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.
Content note: This video depicts violent deaths and references suicidality.
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: You wrote about seeing this reaction directly with your students at Cornell. Can you tell me about how they’ve responded to climate comedy?
Sachs: Yeah. I’ve been teaching environmental history at Cornell for almost 20 years, and it’s always a struggle to make it not too depressing. When I first started, my thinking was, “I’m gonna put in a bunch of positive, hopeful ideas about how these issues have been addressed, 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 gotten really good responses from that. The students have said it really makes a difference to be able to approach climate change, in particular, in a different frame of mind. A number of them have told me, “I’ve never laughed about climate change before, and it felt really good. It felt energizing.”
I also have a friend at Cornell who’s on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change. She told me that whenever she went to an IPCC meeting everybody was just kind of sad because they were slogging through this really difficult work on behalf of societies around the world and nobody was doing anything — we just haven’t had the political will. So that was another impetus for this project. I was like, “Rachel, I’m going to try to help cheer you guys up.”
Obviously, no one approach can solve everything, but I hope this can be a little pick-me-up for the people who care. And I think almost everyone now cares. The problem used to be, “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’ve seen all the fires and the floods and the refugees and they’re overwhelmed by it.”
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.
So those movements figured out that humor was valuable, but the environmental movement never really has. When you say “environmentalism” and ask people to free-associate, the first two words that usually come to mind are doom and gloom. One of the book’s messages is “Why not try a different approach and see if it can help?”
Wesseler: I agree with you in theory, but I also wonder if attempts to instrumentalize humor could be counterproductive if the comedy ends up being terrible. Bad comedy can be so painful! How do you think about this question of successful versus unsuccessful 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 models. As I was starting to work on this book, I read a whole bunch of comedic writers, including fiction writers, nonfiction writers, actual comedians. Shakespeare is incredibly funny. Also, I started watching more and more stand-up and trying to learn from the way comedians approached political comedy, especially.
I really think that ultimately, comedy is accessible to anybody. There will be failures, but that’s true of any approach you’re trying with your activism.
The easiest thing environmentalists could do is self-directed humor. Instead of telling people what they’re doing wrong, they could start out by acknowledging that they’ve often been self-righteous jerks in telling others how they should change. They could make a joke about themselves, like “How can you tell when you’re in the same room as environmentalists? Oh, they’ll let you know,” and then deliver their message. Once you’ve shown a sense of humor about yourself and made yourself vulnerable, that connection will be easier to make.
Wesseler: You recently started doing stand-up yourself. What’s that been like, and how has it influenced your thoughts on climate and comedy?
Sachs: It’s been incredibly therapeutic. Trying to put together five-minute comedy sets is an incredibly fun challenge. What I’ve learned in middle age is that I can actually cheer myself up just by thinking in terms of comedy: “How can we turn this dismal situation into some jokes?”
But also, doing stand-up has been a reminder that human beings are really important resources. With all of us having lived through this pandemic, experiencing that powerful sense of isolation for at least several months, it’s so good just to laugh together. It’s really healing in a lot of ways.