A few months before the pandemic upended our lives in 2020, stand-up comedian Vaibhav Sethia received an offer that surprised him. A real estate developer commissioned him to write and perform a set on waste management. They wanted to encourage a zero-waste culture in their buildings and believed that humour might be a good way of spreading the message. Sethia had never received such an offer, and he doubts any of his fellow comedians have, either. Eventually, given the outbreak, his set Stand Up for the Environment, went up as an online video and has garnered over 115,000 views
For Hyderabad-based filmmaker Anshul Sinha too, the power of using humour in messages on environmental conservation has been a discovery. His minute-long film Waterman, that takes a humorous spin on water wastage by telling the story from the water’s perspective, has found unprecedented global acclaim since it first aired in 2018. It won the second prize at the prestigious Eco-Comedy Video Competition in the US in 2019 and the third prize at the International Green Culture Festival in Belgrade, Serbia. From Croatia and Hungary to Bosnia and Mexico, the film has been screened in more than 25 countries till date and has received 21 international festival nominations and various state-level awards.
Yet, the examples offered by Sethia and Sinha are exceptions rather than rules. Humour has largely been missing from the conservation lexicon, barring the unique case of cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty, whose moniker ‘Green Humour’ is justified by his ‘wildly’
An Uncommon Pursuit
Mainstream awareness campaigns have typically been responses to environmental degradation. From air pollution to plastic waste, they have usually centred on various threats to the environment and its consequences for human and animal life. As such, the messaging has been to-the-point, serious and often dire. It speaks of human greed, annihilation of habitats and species, and how climate change may kill us before our time.
Has it been effective? Perhaps. After all, such messaging has largely been the norm. Over time, accessibility has become increasingly important in such communication. In its report, “Principles for effective communication and public engagement on climate change” even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advises its scientists to talk about the real world instead of abstract ideas, connect with what matters to the audience and tell human stories.
Given this background, one wonders why such communication has largely shied away from employing humour. After all, as the interviewees admitted, humour has helped them reach a larger audience and often leave a stronger impression. Chakravarty’s book
Green Humour for a Greying Planet sold out and went for a reprint within weeks of its launch this year. His work is regularly discussed in a WhatsApp group of forest officers. Bhoorsingh the barasingha, a mascot he created for the Kanha National Park and Tiger Reserve has also featured in an UPSC exam question, and readers have written
to him about how his work inspired
them to take environmentally-responsible decisions.
Breaking the Mould
A part of the problem may be historical. Environmental messaging has been suffused in seriousness for so long that finding the funny requires one to break out of a mould. For example, it is far easier to imagine a tiger conservation message talking of destroyed habitats and endangered tigers than one that shows the outraged big cats protesting against the onslaught.
A result of this historical baggage is that many people, especially within the academic community, find it hard to accept humour in an issue as grave as environmental destruction. Yet, Chakravarty has garnered several prestigious awards, assignments and a legion of dedicated fans since he officially began in 2010. The emergence of social media has played a pivotal role in popularizing his work. After all, humour does tend to go viral a lot more because people like sharing messages that
While Sethia acknowledges the role of social media, he feels that environmental humour will remain on the fringes till discourse on conservation doesn’t get mainstreamed. To understand and appreciate humour, people first need to understand the context, and to understand the context they need awareness. In India, there is a large amount of popular awareness about politics, Bollywood, cricket, and even the education system. So, it’s far easier to crack jokes on these topics. However, issues in conservation are not always as well understood. So, it’s tougher to find jokes that would land instantly.
Recalling his experience of writing the set on waste management, he says that he needed to research the topic in depth to ensure that he was factually correct and identify the scope for meaningful humour. Eventually, he struck upon the idea of household waste and its larger implications. He performed and recorded it over a video call with a small audience and was extremely satisfied with the response. Coincidentally, one of the audience members lived in a building near a landfill and immediately responded to the humour, contextualizing it to his own lived reality. In that sense, humour is a great tool in making an overwhelming reality more bearable and inspiring positive action instead of hopelessness.
Despite its advantages, using humour in environmental messaging can be a double-edged sword. Comics need to constantly watch out to ensure that it is not trivializing the issue at hand. ‘Vampire creativity’—underselling the issue and overselling the joke—can be a problem.
By his own admission, Chakravarty is not a big fan of ‘comedy’ in the conventional sense. Even though his comics are often goofy, he is mindful of ensuring that they still prod his audience to think instead of merely eliciting
One then wonders if the use of eco-comedy is in fact limited because it requires an informed and thinking audience. However, as all comics agree, thinking of eco-comedy as an intellectual construct because it needs the audience to think about issues related to the environment is a flawed premise. The very challenge in green humour is making the complexities of environmentalism relatable and interesting to a wider audience through the use of wit.
Moreover, as the fallout of environmental deterioration begins to manifest itself in the everyday lives of more and more people, the understanding of such issues is penetrating all levels of society. As Sethia observes, jokes on air pollution and flooding have become common because they’re widely understood and experienced issues. However, the use of humour to discuss such problems still remains uncommon, even though it’s certainly possible and possibly
Meghaa Gupta works in Indian children’s publishing and writes on the environment for young readers. She is the author of Unearthed: An Environmental History of Independent India (Puffin 2020).