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

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?