Have Environmentalists Finally Gotten Over Themselves?

One man’s quest to win public opinion begins with teaching like-minded activists the art of self-effacement.

National Journal
Lucia Graves
Jan. 27, 2014, 6:06 a.m.

There’s noth­ing more ser­i­ous than cli­mate change, abor­tion, and fin­an­cial cor­rup­tion, but what if tak­ing ourselves less ser­i­ously is what al­lows our is­sues to gain trac­tion?

That’s the mes­sage from Keith Gaby, who, in his work as com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund, is en­cour­aging like-minded act­iv­ists to not take them­selves as ser­i­ously as they take their work.

“There’s a ste­reo­type,” said Gaby, “par­tic­u­larly among people who are dis­trust­ing of the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment, that en­vir­on­ment­al­ists are overly ser­i­ous and overly earn­est and not ne­ces­sar­ily in­ter­ested in oth­er people’s point of view.” That’s a ste­reo­type, sure, but there’s enough truth to it, Gaby says, that it’s something mem­bers of the move­ment should look at.

It could be said of many act­iv­ist groups. Mem­bers of the tea party aren’t known for their witty, com­ic riffs, nor do people in the abor­tion move­ment get many belly laughs; in the Oc­cupy Wall Street move­ment, you’re more likely to get pep­per-sprayed. “They take their cause so ser­i­ously that it bleeds over in­to tak­ing them­selves ser­i­ously,” Gaby ob­served.

Some groups haven’t man­aged to make that dis­tinc­tion between self-ser­i­ous­ness and ser­i­ous­ness of sub­ject mat­ter so well. A co­ali­tion of young Chris­ti­an-Right lead­ers, for in­stance, re­cently re­vealed that their new plan to ap­peal to mil­len­ni­als is to make abor­tion funny. “You can en­gage with sar­casm; it’s hard with the abor­tion is­sue, but you have to,” Stu­dents for Life Pres­id­ent Kristan Hawkins told Salon in June. “Un­for­tu­nately, we have to, be­cause this is the gen­er­a­tion that we’ve been dealt.”

Oth­er ad­vocacy groups simply have it easi­er than en­vir­on­ment­al­ists. Mar­riage-equal­ity groups, who’ve en­joyed tre­mend­ous polit­ic­al suc­cesses in re­cent years, have had sit­coms like Will & Grace and Mod­ern Fam­ily to nor­mal­ize gay re­la­tion­ships and get laughs. En­vir­on­ment­al­ists have Bill McK­ib­ben.

There’s a reas­on no en­vir­on­ment­al sit­coms ex­ist. Sus­tain­ab­il­ity jokes are simply not go­ing to win the rat­ings war. Bill Ma­h­er once said the en­vir­on­ment is “one of the hard­est sub­jects to do in com­edy.” And Brit­ish comedi­an Mar­cus Brig­stocke has called cli­mate change “far and away the most dif­fi­cult com­edy sub­ject I’ve ever dealt with.”

Even a web­site like Grist, foun­ded with the mis­sion of in­fus­ing its en­vir­on­ment­al stor­ies with hu­mor, says it isn’t easy be­ing both funny and green. “It turns out ‘en­vir­on­ment­al hu­mor‘ is not that funny,” wrote the au­thor of the site’s ad­vice column. “At least in the form of the clas­sic jokes and one-liners. Please do not tell our aud­it­ors.”

That sites like Grist struggle is no sur­prise to Gaby. “The work we do is really ser­i­ous,” he said. “It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say we’re try­ing to make the fu­ture bet­ter, we’re try­ing to save lives and the plan­et is at stake.” The con­cepts are so big, he ex­plains, that you can lose sight of the fact that oth­er people “might find you a little over­bear­ing at times.”

Back in 2005, The Daily Show made a vali­ant ef­fort to jump-start an en­vir­on­ment­al com­edy seg­ment called The War on Terra. But the res­ults, as en­vir­on­ment­al writer Dave Roberts lamen­ted at the time, just wer­en’t that funny. And that just about sums it up: Even the fun­ni­est guys on the plan­et couldn’t come up with good cli­mate-change jokes. The seg­ment, for doubters and the curi­ous, is here.

Oth­er comedi­ans have struggled to find much hu­mor value in en­vir­on­ment­al­ism, but in scour­ing the In­ter­net we did find a few chest­nuts. Quoth Robin Wil­li­ams: “Clean coal is a bit like wear­ing a por­ous con­dom — at least the in­ten­tion was there.” Quoth Jay Leno: “Pres­id­ent Bush toured parts of Mis­souri that were dev­ast­ated by a re­cent tor­nado. There was one awk­ward mo­ment, when the pres­id­ent looked at the tor­nado dam­age and said, ‘Don’t worry, we’re go­ing to get who­ever did this.’ “

For the more lit­er­ary, there’s this mus­ing by Mark Twain: “Learn to ride a bi­cycle. You will not re­gret it if you live.” And this from Og­den Nash: “I think that I shall nev­er see/A bill­board lovely as a tree./In­deed, un­less the bill­boards fall,/I’ll nev­er see a tree at all.” And we’ll al­ways have Onion posts like this: “Sub­urb­an Re­cyc­ling Pro­gram Now Ac­cept­ing Broken and Dis­carded Dreams.”

Gaby sug­gests en­vir­on­ment­al hu­mor is at its best when act­iv­ists turn it in­ward and mock them­selves. “Every good politi­cian knows it’s more ef­fect­ive to tease your­self than to make fun of oth­ers,” he said. “So we al­most as a polit­ic­al tool need to re­cog­nize that it’s a little dis­arm­ing and makes more friends when you’re will­ing to laugh at your­self.”

On his blog for the En­vir­on­ment­al De­fense Fund he’s culled a few such jokes:

Q: How do elec­tric car own­ers drive?

A: One hand on the wheel, the oth­er pat­ting them­selves on the back.

Q: How do you know when you’re in the room with en­vir­on­ment­al­ists?

A: Don’t worry, they’ll let you know.

I asked him if he knew any oth­ers and he said he couldn’t re­mem­ber off­hand. “We need a sym­posi­um on de­vel­op­ing en­vir­on­ment­al jokes that we can then arm our act­iv­ists with as we go around the coun­try,” he joked. I think.

It wasn’t the only time his hu­mor had me second-guess­ing my­self. As I star­ted to get off the phone with him, I men­tioned that I thought self-de­prec­at­ing hu­mor could go a long way.

“Yeah, ab­so­lutely,” he replied. “It’s just hard when you’re try­ing to save the world you know, to take time out to do that.”

I laughed. Then stopped. Was he jok­ing?

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