The Pokémon TV Show Is an Ode to Ecology

And you can’t tell me otherwise.

Graphic of a Pikachu among the flowers by author.

My most embarrassing trait is that I regularly watch the Pokémon series almost every day without fail. I wasn’t always like this — my habit began almost a year ago when I went to visit my cousins in Maryland. My cousin’s three year old demanded I watch Pokémon: Sun and Moon on Netflix with him and given how adorable he is, I naturally obliged. I didn’t expect that I would become enraptured with the show’s satisfying formula or that I would allocate an hour a day to watch as a mental break from everything around me.

But the more I watched, the more I recognized that Pokémon, at its core, is about the relationships between Pokémon, humans, and the environment. In other words: It’s a damn kids show about ecology, or the branch of biology that studies the interactions of organisms and the environment around them.

Let me backtrack for the uninitiated: The Pokémon TV show is based off the video game series where the player battles Pokémon — creatures with special powers — against one another at competitions in attempts to become the champion in a given region. The show follows Ash Ketchum, a 10-year-old Pokémon Trainer whose dream is to become a Pokémon Master (whatever that is), as he and his companions travel throughout several of these regions. Currently, the show is in its 23rd season with more than 1,000 episodes. (And before you ask, no I haven’t watched every episode).

Yet one of the central tensions in the show confronts whether humans and Pokémon can peacefully coexist. In several episodes, the two function in idyllic harmony in both cities and rural towns. But because Pokémon have special abilities giving them strength, energy, and power, humans often view them as resources to exploit. In the show, Pokémon can be “owned” by a human or they can be wild. Typically, if a Pokémon has a job — once I saw an episode where a Machamp was a masseuse! — they belong to a human, but not all the time. Team Rocket’s talking Meowth is employed out of his own free will. (If Pokémon get paid for their labor, well, that’s another question).

Many humans, like Ash and his friends, want to protect Pokémon and where they live — some regions are set up like wildlife reserves to keep poachers away. Still in several episodes, humans have a habit of encroaching on land that belongs to Pokémon. (The most notorious example of the latter is the once-temporarily banned “Tentacool and Tentacruel” episode where the octopus-like Pokémon attack human property because of a plan to turn their habitat into a luxury resort). While it’s clear Pokémon play a role in human society, they still have to defend themselves from the consequences of human greed.

That’s where the ecology message comes in. The “heroes” of the show are never the capitalists or the developers, but the people who love and appreciate Pokémon for who they are, and understand that Pokémon are part of a complex, reciprocal environmental system that depends on everyone to do their part. On a smaller scale in “Bulbasaur…the Ambassador!” Professor Oak notices there was conflict between the Grass-type and Water-type Pokémon at the laboratory, so he asks for Ash to loan his Bulbasaur, who happens to excel at mediation. And, of course, it works out. There are also countless other episodes where Ash and his friends help a group of wild Pokémon figure out a problem, usually one caused by other humans. Pokémon rely on humans and humans rely on Pokémon — but a human can never succeed in the show unless they respect the Pokémon and the environment they live in, whether it’s the ocean, the forest, the mountains, or the city streets.

I can’t imagine a world where science is so beloved and culturally important that practically everyone regularly accesses ecological data, just for kicks. But that’s the reality in the show. Professors are deeply idolized for their incredibly tough job of identifying and researching new Pokémon species and evolutions. Because of their tireless studies, everyone gets to reap the benefits of having ecological knowledge at the press of a Pokédex. From a young age, people are brought up understanding that they must get to know the creatures they coexist with. It doesn’t hurt that these creatures can also use magical attacks against you. I’m sure that provides some incentive, too.

The real, Pokémon-free world likes to divide itself into “Natural” and “Civilized,” and the two seemingly never collide, even though they do all the time, invisible to those who do not pay attention. But in Pokémon, the two bleed into each other freely, to great benefit and great detriment. Luckily, the Pokémon always end up on top.

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writing about climate, culture & comida wherever I go

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