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 »
PROCEDURES NOT FOLLOWED
Trump Not on Ballot in Minnesota
3 days ago
THE LATEST
MOB RULE?
Trump on Immigration: ‘I Don’t Know, You Tell Me’
3 days ago
THE LATEST

Perhaps Donald Trump can take a plebiscite to solve this whole messy immigration thing. At a Fox News town hall with Sean Hannity last night, Trump essentially admitted he's "stumped," turning to the audience and asking: “Can we go through a process or do you think they have to get out? Tell me, I mean, I don’t know, you tell me.”

Source:
BIG CHANGE FROM WHEN HE SELF-FINANCED
Trump Enriching His Businesses with Donor Money
5 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Donald Trump "nearly quintupled the monthly rent his presidential campaign pays for its headquarters at Trump Tower to $169,758 in July, when he was raising funds from donors, compared with March, when he was self-funding his campaign." A campaign spokesman "said the increased office space was needed to accommodate an anticipated increase in employees," but the campaign's paid staff has actually dipped by about 25 since March. The campaign has also paid his golf courses and restaurants about $260,000 since mid-May.

Source:
QUESTIONS OVER IMMIGRATION POLICY
Trump Cancels Rallies
5 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump probably isn't taking seriously John Oliver's suggestion that he quit the race. But he has canceled or rescheduled rallies amid questions over his stance on immigration. Trump rescheduled a speech on the topic that he was set to give later this week. Plus, he's also nixed planned rallies in Oregon and Las Vegas this month.

Source:
‘STRATEGY AND MESSAGING’
Sean Hannity Is Also Advising Trump
6 days ago
THE LATEST

Donald Trump's Fox News brain trust keeps growing. After it was revealed that former Fox chief Roger Ailes is informally advising Trump on debate preparation, host Sean Hannity admitted over the weekend that he's also advising Trump on "strategy and messaging." He told the New York Times: “I’m not hiding the fact that I want Donald Trump to be the next president of the United States. I never claimed to be a journalist.”

Source:
×