At South Coast Plaza's Rainforest Caf, past the pretend rain pouring from pitted pipes along the restaurant's perimeter and past the pretend mist that pumps up from pretend rock formations hemming in the customers, a more-green-than-green plastic forest blooms all around, filled with the sounds of exotic birds and tigers. It seems like a friendly place, beckoning wandering shoppers to drop their bags, come on in, rest their feet, and experience the pleasures of pretend nature. I'm not sure who really feels soothed, charmed or even virtuous because of this stuff, but lots of people must because the Caf is rapidly expanding: there are now 30 restaurants in America alone and additional spots in five other countries. I suspect the target market is those who were raised on the world according to Walt Disney and Ronald Reagan, the great metaphysicians of postmodernity. They're the two men most responsible for turning history into myth and myth into mush, the men who made it easy for people to simply deny the evidence of their senses and say things were one thing when they were another, that things were fine when they weren't.
The sons and daughters of Reagan and Disney are the target market that can walk into the attached Rainforest Caf gift shop and listen, without feeling at all insane, to Tracy the Talking Tree cooing her constant mantra—"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle"—amidst a cornucopia of official Rainforest Caf products, all of which are, practically speaking, unnecessary, and many of which are made from nonbiodegradable plastic, are produced in Third World countries by underpaid labor, and will probably get thrown out and dumped into methane-spewing landfills before the next big shopping cycle.
History, according to the Rainforest Caf and its patrons, is bunk, just as their third spiritual forebear, capitalist guru Henry Ford, said it was. History doesn't matter. History is, well, history—as in "so over already," irrelevant to the gleaming simulacral future. This is, it goes without saying, a pretty toxic attitude to have toward the particular form of history we're talking about here: that is, the natural history of the rain forests.
I can hear the objections, of course: the Rainforest Caf does care about the environment and the history of the planet. Why else would they have an Educational Outreach Program that teaches kids about rain forests and the importance of recycling? Why else start a Friends of the Future Foundation that gathers the money people throw into "Croc Ponds" (on-site wishing ponds with pretend crocodiles in them) and gives grants to environmental organizations like the Nature Conservancy (which recently received $100,000)? Why else would the corporate office encourage local restaurants to get involved in community ecological efforts?
Why, indeed? Please. Almost all large corporations have charitable-giving foundations and "educational" projects attached to them. Oil companies that spill millions of gallons of crude into the oceans set aside a few million bucks to protect wild bird sanctuaries and then crow about it in full-page newspaper ads. This isn't environmental concern; it's public relations. As Jackson Browne put it in his 1996 song "Information Wars": "Do people really spend millions upon millions/To make us think they care about the planet/At the same time polluting and looting the only world we've got/So they can maximize their profit?/People do."
When the Rainforest Caf stops selling plastic, stops infantilizing its customer base with pretty tales about parrots and cockatoos and starts tithing its corporate profits, then we can talk. Fact is, the forests of the world were doing pretty well until the Industrial Revolution. Okay, there were some exceptions, like the rapacious clear-cutting of American forests on the East Coast in the 17th and 18th centuries or the infamous ruination of the landscape on Easter Island. But for the most part, the forests were working well as the lungs of the planet, oxygenating the atmosphere and helping keep carbon dioxide levels steady. They also supplied the world with an amazingly fructifying species diversity, which is not just good in itself, but which has also given us (and can continue to give us, if we keep the forests healthy) the raw materials for a wide variety of life-saving pharmaceuticals.
But the use of fossil fuels to drive the Industrial Revolution's engines doubled the amount of carbon dioxide in the air. And the scientific community is practically unanimous in thinking that this increase in carbon dioxide has already begun—or will very soon begin—to warm up the atmosphere in ways that will ultimately lead to crop failures, mass starvation, weather-related disasters, and all manner of other environmental havoc. Healthy rain forests can help mitigate the damage of the greenhouse effect, but they're being cut—or worse, burned—down at intolerable rates. This is leading not just to the destruction of fully half of the remaining plant and animal species on the planet, but also to increased greenhouse gases—as well as conditions that would be funny if they weren't so serious. For instance, when rain forests are leveled, the felled trees lead to termite feeding frenzies. Termites have bacteria in their systems that make them release methane—a gas also linked to global warming—into the atmosphere as they digest. According to Bill McKibben's environmentalist classic, The End of Nature, by 1990, there were a half-ton of termites for every person on the planet, and their farts are helping destroy the ecological balance.
The environmental wreckage that awaits us if both the First and Third World don't radically transform their production and consumer patterns goes far beyond what I've sketched out here, of course. Suffice it to say that the Rainforest Caf isn't even close to conveying the natural history they're appropriating to sell you stuff. Suffice it to say that, on balance, they're hurting more than they're helping. They're trying to turn the idea of environmental protection into a "consumer choice," couched comfortably in the capitalist ethos. They're slyly suggesting that you're somehow helping the planet if you buy, wear or display their goods. They're trying to make you as much an historical amnesiac as Ronald Reagan, who convinced himself he fought in World War II when in fact he was toiling on a Hollywood studio set during the '40s.
The Rainforest Caf, like more and more of OC's restaurants, malls and public spaces, looks like a Hollywood studio set, and I guess that's the attraction. It's pretend life about pretend nature. We all want to be in the movies, and in this adventure flick, everything's lush and green, there are exciting growling tigers on the soundtrack but no mosquitoes, and as long as you don't acknowledge that the set's fake, the surrounding mist and the rain can make you feel like you're in a little womb, safe with all the Caf's goodies and safe from the forests that are burning out there in the big bad world.
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.