Pokemon as Global Phenomenon inside the World of Pokemon, a Global Phenomenon

The following is a response to "Fear Not, Pokemon Will Save the Planet" by Adam Kranz, published 7/12/16 on Kill Screen. To begin, a few caveats:

  • I am, at best, a fair-weather Pokemon fan. I know there are significant differences between the anime, manga, and games, and will try to accommodate them as best able.
  • It's also been a while since I've delved into some of the theory I obliquely reference, so please forgive any unintentional elisions.
  • Finally, "speculative fiction" here refers to the relatively recent (the past century) trend of fictive works functioning as allegorical commentary.

"Pokemon’s world-building is opportunistic… …even when doing so undermines the coherence of the culture and ecology of Kanto, Johto, and their successors."

On this, we agree unequivocally.

Despite overtones of environmental harmony and pastoral virtuousness through depictions of environmental reconciliation, the world of Pokemon plays fast and loose with notions of ecology, coexistence, and society. Though these illustrations are almost universally positive, they fail to constitute a positive environmental ethic in either their world or our own.

Undoubtedly, the world of Pokemon is a beautiful one. Human settlements exist inside vast expanses of pristine landscape with few perceptible externalities. The creatures themselves are a cornerstone of the culture, omnipresent in media, sport, material goods, and daily life. Furthermore, the consensual relationships between Pokemon and their human counterparts are mutually beneficial and rewarding in almost every sense. In this, the fiction is remarkably effective in integrating distinctly human activities and their manifestations as part of the natural world.

And yet, the inconsistencies are many. While all fictive texts have their arbitrary rules, Pokemon takes close care to deny fundamental systems: food production, reproduction, predation, and regional/global effects are all utterly ignored. This is Pokemon's fundamental structural failing.

By denying the prevalence, complexity, and necessity of systems, Pokemon celebrates a platonic Nature rather than a holistic Environment. And although this succeeds in rejecting Romantic constructions of wilderness and nature, humanity still operates from a privileged position—a position which is re-iterated constantly in the text. Pokemon are anthropomorphised, with emotional lives reflective of our own; Pokemon perform labour and construction, but almost explicitly in service of human intent; the various "artificial" Pokemon developed through genetic manipulation or other man-made means. It may be the "Pokemon" world, but the 'mon just live in it.

In this light, it is easy to recast the world of Pokemon in a pleasantly dystopic light. Devastated by ecosystem collapse, reconciliatory practices mitigate negative externalities while fauna has been supplanted by a limited and increasingly-abstract class of purpose-built creatures. These creatures exist either as domestic companions and labourers or as tightly-managed stocks in nature preserves for sport and tourism. Human society, beholden to this arrangement, spirals deeper into a particular hyperreality of mutualism and harmony, where smiling, Poke-faced ecological interventionism is championed as the sole means of progress.

As such, it becomes easier to understand the flimsy reactionary and terrorist movements within the fiction. Rather than blaming the authors wholesale for the clumsy application of various radical environmental ideologies, they simply do not work inside this universe. They rely on cultural and symbolic references that exist only in our realm, not that of the Pokemon, and seem utterly absurd as such. What is biodiversity when the entirety of animal life consists of a flat catalogue of loosely-affiliated monsters? How does one call for systemic environmental responsibility when the locus of anthro-environmental interaction is quasi-professionalised Pokemon training?

It is this fundamental disconnect—the dizzying complexity of life systems on Earth and all the signifiers we use to understand it versus those of the rigorously policed Pokedex definitions—that prevents the world of Pokemon from developing a meaningful ethic or critique toward the environment. One needs only to look at how Pokemon Go has mapped onto our world to understand the complexities and dynamics the fiction of Pokemon is simply incapable of reconciling. Our politics of space, fetishisation of rarity, and sudden, mass social action simply have no analogue and no conceptual accommodation in these media.

And perhaps that is what Pokemon is best understood as: a cultural phenomenon, both real and imagined. In their world, the Pokemon undergird economic activity and humans' ambiguous sentimentality toward nature—a Potemkin environmentalism that rings hollow. In our world, its success as a brand and business sublimates whatever original well-meant ethic Pokemon contained in an effort to maintain interest and popularity around the globe, always becoming ever-more abstract.

This Pokemon is a sword, for heaven's sake.

This isn't to say Pokemon is uniquely hobbled by these deficiencies. Environmentalism-as-branding is widespread, with product green-washing and incomprehensible appeals to outdoorsy sentiment commonplace. Avatar and its feel-good tale of environmental preservation was predicated on Unobtainium mining. Unobtainium. The fresh, organic bananas at the supermarket were flown in by a gas-guzzling freight plane. The Lorax featured Danny DeVito as a plaintive voice of reason. Madness, are these not?

Instead, I think all ecological fiction suffers from this structural defect. Where space operas and high fantasy can manage MacGuffins with ease, ecological storytelling is fundamentally concerned with naturally-occurring systems, their complexity, and their function. The burden of proof for the suspension of disbelief is raised sufficiently high that earnestly ecological texts have two options:

  • Embrace inaccessibility in the spirit of "hard" fiction and attempt to communicate all the complexities therein.
  • Develop compellingly abstract allegory that risks losing the nuance and referents of Earth's own ecology.

But if the fiction fails to encourage reflexive thought or political action, is there really a choice?

As a rather cynical sort of person, I recognise that a popular environmental ethics devoid of anthropocentrism is an unlikely thing. We live in the Anthropocene, after all. Similarly, a studiously interrogative fiction of Pokemon that encourages something beyond than "lets be friends with animals" will probably never be. And I'll concede that utopian fiction is a tremendous motive for hope and change. But it never hurts to tug at the edges.

Related ideas that didn't make the cut:

  • How do systems in Pokemon run across or against the fiction (e.g. cities as encounter-free safe spaces)?
  • How has the narrative treatment of Pokemon and the environment has evolved over time and market value (e.g. Pikachu transitioning from vermin to mascot)?