggests that “We could put all of our garbage into an airplane and send it away . . . [to] . . . Just Anywhere.” When Lady Aberlin notes that the people of Just Anywhere might not like it, Lady Elaine says, “I never thought of that.” While misguided, these attempts sustain hope because they indicate a world where everyone trying to help and no one is giving up.
In the last episode, the solutions come. Old Goat and New Goat arrive from Northwood. They come up with the plan to “divide and conquer”: divide up trash into different piles so that it can be recycled. Alongside the Goats’ plan, Hilda Dingleboarder creates a device that creates new things out of old, thrown-away things. While recycling is important, its role in the story is more than a simple solution. Recycling is symbolic of a world that is not hurtling toward doom and destruction but a world that works toward and eventually finds solutions. It is world where hope, not despair, reigns.
Finally, Rogers’ apocalyptic environmentalism does not stop with a hopeful world but rather pushes people – in this case children, his audience – to action, to bring about a world that is more caring, less destructive, of nature. Rogers makes this shift when the show moves out of the fantastical Neighborhood of Make-Believe to the more realistic neighborhood of Mr. Rogers. There, Rogers provides a plethora of recycling activities that enable children to bring the environmental story of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe into their lives. These mainly take the form of crafts created by reusing household materials. Rogers shows how to make greeting cards with left over scraps of paper, a building out of scrap wood blocks, a tree out of toilet paper tubes and tissue paper, and a bird feeder from an old milk carton.
In addition to these concrete activities, Rogers offers conceptual recycling activities. He reminds the viewers to think if something can be recycled before throwing it away. He talks about imagination as a key to recycling as it helps people think of ways to reuse objects and materials. He likens memory to recycling because it is a way for people to use their past again and again. To emphasize this point on memory, Rogers uses a clip from a 1972 episode where Mrs. McFeeley uses old clothes and fabrics to make pillows and rugs. While these are activities that kids could do, they are also meant to show kids that they can take action and do something, however small, about the problems they face. Such activities develop agency in children, stave off ecophobia, and help children grow into a caring and active member of the community.
While directed toward children, these small actions are essential for everyone. In one of his few sermons, “Invisible Essential” given in 1997 at Memphis Theological Seminary, Rogers reflected on his childhood as “Fat Freddy.” As an overweight and shy child, Rogers was bullied. Once, while being chased, he fled to his neighbor’s house, Mrs. Stewart, who quickly took him in. He retreated from bullies through music and the library. His grandfather, Fred McFeeley, helped him just by saying, after Rogers visited him, “Freddy, you made this day a special day for me.” Each of these simple tasks, performed by family, friends, and neighbors were all essential for helping Rogers overcoming bullying. He came to see these actions as “times in which God’s presence was so clear – so real.” It was these small actions, little kindnesses, where the true, loving world was revealed. Rogers’ called these actions the “invisible essentials” as they are necessary for life but also do not require any fame, fortune, or power. They can be performed by anyone. They are just choices to help in times of need, small daily choices, and yet they are some of the most important parts of reality. In this way, everyone can contribute to overcoming suffering and its causes and so bring about a kinder and more loving world.
Jason King is Professor of Theology at Saint Vincent Collegein Latrobe, PA. He is also editor of the Journal of Moral Theology. He is the author of Faith with Benefits: Hookup Culture on Catholic Campuses (Oxford University Press, 2017), and you can see his other works on his Academia page. You can follow him on Twitter @kingjasone.