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Environmentalism in the Simpsons

The Simpsons has been on the air since December 1989, and though the quality may have dipped in recent years in the fans’ eyes, the show doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. With a show that’s been on television for that long, it’s no small wonder that the Simpsons have covered pretty much every topic there is to cover – as a 2002 episode of rival animated comedy South Park put it: “Simpsons did it!” Sure enough, amid all the celebrity cameos, Grammy award-winning songs (and jokes about winning Grammys) and steamed hams, the Simpsons ‘did’ the environment, ecology and animal rights several times over their now 29 year history.

The show contains general themes of environmentalism, generally surrounding the town’s massive nuclear power plant. This first crops up as a point of contention in the fourth episode of season 2, ‘Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish’. In this episode Bart & Lisa catch a three-eyed fish down river from the nuclear power plant. The governor of [whatever state Springfield is in] moves to fine Mr.Burns for the pollution his plant has cost. Burns runs for governor to make it easier (and legal) to dump waste from the power plant, but his campaign falls apart (despite having the momentum of a runaway freight train) when he’s forced to eat the three-eyed fish Bart had caught earlier. Despite saying that the fish was perfectly normal, Burns is unable to eat the fish, spitting it out. The effects of nuclear waste and the power plant on the locality’s flora & fauna became a running joke for the show over the years, and Blinky the three-eyed fish himself became a sort-of mascot for the show.

Mr.Burns got his comeuppance later in the show, losing all his fortune, and being put in a retirement home in Season 8’s ‘The Old Man and the Lisa’. He begs Lisa Simpson to help him, and eventually she relents, but only if he gives up his evil ways. With Lisa he begins to build his life back up, using recycling as a focus. He regains his place in society, and builds the Little Lisa Recycling Plant, out of recycled materials, in her honour. Lisa is honoured by this, but horrified when she discovers that Burns uses the plant to turn old plastic six pack rings into massive nets to catch fish. By the end of the episode Burns sells the plant, and all returns to normal. Well, not for the hundreds upon thousands of fish who were caught, but you get my point. The show, typically through Mr.Burns, shows that there are ramifications for our actions on the environment around us, even if some of the plots take it to the Nth degree.

If Burns is the paragon of pollution and waste, then Lisa is the driving force behind the green efforts of the town. In Whacking Day she speaks out about the annual tradition where the townsfolk kill hundreds of snakes on a particular day – whacking day. Lisa, with the help of singer Barry White (did I mention the celebrity cameos?), saves the lives of the snakes. When Bart gets an elephant in the season five episode… ‘Bart Gets an Elephant’… Lisa argues that keeping the elephant in their back garden is cruel, and eventually gets the family to donate the animal to a wildlife reserve. When Homer tries to sell Stampy (the elephant) to an ivory dealer, Lisa (and Bart) are appalled and run away. And when the elephant eventually saves Homer’s life he relents, and allows Stampy to go to the reserve. Lisa’s care for animals was taken to the next level in another cleverly-named episode, Lisa the Vegetarian. Lisa becomes very conscious that the food on her plate was previously a cute critter frolicking through the fields. Her school and her family actively oppose her new vegetarian lifestyle, actually laughing in her face at Homer’s BBBQ (the extra B stands for BYOBB). She acts out, destroying the pig-on-a-spit centrepiece of the BBBQ. Having been scolded and grounded by her parents she breaks out of the house and, having a crisis of confidence, eats a Kwik-E-Mart hot dog. Apu appears, and tells her it’s a tofu-dog, and introduces her to Paul & Linda McCartney, who give her a talk on vegetarianism & maintaining her own views without impeding on the views of others. One caveat for Paul & Linda to agree to the cameo was that, unlike Mr.Burns in earlier seasons, Lisa had to stay a vegetarian. And stay one she has, and that’s how on of the most popular shows on television has had a vegetarian main character for the last 23 years, normalising the concept to families around the world.

Sensing a theme, the next notable ecological episode was the creatively titled ‘Lisa the Tree Hugger’. Lisa meets Jesse, the leader of environmental protest group Dirt First, at a family trip to Krusty Burger. She joins Dirt First to protect the town’s oldest redwood tree, which is about to be cut down by…The Rich Texan?! Did the writers have any imagination at all?! How did this show last 3 seasons never mind 30?!-…anyway, Lisa camps in the tree, but leaves it one night during a storm. When the tree is struck by lightning everyone fears Lisa has died, leading the Rich Texan to dedicate the forest to Lisa’s memory, building an amusement park, ‘Lisa Land’, as a tribute. Lisa appears at the site and protect the trees, and Jesse dislodges the redwood that was to be used as a sign for the park. The tree demolishes the Texan’s machines and buildings, and goes on a cross-country tour. The significance of this episode is that, while obviously the Dirt First gang are subjected to being the butt of a few jokes, they aren’t completely ridiculed in the episode. Though perhaps they come off as a bit naive, the environmental activists aren’t just ineffectual flower-power hippies like they are in almost every other American show, or even in other episodes of the Simpsons. Again, The Simpsons uses its platform to legitimise environmental protection efforts.

Ecology and environmentalism were consistent themes throughout the run of the show, which lead up to the Simpsons Movie, which was released between seasons 18 and 19 of the show. The central plot of the film is that Lake Springfield has become disgustingly polluted to the point of being acidic. When Homer tips the scale just a little bit too much by dumping a silo of pig crap in the lake. With the ecosystem reaching dangerous levels, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) seals the town off in a giant bubble. Though the EPA were the primary antagonists of the film, it wasn’t as a crazy group of eco-freaks, but as a conniving governmental agency. The environmental issues are treated as actual problems, though, in typical Simpsons fashion, things just seem to right themselves by the time the credits rolled.

The show would go on to cover animal welfare and the environment over the later seasons of the show, but let’s be honest, none of us have watched the episode where Marge nearly has an affair while saving manatees, or when Lisa invented a process for humans to use photosynthesis, or the time Grandpa Simpson became a bullfighter…I made one of those up, and you honestly can’t tell which one is fake, can you?

Regardless of quality of the show, it gave an important platform to environmental issues over the years, and though it made jokes about green issues, it also made these issues more accessible to a massive television audience, who may not have heard of them otherwise. Now I’m off to find a recipe for lentil soup…

Read more articles about the environment and ecology just like this one in the UCC GreenZine.