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?

What We're Following See More »
STAYING RELEVANT TIL 2020?
Rubio May Run for Reelection After All
1 hours ago
WHY WE CARE
SOCIAL ISSUES ROIL CONGRESS AGAIN
LGBT Amendment Sinks Energy and Water Approps
3 hours ago
THE LATEST

The House voted down the otherwise uncontroversial Energy and Water appropriations bill Thursday after Democrats succeeded in attaching an amendment affirming LGBT job discrimination protections for military contractors. More than 40 Republicans supported the amendment, but when it came to vote on the bill, 130 Republicans joined all but six Democrats to sink the bill. Speaker Paul Ryan said Democrats voting against the bill after securing the amendment shows their intention was to scuttle the process. Democrats, however, blamed other so-called poison-pill amendments for their votes against the bill. Nonetheless, Ryan said he intends to continue the appropriations process.

AKNOWLEDGING THE INEVITABLE
UAW: Time to Unite Behind Hillary
4 hours ago
THE DETAILS

"It's about time for unity," said UAW President Dennis Williams. "We're endorsing Hillary Clinton. She's gotten 3 million more votes than Bernie, a million more votes than Donald Trump. She's our nominee." He called Sanders "a great friend of the UAW" while saying Trump "does not support the economic security of UAW families." Some 28 percent of UAW members indicated their support for Trump in an internal survey.

Source:
SCREENING DELAYS
70,000 Have Missed American Airlines Flights This Year
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Airport screening delays have caused more than 70,000 American Airlines customers and 40,000 checked bags to miss their flights this year, an executive for the airline told a U.S. congressional subcommittee on Thursday. A shortage of staff and a surge in air travelers have created a nightmare scenario for the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with airport wait times in places like Chicago stretching beyond two hours."

Source:
AP KEEPING COUNT
Trump Clinches Enough Delegates for the Nomination
6 hours ago
THE LATEST

"Donald Trump on Thursday reached the number of delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, completing an unlikely rise that has upended the political landscape and sets the stage for a bitter fall campaign. Trump was put over the top in the Associated Press delegate count by a small number of the party's unbound delegates who told the AP they would support him at the convention."

Source:
×