a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Hope is a good breakfast, but it is a bad supper.
A sense of humor, like a sense of place, is challenging to define precisely (as the term “sense” suggests), but we should be suspicious of folks who lack it, because laughter is an indispensable tool of self-reflection. Like love, humor is fundamental to our humanity. It allows us to understand ourselves in a new way, to bond with other people and with the more-than-human world, to embrace with humility the natural forces over which we exert no control. Most important, we recognize in laughter something restorative and uplifting. Aldo Leopold once observed that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” Leopold’s insight will resonate with anyone who cares enough about the earth to feel concern or compassion for its suffering. But in focusing only on what has been wounded, we risk forfeiting the regenerative potential of laughter. Humor, by contrast, can be a surprisingly powerful agent of both resistance and resilience.
Why aren’t we environmental writers, scholars, and advocates funnier? Why don’t we see more humor in the subject of our studies, and why don’t we employ more humor in our creative and activist work? One explanation is suggested by nature essayist David Gessner, who used his provocative essay “Sick of Nature” to rail self-reflexively against the earnestness of nature essayists. The problem with nature writing, according to Gessner’s delightfully self-loathing piece, is that reading in this genre is “like going to Sunday School.” “The whole enterprise struck me as humorless,” he writes, “which in turn struck me as odd, given that comedy often draws on a strain of wildness.” Gessner makes this point again in his book My Green Manifesto: “So many people who speak for the wild world seem to feel the need to speak in the voice of the mystic, a hushed, voice-over reverence… At times like those, there’s very little indication that any of us have the quality that many humans find most important for living on earth: a sense of humor.” I think Gessner is right that we’ve left little room for humor in environmental writing in part because the genre has evolved as a vehicle for the expression of reverence. But where reverence rules, irreverence must soon challenge.
Another reason environmentalists don’t engage humor more often is exposed beautifully in Nicole Walker’s entertaining 2018 book Sustainability: A Love Story. While the book is very much about how we must change our lifestyles in order to avert wholesale environmental destruction, Walker makes deft use of humor to confront the fact that many of us feel guilty about our actions—feel we’ll be outed as hypocrites if we don’t live a life as virtuous as the environmental values we endorse. For example, one very short chapter called “Why I Did Not Ride My Bike Today” reads, in its entirety:
Deploying self-deprecating humor to help us laugh at our own environmental shortcomings, Walker makes it possible for readers to acknowledge their inevitable failings and still move forward toward more sustainable choices. We don’t need to be perfect, she seems to say, but we can do better, and her humor helps us to make meaningful progress.
Our reluctance to use humor may also be driven by the seriousness of our work. Those of us engaged in literary studies know that, since about the time poor Gulliver returned from his travels, we have had to be serious if we wished to be taken seriously. “The world likes humor, but treats it patronizingly,” wrote E. B. White. “It feels that if a thing is funny it can be presumed to be something less than great, because if it were truly great it would be wholly serious.” I disagree adamantly with the proposition that “wholly serious” forms of environmental writing and scholarship are more engaging or effective than a practice that includes the creativity, flexibility, playfulness, and enjoyment that humor brings. I also reject the corollary assumption, largely an invention of the Victorian period, that humor contaminates or subverts serious work. If humor is vitally important to our happiness, mental health, and friendships, if it is energizing and restorative and pleasurable, how then can we rationalize its banishment from our most important work?
For those of us who are environmental writers and activists there is an even better reason to deploy the comic mode, and that is the tremendous power of humor in our fight against exploitation of the natural world. In advancing our cause, however, we tend to overlook the strategic value of comedy. As Rick Bass observed, “One of the worst things about environmentalists… is a growing humorlessness that afflicts them—us—and that can grow a little more intense, a little more bitter, year by losing year.” I find that the more of these losing years I live—the more damage and loss I register emotionally, the more unjust and misguided systems of power appear to me—the more desperately I am in need of humor as one of the arrows in my quiver. Mark Twain asserted that “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” “You are always fussing and fighting with your other weapons,” he wrote. “Do you ever use that one [humor]? No; you leave it lying rusting… you lack sense and the courage.” These are biting words from a man advocating humor, but I believe they offer us a salutary challenge.
Environmental writing has long been dominated by the jeremiad—the fuming tirade aimed at those perceived as environmental backsliders—and the elegy—the self-indulgent expression of grief and mourning in the face of loss. I would argue not only that these stylized rhetorical modes have inherent limitations that compromise their effectiveness, but that much of the efficacy they once possessed has been exhausted through overuse. We desperately need the jeremiad and elegy to communicate our moral outrage and our justifiable anguish at the environmental violence to which we bear witness, but we must also admit that the conventions of environmental writing in these modes have begun to ossify, limiting their power to surprise the reader or provoke change in the reader’s assumptions or attitudes. How long will a substantial readership continue to turn the pages of another brittle eco-tirade, or tacitly agree to suffer the misery registered in writing that functions primarily as tombstone? Perhaps we should seek an alternative approach that allows us to break free from the sometimes stultifying conventions of environmental discourse—that returns some of the playfulness and pleasure to our project, without compromising the fierce moral seriousness of its aims.
One possibility is to open our minds to the environmental efficacy of satire—a form venerable long before Aristophanes satirized Socrates in his 423 BC play The Clouds. And in endorsing satire I want to emphasize the importance of Juvenalian satire as well as Horatian, the former of which is as jugular as the latter is jocular. A satirical text may be constructively abrasive by functioning as a means of exposing injustice. We still have plenty to learn from Swift and Johnson, Bierce and Twain, Orwell and Huxley, Heller and Burroughs, literary satirists whose legacy we observe in the urgent work of present-day political humorists such as Andy Borowitz, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee, Hasan Minhaj, Michelle Wolf, Paula Poundstone, and Seth Myers. Or, consider the powerful social critique offered by pioneering African-American comedians Jackie “Moms” Mabley and Dick Gregory, whose fearless satirical attacks against institutional racism opened the way for the cultural work of comics like Richard Pryor, Wanda Sykes, and Dave Chappelle. Or, how the groundbreaking work of feminist comedians like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers made it possible for gender equality, racial equality, and LGBTQ rights to be advocated in the innovative work of up-and-coming comediennes including Ali Wong, Tig Notaro, Sasheer Zamata, Hannah Gadsby, Margaret Cho, Tiffany Haddish, and Aparna Nancherla. In a way no lecture or sermon ever could, the satire of these talented comics succeeds in exposing the injustice, hypocrisy, misogyny, and violence often produced by imbricated political, corporate, capitalist, and media cultures.
As writers and environmentalists, it seems we’re perpetually on the defensive. Even as we try to inspire, persuade, and reform, we secretly fear that we are Vox Clamantis in Deserto, that voice crying in the wilderness, the well-intentioned but largely ineffectual players whose power is dwarfed by corporate influence, retrograde government, or even by our local real estate developer—who, in my own case, appears increasingly less concerned about my resistance each time he climbs out of bed with my city’s mayor. By night we dream of dynamiting Glen Canyon Dam; by day we write tepid letters to the editor. Satirists, by contrast, are ever on the offensive, and while they are often viewed as transgressive or caustic, they effectively challenge established power structures, exposing their absurdity or injustice, forcing villains to account for themselves. Satirical humor strikes hard at established power—including structures of power lacking the moral leadership necessary to respond to the environmental crisis and its implications for social justice. Orwell had it right when he declared that “Every joke is a tiny revolution.”
Edward Abbey once advised, “Be loyal to what you love, be true to the Earth, and fight your enemies with passion and laughter.” Far from imagining humor as mere entertainment, Cactus Ed is part of a venerable tradition of literary satirists who have successfully deployed laughter as a tool of battle. This is why Wendell Berry, in recognition of the moral force of Abbey’s comedy, gracefully observed that “Humor, in Mr. Abbey’s work, is a function of his outrage, and is therefore always answering to necessity.” Abbey is descended from a venerable line of American literary satirists whose work has made us laugh while also drawing attention to inequality and injustice. Among my favorites is Dorothy Parker, who once quipped “The first thing I do in the morning is brush my teeth and sharpen my tongue.” Parker was unfailingly intelligent and perceptive, and she understood perfectly the difference between humor as entertainment and satire as a potent reformist tool. As she told The Paris Review in a 1956 interview, “There’s a hell of a distance between wise-cracking and wit. Wit has truth in it; wise-cracking is simply calisthenics with words.”
Even a canonical nature writer like Annie Dillard, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 1974 book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and who is widely recognized for her lyrical celebration of the spiritual power of nature, often deploys wry humor to expand the emotional range of her work. Reflecting on Dillard’s essay collection Teaching a Stone to Talk in a 2014 issue of The Guardian, Geoff Dyer wrote:
By yoking laughter and seriousness in his appreciative commentary on Dillard’s work, Dyer acknowledges what any close reader of Dillard cannot fail to observe: humor is not a departure from the highest aims of environmental writing, but instead a compelling vehicle for those aims.
Even as I acknowledge the remarkable power of humor to function as a sword that might be wielded against environmental, social, and racial injustice, I am equally committed to humor as a shield, as a small inoculation against the diseases of frustration and fatigue that are epidemic among those of us who lament the uncertain fate of the planet. Because we care so deeply for this world, yet are forced to watch it burn and melt, we find that our love for nature is never unalloyed, but is instead a bittersweet affection shot through with grief. For those who share my belief that the global environmental crisis is urgent, and that it requires a moral as well as a logistical response, it may be difficult to imagine what’s funny about any of this. Our default may be to assume that humor is an ineffective or perhaps even an inappropriate response to the violently degraded environmental conditions in which we find ourselves—that to welcome laughter is the moral equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns. I disagree. Humor is an extremely effective means of examining our own behavior and exposing flaws in our culture’s most misguided values and destructive practices. It also functions as a crucial mode of self-reflection and self-protection. The comic is a life-giving force, because comedy engenders resilience and helps us to combat despair. I believe that the craft of humor is an essential element of the art of survival, because laughter is a tool for nurturing the hope without which our struggle against environmental injustice ultimately becomes both excruciating and ineffective.
In addition to having positive emotional and psychological effects, laughter has physiological benefits as well. Laughing raises the heart rate and pulmonary ventilation, increases brain activity and alertness, stimulates the production of endorphins from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, reduces the perception of pain, and enhances relaxation. Comedy also nurtures empathy, because the appreciation of humor requires flexibility, acceptance, and often the capacity to forgive both ourselves and others. And humor has the power to bring people together, helping us to reexamine and rebuild our shared values and sense of common purpose.
I am concerned that those of us who care deeply about the environment have begun to imprison ourselves and our audience within a windowless cell of humorless sanctimony. We extoll the virtues of sustainability, yet in the fierce intensity of our pursuit of what we feel certain is right we often fail to sustain each other, or even ourselves. We valorize community, yet too often lash out at our perceived enemies from a position of wounded isolation. More importantly, we often fail to recognize that a rhetorical approach mired in gloom can alienate readers, trigger their eco-anxiety (a term now being used by researchers), and make them resistant to our message. For example, a spate of studies published in the past few years has demonstrated that, perhaps counter-intuitively, humor is a remarkably effective tool for communicating the urgency of climate change. Comedy can transmit hard truths without leaving the audience feeling defeated or paralyzed. When we laugh together we are also better able to work together.
The global environmental crisis makes painfully clear that we have routinely failed to consider whether our actions can be perpetuated over time without causing excessive harm to the natural environment. The core insight of the current environmental revolution—which, like most revolutions, is being led by the young people, like Greta Thunberg, whose future hangs in the balance—is that we must expose, challenge, and correct that profound failure. I suggest only that we also apply this way of thinking to ourselves and our work, asking whether our current approach to environmentalism can be sustained, or whether our relentless solemnity, anger, and grief now threaten to become a liability both to ourselves and to our cause. It is precisely because we are serious—because our task is so difficult and the stakes are so high—that we should recognize the value of humor in helping to sustain both the natural environment and one another.
In his extraordinary “Wilderness Letter”—a literary and activist document of genuine power and beauty—Wallace Stegner reminded us that we need healthy natural environments as “…a means of reassuring ourselves of our sanity as creatures, a part of the geography of hope.” There can be no true sanity without humor. And so I add to Stegner’s influential maxim that the geography of hope we are imagining together must include the healthy, heartening, uplifting sound of our own shared laughter.
This essay includes excerpts from Michael P. Branch’s article “Are You Serious? A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humor” (Oxford Handbook of Ecocriticism, Oxford University Press, 2014: 378-390) and “Laughing Matters,” the Prologue to his book How to Cuss in Western (Shambhala/Roost, 2018).
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment and University Foundation Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno. He is co-founder of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment and Senior Advisory Editor of the University of Virginia Press book series Under the Sign of Nature: Explorations in Ecocriticism. He has published nine books and more than 250 essays, articles, and reviews, and has given 400 invited readings and lectures. His creative nonfiction has been recognized in The Best American Essays, The Best American Science and Nature Writing, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. Mike has received the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award and the Western Literature Association awards for both creative writing and humor writing. His most recent books are Raising Wild (2016), ‘The Best Read Naturalist’: Nature Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson (2017), Rants from the Hill (2017), and How to Cuss in Western (2018).