Science Metaphors (cont.): When Han Solo Got Waxed

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The latest issue of the journal Environmental History features an article titled “Chest Hair and Climate Change: Harrison Ford and the Making of ‘Lost There, Felt Here.'” Stop snickering! This is a serious thing. At least, I think it’s a serious thing. Section editor Finis Dunaway acknowledges that while “readers were not expecting to find an essay about chest waxing in this issue of Environmental History,” said essay “addresses critical questions about global responsibility and global power dynamics.”

Let’s see here. The essay, by University of South Carolina geography professor David Kneas, concerns a public-service announcement, commissioned by Conservation International in 2008, that does, in fact, show Harrison Ford getting his chest waxed. (You can watch it here.) Kneas describes it as follows:

Harrison Ford walks into a brightly lit salon. As chords from Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy” play in the background, Ford says in a serious voice, “When rainforests get slashed and burned, it releases tons of carbon into the air we breathe.” Ford then faces the camera and takes his shirt off. He continues, “It changes our climate. It hurts.” An image of hot wax quickly transitions to Ford sitting back on a chair. A dark-haired woman begins to apply the hot wax to the middle of his chest. Looking straight ahead, Ford begins, “Every bit of rainforest that gets ripped out over there …” He pauses. The salon aesthetician applies a cloth strip over the wax and rips off a sizable chunk of Ford’s chest hair. Ford grimaces in pain and gives a stunned look at his removed hair. He then turns to the camera and continues, “really hurts us over here.”

The thirty-second spot, called simply “Wax,” was the opening act of “Lost There, Felt Here,” a Conservation International campaign to increase awareness of the connection between tropical deforestation and climate change. While environmentalists had long argued that rainforests had intrinsic value, “Wax” made a case for their instrumental value: Without the vast carbon sink of the rainforests, you—yes, even you, first-world white dude who’s watched Star Wars too many times—will enter a world of pain.

“Chest waxing is not an obvious environmental metaphor,” Kneas writes, with perhaps deliberate understatement. The ad only makes sense if rainforests are narrowly defined as carbon sinks, and even then, it’s a bit of a stretch. Kneas concludes that if Conservation International had really wanted to dramatize the universal and visceral threat of climate change, it should have depilated a more “equatorial” part of the human body. (One assumes volunteers were scarce.)

What’s striking to me about “Wax” is that today, nearly a decade after its debut, we don’t need a metaphor for the pain of climate change. The degree of suffering varies enormously, but no matter who you are or where you live, it’s literal: your life has been touched by not-so-natural disasters, and will be again.

We do, however, still need metaphors to motivate our collective response, so maybe we should think of Harrison Ford’s chest coiffure not as a carbon sink, but as a burgeoning carbon source. His stray hairs are multiplying with age, and if we don’t get deadly serious about tweezing them out, pretty soon he’s going to turn into a Wookie. Cue the roar of regret.

Photo: Screen grab from “Wax,” 2008.

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