Over the years, fans of The Simpsons have eagerly pointed out predictions of historical events like Donald Trump’s rise to power and the spread of Ebola. In fact The Simpsons touch on many political issues and it its almost 30 year history it has shed a comedic light on subjects ranging from immigration, to vegetarianism and the rising popularity of donuts!
But for me, the shows explorations of environmental issues are the most insightful predictions of all.
So what are the environmental issues that have stood out in episodes over the past 3 decades?
Pollution and the effect on wildlife
The 3 eyed fish (Blinky) has become an iconic figure in Simpson’s history and it came about very early on in the shows series. The episode is called ‘Two Cars in Every Garage and Three Eyes on Every Fish’ and begins with Bart catching the mutated 3 eyed fish while fishing near the Nuclear Power Plant. This discovery leads to the plant failing a safety inspection which is turn inspires Mr Burns to run for office so that the plant isn’t shut down (one of Mr Burn’s many power struggles throughout the series).
The episode follows Mr Burn’s campaign ending with him having dinner at the Simpson household so he can connect with the ‘middle class man’. So what delight does Marge dish up for this coveted media-frenzied dinner? A 3 eyed fish of course.
The episode aims to highlight a number of different things (as they always do) but from an environmental perspective the most notable issue is the predicted effect of pollution on wildlife – echoing many political issues happening at the time of its broadcast back in the 1990s.
Since these early episodes, The Simpsons have gone on to highlight a number of wildlife related concerns such as beached whales, decreasing ocean marine life, decreasing bee populations and bird migration.
Another political and environmental theme that The Simpsons writers have been poking fun at since the early 90s is renewable energy – and energy in general as the Nuclear Power Plant is a key location in the series. This is most notable in episodes such as ‘The Last Temptation of Homer’ (1993) which includes a brief but humorous gag at solar power. In the scene Hans Moleman (aka my favourite Simpsons character) is running a Solar Energy stand at an energy convention. In the scene a nasty looking corporation takes Hans down and rebrands his booth to favour fossil fuels “Use us and nobody gets hurt”.
The gag is not only clever, it’s a jibe at the mind-set towards fossil fuels and renewables during this time; a mind-set which over 25 years later the world is still trying to overcome at a prehistoric pace (did the Simpsons writers predict this struggle in changing attitudes?).
When it comes to nasty looking corporations however, no one is more representative of this than Mr Burns, owner of the Nuclear Power Plant; the main provider of electricity to the town of Springfield. Mr Burn’s greed and control comes to a head in one of the most popular set of episodes ‘Who Shot Mr Burns’ (1995), where he creates a device which blocks out the sun, forcing residents to use his power.
Remaining on the topic of solar power, I can’t not mention ‘Citizen Solar’ and his sidekick ‘Wind Lad’. These low key Simpsons superheroes feature as a co-star of Radioactive Man who is the star of The Simpsons most famous comic book series. Unfortunately for Citizen Solar and Wind Lad, their powers are ineffective on cloudy and wind-free days – a tongue in check faux paus when it comes to how renewable technology really works.
More recently The Simpsons created a special 40th Anniversary episode called ‘The Squirt and the Whale’ (2010) which coincided with Earth Day. The episode centres on the family going off-grid and using a wind turbine to lower their high energy bills (what would Mr Burns have to say about that!). Of course it wouldn’t be The Simpsons if there wasn’t some poking made, especially due to Homers 'exceptional' level of intelligence and potentially at the writers knowledge of these solutions. Regardless of this, it’s relatable, funny and puts an important issue in the spot light; here’s hoping The Simpsons next renewable venture is to install an air source heat pump!
And the rest…
More recently The Simpsons writers have explored environmental issues such as light pollution in ’Scuse Me While I Miss the Sky’ (2003), overfishing in ‘The Wife Aquatic’ (2007) and most notably fracking in ’Opposites A-Frack’ (2014) helping the show win its 7th Environmental Media Award for Raising Awareness of Environmental Issues.
In ‘Opposites A-Frack’ the episode starts by looking at air pollution and poor indoor quality due to Patty and Selma (Marge’s unfriendly twin sisters) smoking. It then leads of Lisa’s discovery of Mr Burn’s fracking operation which Homer is hired to market to the Springfield residents. Controversial concerns that are explored in the episode include water contamination, earthquakes and the use of fossil fuels, all problems that environmental campaigners oppose.
While the episode was aired in 2014 the controversy around fracking has been a huge political issue, especially this year in the UK where gas fracking restarted in October. Since the Lancashire fracking site began to reoperate again, numerous earthquakes have been detected.
But if you watch as many episodes of the show as I do, you will notice that environmental issues have always been there and quite frequently weave subtly into the storylines; mainly pushed through the character of Lisa. In 2007 however, the much hyped Simpsons Movie dedicated a whole 87 minute to it! In the film (if you haven’t seen it) toxins caused by illegal dumping in Springfield Lake forces the Environmental Protection Agency to put a large glass dome over the city. This leads to many a political reference and Homer faux pas, but I’ll leave it up to you to watch, enjoy and analyse any potential predictions there.
If you want to explore the themes in the Simpsons even further, this article by The Telegraph titled 'What The Simpsons can teach us about life’ is a brilliant read.