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Laughing at disaster

We often joke about the challenges we face, fighting our fears and sadness with humour. If having a laugh can help us cope when the worst happens, could comedy be a useful tool for getting serious about environmental collapse? Anxious and overwhelmed by bad news, Isabella Kaminski finds relief in making fun of the climate crisis.

Words by Isabella Kaminski|artwork by Guillaume Chiron

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Paper collage artwork of a gigantic woman kneeling on an agricultural landscape.  The woman appears to be peeling away one of the farmers fields showing an expression that reads both as joy and mischief.
Simple comme bonjour, 17 x 22 cm, 2017. © Guillaume Chiron for Wellcome Collection.

I sometimes play a cruel game with people. When they talk about their hopes for the future or gush about a hot sunny day in March, I throw climate change in like an iron hammer and watch the conversation clang to a halt. 

But what does this really achieve? The subject changes and we haven’t connected in any meaningful way. At best, I’ve passed on a shadow of my fear about the climate crisis but without the sense of urgency, accountability or achievability.

In a world with endless devastating news about the impacts of rising temperatures, and growing public anxiety in response, I’ve begun to look for a lighter approach. 

“I feel like comedy is one medium where you can reach some people that you wouldn’t necessarily be able to reach with other things, beyond maybe an Attenborough documentary,” climate scientist and comedian Dr Matt Winning tells me. 

Winning is a research fellow at UCL’s Bartlett School of Environment, Energy and Resources, focusing on the macroeconomic impacts of environmental policies, and spends his evenings performing stand-up. But he didn’t put the two together until he ran out of material several years ago. 

When Winning finally talked about climate change on stage, it went better than expected. He’d assumed that people didn’t want to hear about it but, in fact, they did. “I wouldn't say the scientific knowledge is any better – there are still basic things that a lot of people don't understand – but people's capacity to sit and listen to it, to want to engage with it has improved.” 

Paper collage artwork of a large girl eating a watermelon, where the skin of the watermelon has been replaced with the planet earth, against a backdrop of stars.
Coupe terrestre, 25 x 23 cm, 2021. © Guillaume Chiron for Wellcome Collection.

‘Coupe terrestre’, 25 x 23 cm, 2021.

Winning is now writing a book called ‘Hot Mess’ to enlighten readers about the climate crisis in a light-hearted way. And he’s not the only one spinning comedy gold out of the chaff of global warming. 

Environmental podcast ‘Sustainababble’ was born out of a conversation down the pub while its hosts worked for a green NGO. Trying to puncture the image of the po-faced environmentalist and acknowledge the guilt that many people feel, David Powell and Ollie Hayes are keen to present themselves as normal blokes and laugh at their own hypocrisies.  

“I'm a vegetarian until I get drunk; at which point, I'm not,” admits Hayes. “But that's okay, because we're human.”  

The podcast has allowed Hayes and Powell to explore environmental issues in a more nuanced way. “We have a shared love of ‘Monty Python’ and Douglas Adams, the kind of comedy writing that is zooming far enough out of all the ridiculousness that you can just laugh at the situation that you're in as squabbling little humans on Earth,” says Powell.

Comedian Pippa Evans compered an event hosted by the Royal Society of Arts in 2015 called ‘Seven Serious Jokes About Climate Change’. She says laughing about something takes away its earnestness. “It’s a comment on the situation rather than an immediate plea for people to do something. Because I think the difficult thing about climate change is that we feel a bit stuck, so to even acknowledge that is reassuring.” 

I certainly get a sense of catharsis listening to ‘Sustainababble’, which is shared by others. “People come to us saying, ‘God, I feel so shit about everything all the time, it’s a relief to be able to laugh along with it,’” says Hayes.

Paper collage artwork of a black and white pair of male and female lovers as they embrace.  Their facial features have been replaced with full colour set of cured meats, following the profile of their faces.
Lu belles femmes du monde #4, 10.7 x 11.5 cm, 2016. © Guillaume Chiron for Wellcome Collection.

‘Lu belles femmes du monde #4’, 10.7 x 11.5 cm, 2016.

Politics and playfulness

Public engagement with climate change often gets bogged down in scientific jargon and bureaucratic debate. In its communication handbook, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the use of huge global numbers or long-term trends “can reinforce perceptions that the problem is an abstract technical issue that has little to do with people’s everyday lives”. 

As well as being alienating, this makes it technically difficult for comedy. “There are fundamental things that you have to do as a comedian, like making a room feel cohesive and like they're all in a shared experience that they feel comfortable with,” says Winning. To achieve this, he framed one show around the relatable question of whether he and his wife should have a child. 

But there’s a downside to this, because the comedy focuses on what people can do personally rather than the deeper structural change Winning – and many others involved in climate communication – feels is needed. “I do probably talk about individual actions more than I feel comfortable with within the shows... compared to how much it actually achieves,” he admits. 

A light-hearted approach hasn’t always sat well with some corners of the environmental movement. “There's such a mass of people who aren't engaged, who need to take it seriously to realise how big of a problem all of this stuff is, that they're terrified of the release valve that you can press by making someone laugh,” warns Hayes. 

Evans feels there is a real danger of preaching to the choir and is concerned that comedy could make people disengage completely. “Does it actually achieve anything or does it just make us go, ‘Yeah the world is shit, I’m going to go back to baking some sourdough and watching reruns of “Friends”’?” 

Paper collage artwork of a large black and white image of a man using a grass trimmer against a colour image of a forested landscape which has been partially cleared. A church and graveyard can be found in the bottom left corner of the image.
Le maillot, 17.5 x 30 cm, 2021. © Guillaume Chiron for Wellcome Collection.

‘Le maillot’, 17.5 x 30 cm, 2021.

But a rigidly serious approach isn’t the way people engage with anything else in their lives, retorts Powell. “If someone dies, if there's a virus, if you get sacked, you will at some point be in a situation where you have a laugh at it. It'll be a hollow laugh or a gallows laugh, but humour is one of the ways that we as humans relate to the universe.”

Humour can dissolve the tension of a conversation.

Humour can also be an effective weapon when brandished at intransigent authority. Serbian political activist Srđa Popović describes how “laughtivism” was used to help topple dictator Slobodan Milošević: “Everyone agrees that funny trumps fearsome anytime. Good activists, like good stand-up comedians, just need to practise their craft,” he told Slate magazine

There is a long history of humorous messaging in environmental protests, and Extinction Rebellion, the direct-action movement that took over parts of central London in 2019 and has since gone international, is no exception. Its stunts involving nudity, fake blood and people literally sticking their heads in the sand drew public attention to the climate crisis in a way that nothing else had before. 

I think back to my conversation with Evans, who told me humour can dissolve the tension of a conversation, and consider how I can change my own approach. 

I found that laughing with my neighbours about the bureaucratic nightmare of trying to work out which recycling box a piece of cardboard goes in opens up a much lighter and more productive conversation about carbon emissions, without any need to wield a metaphorical hammer.

About the contributors

Photograph of Isabella Kaminski

Isabella Kaminski

Author

Isabella Kaminski is a freelance journalist specialising in the environment and climate change.

Photograph of Guillaume Chiron

Guillaume Chiron

Artist

Guillaume is a French multidisciplinary artist. After graduating from art school in 2002, he exhibited in Paris, taught art and joined the Confort Moderne team in Poitiers (an arts centre). He performed with several bands, including Microfilm (on guitar), whose essential visual and sound identity he forged. He has self-published three books of collages, and continues to exhibit his work – including silkscreen prints, tapestries, collages and installations – in France and Belgium.