“We do not care about planet Earth,” four French scientists declared in February in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. If humans are exhausting the planet’s resources, they wrote, it’s Earth that needs to adapt—not us. The authors issued a warning: “Should planet Earth stick with its hardline ideological stance … we will seek a second planet.”
They were joking, of course. The lead author, Guillaume Chapron, a quantitative ecologist at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, works mainly on conserving wolves and other large carnivores. He does care about Earth. In fact, he and his co-authors all signed a paper in BioScience last year called “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice.” It was a dire summary of the world’s dwindling resources, signed by more than 15,000 scientists. But Chapron worried the gesture was useless: “My concern was that [the] paper would be published and nothing would change,” he says. Yes, thousands of scientists agreed things were bad. “And then, so what? So nothing.”
Against this backdrop, Chapron decided to turn to France’s robust literary tradition of using wit, irony, and exaggeration to expose human failings. “We wanted to show that, basically, people are not ready to adjust their way of life to save the planet,” he says. Chapron doubts most other scientists would treat their topics in this way. But maybe more of them should. More than a decade’s worth of research shows that while satire does carry some risks, it can be an effective tool for communication. Satire can capture people’s attention and make complex topics accessible to a wider audience. In some circumstances, it can even sway beliefs. If scientists want to communicate with the public about a serious subject, they might try a joke.