Does Climate Movement Need more Jokes?

May 26, 2023

Yale Climate Connections:

What does gallows humor have to do with climate activism? In a new book, Aaron Sachs, a professor at Cornell University and author of several highly regarded books on environmental history, argues that environmentalists could accomplish more by embracing dark comedy — and learning to laugh at themselves.

Sarah Wesseler spoke with Sachs about “Stay Cool: Why Dark 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 cope with extraordinary circumstances. Can you walk me through some of this history and describe how it relates 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 lots of examples from virtually every group of people suffering from oppression.

The most shocking one to many people is the Holocaust. There were lots of jokes being passed around in concentration camps. It’s often assumed that no one would be able to laugh under those circumstances, but it’s very well-documented that people did. They even organized cabarets and variety shows and circuses within concentration camps.

One of the jokes in the book comes from Treblinka, where a group of friends used to say to each other, “Hey, you shouldn’t eat so much, because we’re the ones who are going to have to carry your body out of here!” Which was very dark because there was basically nothing to eat anyway. But it’s an example of gallows humor that built solidarity and endurance, resilience. That group of friends could at least smile at each other, shake their heads, and brace themselves for the rest of the day.

So how does this apply to climate change? The short answer is that we’re all under the dark cloud of climate change and many of us are really demoralized, almost to the point of immobilization. I was certainly feeling that way; I know a lot of people who feel that way. And that was one of the big reasons for writing this book.

Comedy is really good at bumping people into a different frame of mind, in part because it’s so strange and unpredictable. It can help us get over that sense of depression and maybe even help us improvise our way out of a really difficult situation.

Wesseler: Your book says that the environmental movement has always been essentially humorless but that other activist groups have used comedy in really effective ways. Can you tell me about this history?

Sachs: Yeah, the environmental movement has a long history of being quite serious — and many would say grim and self-righteous. 

That’s not unusual for social movements that are trying to achieve important political ends; I’m thinking especially of Civil Rights and feminism. As they were really ramping up in the early ’60s, they were also quite serious. 

But then they learned how to be funny. And in a way, they lucked out because they were at a perfect moment in the history of comedy. Before this, comedians had essentially spent decades recycling old vaudeville gags, but in this period, they turned the comedic lens on themselves and their personal experiences. 

And some activists learned from this, which allowed them to be much more politically effective because they were humanizing themselves. They were making fun of themselves, in a lot of cases. And once you do that — once you make yourself vulnerable — it’s just easier to communicate with people, even if you’re communicating hard truths that might feel threatening or guilt-inducing in other contexts.

A lot of American White folks were threatened by the Civil Rights Movement; they didn’t want to consider their own complicity in structural racism. But once the movement had more of a sense of humor about itself, it was able to attract a lot more people. It also was better at sustaining morale within its own ranks.

One of the best examples of this overlap is the comedian Dick Gregory, an African American comedian who was hugely successful in the early ’60s but then decided “I just want to be a civil rights activist,” basically. And he taught the Civil Rights Movement how to be funny, I think.


One Response to “Does Climate Movement Need more Jokes?”

  1. Anthony O'Brien Says:


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