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Two climate podcasters walk into a bar » Yale Climate Connections

I listen to a lot of climate podcasts and watch a lot of comedy, placing me solidly in the target audience for “Sustainababble,” which is billed as “a weekly comedy podcast about the environment.” But when the show first popped up in my Apple Podcasts recommendations, I was skeptical. I have very strong opinions about comedy (my mediocre-at-best understanding of the form notwithstanding), and environmental podcasters didn’t seem like the most likely candidates to pull it off.

But “Sustainababble” was, in fact, funny. Hosts Oliver Hayes and Dave Powell, who met while working at an environmental nonprofit in London, frequently steered conversations about serious topics into unexpected, and sometimes agreeably puerile, territory. Though the show often featured straightforward interviews with environmental leaders, its serious moments were punctuated by animated rants, exuberant dad jokes, and recurring segments like “Inhofe of the Week,” a running catalog of climate villainy inspired by former U.S. Sen. James Inhofe of snowball-on-the-Senate-floor fame.

For several years, “Sustainababble” added a welcome element of randomness to my climate media diet, holding the distinction of being the only environmental news source to make me occasionally burst out laughing in public. But in December 2022, Hayes and Powell ended their eight-year run. In their final episode, they said that although the show was doing well, with a healthy listener base and generous financial donations, they were worn out from years of producing it — both still hold jobs in environmental nonprofits — and were no longer certain that it was making a meaningful contribution.

I spoke with Hayes and Powell about the possibilities and limitations of climate humor, the absurdities of professional environmental advocacy, and the links between comedy and psychology, which Powell explores in his current podcast, “Your Brain on Climate.”

Interview edited and condensed for clarity.

Sarah Wesseler: Why did you decide to take a comedic approach to environmental issues with “Sustainababble,” and did you learn any generalizable lessons about comedy and climate communications while running it?

Oliver Hayes: So we both worked at the same place eight years ago, and we were frustrated that in our professional roles, we had to pretend that everything was very black and white. And we also had to be really serious, even though when we were in the pub, everyone was really good fun.

So as much as anything else, we wanted an outlet to be silly. It was a way of keeping sane by laughing. When you’re working on the inevitable and accelerating collapse of the natural world . . .

Dave Powell: Keep it light, Ol!

Hayes: . . . you need some opportunities for levity.

Listen: The Sustainababble hosts ponder the extraordinary toilet paper consumption of the average American household and consider its environmental implications.

Powell: Yeah. When the history gets written about how humanity did or didn’t deal with the climate crisis, they’ll talk about COPs and technology and movements, but they won’t talk about all the time me and Ol have spent trying to get the photocopier to work, or just the sheer amount of confused people not knowing what they’re doing and arguing with each other.

We often got asked on the podcast, “How do I get a job working for an environmental charity?” And my main response was, it’s the same as working anywhere else, which is to say, often quite ridiculous and frustrating.

Some of it comes down to the fact that humans are confused bags of water who didn’t evolve to deal with something on this magnitude. There is an element of sheer farce about the way we behave as a species in the face of this large thing that is coming. What “Sustainababble” was, and what I’m still doing in “Your Brain on Climate,” is essentially saying, “None of us really know what to do, but we have to pretend like we do.”

Me and Ol started “Sustainababble” because we were like, “This is so silly: I don’t have a bloody clue whether nuclear power is better than clean coal or whatever. I think I’m supposed to know that — but actually, I think everyone thinks that.”

Listen: Ol and Dave discuss the heat wave that sent temperatures in the UK over 100℉ in summer 2022.

Wesseler: You had such a long run with “Sustainababble” — I assume you got feedback that people found this approach of mixing climate and comedy useful?

Hayes: Well, to be fair, this was a self indulgence. We didn’t start the podcast out of some altruistic motivation; we started it to make ourselves feel better. To have some fun.

Powell: Like all white guys who do a podcast.

Hayes: But after a while, people were getting in touch saying they were finding the show incredibly helpful in dealing with their own freakouts, basically — people who were either relatively new to environmentalism and realizing how bad stuff was, or people who were doing jobs like ours. They were like, “Thanks for giving me permission to laugh.”

We’re obviously hideously ill-equipped to provide advice to anyone, but just being silly was actually quite useful to people. And that’s why I kept going for as long as we did.

Powell: We also got emails from people in the government who said the podcast gave them an outlet to express the strangeness of what they were up to. And a guy who was in a very bad way with his mental health wrote that our basic approach was enabling him to keep his head above water — that was one of the most moving things that happened. So I think it helped people carry on a little bit.

Hayes: It definitely helped me. Both of us had various points of freaking out about different things, but spending an hour every Thursday shouting at Dave, and being told I’m an Inhofe by Dave, really helped.

Listen: The hosts search for beavers on a rainy night in rural England.

Wesseler: When you set out to make a funny podcast, did you ever question what form the comedy would take, or was the humor just a natural outgrowth of your personal relationship? I ask partially because I’ve seen some climate comedy that I don’t think was very successful, and I sometimes wonder if bad climate comedy is counterproductive. I do think comedy can be a powerful communication tool, but being funny isn’t necessarily easy, and it doesn’t come naturally to a lot of people. How did you think about these issues when you started “Sustainababble”?

Powell: I don’t remember ever sitting down and going, “We’re gonna make a comedy.” What we did was say, “See how we are with each other in the pub? We’re going to do that in a podcast.” And how we are with each other in the pub — as most people are with their mates in the pub — is funny.

I think everyone is funny in the right circumstances, when they’re relaxed with their mates. I think the funniness comes from the honesty of it. When you strip away all the nonsense and talk honestly about your life, a lot of things are funny, because they’re how stuff really is compared to how we’re supposed to think about them.

We’ve never done jokes about climate change. We did a bit of standup quite early on; a friend of ours was doing a show, so we did some stuff from the podcast as a routine. And it wasn’t very good, to be honest. It doesn’t translate.

Listen: A listener asks what to say to people who don’t care about climate change.

Hayes: As is evident, but is worth saying, neither of us is a comedian — that is not our skill set. But I completely agree: Any group of people hanging around, once they reach their shared sense of humor and shared experiences, they’ll make each other laugh. Part of our frustration was recognizing that, but seeing that as soon as the formal “Hello, we’re the climate movement” face came on, it was like, “Yes, you’re the climate movement, and you’re very dull.” We just felt that there was an important part of ourselves that wasn’t getting out. And climate is such a hard thing to communicate about that I thought a bit of warts-and-all personality might help, because the rest of the time we’re just sounding like robots.

Powell: Yeah. And to your question about why some climate comedy is crap, I think it’s the same reason why climate music is crap, and why climate films are generally crap, which is: Climate change isn’t really a thing, is it? It’s a process. There’s nothing inherently funny about it. If you try and take it on the nose and talk about it as a thing, you’re talking about either clouds of gas or immense suffering.

I recently relistened to the episode we did about “Don’t Look Up.” What’s good about that film is that it’s not really talking about climate change — it’s talking about how ridiculous people are. And I think that space is where humor is. But if you try and do jokes or music or films or books about climate as a thing, there’s no emotion, no soul in it.

Wesseler: To editorialize for a second, I disagree to some extent, because I have seen funny stuff about climate change, although I agree that most climate comedy and music or art I’ve seen isn’t great. But for me, some of it comes down to a kind of earnestness that doesn’t always translate.

Powell: I think that’s bang-on [U.S. translation: correct]. If you’re earnest about the thing itself, you’re not going to be funny. I think insofar as we were funny, it’s because we were trying to be very, very un-earnest about it, and just be as unguarded and confused and abusive with each other as you would be if no one was listening.

Hayes: Yeah, completely agree with you. Earnestness: that’s a turnoff, isn’t it? Good artists make good art by using the usual techniques of metaphor and allegory and whatever. But generally, “We’re all gonna die and it’s all bad. Burn the Tories” — it’s not a very good art, is it? It’s not very interesting.

Wesseler: What do you think were the funniest episodes of “Sustainababble”?

Powell: We had two types of episodes: ones where me and Ol talked about stuff and ones where we had guests on. And I always preferred the former, although we did have funny guests too. There were a lot of episodes where me and Ol just made each other laugh by being silly. Like the whole episode about methane, where the middle chunk was just schoolboy humor about farts. I don’t think many other environmental podcasts would have done that. I hope not.

Hayes: Although those elements were also the ones which made me feel most uncomfortable, because it’s when we got closest to what one reviewer called frat-boy humor. I think sometimes I was guilty of believing I was quite funny, and that’s dangerous — because, to go back to the point of not being a comedian, there was no external verification that I am funny.

Powell: Trust me, I always edited the worst stuff out.

Hayes: But one of the reasons we stopped doing the podcast was a sort of niggling feeling that it might not be as appropriate to take the piss [U.S. translation: make fun of] quite so much as it once was. Although how do you quantify that? I mean, climate change was an existentially bad problem eight years ago, and it’s an existentially bad problem now, so arguably it shouldn’t have made a difference.

But there was a little bit of me — I don’t know about you, Dave — that was like, “I’m not sure if holding everything at arm’s length and joking about it is really the best contribution we could be making anymore.”

Powell: Well, I think the point is that there’s always light in the dark and dark in the light, and sometimes you need to laugh at things to hold your shit together. And the more I reflect on it, the more I think that if that approach enabled people to keep up the fight, maybe it’s needed more than ever.

Which is not to say that we’re coming back, because we’re not.

Hayes: But comedy can defuse situations, can’t it? That’s one of its great powers. And sometimes that’s the opposite of what you need. If somebody is building towards a really important point on a really important subject and someone else cracks a joke, it can completely suck the energy out of the effort.

So I think there’s a question of context and timing. Sometimes you do need to let the passionate speech be delivered, or someone to set out a really important and boring presentation, as opposed to injecting some sort of smutty innuendo halfway through.

But then, no one was listening to us for serious analysis.

Wesseler: Question for Dave: “Your Brain on Climate” isn’t a comedy podcast, but humor and human psychology are obviously closely related. Do you think of the two projects as being directly linked?

Powell: I think some of the stuff I’ve done in “Your Brain on Climate” I could have done in a “Babble” episode, and some of the best “Babble” episodes were the ones where we got beyond all the posturing, where guests talked about how they find stuff hard or confusing, or you got to go to their house and see how they really live.

What fascinates me about psychology is the same as comedy in the sense that, at the very human level, climate change is not a thing we really relate to very easily. It’s this big, abstract concept that we all find in various ways a bit much, whether because it terrifies us or because it’s just too big to get hold of.

And a lot of humor comes down to human brains being peculiar things — how we’re fascinated by shiny things, how we say one thing and then do something else. A lot of great comedy deals with that tension between the way people present themselves to the world and how they actually are with their grubby instincts.

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