Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared on this site Feb. 5, 2011.
In 1989, cartoonist Matt Groening told a reporter that his new television show, “The Simpsons,” would tackle the serious subjects in life.
“It always amazes me how few cartoonists in print or animation go after the bigger issues, the kinds of things that keep you lying awake in the middle of the night,” Groening said, as reported by journalist Chris Turner in the book “Planet Simpson: How A Cartoon Masterpiece Defined A Generation.”
Groening’s creation, an animated series about the yellow-colored, often-vulgar Simpsons family, went on to become the longest-running American sitcom. With its renewal for a 35th and 36th season by Fox in January 2023, the show is on track to surpass the 800-episode milestone.
The show’s ratings have fallen since its heyday in the ’90s, when 33.6 million watched an episode about Bart’s bad grades, but it remains more popular than you might think. Over 4 million people watched the season 34 premiere in September 2022, more than the number — 2.65 million — who saw the final episode of Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox.
True to Groening’s intention, “The Simpsons” used biting satire in its early years to examine societal problems, including climate change. In the show’s earliest mention of the issue, news anchor Kent Brockman expresses an apathetic attitude toward a spate of warm winter weather (“Mr. Plow,” air date Nov. 19, 1992).
“Could this record-breaking heat wave be the result of the dreaded greenhouse effect?” he asks. “Well, if 70-degree days in the middle of winter are the ‘price’ of car pollution, you’ll forgive me if I keep my old Pontiac.”
In a 1993 episode (“The Last Temptation of Homer”), a suit-wearing goon assaults Hans Moleman, who is promoting solar power at an energy convention. The goon takes over Moleman’s booth, hanging up a sign with an ominous warning from the fossil fuel industry.
And viewers learned in a 1995 episode (“Homer the Great”) that a secret society called the Stonecutters is responsible for holding back the electric car.
A common language
“The Simpsons” is so well known that its characters serve as a common language through which society discusses the world, said Turner, the “Planet Simpson” author, in a 2011 interview with Yale Climate Connections.
Many people around the world know the meaning of “D’oh!” and “Mmm … doughnuts,” even if they don’t remember that the phrases originated with the series.
During its long run, the show has reached a larger audience than many journalists and scientists, said Tim Delaney, author of “Simpsonology” and professor of sociology at the State University of New York at Oswego, in a 2011 interview. And its humorous approach may disarm viewers who would otherwise dismiss messages about the environment. “Funny is funny,” he said. “Everyone can laugh at it.”
Less nuanced over time
One of the dark sides of the show’s vast influence has been its use of negative stereotypes. The 2017 documentary “The Problem With Apu,” explored the impact of the show on people of South Asian descent. Springfield resident Apu, an Indian immigrant — voiced by a White actor — was for a time the only regular Indian character in mainstream American television.
Turner, the “Planet Simpson” author, has also argued that since the 1990s, the show’s writing has become less nuanced and more prone to obvious gags. In other words, the quality of the writing declined just as climate change was rising to prominence as a social and political problem. Though the series has lavished attention on the nuances of religious belief, the dangers of nuclear power, and the excesses of nuclear power, Turner pointed out, it has dealt with climate change only in passing.
“That’s a bit of a shame,” Turner said, “because if there is anywhere that climate change could get a great hearing in pop culture, it would be in ‘The Simpsons.’”
A 2010 episode even relies on a tired myth — the false idea that wind power is ineffective because the wind doesn’t always blow. (That may be true in a single backyard, but because the wind is always blowing somewhere, it’s an effective means of supplying power to the grid.)
A word from Lisa Simpson
When the show has addressed climate change and other environmental problems, it generally has done so through the character of Lisa Simpson.
As Turner reported in “Planet Simpson,” key members of “The Simpsons” creative team identified closely with Lisa’s political beliefs. Writer George Meyer, like Lisa, is a vegetarian and an environmentalist. Producer Al Jean put it this way: “The character we’re closest to is Lisa Simpson, a character who reads a lot and hopes for a better life.”
In her crusades, Lisa frequently meets resistance from the disdainful residents of Springfield.
In a 2005 episode, Lisa sounds the alarm in a speech to her classmates about the rapidly melting Springfield Glacier (“On a Clear Day I Can’t See My Sister”).
RANGER: Young lady, the federal government’s position on global warming is that it does not exist. This glacier’s doing just fine.
LISA: No, it isn’t. It’s a lump of slush. Look at it!
(Later, Lisa falls into a pool of meltwater.)
LISA: Help, I’m sinking in the lake!
RANGER: You mean, you’re walking on the glacier!
Around the time this episode aired, the George W. Bush administration was working to deny the reality of global warming, halt government action to address the problem, and muzzle federal climate scientists.
In “The Simpsons Movie” (2007), Lisa canvasses her neighborhood, warning people of increasing water pollution in Springfield Lake. But her neighbors slam doors in her face. When Lisa delivers a speech — titled “An Irritating Truth” — about the lake’s water quality, the newspaper describes her as a “pushy kid” who is nagging the town.
By 2009, Lisa’s despair is palpable in a horrifying classroom speech (“The Good, the Sad, and the Drugly”).
LISA: There is no Springfield 50 years in the future! With global warming trapping the CO2 inside our poisonous atmosphere, our superheated oceans will rise, drowning our lowlands, leaving what’s left of humanity baking in deserts that once fed the world. And in the new Nineveh, darkness falls.
In another episode the same year (“O Brother, Where Bart Thou?”), Homer and Lisa argue about the implications of a snowfall.
HOMER: Gee, Lisa, looks like tomorrow, I’ll be shoveling 10 feet of global warming.
LISA: Global warming can cause weather at both extremes, hot and cold.
HOMER: I see. So you’re saying warming makes it colder. Well, aren’t you the queen of crazy land! Everything’s the opposite of everything!
(Homer dances, twirling and waving his arms.)
HOMER (singing): La de da de da. I’m Lisa Simpson! La de da de da!
LISA (muttering): Really? Really?
“Springfield is supposed to be a microcosm of society, especially the Simpson family itself,” said Delaney, the sociologist and “Simpsonology” author.
In Delaney’s reading, members of the Simpson family symbolize positions across the spectrum of American political beliefs. The stubborn and contemptuous Homer represents climate deniers. His son Bart, a nihilistic troublemaker, symbolizes people who are apolitical or otherwise disengaged from the issue. Mother Marge, who often mediates family disagreements, stands in for the moderate position, expressing concern about climate change but little personal engagement. Finally, Lisa represents the segment of the U.S. public that worries about the problem.
In the real world, much has changed during the decades since “The Simpsons” first went on the air. For one thing, public worry about climate change has spiked dramatically: There are now roughly five people who agree with Lisa for every “Homer” in the U.S. population, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, the publisher of this site. And though the residents of Springfield are still doing their best to ignore Lisa, the U.S. Congress for the first time in 2022 passed major legislation aimed at slashing heat-trapping carbon pollution — the result of decades of organizing by concerned citizens. Cheers to all the pushy kids.