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What Pokémon can teach us about conservation and climate change

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Gotta save ‘em all

There’s a moment in the live-action movie Detective Pikachu when the ground beneath our heroes’ feet is crumbling. As they slip and slide, Pikachu, voiced by Ryan Reynolds, yells to no one in particular, “At this point, how can you not believe in climate change?” It’s a good quip — one of a million small jokes that’s easily missed. But it’s also one of the first times that Pokémon, the most lucrative media franchise of all time, addressed the climate crisis. It certainly won’t be the last.

Fans appreciate Pokémon for its camp humor, adorable monsters, and emphasis on the quest for excellence. But for more than two decades, Pokémon has also delivered a crash course in environmental science. Like a professor par excellence, it’s addressed ecological vulnerability and land management, extinction and de-extinction, the plight of endangered species and the dangers of invasive ones, and, most recently, the real costs of climate change. There’s a lot more to Pokémon than just catching ‘em all.

Pokémon was an eco-conscious project from its conception. Nineties kids know the origin story well. Satoshi Tajiri was born in Japan in 1965. He was an avid insect collector — the other kids called him “Dr. Bug.” At the time, Tajiri’s hometown still had rural pockets, but as the Tokyo metropolitan area subsumed outlying villages, plants and animals gave way to concrete and skyscrapers. Decades later, when he first played with a Game Boy, he saw an opportunity to ensure a new generation of urban kids could experience the simulated joys of taxonomy and tromping through the wilderness. In 1996, Tajiri’s company, Game Freak, released the first games in his fantastical universe of Pocket Monsters, better known as Pokémon.

Today, there are eight generations of Pokémon games and, depending on how you count them, about 900 individual monsters. They’ve spawned dozens of video games, 24 movies, and more than 1,000 episodes of television. Along with trading cards, Croc Jibbitz, and other merchandise, the franchise has grossed over $92 billion in total revenue.

In many ways, the Pokémon universe still resembles that of Tajiri’s childhood. There are patches of tall grass full of unknown creatures, dark forests, and rushing rivers — all imbued with a sense of aliveness that cultural anthropologist Anne Allison called “techno-animism” in her book Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. While there are ghost pokémon and sentient ice cream cones, many pocket monsters mimic real-world biodiversity: Caterpie, with its bright orange osmeterium, is clearly the caterpillar form of the eastern tiger swallowtail. Pikachu, an electric mouse, is based on the actual pika, a teeny mammal that’s more closely related to rabbits than rats. Vileplume is a grumpy corpse lily, Sandslash is a superpowered pangolin, and Drowzee is a neon-lit Malayan tapir.

But where other games like Animal Crossing restrict themselves to a preindustrial idyll, the untamed fantasyland of Pokémon exists side by side with the scientific quagmires of the modern world. Mewtwo, a giant purple alien-cat, was “created by a scientist after years of horrific gene splicing and DNA engineering experiments.” Mewtwo has appeared in numerous installments of the franchise, typically in pursuit of revenge on humanity. In the latest games, Sword and Shield, Koffing “floats into garbage dumps, seeking out the fumes of raw, rotting trash.” Its evolved form, Weezing, which can appear as a two-headed smokestack, reportedly emerged “during a time when droves of factories fouled the air with pollution.” It goes without saying where these garbage dumps and factories came from.

Just as Pokémon has mimicked the real world, it’s influenced it, too. In 2002, researchers reported that more children knew pokémon species than real ones like badgers or oak trees. “[I]t appears that conservationists are doing less well than the creators of Pokémon at inspiring interest in their subjects,” the authors concluded. Some scientists have since risen to the challenge. In 2019, researchers evaluated a Pokémon-style card game called Phylo, which is designed to increase awareness about earthly animals and the challenges they face. The researchers found that people who played Phylo had more fun and remembered a more diverse range of species than those who simply viewed a PowerPoint.

Though Pokémon presents its fans with an opportunity to think through myriad ethical dilemmas and environmental issues, it rarely resolves those challenges in an optimal way. This “tension” between “a yearning for nature and a desire to contain it” has been implicit in the show from the beginning, writes Jason Bainbridge of the University of Canberra. While Pokémon producer Masakazu Kubo has argued the franchise is about the “harmony” between pokémon and people, even the biggest fans know it’s really an unending stream of content based on the adventures of unchaperoned and underaged through-hikers refining their skills in fantastical dog fighting. Even if a pokémon and its trainer truly collaborate, the pokéball — a red, black, and white cage that is used to capture and contain new monsters — gives the humans the upper hand. Without the pokéball, Bainbridge writes, there would be no “pocket” monsters — just a world full of wild magical beings.

These mirror some of the fundamental disagreements of the modern conservation movement, says Leejiah Dorward, a conservation scientist who published an influential paper on Pokémon Go, the AR-enabled smartphone game, in 2016. “Pokémon leans toward this worldview that wildlife is there for our exploitation and use,” he says. “That exploitative view is really in the Western conservationist model.” But, increasingly, conservationists are advocating for biodiversity for the sake of biodiversity. Instead of catching ‘em all (a slogan that applies equally to Pokémon and President Theodore Roosevelt), we should protect wildlife and admire it from a respectful distance — less Ash Ketchum and more Todd in Pokémon Snap.

But for many of these species, time is running out. Recently, the 24-year-old Pokémon franchise has begun to grapple with the very real perils of climate change. In Detective Pikachu, it’s that one-liner from Pikachu. But in Sword and Shield, it’s much more serious. Corsola, a second-generation coral-like Pokémon, has been bleached by rising ocean temperatures. It’s been replaced by a ghost-type descendant, Cursola. Where the original reef was pink and smiling, the creature we have now is shock white with watery red eyes.

If Pokémon has taught us anything about the environment, then we know that the time for action is long overdue.