(NYU Press— April 4th, 2023)
Reviewed by JoeAnn Hart
Q: How do you know when you’re in a room with environmentalists?
A: Oh, they’ll let you know.
Like feminists in the 70s, environmentalists are often portrayed as being too strident, too serious, and having no sense of humor. In the entertaining and informative Stay Cool: Why Dark Comedy Matters in the Fight Against Climate Change, Aaron Sachs unpacks the conundrum that environmentalists have in trying to discuss global warming without sinking their listeners into deep despair and feelings of helplessness. Rising waters, mega-fires, starvation, human suffering, mass extinctions – it’s hard to imagine any solution. That’s not true, it’s easy to imagine many solutions, but none that will be embraced and enforced by current world leaders. Considering the obstacles, where can we find the will to keep on fighting? More data isn’t going to do it, it will only create more pre-traumatic stress syndrome. As Sachs points out, “recent sociological studies show that when it comes to climate change, the more you know, the less likely you are to engage in activism.”
Enter the role of morale in social movements. As Sachs points out, sometimes it’s religion or music that keeps people moving forward, and sometimes it’s comedy. It might seem like a stretch to try to wring humor out of a planetary apocalypse of our own making, but it can be done. Sachs, a historian, reviews hundreds of years of gallows humor of the enslaved, showing that humor is often rooted in the painful realities of human experience. “Almost all of the Black humor that arose during slavery expressed, either directly or indirectly, the exceedingly relevant paradox that slavery was both a fact that one had to live with and an egregious crime that had to be overturned. Climate change, anyone?”
Humor can turn anxiety into action, but it’s also a way of grieving for what we have lost. A pronouncement of doom can make a huge difference, because it’s healing to hear someone else say out loud what you’re really feeling. As writer George Saunders once wrote, humor is what happens when we are told the truth quicker and more directly than what we’re used to. We can find laughter hardwired in our survival toolbox in the drawer marked “psychological resistance.” After all, isn’t radiation just another word for sunlight?
Comedy is an art, and art has power. Humor lets us deal with our own absurdity. Here we are, big-brained humans in the twenty-first century, supposedly the smartest animals who ever walked the earth, and we are killing ourselves and our world with our own cleverness. What else can you do but laugh? As someone who has written a dark comedy about plastics in the ocean, (Float), I used humor as a way to keep readers from shutting down while I funneled grim data through characters riddled with foibles. After all, the criticism of human behavior is the bedrock of comedy. Even better, according to Sachs, is self criticism. Poke fun at yourself first. “Some of the best climate comedy plays on environmentalists’ tendency to sound as if they hate all human beings (including themselves), as in The Onion’s advertisement for a new Toyota Prius model, which automatically impales its owner on a “killing spike” in order to reduce their carbon footprint to zero.” (You can find it online: The Prius Solution.)
This is a short book with long Notes, but they are worth the price of admission. Stay Cool is by an academic, after all, published by a university press, but Sachs goes beyond citing papers that back up his thesis. He references many other publications, podcasts, and humorists, almost everything we need to know as the waters rise up before us, and the land behind us burns away, when what we’ll need is a damn good laugh. If it’s too late for that, well then, the joke will be on us.
JoeAnn Hart is the author of the novel Float, which swirls around conceptual art, bankruptcy, and plastics in the ocean. Her most recent book is Stamford ’76, A True Story of Murder, Corruption, Race, and Feminism in the 1970s. Her collection of short fiction, Highwire Act & Other Tales of Survival, is forthcoming from Black Lawrence Press in 2023.