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An Afterlife for the Anthropocene: Environmental Entanglements in The Good Place

Author: Gabriel Coleman

I want to talk about the Netflix series The Good Place. It’s a brightly colored entertaining series about quirky dead people navigating an even quirkier afterlife. It’s easy to dismiss this show as another piece of streamable fluff, but the way ideas of environment and environmentalism are woven into The Good Place’s universe is worth a second look. Heads up, this analysis focuses on events from end of the third season so if you’re allergic to spoilers please make sure you’ve watched that far before reading!

The Good Place centers around four recently deceased characters destined for “The Bad Place” who mistakenly end up being sent to “The Good Place,” or so they think. The first two and a half seasons focus on the struggle of these individual characters: what makes them “bad people” and how it is they can change and improve. However, in the end of the third season the show turns to the global, asking not what is wrong with these people but what is wrong with the world that makes people “bad.” This change in perspective takes hold when, while investigating the inner workings of the afterlife, the protagonists discover that the last time anyone was good enough to get into The Good Place was 521 years ago.

The underlying premise of The Good Place (the show not the setting) is that the afterlife functions based on a system of points that represent the amount of good or bad a person does over their lifetime. To use an example from the show, the first points were granted to proto-human Og when they gave a rock to fellow proto-human Grog (+10,000 points) and the first points were taken from Grog when they bashed Og’s brains in with that same rock (-1,000,000 points). When I mentioned the idea for this article to my friend Lena last week their immediate reaction was “I refuse to entertain the idea of a capitalist afterlife.” This is an important point, especially considering how in the above example |10 rocks given = 1 murder committed|, but the series is less concerned with the points themselves than the reasons why they are given or taken away.

In the main characters’ investigation into why no one is getting enough points to make it into The Good Place almost all the examples of good or bad behavior are environmental in nature. Their first stop is to Doug Forcett who is seen as a paragon of good behavior. Doug’s goodness is demonstrated through a series of eco-conscious examples: He powers his home with solar panels and eats primarily lentils due to their ability to grow with little water. Doug also drinks his purified urine instead of drawing from the local aquifer, adopts every stray that wanders onto his property, and holds a funeral for a snail – whom he does not name in case the snail has their own name. Unfortunately, Doug’s low-impact lifestyle still doesn’t net him enough points to get into The Good Place and the show elaborates why using two additional environmentally rooted examples. The first is a contrast between two people, also both named Doug, who gave roses to their moms. Doug W. picked roses from his garden in 1534 netting him 145 points, but Doug E., in 2009, ordered pesticide laden roses picked by underpaid workers on his sweatshop manufactured cell phone. The roses were then shipped via carbon intensive methods altogether meaning this gift to his mom actually lost him 4 points. The second example the show gives is the purchase of a tomato which, when grown in pesticide rich farmland, picked by underpaid laborers, and transported with fuel inefficient vehicles, can actually lose someone points even if their intention is to fix a healthy salad for their family.

The conclusion the characters come to is that life today is just too complicated to make good [consumer] choices and that even when intentions are good, systems of power and oppression continually force people to act badly. The choice of agro-environmental examples in explaining this is telling. On the surface it speaks to the widely felt anxiety about the impact individual choices have on Earth systems and landscapes – the dual legacy of the mainstream environmental movement and of corporations that continually shift responsibility for their environmental impact to the capitalist consumer. But I think there’s a deeper layer to this sense of ever increasing entanglement between our species and the systems that support us. To paraphrase Ted Danson’s character: “Eleanor, come on in. You’re in the Anthropocene.”

The Anthropocene is a theoretical geologic era, like the Cambrian, Jurassic, and Holocene, that sets mankind, or just a few very specific men depending on how you look at it, as the primary force shaping the planet today. Everything about the Anthropocene, from its existence to its definition to its start date, is hotly debated and folks have come up with several different variations like the Capitalocene or the Cuthulucene. For this analysis I want to focus in on one variation in particular: the Plantationocene.

The Plantationocene, theorized by Donna Haraway and further developed by Anna Tsing, concentrates this Earth shaping power in the construction of the plantation: a unique landscape based around the coerced labor of displaced humans and plants. Take the sugar cane plantations of Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti today) as an example: slaves from Africa and sugarcane, native to India and Southeast Asia, were uprooted from the meaningful places where they had ecological and social connections and forced together in a foreign land to form a simplified monoculture – a plantation. This plantation was an agricultural machine created to turn the forced labor of both cane and human into the profitable commodity of sugar. Plantations haven’t just changed the physical makeup of landscapes through deforestation and monoculture. Plantationocene thinkers link the plantation to other world shaping factors like the fossil fuel industry, increased levels of nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer runoff, our plastic infused consumer culture and more. Plantations themselves continue to have a strong presence in our world today, from palm oil plantations in the former rainforests of Indonesia to the coerced agricultural labor of undocumented people in the United States.

I personally like the Plantationocene for its emphasis on agriculture as a primary interface between humans and other species and its linking of human oppression with the devastation of landscapes and planetary systems. But the Plantationocene also works because it’s intuitive – it resonates well with public discussion about labor, food, justice, and environmentalism. The Good Place, whether intentionally or not, invokes the concept through its emphasis of agriculture’s labor and environmental costs as a driving force in humanity’s “badness.” It is also significant that 521 years before the show’s air date in 2018 (remember, that was the last time someone was let into The Good Place) the year was 1497, just as the new plantation concept was being implemented in colonial expansion into the Americas and just four years before the first African slaves arrived in Hispaniola.

I generally like The Good Place, but my big frustration with the show is the way the characters choose to act after their revelation about the world. Instead of banding together to fight systems of oppression and make the Earth more just and less complicated, they decide to re-tool the point system to fit this new reality. Their solution is to reimagine the afterlife as a training ground for goodness without the complications of social inequalities or environmental systems. If you want a rose or a tomato you just conjure them; they come from nowhere and are harvested by no one. Only without all the complications, these immortal souls conclude, can people really work on getting better. The afterlife they design is one tailor made for the Anthropocene, a disappointing capitulation to the status quo. But I can’t really be that mad at them, they are dead after all. And the dead can’t save us, that’s our job.

A version of this article was originally published as part of the Digestable newsletter.