Pooping Unicorns in Paris: a Solstice Prayer
Creative Director Daniel Harmon is talking about the viral commercial he and three of his brothers produced for Squatty Potty.
But he could also be talking about how capitalism is dealing with climate change.
“The big challenge for us was taking the really gross world of the colon to a place that was clean and fantastic and friendly and approachable. And delicious, for lack of a better word.”
The Harmons nailed it. A douchey medieval prince presents a plush unicorn squatting to defecate perfect rainbow soft-serve ice cream onto a quaint conveyor belt of cones. The 1970s children’s TV art direction recalls the sets of Friendly Giant or Mr. Dressup. Except that high-def does something strange to the nostalgia of regression. As if Gen Xers can only remember childhood through the hyperreal lens of the ecstasy they took in their twenties.
“They’re good at pooping,” smarms our prince in a phony British accent, referring to unicorns generally. He swallows a rainbow lick. “But you know who sucks at pooping? You do.”
A toilet is suddenly shoved up under the unicorn’s furry butt, right-angling its hips, and causing instant soft-serve blockage, as shown by an overlaid graphic showing rainbow goop bloating above the unicorn’s cinched chute. It’s true: the porcelain throne keeps the puborectalis muscle taut, kinking the sigmoid colon. Squatting is the natural, mechanical, evolutionary fix.
The unicorn stays on the can but is offered the product – a mold-injected plastic footstool – and resumes defecating with an erotic sigh. The prince serves the production line of rainbow stool-cones to smiling kindergartners, dressed up as little serfs.
The Harmon brothers can’t retain anything, apparently. They complete the Freudian acid trip with the prince offering toilet paper for the children to wipe their mouths.
Let’s be real here. The unicorn isn’t just a euphemistic device for addressing toilet posture. Amalgamated with the children, the unicorn presents the idealized and infantilized consumer, producing virtuous waste in alignment with the libidinal pleasures of new-age and natural health dictates. The delights of anal and oral sphincters are made interchangeable through bright colours and sherbet tastes.
Nothing that works so well is simply cute. The best comedy depends upon taboo. Here, a smarmy daddy-superego feeds feces to children.
“Isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever had in your life?”, he asks in a borderline ominous baritone.
The children eat silently and smile.
It’s a clean-cut Louis C.K. moment, expressing all of the ambivalence of parenting. The children are simultaneously loved, hated, mocked, and fooled — all while they lick up the waste of the parent’s self-absorption.
The surface shadow of the commercial says Stop dumping your hardened pellets and smelly runs onto your kids: give them your creamy best. But the deeper shadow hopes that children find the self-care preoccupations of their parents tasty. The new age parent says: Eat the stool of my virtuous neurosis, and smile for the camera.
Squatty sales are up 600%, 2015 revenue will top $15 million. CEO Bobby Edwards tells me by email that they’ve sold about two million potties since 2012. That’s a lot less straining in bathrooms across the land. Around the hidden blade of their commercial, the company radiates wholesomeness far and wide.
Why has the spot done so well? The concept is unconstipated. The production is ripe. The ribaldry heralds an even newer liberality in web media, perhaps facilitated by the proximity of YouTube and YouPorn.
The psychoanalytic giggle-cord it pulls is obvious. But the Harmon commercial also packs its punch against the backdrop of a critical anxiety around production, consumption, waste and filth.
This might seem like a hard-left turn, but what are these long nights for, if not dreaming?
Ozzie Zehner researches the energy consequences of how we try to console ourselves in the shadow of our scatological anxiety. His 2012 book Green Illusions is an extended defecography on the unicorn-poop of the energy sector – wind and solar – that the techno-evangelists of corporate environmentalism are offering our children.
Zehner’s thesis goes like this. Wherever it comes from, energy and its waste is never rainbow ice cream. It’s always dirty. And we don’t have an energy crisis: we have a consumption problem. And most of the technology we produce to address climate change not only fails to inhibit consumption, but in many cases actually increases it.
The details are stark. Solar and wind power represent a vanishingly small percentage (one-tenth of one percent) of global energy usage. That percentage is not likely to increase, because promises about economies of scale are hollow: photovoltaic cells and turbines demand materials like copper, glass, plastics and aluminum with high fixed costs. The total carbon footprints aren’t any smaller than fossil-fuel methods, nor does it look like they can be. Manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of solar cells is an extremely dirty business.
Here’s one of several slam-dunk paragraphs:
“If actual installed costs for solar projects in California are any guide, a global solar program would cost roughly 1.4 quadrillion, about one hundred times the United States GDP. Mining, smelting, processing, shipping, and fabricated the panels and their associated hardware would yield about 149,100 megatons of CO2. And everyone would have to move to the desert, otherwise transmission losses would make the plan unworkable.”
Even worse, the advertised efficiencies of green solutions are touted as if they’d always be operating in perfect lab conditions. You know that old saw about generating the planet’s energy by covering a fraction of a desert somewhere with solar cells? Zehner reveals it’s a mirage. When the United Arab Emirates ran the first large-scale comparison test of solar panels for their planned ecometropolis Masdar City, they found that the peak midday output was under 40% of the panels’ rated capacity, because of haze, high atmospheric humidity, dust, soiling, and – get this – because the solar cells got too hot.
Zehner shows quite convincingly that green tech really is unicorn poop: a way of reframing waste as a largely individual responsibility requiring just the smallest tweaks to assure moral vindication, while ignoring the larger structural questions about our rates of consumption. He shows how companies – some of them oil companies – mask their core operations with photo-op gestures at solar innovation, while petitioning governments to shift their drilling subsidies over to green projects and bolstering the “productivist mentality” of business-as-usual. Even more damning, Zehner details how green tech solutions are most often marketed to and consumed by wealthy “econnoisseurs”, who use them to weakly mitigate their low-density lifestyles of hyperconsumption. These are folks who have to cut down trees and increase their lot sizes so that their solar panels can soak up more of the sun.
The squatty potty releases the anxious retention of filth within the individual body, where the rules of wellness are obvious and self-regulating: eat and eliminate simply, according to appetite. The Harmon narrative unfolds its pragmatism in the bucolic dream of a pre-industrial childhood. And — the product works.
Green tech attempts to do the same, but it fails. At best it helps to absolve the individualist energy-guilt of the rich by offering solar arrays to suburban mansions that should never be built, and wineries in the Napa Valley.
How dark is this midwinter, this solstice? I cuddle up with my toddler on the couch. He wants me to read a Thomas the Tank Engine story. I like Thomas well enough, but the Island of Sodor is a dreary industrialist penal colony. I perceptibly cringe whenever I have to read the lines of Sir Topham Hatt. Somehow it’s bearable by putting on my own hammy British accent to soften the fact that I’m telling trains personified as little boys to work harder and “be very useful.”
I suggest the Velveteen Rabbit instead, and pull my son closer. I can smell his diaper. The part of me that wants him to hurry up with toilet-training relaxes as his body heat melts my side.
Later in the evening, the bleak reports from the COP21 treaty stack up on my screen. The “high ambition” to limit global temperature rise to 1.5C is aspirational, even though any hotter will constitute genocide for many. The final text, which neither mentions the phrase “fossil fuels” nor adequately addresses human rights issues, are as binding as “Of course I’ll still love you in the morning.” James Hansen, one of the original climate change whistleblowers, called the agreement “bullshit… worthless words.” George Monbiot wrote of a “squalid retrenchment”. The New Internationalist details how COP21 utterly fails the “People’s Test” – researched and proposed by Southern hemisphere social movements – for a livable and equitable agreement. In the best case, this non-binding agreement has a 66% chance of halting any rise over 2.7C.
But if you listened to the official announcements, you’d think that world leaders had all just learned to squat rather than sit, that everything backed up since Kyoto was now clearing out, that ingenuity will save the day.
The optimism was amplified in the green tech trade sideshows that bordered the meeting spaces in Le Bourget. The Sustainable Innovation Forum at the Stade de France, and Solutions COP21 at the Grand Palais both featured giddy gatherings of green techies. In the Paris Review, Porter Fox reported “In the Solutions Gallery set in the nearby Museum of Air and Space, renewable-energy companies and fossil-fuel interests duke it out selling their wares. ‘The average shortness of skirts and availability of alcohol at the gallery is shocking,’ one NGO consultant told me.”
Grown-ups and their unicorns.
I close all of my browser windows but one. I light a beeswax candle and re-read parts of the Dark Mountain Manifesto by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine:
“And so we find ourselves, all of us together, poised trembling on the edge of a change so massive that we have no way of gauging it. None of us knows where to look, but all of us know not to look down. Secretly, we all think we are doomed: even the politicians think this; even the environmentalists. Some of us deal with it by going shopping. Some deal with it by hoping it is true. Some give up in despair. Some work frantically to try and fend off the coming storm.
Our question is: what would happen if we looked down? Would it be as bad as we imagine? What might we see? Could it even be good for us?
We believe it is time to look down.”
Some deal with it by hoping it is true. This line strikes a chord. What pleasure do I find in this darkness? Are the oracles confirming my wounded beliefs?
Apocalyptic relief is self-indulgent. If despair becomes self-righteous or even beautiful, it too can taste like ice cream. But I won’t feed that to my son.
There’s nothing self-indulgent about Naomi Klein or Rebecca Solnit, who both posted from Paris. They’re direct, without foundering in apocalypse. Their writing doesn’t get off, in subtle ways, on death.
“The treaty is miraculous and horrible,” Solnit writes in Harpers. “It neither gives enough to the most vulnerable nor takes enough from the profligate, but it shifts the arrangement between them for the better.
“Nation-states never were our saviors,” Solnit added on Facebook, for clarity. “More activism is required. From below, not above.” Like Klein, she positions hope in the travails of on-the-ground resistance, like indigenous peoples and allies blockading pipelines and fracking, which continues as I write.
Klein opened This Changes Everything with the account of realizing, on the seventy-fifth reading of Have You Ever Seen a Moose to her two-year-old, that her child may never see a moose.
I used to be Catholic, and I’m thinking about assembling a crèche again, this time for my son. I’ll scour the charity shops for figures and animals. Especially wild animals. Especially moose. A polar bear, for sure. Reindeer, which the Sami people are watching starve. My son can add his dinosaurs.
If I find a unicorn, I’ll pick that up too. But it has to be beat up. It would be perfect if its horn is chipped.
Over the years I’ll tell him the story in a new way, somehow, about the miracle at midnight, but about how there are no miracles, really.
About how the hope that comes from feeling things is higher than the hope that comes from imagining things.
About how little energy we really need, beyond our own intimacies, to survive.
About how humanity must protect the defenceless, and that this requires sacrifice.
And in a few years I’ll show him how I learned to squat when I was a traveller, perching with my feet on the toilet rim, like a clumsy condor.