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Dying is Easy: Comedy in Environmental Education

by Eric J. Fitch, Ph.D.

Abstract: In the contest of ideas, environmental educators put themselves at disadvantage  by not availing themselves of the tools of humor. From satire to ridicule to comedy, the  ability to connect through humor shouldn’t be overlooked. Humor has often been looked  down upon by environmental professionals. Many environmental scientists, advocates,  and educators view “Environment” so seriously that “having fun” with it would be  “inappropriate”. This puts educators of all stripes at a disadvantage. Opponents of  environmental education regularly use ridicule and satire to degrade the message and  demean the messengers. Environmental professionals are often portrayed as purveyors of  “gloom and doom” and their pronouncements the ranting of Cassandras. These comments  often come clothed in mean spirited jest. Willingness to take up the tools of humor  simply means leveling the playing field. This paper addresses how humor can inform;  approach serious subjects humorously, and can be incorporated into different  environmental education forums.

There’s a story that goes back at least until the early 1980s. It is a take off on the  biblical story of Creation. It is usually titled something like “God and the EPA” or “God  and the Environmentalists”. Instead of God being able to create the known universe at  will and on His timetable, He finds himself stymied at every turn by the requirements and  concerns of various Heavenly bureaucratic agencies and angelic environmental interest groups. When it becomes apparent that impact assessment, public comment and review,  and many of the other things we take for granted as normal in the environmental  community are going to stand in His way, God creates Hell. Although it is a funny piece  and sure to draw a laugh from a great range of audiences, environmental audiences often  miss the underlying message: that processes and protocols that lie near and dear to our  heart and are looked at as good, right, just and even dare I say Holy, are infuriating to  others in society. In subtle ways, environmental angelic surrogates in the Heavenly Host  are subtly mocked and presented as a bit “fuzzy”. The story brings to light a very  important point that is often overlooked; those who control the discourse most often  control the outcomes.

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In the contest of ideas, environmental educators often put themselves at  disadvantage by not availing themselves of the tools of humor. From satire to ridicule to  good natured comedy, the ability to reach through humor shouldn’t be overlooked. The  use of humor has often been looked down upon in formal and informal environmental  education. Many environmental scientists, advocates, and educators often view their  subjects as so serious that it would be inappropriate to “have fun” with them. It is often  forgotten that humor often provides a tactical advantage in discourse. As Neil Postman  pointed out in his seminal work Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the  Age of Show Business, we live and work in a society where many interpret veracity from  the level of entertainment derived from the presentation.

This entertainment mentality clearly puts environmental educators of all stripes at  a disadvantage. Opponents of environmental protection and education regularly use  ridicule and satire to degrade the message and demean the messengers. Environmental educators are often portrayed as purveyors of “gloom and doom” and their  pronouncements as the ranting of Cassandras. What makes it worse is that these  comments often come clothed in mean spirited humor. Look at the language used by Ron  Arnold, James Watt, Fred Singer, and other past and present enviro-skeptics and wise use  activists. When they are not attempting to draw doubt to the underlying science, they are  using satire, ridicule and the darker elements of humor to attack the intellect and motives  of the proponents of environmental protection.

The point is that willingness to take up the tools of humor simply means leveling  the playing field. This paper addresses how humor in its different forms can be used to  inform, how to approach serious subjects humorously, and how humor can be  incorporated into different forums. Regarding the conference theme, “Casting a Wider  Net”, adding humor to the arsenal of many environmental educators and the ability to  defend oneself from the “meaner” forms of humor would certainly expand the scope of  environmental education. To paraphrase the apocryphal dying actor “Dying (or talking  gloom and doom) is easy, Comedy (or using humor to educate) is hard”.

So, one might ask the question, “What is humor and how do we use it?” There are  six or seven basic definitions to the term humor. Humor is:

• The trait (personality characteristic) of being able to appreciate and  express the humorous

• The quality of being (or not being) funny

• The liquid parts of the body (still related to the topic in that medieval  medicine believed the outer disposition or personality was dependent upon  the balance or imbalance of certain essential body fluids)

• One of these four essential humors in medieval medicine

• A characteristic (permanent or temporary) state of being

• A message designed to evoke laughter or

• A good mood.

Why is the use of humor important and powerful? The more painful and/or complex the  concept, in the right hands/using the right words, the more powerful the opportunity to  teach using humor. Consider the moments of highest tension or grief in ones own life: a  birth, a death, a pressurized educational or work situation. How often is resolution or at  least momentum changed by the challenge of humor? The medievalists may have been on  to something when they spoke about balancing the humors; for humor itself helps to  restore balance in discourse.

How can humor be applied to the processes of environmental education? First of  all, there is only so much planning that can be done. Even the most skilled professional  comedian utilizes the moment and the setting to provide opportunity for comedy to  happen. Robin Williams is a master of this as was once again demonstrated during an  appearance on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” (June 10, 2001). Being amongst students, he  often broke into “professorial” riffs, including a masterful one on the history of comedy  (“far back in time, two Cro-Magnon were looking down a hill at a group of Neanderthals.  The one Cro-Magnon said to the other ‘How many Neanderthals does it take to light a  fire? None, they don’t have it!’”). Humor/comedy is often for educators an opportunistic enterprise. Very often, it can resemble a verbal form of the Japanese martial art Jujitsu.  Those who ridicule environmental academics and teaching are often themselves in  superior power positions: politicians, leaders of industry or labor, columnists or  journalists with regular access to media outlets or “experts” underwritten by moneyed  interests.

Think about some common critics of environmental regulation and education, and  the great opportunities for ridicule and satire. The U.S. Department of Defense comes  readily to mind. Despite the fact that they are arguably the strongest military force in the  world, they feel overly constrained by current environmental regulations and they and  their allies in Congress have been pushing for exemptions. Imagine the fun one could  have with the concept of the U.S. Army being held up by the black footed ferret, the  gopher tortoise or some other endangered species. Rep. Tom DeLay is on the record as  referring to the EPA as Nazis; think of the imagery that could be used turning this vile  comparison on its head. It is important to remember that those who control the  terminology often control the discourse and win the argument before it begins. Consider  the success that the Wise Use movement has had in labeling acts of vandalism as  “ecoterrorism”.  It has transformed in the minds of many often minor criminal acts into something seriously subversive and dangerous to the society as a whole.

The use of humor in environmental education does not always have to be  defensive or used to ridicule. Consider the sheer wonder of the natural things that  surround us. Nature can be pretty funny. Once again to reference Robin Williams, he did  a marvelous routine in his standup days on the platypus as proof that God gets stoned.  Almost anyone who truly tries to explain the wonders of life and the universe must see a thousand amazing things a day in nature, but even more amusing things. I explain to my  students that if we are ever going to really understand how to protect species and their  habitats, we must get inside their heads (as best as humanly possible). For instance, when  one drives in the southeastern United States, one regularly sees dead armadillo by the  roadside.  Here is a creature whose ancestors roamed the Earth 60 million years ago, yet  is being wiped out by the thousands along lonely stretches of southern roads every  summer. I proceed to explain how this can happen by getting down on all fours and  invoking audience participation to demonstrate that last few moments of an unlucky  armadillo’s life. It is guaranteed not only to evoke laughter but to teach the audience that  evolution isn’t fast enough to keep up with technological change.

Every day presents us with opportunities as educators to take what unfortunately  may be boring subjects and transform them not only into something that entertains, but  teaches. The sci-fi author Harry Harrison referred to one of his characters as being a  “stainless steel rat in the wainscoting of society”.  We can not simply rely on tradition  pathways to deliver information and increase knowledge, understanding and commitment  about the environment. I’m not advocating turning teaching into standup comedy. On the  other hand a little humor, like chicken soup, couldn’t hurt. As was pointed out in the  NEETF/Roper report Understanding Environmental Literacy in America, the levels of  understanding and commitment to environmental sustainability in this country are  astonishing low. As educators we should be willing to stretch ourselves to “make fun” of  serious subjects with that most subversive of goals: to teach.

Eric Fitch teaches in the Environmental Science Program, Dept. of Biology and Environmental Science,   Marietta College, Marietta, OH, USA 45750

Reference List

Coyle, Kevin J. (May 2004) Understanding Environmental Literacy in America: And  Making It a Reality Washington, D.C.: NEETF (National Environmental Education &  Training Foundation

Fitch, Eric J., 2004, National Security and Environmental Protection: New Realities in  American Public Policy in Interdisciplinary Environmental Review (Vol. 6, Issue 1):  Worchester, MA & Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield

Postman, Neil, 1986 Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show  Business  New York, NY: Penguin Books

Postman, Neil and Charles Weingartner, 1971 Teaching as a Subversive Activity New  York, NY: Delta Publishing

Williams, Robin, June 10, 2001 (originally aired )  Inside the Actors Studio Exec.  Producer/Host James Lipton, Director Jeff Wurtz, New York, NY: Television Program

Williams, Robin (1993) Robin Williams – Live at the Met : Producer Troy Miller. 60  min. Lionsgate New York, NY: Videocassette

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