Are You Serious? A Modest Proposal for Environmental Humor
Abstract and Keywords
This article proposes the concept of environmental humor. It discusses David Gessner’s essay about why environmental writers do see more humor in the subject of our studies and why they do not employ more humor in our scholarly and creative work. It explains the scientific evidence of the health benefits of humor and laughter and argues that environmental writers, scholars and activists could present a more powerfully emotive case by embracing humor.
In a recent essay called “A Climatologist Walks into a Bar…,” Robert Butler observes despairingly that Man Walks into a Bar, the self-proclaimed “biggest joke book in the world,” contains among its 6,000 entries not a single joke about the environment or environmentalists, about climate change or biodiversity loss or even about the planet itself. “This is the future we face,” laments Butler, “rivers dry up, sea levels rise, animals become extinct and there won’t be a single blonde joke, or lightbulb joke, or three-men-walked-into-a-bar joke about any of it.” No doubt there are those for whom the dearth of global warming one-liners is not a major concern, but doesn’t it seem odd that a 550-page joke book can’t spare a few lines to engage with nature and those who work to protect it, if not also with those who study the arts by which its grandeur and complexity are expressed? I confess that I feel left out. What is so appallingly unfunny about nature writers, ecocritics, and environmental activists? Can we be so utterly irrelevant as to not even be worth laughing at, let alone laughing with?
Before I address these questions, I’d like immediately to correct this abhorrent condition of jokelessness in which we reportedly find ourselves. Since blonde jokes are passé and many scholars of environmental literature have never walked into a bar (especially not with two men), I thought it best to compose a light bulb joke—also an obvious choice given the urgent need to replace conventional bulbs with compact fluorescents. So, for my fellow ecocritics and those who would seek to understand us, I offer this opening salvo…
How many ecocritics does it take to screw in a light bulb? Answer: Ten.
(1) One to claim that “75 watt” constitutes a textual utterance characteristic of a genre that has been unjustly marginalized and is thus in urgent need of scholarly recovery;
(p. 378) (2) One to argue that measuring illumination by the archaic unit of “candlepower” is a naïve form of undertheorized, romantic pastoralism that shows precisely what’s been wrong with ecocriticism all along;
(3) One to lament the painful irony that although we ecocritics love nature, we actually spend most of our time indoors, screwing in light bulbs;
(4) One to offer a penetrating analysis of the patriarchal, phallocentric implications of “screwing” in the light bulb;
(5) One to hold the ladder and thus feel complicit, causing a sense of guilt that the lightbulb’s contribution to global warming will ultimately result in a polar bear stranded helplessly on one of those really small chunks of floating ice;
(6) One to calculate whether screwing in light bulbs will even be valued by the senior faculty when their tenure case comes up for consideration;
(7) One to point out that if our professional lives weren’t so alienated from our environmentalist practice, we would be unscrewing light bulbs;
(8) One to observe that although we’ve always screwed in light bulbs, we could secure more grant funding if we rebranded the bulb replacement as a “sustainability initiative”;
(9) and (10) Finally, two to argue about whether the light emitted by the bulb is first-, second-, or third-wave.
Shakespeare wrote in Love’s Labour’s Lost that “A jest’s prosperity lies in the ear/Of him that hears it, never in the tongue/Of him that makes it,” which is a fancy, Elizabethan way of saying that you may not find that joke funny. Whether you do will depend not only upon your sense of humor, but also upon whether you perceive yourself as the butt of the joke. Ecofeminist scholars may be insulted by #4, for example, while climate activists may find #5 tasteless, fair-minded departmental administrators may be upset by #6, and those engaged in shaping the future of ecocriticism may feel that #9 trivializes productive critical debates. A joke may be offensive because it is compact and unqualified in its assertions, and thus inherently reductive and essentializing. While it must risk offense, though, humor also functions as a mirror: however distorted its reflection, it offers a salutary opportunity to momentarily transcend the limits of our usual vision, to view ourselves in a new way—to see ourselves, perhaps, as others might see us. Whether we are able to laugh as we stand before the mirror is another matter.
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In this essay I offer a modest proposal for environmental humor, and I’ll say up front that it does not involve ecocritics eating poor Irish children—though that would be a substantial improvement over the food we’re served at academic conferences. Before making my case, though, I want to launch a preemptive rhetorical strike by stating exactly what I do not intend to advocate. Unfortunately this is necessary because of the perennially low cultural status of humor since about the time they shoveled dirt onto Horace (p. 379) in 8 bc, and because hyperbolic claims for the universal efficacy of humor have been as common as the American tall tale.
I first separate myself from most writers on humor by refusing to make claims regarding the health benefits of humor. It is demonstrable that laughing raises your heart rate, blood pressure, and pulmonary ventilation; increases brain activity and alertness; stimulates the production of endorphins from the ventromedial prefrontal cortex; reduces the perception of pain; and leads to relaxation—but so do having sex, playing racquetball, or crashing your truck, and I say this even as a person who has given up racquetball. As for broad claims regarding the healing power of laughter—claims whose intolerable ubiquity date to 1979, when Norman Cousins wrote a bestselling book explaining how he cured his own cancer by watching Marx Brothers movies (yes, really)—there is virtually no scientific evidence to support them. We do, on the other hand, have incontrovertible evidence that the lack of scientific evidence is of absolutely no concern to people who already know what they believe.
Which leads, indirectly, to the second argument I would like to not make: that we environmental writers, scholars, and activists should enter the New Age by joyfully embracing the nurturing, healing power of humor. For those of you preternaturally fortunate enough to have avoided exposure to the “positive humor movement,” a glance at the homepage of the Humor Project, a typical purveyor of this giggling brand of snake oil, will speedily bring your good fortune to an end. Here you will discover evangelical pronouncements regarding the panacea of humor, including a series of remarkably cloying daily “laffirmations,” the innovative suggestion that you should wear a red clown nose to work, and the astonishing proposal that you “Have fun with your fellow workers by giving out every now and then a PMS Award (Positively Motivating Smile).” You will also find “1,001 Ways to Add Humor to Your Life and Work” (apparently 1,000 wasn’t sufficient), information about the “laughter-fueled” 53rd International Humor Conference (which attracted over 21,000 participants, and that’s no joke), and links to a vast gaggle of laughter therapy hucksters who will come to your place of business, tell you and your colleagues to be funnier, and then head to the bank with your $6,000 speaker’s fee (who’s laughing now?). I agree that ecocritics provide no exception to the rule that academics are in desperate need of therapy—only some of which we find it possible to obtain at the expense of our students—but I draw the line at therapy of the red nose variety; if you want a red nose, better to choose the simpler and more sanative approach of drinking more whiskey.
Finally, I would like very much to not argue for a new scholarly interest group devoted to the examination and promotion of environmental humor—and, in particular, to not argue in the strongest possible terms that I should be appointed an officer of such a group. Humorist Roy Blount Jr. has observed that “nothing is less humorous than a good faith effort to define and explain humor,” and I likewise admonish that the surest way to kill humor is to let scholars get organized and start exegesisizing all over it. We find proof of this hazard in the penumbral corner of academia called “humor studies,” where the mind-numbing pedantry of scholarly analyses of the comic has proliferated to an alarming degree. These studies so thoroughly murder to dissect that formal charges might (p. 380) well be brought against them, and an afternoon spent in perusal of such books brings to mind not only Mark Twain’s complaint that “the more you explain it, the more I don’t understand it,” but also his helpful recommendation that we should all “make a special effort to stop communicating with each other, so we can have some conversation.” All of this omits mention of the humor studies scholars themselves, who are so dour a lot that it might be imagined they chose to study humor in the futile hope that some might rub off on them. Let ecocritics recognize, with Lear, that that way madness lies.
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Having cleared the air, let’s return to my opening question: Why aren’t we environmental writers, scholars, and activists funnier? Why don’t we see more humor in the subject of our studies, and why don’t we employ more humor in our scholarly and creative work?
One reason is suggested by nature essayist David Gessner, who uses his provocative essay “Sick of Nature” to rail against the earnestness of nature essayists—individuals who, if gathered together, would resemble “a reunion of Unabombers.” The problem with nature writing, according to Gessner’s delightfully self-loathing rant, is that reading in this genre is “like going to Sunday School.” “[S]uddenly, I realized that I hated nature, or at least hated writing about it in a quiet and reasonable way,” he writes. “Why? Because the whole enterprise struck me as humorless, which in turn struck me as odd, given that comedy often draws on a strain of wildness.” The problem with nature, Joyce Carol Oates argued in her snide essay “Against Nature,” is that it “inspires a painfully limited set of responses in “nature writers” … reverence, awe, piety, mystical oneness.” But the problem, silly Joyce Carol Oates, lies not in nature itself, but rather in the constrained imagination of the writer—who, as Gessner’s confessional self-accusation suggests, too often allows himself to be defined by the circumscribed conventions of a genre and the preconceived expectations of its readers. Gessner is right, though, 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 piety and reverence. But, as I’d like to contend here, where reverence rules irreverence must soon challenge.
There is also the matter of the importance and seriousness of our work. For those who believe, as I do, that the global environmental crisis is real and urgent, that it requires a moral as well as a strategic response, and that our teaching, writing, and scholarship should contribute to the amelioration of this crisis, it may be difficult to imagine what’s funny about any of this. Those of us engaged in literary studies also 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, spontaneity, flexibility, playfulness, and enjoyment that humor brings. I similarly reject the assumption, largely an invention of the Victorian period, that humor contaminates and subverts (p. 381) serious work, and must for that reason be kept strictly separated from it. If humor is vitally important to our happiness and mental health, our friendships and social relations, our professional collaborations and teaching, if it is energizing and restorative and pleasurable, how then can we rationalize its banishment from our most important work?
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So what good might come of a greater openness to humor in our critical and creative practice? What new perspectives might humor provide, what new insights might it produce, what new pleasures might it enable?
First, the ecocritical hesitancy to laugh has caused us to miss some very interesting texts, and to miss opportunities to recognize and enjoy humor in many of the texts we do study. A few brief examples from my own experience as a student of earlier American literatures may be helpful. When teaching seventeenth-century American literature, we tend to focus on theocrats like John Winthrop, whose idea of the city on the hill is widely celebrated, while failing to notice natural history writers like William Wood and Thomas Morton, for whom the hill itself was most important, and for whom humor was indispensible. Morton’s The New English Canaan (1637), for example, is a book that contains one of the most important natural history catalogs of the early colonial period, and also one of the most amusing satires ever written on the hypocrisy and sanctimoniousness of Puritan culture. In the eighteenth century, we are more likely to teach the statesmanly verities of James Madison than the bawdy foibles of Benjamin Franklin, who was a gifted natural science writer and also a preeminent Enlightenment humorist—a man who, in the guise of Poor Richard, used comedy to proffer his most important lessons, such as “Fish and Visitors stink after three days,” and “In Rivers and bad Governments, the lightest things swim at top” (note to readers with indoor plumbing: for “things” read “feces”). And we hardly know what to make of a character like William Byrd, who was enough of a naturalist to win membership in the Royal Society and yet whose diaries, which report candidly and enthusiastically on the “rogering” and “flourishing” of wives (both his own and other people’s) include gems like this one: “I read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson and then took a little nap. I ate fish for dinner. In the afternoon my wife and I had a little quarrel which I reconciled with a flourish. Then she read a sermon in Dr. Tillotson to me. It is to be observed that the flourish was performed on the billiard table.” If sermons in my neighborhood were as stimulating, I might consider returning to church.
Among canonical American writers of the nineteenth century, humor is practically universal. Washington Irving, whose comic characters Ichabod Crane and Rip Van Winkle remain cultural staples today, was America’s first professional writer and one for whom landscape was vital to literary art; he launched his career as a Knickerbocker humorist associated with Salmagundi, a magazine that in many respects prefigures The Onion. We teach Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its abolitionist message, but in her own day Stowe was also known for the vernacular landscapes and language she used in humorous stories like “The Minister’s Wooing.” The Down East humorists (p. 382) made possible the place-based focus of such late nineteenth-century texts as Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs, just as the early Southwest humorists pointed the way for Mark Twain’s great picaro, Huck Finn, to light out for the territory. Nathaniel Hawthorne, who composed lyrical nature essays including the gorgeous “Buds and Bird-Voices,” also wrote The Scarlet Letter, the first American novel to contain the term “sense of humor.” Hawthorne’s greatest admirer, Herman Melville, peppered Moby-Dick with jokes, and while many are straight-ahead penis jokes worthy of any forecastle locker room, the depth of Melville’s cosmic humor is suggested by the opening sentence of the chapter entitled “The Hyena”: “There are certain queer times and occasions in this strange mixed affair we call life when a man takes this whole universe for a vast practical joke, though the wit thereof he but dimly discerns, and more than suspects that the joke is at nobody’s expense but his own.” Even that most sober philosopher of nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose Harvard class of 1821 must certainly have voted him “Least Likely To Ever Get a Laugh,” published an essay called “The Comic,” in which he asserted that “The perception of the Comic is a tie of sympathy with other men, a pledge of sanity, and a protection from those perverse tendencies and gloomy insanities in which fine intellects sometimes lose themselves.”
We arrive inevitably at the pondside shack of our ornery old uncle, Henry Thoreau, whose Walden has remained central even as the territorial wrangling of the culture wars has unseated a host of once canonical writers. Since April Fools’ Day in 1900, when The Dial published an essay on “Thoreau as Humorist,” scholars of Thoreau’s work have exhumed, elucidated, and occasionally even enjoyed Thoreau’s wry humor, which is everywhere apparent in Walden. From punning (he thrills in trampling his neighbors’ “premises”—that is, both their woodlots and their assumptions), to linguistic play (“I have watered the red huckleberry … which might have withered else in dry seasons” is American literature’s most lyrical euphemism for pissing in the woods), to satirical attack (as in his deathbed essay, “Walking,” where he comments that “When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too … I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”), Thoreau is a writer whose engagement with nature and culture is inseparable from his use of humor.
Indeed, Uncle Henry’s humor does not relieve or season his social critique but brilliantly enables it. Consider, for example, both the moral force and the delightful comedy of his account, in Walden, of trying to give instructions for the fabrication of a pair of pants that happens then to be out of fashion:
When I ask for a garment of a particular form, my tailoress tells me gravely, “They do not make them so now,” not emphasizing the “They” at all, as though she quoted an authority as impersonal as the Fates, and I find it difficult to get made what I want, simply because she cannot believe that I mean what I say, that I am so rash. When I hear this oracular sentence, I am for a moment absorbed in thought, emphasizing to myself each word separately that I may come at the meaning of it, that I may find out by what degree of consanguinity They are related to me, and what authority they may have in an affair which affects me so nearly; and, finally, I am inclined to answer (p. 383) her with equal mystery, and without any more emphasis of the “they,”—“It is true, they did not make them so recently, but they do now.”
Such delicious sarcasm must certainly rank Thoreau among the greatest of literary smart asses, but it is also crucial to observe how his comic move here underwrites and amplifies Walden’s serious argument that slavish conformity to fashion has devastating intellectual and moral consequences. While Walden and Thoreau’s other works are laced with comic rhetorical thrusts, however, ecocritics have tended not to relish Thoreau’s humor, instead celebrating Saint Henry of the Pond for his spiritual and aesthetic sensibilities, as if his appreciation of nature and his keen social critique could somehow be extricated from the striking playfulness, depth, and power of his comic sensibility.
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I should add at this point that a few stalwart ecocritics have indeed attempted literary analyses emphasizing humor. The most focused of these is Katrina Schimmoeller Peiffer’s 2000 book Coyote at Large: Humor in American Nature Writing, which includes chapters on Simon Ortiz, Edward Abbey, Ursula Le Guin, Lousie Erdrich, Sally Carrighar, Wendell Berry, and Gary Snyder. This is an intelligent, helpful study, and while I don’t find the writers under consideration to be as funny as Peiffer does—I love Berry’s work, for example, not for the laughs but rather for putting me in touch with my Inner Curmudgeon—I concur with her core objection that ecocriticism has “conspired to train us to perceive only the solemnity and seriousness in nature writing.” A problem with Peiffer’s analysis, one common to humor studies generally, is its indulgence in extravagant claims on behalf of the efficacy of humor—in this case the blithe assertion that “humor routes us into a nondualistic animist spirituality.”
In exaggerating its claims on behalf of environmental humor, though, Peiffer’s book only follows a better known and much earlier study, Joseph Meeker’s seminal 1974 work The Comedy of Survival. Here Meeker advances not only the happy argument that literary comedy values resilience, flexibility, and endurance, a proposition I embrace wholeheartedly, but also the dubious contention that a comic outlook has been specifically selected for by evolutionary processes precisely because of its survival value. Perhaps so, but it is hard for me to view Jim Carrey, Jeff Foxworthy, or Lisa Lampanelli as the pinnacle of evolution. Better had Meeker stopped with his elegant, humane, and lucid assertion that “Comedy demonstrates that humans are durable, although they may be weak, stupid, and undignified.” The more damning problem with The Comedy of Survival is the stunning production design of the widely available 1980 paperback reprint, which not only features a cover as chartreuse as a fishing lure, but, much worse, is adorned with many explicit drawings of a naked lady—I’m talking graphic, full-frontal nudity—dancing rather erotically with a very large moose. Please don’t mistake my point here. I’m extremely fond of both naked ladies and moose (I do credit Meeker with helping me to imagine them together), but I worry this sort of thing gives people the wrong impression about the ecocritical enterprise. Despite my skepticism regarding Meeker’s comic (p. 384) biological determinism, however, I’ve always loved this inventive and engaging book—though perhaps I’ve been swayed less by its argument than by the titillating images of the nude moose.
While the studies I’ve mentioned are not themselves humorous (naked moose notwithstanding), I do believe that a fuller engagement of humor in environmental writing has the potential to energize our critical analyses and the liveliness of the prose in which they are offered. Many humor scholars begin their critical books by explaining defensively that although they will analyze humor, they shouldn’t be expected to produce any. This is fair enough, but I want to point out that it is indeed possible to generate critical insights that are both humorous and incisive, just as Thoreau’s prose is simultaneously funny and serious. I’ve mentioned David Gessner’s comic complaint against nature writing, which both amuses us and, in useful ways, turns our laughter toward a redemptive form of critical self-recognition. However, much earlier examples also come to mind. Among my favorites is D. H. Lawrence’s 1923 pearl, Studies in Classic American Literature, which I consider an indispensible work of ecocriticism and also a monumentally witty and perceptive book. Beginning with a chapter entitled “The Spirit of Place,” Lawrence proceeds to comment on the work of canonical American authors, often exposing brilliantly the mythic constructions of nature upon which they depend for their effects. In writing about Crevecoeur, for example, Lawrence not only relishes the paradox of Crevecoeur retreating to French salons while trying to sell the reader on the nobility and purity of his fabricated identity as the “American farmer,” but also offers a wry gloss on the farmer’s wife and child, who are so thoroughly idealized as to be denied names:
The Farmer had an Amiable Spouse and an Infant Son, his progeny. He took the Infant Son…to the fields with him, and seated the same I.S. on the shafts of the plough whilst he, the American Farmer, ploughed the potato patch. He also, the A.F., helped his Neighbours, whom no doubt he loved as himself, to build a barn, and they labored together in the innocent Simplicity of one of Nature’s Communities. Meanwhile the Amiable Spouse, who likewise in Blakean simplicity has No Name, cooked the dough-nuts or the pie, though these are not mentioned.
If the sarcasm here is wonderful, what it exposes is vitally important to an understanding of Crevecoeur’s pastoral devices and techniques. The more one reads Crevecoeur, the funnier and more incisive Lawrence’s analysis appears, and the more useful and enjoyable it thus proves.
Or, go back still further, to another demythologization of an American writer whose work has profoundly influenced the American imagination of nature: Mark Twain’s delightful and exhaustive enumeration of “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses.” Here Twain observes that Cooper’s much beloved wilderness mystique boils down to a number of rather cheap tricks:
Another stage-property that he pulled out of his box pretty frequently was the broken twig. He prized his broken twig above all the rest of his effects, and worked it the hardest. It is a restful chapter in any book of his when somebody doesn’t step on (p. 385) a dry twig and alarm all the reds and whites for two hundred yards around. Every time a Cooper person is in peril, and absolute silence is worth four dollars a minute, he is sure to step on a dry twig. There may be a hundred other handier things to step on, but that wouldn’t satisfy Cooper. Cooper requires him to turn out and find a dry twig; and if he can’t do it, go and borrow one.
As with Lawrence’s comic excoriation of Crevecoeur, we laugh at Twain’s send up of Cooper precisely because we recognize its accuracy. As literary critics, Lawrence and Twain understand perfectly the Horatian dictum utile et dulce, which although sometimes mistranslated as “candy is useful,” actually proposes that our writing should seek to teach and to delight. As my essay is modest proposal, I do not intend to suggest that ecocritical analyses be punctuated by rimshots or laugh tracks (though I should perhaps note that Charles Douglass, inventor of the laugh track, is an alumnus of my university). I wish only to observe that the engaging playfulness and humor we find in a great deal of literature is often lacking in the work of those who study that literature.
For those of us who are environmental writers, there is an even better reason to deploy the comic mode, and that is the tremendous value of humor in our fight against exploitation of the natural environment. I do not assume that all environmental writers consider themselves activists (though certainly many of us do), but I think most would self-identify as environmentalists, and as people who view their work as part of a larger cultural response to the conditions of environmental degradation that mark our age. In advancing our causes, however, we have usually overlooked the strategic value of humor. As activist-writer Rick Bass observes, “One of the worst things about environmentalists, as has been noted often, 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 or misguided the systems of power appear to me, the more angry I become—the more desperately am I in need of humor as one of the arrows in my quiver. In The Mysterious Stranger, Twain averred that “Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.” “You are always fussing and fighting with other weapons,” he writes. “Do you ever use that one [humor]? No, you leave it lying and rusting. As a race, do you ever use it at all? No, you lack sense and the courage.” These may be biting words from a man advocating humor, but I believe they offer a salutary challenge to environmental writers.
Environmental rhetoric has 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 two highly 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 (p. 386) to which we must bear witness, but we must also admit that the conventions of nature 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-rant, or tacitly agree to suffer the misery registered in writing that functions primarily as tombstone? Already we live in a moment when a popular novelist like T. C. Boyle can easily parody nature writing, as he does so effectively in the “Pilgrim at Topanga Creek” sections of The Tortilla Curtain (which parodies Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek specifically and critiques the solipsism of nature writing generally), or when a television and film comedian like Chris Elliot can turn author and write a book like Into Hot Air: Mounting Mount Everest, a boisterous parody of Jon Krakauer’s bestselling Into Thin Air. Perhaps, then, we should seek an alternative approach that allows us to break free from the stultifying conventions of environmental discourse—that permits us to return some of the pleasure to our project, without compromising the fierce moral seriousness of its aims.
One possibility is to open our minds to the potential environmental efficacy of satire—a form venerable long before Aristophanes satirized Socrates in The Clouds. And in proposing 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 need not be a tissue of effete witticisms, but rather may be constructively abrasive; wielded as a cudgel, it may function as a means of exposing injustice. And while public ridicule has remained unfashionable in the academy—except, of course, in book reviews published in academic journals—we still have plenty to learn from Swift and Johnson, Bierce and Twain, Orwell and Huxley, Heller and Burroughs (William, not John). In our own day, anyone who has watched the satirical television programs The Simpsons or South Park knows how effectively satire can strike a wide range of cultural targets. Consider in the same vein the work of television comedian Stephen Colbert, or that of my old college dorm mate Jon Stewart, whose The Daily Show regularly exposes the absurdity and hypocrisy of American political, corporate, and media cultures. While you may not be an enthusiast of such programs, you hardly need be a fan to admit the extraordinary power of this brand of satire to expose contemporary vice and folly. Satire is not only funny but also enormously forceful and effective—and, human nature being what it is, the comic exposure of vice and folly has the added benefit of offering a great deal of job security.
As writers and environmentalists, it seems we are perpetually on the defensive: even as we try to inspire, persuade, and reform, we secretly fear that we are Vox Clamantis in Deserto: 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 the mayor. By night we dream of blowing up Glen Canyon Dam, but by day we write letters to the editor. The satirist, by contrast, is ever on the offensive, and while he is likely to be viewed as transgressive and caustic, he effectively challenges established power structures, exposing their absurdity or violence, forcing villains to account for themselves. Orwell had it right when he declared that “Every (p. 387) joke is a tiny revolution,” for satirical humor is inherently inimical to established power, including structures of power lacking the moral leadership necessary to respond to the environmental crisis. As Malcolm Muggeridge, mid-twentieth-century editor of the satirical magazine Punch, put it, “by its nature humor is anarchistic, and implies when it does not state, criticism of existing institutions, beliefs, and functionaries.” As the title of Muggeridge’s magazine reminds us, we don’t call them “punch” lines for no reason.
There are many theories of humor, chief among them Freud’s “relief” theory, which posits that humor is an unconscious discharge of repressed energy, and Hobbes’s “superiority” theory, which follows Aristotle in worrying that the wellspring of laughter is our cruel assumption of supremacy over others (this sympathetic insight comes to you from a man whose Leviathan declares unconditionally that life, much like my brother-in-law, is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”). But perhaps the most useful major theory of humor, promulgated by Kant, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and others, is “incongruity” theory, which posits laughter as a response to the gap between expectation and reality, between what it seems should happen and what actually happens. In the American context the most helpful exponent of this theory is Louis D. Rubin Jr. who invokes the compelling term “the great American joke” to refer to the excruciating breach between the promise of American democracy and its (perhaps inevitable) failure to fulfill that promise.
Although humor may be generated through the sorts of trivial incongruities that are the fodder of television sitcoms, the satirist is instead interested in the serious business of addressing the troubling gap between what our ideology promises and the often disappointing outcomes that our policies and practices actually produce. As an example, consider the cultural work of such innovative, influential stand-up comedians as Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin, who methodically deconstructed languages of power and used humor to shine a light on America’s hypocritical unwillingness to promote racial equality and protect individual freedom. Or, think of the courage and effectiveness of filmmakers who used humor as the vehicle of penetrating social critique: Charlie Chaplin, whose The Great Dictator (1940) bravely satirized Hitler on the eve of the US entry into World War II, or Stanley Kubrick, whose Cold War classic, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb(1964), used black humor to expose the terrifying absurdities of the nuclear arms race. The incongruities these comics and filmmakers exposed were painfully real, and there was consequently a sense in which every laugh they produced was one small blow to the status quo. This is why Kenneth Rexroth, in his excellent 1957 essay “The Decline of American Humor,” asserted that comedy is essentially a radical force for change, and that as a result of this important cultural function, “Great humor has a savagery about it.” The genius of humor that exposes incongruity, Rexroth maintained, is that it prompts “The realization that the accepted, official version of anything is most likely false and that all authority is based on fraud,” while also inspiring in us “The courage to face and act on these two conclusions.”
Disappointingly few environmental writers have taken up the satirist’s sword, but one who did, Edward Abbey, makes sufficiently clear the potential power of this approach. (p. 388) Abbey was deliberate and strategic in envisioning humor as a weapon, even paraphrasing Whitman’s benediction in advising his readers: “This is what you shall do: Be loyal to what you love, be true to the Earth, and fight your enemies with passion and laughter.” In “Why I Write,” Abbey described his motivations as a writer this way: “Not so much to please, soothe or console, as to challenge, provoke, stimulate, even to anger if necessary—whatever’s required to force the reader to think, feel, react, make choices…. I write to amuse my friends, and to aggravate—exasperate—ulcerate—our enemies.” Far from imagining humor as mere entertainment, Abbey falls squarely in the venerable tradition of satirists who employ laughter as a tool of battle. And if Cactus Ed’s humor is occasionally more juvenile than Juvenal, he does use comic strategies to make good on his own charge that “The artist in our time has two chief responsibilities: (1) art; and (2) sedition.” Or, to quote from Wendell Berry’s graceful appreciation of Abbey in What Are People For?, “Humor, in Mr. Abbey’s work, is a function of his outrage, and is therefore always answering to necessity.”
Hopeful signs of the efficacy of environmental satire are certainly present in a book like Desert Solitaire, which regularly employs humor to fire at its targets, which it rarely misses. The administrators of the National Park System are said to be “distinguished chiefly by their ineffable mediocrity,” while the operatives of the local Chamber of Commerce “look into red canyons and see only green, stand among flowers snorting out the smell of money, and hear, while thunderstorms rumble over mountains, the fall of a dollar bill on motel carpeting.” Those who would “develop” the wilderness of the American West with roads and dams simply because development conforms to their myopic and environmentally destructive concept of “progress” receive a serious roasting throughout the book. The humor here is profoundly anti-authoritarian, as in this derision of how uncivilized American culture actually is: “Civilization is tolerance, detachment, and humor, or passion, anger, revenge; culture is the entrance examination, the gas chamber, the doctoral dissertation and the electric chair.” Amidst his scathing anti-institutional polemic against industrial ecotourism, Abbey reserves a lighter treatment for the benighted visitors to Utah’s Arches “Natural Money-Mint,” as in his gentle ribbing of the Cleveland man who informs Abbey that the desert would be a decent place, “if only you had some water.”
While the desert of the Colorado Plateau is sacred to Abbey, nothing else is. Abbey would surely agree with seventeenth-century English critic John Dennis that “the design of Comedy is to amend the follies of Mankind, by exposing them.” Abbey’s humor strikes at government, religion, the military, capitalism, education, and many other targets that he feels disseminate an ideology of “progress” resulting in the destruction of the Earth. But even in his most sweeping attacks Abbey maintains the equanimity of the satirist, as in his wry insistence that “In social affairs, I’m an optimist. I really do believe that our military-industrial civilization will soon collapse.” Whether the nettlesome Cactus Ed is ultimately remembered as the Juvenal, Swift, or Twain of the environmental movement remains to be seen, but it is clear that his aggressive use of humor offers one useful model of how the comic mode might be deployed to transform our outrage into an animated, potent form of cultural critique. In the meantime, we might at least say of environmental (p. 389) humor what Abbey himself said of human reason, that it “has seldom failed us because it has seldom been tried.”
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Even those who prefer not to take up humor as a sword, however, might wish to raise it as a shield, to accept a modest dose of it as inoculation against the diseases of fatigue, frustration, and failure that are epidemic among environmentalists. Because we love the world so deeply and yet are forced to watch it burn—or melt—we find in our love for nature not unalloyed joy but rather a bittersweet affection shot through with grief. At the etymological root of the word “compassion” is the idea that we “suffer with,” and in our compassion for the suffering of the earth and its creatures we experience a kind of trauma that often strips us of energy and hope.
Because it is so dynamic and flexible, humor can not only “aggravate—exasperate—ulcerate—our enemies,” but also function as a coping mechanism to help us preserve the resilience upon which our own creativity and courage depend—even if, as bluesman Big Bill Broonzy crooned, “When you see me laughing/I’m laughing just to keep from crying.” Humor may in fact be the product of suffering, and our laughter in some deep sense a direct response to grief. It can also function as a form of sympathy. Since the late eighteenth century, it has been thought that the appreciation of humor requires a sympathetic imagination, a sense of “fellow feeling” characterized by acceptance, flexibility, perhaps even the capacity to forgive oneself or others. As Henri Bergson observed, humor can also bind people together, causing them to be more resilient, and ultimately helping them to examine and revise their shared identity and sense of common purpose. And while a sense of humor remains impossible to define precisely—as the term “sense” implies—we are for good reasons deeply suspicious of those who lack this sense, for we consider the ability to laugh fundamental to our humanity. Indeed, this notion that a sense of humor is a demonstration of our humanity is a primary reason most US presidential campaigns of the modern era have had joke writers on their payroll.
Since the nineteenth century, the sense of humor has also been strongly correlated with the idea of self-knowledge. Humor enables us to engage in a useful process of self-reflection because it provides a form of detachment allowing us to admit, examine, and then correct or forgive our faults and failures. This power of humor to produce humanizing insight and self-knowledge prompted progressive educational reformers of the 1930s and 1940s to argue that humor should become part of the school curriculum; it also inspired the Mark Twain Association’s attempts to endow a chair in humor to rotate among universities, professing the sort of humanizing levity that might make students more humane and the academy less grim.
It seems to me that, especially for environmental writers and activists, an inability or unwillingness to engage in this kind of self-reflexive humor is potentially debilitating. If we refuse to laugh at ourselves, we reinforce the unhappy stereotype of the environmentalist as solemn, didactic, or smug. Much worse, we deprive ourselves of the opportunity to see ourselves as others might see us, to momentarily transcend our entrenched (p. 390) assumptions and ideological positions, to stand before the mirror of humor and gain a fresh perspective on who we are and what we do. As Mikhail Bakhtin expressed it in his book on Rabelais, laughter is “one of the essential forms of the truth concerning the world as a whole, concerning history and man; it is a peculiar point of view relative to the world.” Through humor, writes Bakhtin, “the world is seen anew, no less (and perhaps more) profoundly than when seen from the serious standpoint.” And in this broadened perspective on ourselves and the world there is the potential for a necessary acceptance of ourselves and each other, of conflicting points of view, of the abhorrent contradictions and disheartening failures which must not prevent us from doing our work.
“Sustainability,” as I suggest in #8 of the light bulb joke with which I opened this essay, is a term we use a great deal—and that we demand convey a range of meanings and advance a number of causes with a variety of audiences. The core insight of the sustainability revolution, though, is that before making choices we should ask whether our actions can be perpetuated over time without causing excessive harm to the natural environment. My suggestion is that we should also apply this helpful standard to ourselves and our work, asking whether our current approach to environmental writing, scholarship, teaching, and activism can be sustained, or whether perhaps our unremitting earnestness and the inflexible rhetorical forms it has engendered now threaten to become a liability to our cause. It is precisely because we are serious—because our tasks are difficult and the stakes are high—that I propose (modestly, of course) that we recognize the value of humor as both sword and shield. Enjoying our image as it appears reflected in a light bulb joke will not solve all our problems, but it is—much like a hundred oil company executives at the bottom of the sea—a damned good start.