Cornell Professor Explains Why We Need Dark Humor in the Fight Against Climate Change

Cornell Professor Explains Why We Need Dark Humor in the Fight Against Climate Change

A climate scientist and a climate change denier walk into a bar. The denier goes up to the bartender and asks, “What’s your strongest liquor?” The bartender grabs a dusty bottle off of the top shelf and replies, “This one here, it’s 95 percent alcohol. You want that on the rocks?” The denier replies, “No thanks, I’ll just have a club soda.” The scientist says to the bartender, “That’s the problem with these guys. You show them the proof, and they still don’t buy it.”

That joke, shamelessly stolen from Talk of the Nation’s Ira Flatlow, is about a dozen shades lighter than what Aaron Sachs would like to hear from climate activists. In his new book, Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change, the Cornell University professor advocates for traditionally doom-and-gloom climate crusaders to continue to carp on the coming destruction — only, try to make it funny this time around.

On the most recent episode of Lithub’s Keen On podcast, Sachs pointed out hard truths that hit close to home for everyone but the most ignorant among us. Sachs posited that, though climate change is real, deadly and continuing to get worse, it’s so depressing to think about how powerless the individual is to stop it that we’d collectively prefer not think about it at all. The answer to this paralysis, in Sachs’ eyes, is quality gallows humor — emphasis on the “quality” part, in case Adam McKay got excited for a second.

“Some people would say ‘too soon’ for comedy about climate change,” Sachs began. “But my retort to that would be, ‘If we wait much longer, it will be too late.’” Sachs says that, for the psyche of an average person, climate change is “an overwhelming problem.” Even though an uncomfortable majority of Americans agree on the reality of climate change, only a fraction of that population can stomach the thought of it for more than a few moments before they need a distraction.

Sachs’ field of study is the history of American environmentalism, and he points out that conservationists traditionally have never before thought to put a comedic spin on their efforts — in fact, the despair brought on by the knowledge of environmental devastation is typically an intended consequence. “We environmentalists have a well-earned reputation for being grim and self-righteous,” Sachs admitted. “Why not try things a little differently?”

“Many people find dark comedy to be somewhat fatalistic,” Sachs continued. “But the point that I’m trying to make here … is that, very often, dark comedy has proven to be a hugely important survival strategy.” Sachs pointed to how historical persecution, such as slavery and genocide, necessitated certain groups to develop dark humor through a “culture of perseverance.” 

Sachs also cited the comedy that was made during the Holocaust, saying, “People in concentration camps used dark comedy all the time. They organized cabarets and variety shows and circuses just to help them get through these horrible situations they were in.” Sachs quoted a quip that was apparently ubiquitous in the extermination camp Treblinka that goes, “Hey, don’t eat too much — we’re the ones who are gonna have to carry your body out of here!”

The same principle — comedy as perseverance — is what Sachs hopes to institute in the American environmental movement as a way to get more individuals involved. “We’re all going to die” is a harder sell than “It’s funny how fucked we are” when it comes to convincing people to face the problem and possibly even take action. If the end is inevitable, cowering from it is still a sillier solution than facing it with a smile. 

“Dark times are pretty much the norm if you study history for five minutes,” Sachs cracked. As bad as things may be in 2023, human beings have lived and laughed through countless catastrophes during the many thousands of years of our existence. Comedy can still get us through the last dozen or so.

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