Yves here. I’m so used to cold-watering Yankee discipline and sheer terror as ways to deal with crisis-level issues that I find it hard to understand that comedy is energizing. But for those where pure terror produces paralysis, instead of running as fast as possible, everything would probably be better. It seems at least that humor can build solidarity.
By Sarah Wesseler. Originally posted on Yale Climate Connections
What does gallows humor have to do with climate activism? In a new book, Aaron Sachs, a Cornell University professor and author of several highly regarded books on environmental history, argues that environmentalists could achieve more by embracing black comedy — and learning to laugh at it. themselves.
Sarah Wesseler spoke with Sachs about “Stay Cool: Why Black Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change.” The interview has been edited and condensed.
Sarah Wesseler: In “Stay Cool”, you write that gallows humor has helped people in different societies deal with extraordinary circumstances. Can you tell me part of this story and describe its link to climate change?
Aaron Sachs: There’s a long history of people using dark comedy as a coping strategy or even a survival strategy. I focused on Jews and African Americans in the book, but there are plenty of examples of virtually every group of people suffering from oppression.
Most shocking to many people is the Holocaust. There were a lot of jokes going around the concentration camps. It is often assumed that no one would be able to laugh under these circumstances, but it is very well documented that people did. They even organized cabarets, variety shows and circuses in the concentration camps.
One of the jokes in the book comes from Treblinka, where a group of friends said to each other, “Hey, you shouldn’t eat so much, because we’re the ones who are going to have to carry your body from here!” Which was very dark because there was hardly anything to eat anyway. But it’s an example of gallows humor that built solidarity and endurance, resilience. This group of friends could at least smile at each other , shake your head and get ready for the rest of the day.
So how does this apply to climate change? The short answer is that we are all under the black cloud of climate change and many of us are really demoralized, almost to the point of being immobilized. I certainly felt that way; I know many people who feel this. And that was one of the main reasons I wrote this book.
Content Note: This video depicts violent deaths and makes reference to suicidality.
A satirical ad about Toyota’s Prius model saving the environment by killing its driver.
Comedy is really good at tipping people into a different mindset, partly because it’s so weird and unpredictable. It can help us get over that feeling of depression and maybe even help us improvise our way out of a really difficult situation.
Wesseler: You wrote about seeing this reaction directly with your students at Cornell. Can you tell me how they reacted to the climatic comedy?
Sachs: Yeah. I’ve been teaching environmental history at Cornell for nearly 20 years, and it’s always a struggle to keep it from being too depressing. When I started, my thought was, “I’m going to put a bunch of positive and hopeful thoughts on how these issues were resolved, especially in the last quarter of the course.” And more recently, I’ve added quite a bit of humor to shake up the tonal quality of the material.
I’ve had some very good responses on this. The students said it’s really different to be able to approach climate change, in particular, with a different mindset. A number of them said to me, “I had never laughed at climate change before, and it felt really good. It was energizing.
I also have a friend at Cornell who is on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. She told me that every time she went to an IPCC meeting, everyone was a little sad because they were busy doing this really difficult job on behalf of societies all over the world and no one was doing nothing – we just didn’t have the political will. So that was another impetus for this project. I was like, “Rachel, I’ll try to cheer you up.”
Obviously, no one approach can fix everything, but hopefully this can be a little pick-me-up for people who care. And I think almost everyone cares now. The problem was: “How can we convince people to believe in climate change? And now the problem has shifted. It’s like, “OK, people believe in climate change. They have seen all the fires, floods and refugees and they are overwhelmed by it.
Wesseler: Your book says that the environmental movement has always been essentially humorless, but other activist groups have used comedy very effectively. Can you tell me about this story?
Sachs: Yes, the environmental movement has a long history of being quite serious – and many would say sinister and self-righteous.
This is not unusual for social movements trying to achieve important political goals; I am thinking in particular of civil rights and feminism. Since they were really ramping up in the early 60s, they were also pretty serious.
But then they learned to be funny. And in a way, they were lucky because they were at a perfect moment in comedy history. Before that, the comedians had essentially spent decades recycling old vaudeville gags, but during that time they turned the comedic lens on themselves and their personal experiences.
And some activists learned lessons from it, which allowed them to be much more effective politically because they became more human. They were laughing at themselves, in many cases. And once you do that—once you make yourself vulnerable—it’s just easier to connect with people, even if you’re communicating hard truths that might feel threatening or guilt-inducing in other contexts.
Many white Americans were threatened by the civil rights movement; they did not want to consider their own complicity in structural racism. But once the movement had more of a sense of humor, it was able to attract a lot more people. He was also better at maintaining morale within his own ranks.
One of the best examples of this overlap is comedian Dick Gregory, an African-American comedian who had huge success in the early ’60s, but then decided, “I just want to be a civil rights activist,” by fat. And he taught the civil rights movement how to be funny, I think.
Trailer for a documentary on the life and work of Dick Gregory.
So these movements understood that humor was valuable, but the environmental movement never really did. When you say “environmentalism” and ask people to associate freely, the first two words that usually come to mind are dire and gloomy. One of the book’s messages is “Why not try a different approach and see if it helps?”
Wesseler: I agree with you in theory, but I also wonder if attempts to instrumentalize humor might be counterproductive if the comedy ends up being terrible. Bad comedy can be so painful! What do you think of this question of successful or failed humor? And how do you think people who aren’t used to being funny can learn to be funny?
Sachs: The way I think about learning anything comes down to finding really good role models. As I started working on this book, I read a whole bunch of comic writers, including fiction writers, non-fiction writers, real-life comedians. Shakespeare is incredibly funny. Also, I started watching more and more stand-up comedy and tried to learn from the way comedians approached political comedy, in particular.
I really think that ultimately comedy is accessible to everyone. There will be failures, but that’s true of any approach you try with your activism.
The simplest thing environmentalists can do is self-directed humor. Instead of telling people what they’re doing wrong, they could start by acknowledging that they’ve often been self-righteous fools by telling others how they should change. They might crack a joke about themselves, like, “How do you know when you’re in the same room with environmentalists?” Oh, they’ll let you know,” and then deliver their message. Once you have humored yourself and made yourself vulnerable, that connection will be easier to make.
Wesseler: You recently started doing stand-up yourself. How did that happen and how did it influence your thoughts on climate and comedy?
Sachs: It has been incredibly therapeutic. Trying to put together comedic five-minute sets is an incredibly fun challenge. What I learned in middle age is that I can really lift my spirits just by thinking in terms of comedy, “How can we turn this miserable situation into jokes?”
But also, doing stand-up reminded me that human beings are really important resources. As we’ve all been through this pandemic, experiencing this powerful sense of isolation for at least several months, it’s so good to laugh together. It is truly healing in so many ways.