In recent times, there is increased awareness about environmental problems. Climate change is occurring, and biodiversity is dying out, and food and water scarcity is a very likely reality in a few decades. However, how much has been done about it? Have people drastically changed their lifestyle after hearing about the current carbon dioxide parts per million (ppm) in the atmosphere or hearing about the extinction of yet another species? Most probably not. But the blame for this value-action gap does not fall squarely on the individual’s shoulders, because these problems can often feel anxiety-inducing or too big to tackle. What can, and should, make a difference is the way environmental problems are communicated to us today. 

Communications about climate change are largely scientific or doom-and-gloom. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, published every 6-7 years, provide regular, and seemingly highly reliable, updates on the changing climatic conditions. While the knowledge about the existence of IPCC reports is not new, very rarely has the lay-person sat down and read its contents from page-to-page. The graphs and maps and tables and charts can all get extremely overwhelming and confusing for most people who are not familiar with this type of content. Additionally, reading the details about the extent of problems today crushes any hopes of improvement. The popular, alternative forms of environmental communication are doom-and-gloom stories meant to shake us up.

David Wallace Wells, an American journalist famous for his writings on climate change, provides the reader no palliative in “The Uninhabitable Earth,” giving blow after blow of the dystopian future that awaits us. Reading it makes one want to shrivel up into a ball and wish themselves away onto another planet, or simply pretend that the world he’s writing about is different from the world that they inhabit. In short, it is not fun.

Wells’ book starts with this sentence:

It is worse, much worse, than you think. The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions…

Can Humour Help in Communicating Environmental Problems

However, communication about pernicious and painful problems can be made fun. There are a lot of studies and articles about the benefit of humour in communicating about environmental problems. Environmental problems usually require a reorientation of existing world-views, something that is not easy for anyone, and comedy helps lower defences to make people more receptive to new ideas. Humour can simplify complex issues, by helping people process and relate to the information, encouraging further action. Comedy can also reach a wider audience, that otherwise might have refused to engage with environmental topics. Humour makes a person appear more likeable, lending credibility to people who use this method to communicate information about environmental problems. Finally, humour unites people, by putting everyone in the same boat of enjoying a joke together, irrespective of where they are coming from, and therefore allowing to feel a sense of kinship over the larger problem that the joke itself talks about. 

Rohan Chakravarty, cartoonist and founder of Green Humour, an Instagram page and website, talks about the value of humour as a form of communication in an interview with The Bastion. He mentions that the human mind is more responsive to information presented in an interactive manner, and humour as a medium is particularly effective in creating that interaction. Chakravarty believes that laughter induces a desire to respond to information, rather than just retain it, and performs an experiment during his workshops to this end. He presents his audience with information about elephant poaching in the form of an article, an image, and a cartoon. While the response to all three is concern, the cartoon induces the greatest engagement by making them process the information and respond by laughing. Moreover, Chakravarty reiterates that humour forms a starting point to introduce people to an issue or provide a prompt for a viewer to do a quick Google search and enter a rabbit hole of new information. 

[Left] A comic published on the Green Humour Instagram page about the recent introduction of cheetahs into India. [Right] A Green Humour comic encouraging action on global warming by animating a squirrel who is blaming the viewer (and by extension humans) for not doing enough to alleviate the warming of the planet. | Source: Rohan Chakravarty (@green_humour)/Instagram
Deep Joshi, ex-writer for All India Bakchod and currently working with Cred, verifies this idea by saying that “humour is the best way to talk about complicated issues because it cuts through all the layers.” He himself brings meme placards to protests, such as the one to save the Aarey forest in Mumbai, as a way to alert passers-by about topical issues. Therefore, humour is an extremely crucial and effective method of communicating an idea or thought to a viewer or reader. But are we using humour effectively to communicate in India?

Deep Joshi participating in a protest to save Aarey Forest in Mumbai. | Source: Deep Joshi

Approaching India’s Environmental Issues Through Comedy 

There are three broad ways in which environmental problems are being mentioned using comedy in India. The first, and most common, way is the use of environmental problems as a backdrop against which jokes are made. This form neither encourages nor discourages action, but merely takes these problems to be a static constant that everyone is aware of, and upon which comedy takes place. In a YouTube video titled “How Delhi People Deal with Pollution,” stand-up comedian Amit Tandon talks about how Delhi pollution, at an average of 600pm, impacts the lives of those who live in the Metropolitan city. Humour is interwoven with fact, to poke fun at Delhites nonchalant response to noxious levels of pollution in the air. 

A snippet of a stand-up comedy performance by Amit Tandon on YouTube, in which he uses the extreme levels of pollution in Delhi as the backdrop for a series of jokes. | Source: Netflix India/YouTube

The second way that environmental problems are discussed are by looking down upon them and their solutions. In Comicstaan, an Amazon Prime show featuring a stand-up comedy competition, Sapan Verma, a famous Indian comedian cracks jokes in Season 3 Episode 2 about how plastic straws are superior to paper straws and Greta Thunberg has “an environment worth saving” which we do not. While the humour is intended in a purely light-hearted manner, the implications here are that environmental issues can be joked about or treated lightly.

The third and final way that environmental issues are embedded into humour are by encouraging action and pro-environment behaviour. Chakravarty’s instagram page ‘Green Humour’ features comics about environment-related news, does exactly this by spreading awareness about problems and encouraging action through talking animals and caricatured politicians. 

All three approaches are valuable, because they bring conversations about the environment into the limelight, whether positively or negatively. They force people to pay attention to them, if just for a second, and have the potential to plant a thought that might grow into something bigger. While some approaches might discourage action, they still manage to create a conversation about the topic and garner audience attention, which is in itself a win. Most stand-up comedy videos that deal with the environment start off with disclaimers, pointing out that they are just joking and there is nothing serious about their content. However, presenting environmental problems negatively can have two deleterious effects; while it might make viewers take these problems less seriously, it can also discourage watching environmentalists from their goals. Joshi mentions that “people who do environmentally friendly things, because they have the passion for it, get ridiculed every step of the way. They’re already fighting against authorities and if people around them are also mocking them for it, it can get very discouraging.”

The medium of communication is also important, both physically and in terms of language used. Chakravarty underscores his preference for a more static medium of communication, rather than a dynamic one such as stand-up comedy, because it gives the audience time to think and process. It presents information and allows them to form their own opinions, rather than mindlessly absorb what is being fed to them. However, with a platform like stand-up, information is presented in a quick, punchy manner, leaving very little space and time for opinions to form. This form of communication amplifies both the positive and negative impacts that stand-up can have, making it a more effective medium when used correctly. Some people might prefer the space for thinking that cartoons provide, but others might prefer simply absorbing what they hear; both options therefore use different methods to work towards the same goal. 

Humour and Language
A separate but related point of discussion while looking at the medium of communication is that stand-up comedy on the internet mostly takes place in English or Hindi. The use of other regional languages is limited, but might prove critical in ensuring these messages reach a different audience. Joshi believes that while most English speakers in India are aware about global environmental problems, the use of regional languages can get the message across to people who might not have the same level of awareness. All in all, a diverse and manifold set of approaches can be effective in addressing the different strengths and weaknesses faced by any particular method while communicating about the environment to a larger audience.

Using the Voices of the Well-Known

Prajakta Koli, a comedian and actress, known primarily by her social media handle ‘MostlySane’ was recently declared UNDP India’s First Youth Climate Champion. Starting out as a comedy content creator on YouTube, Koli has worked her way up. While her content is mostly humorous, she occasionally has videos called ‘RealTalkTuesday’ where she talks about more serious topics. In one of these videos, titled “Climate Change is Real,” she tells her viewers in simple terms about the growing problem of climate change and the need to care about it today. Her platform, created through comedy, is something she used to convey a more weighty and far-reaching message. 

Kenny Sebastian and Tanmay Bhat, both famous Indian stand-up comedians, hosted a ‘treemathon’. During this, Sebastian and Bhat cracked jokes and entertained the viewers and donors, while they contributed money to the afforestation cause. Several people donated just out of their fondness for the comedians, or due to how much they were enjoying their conversations. The treemathon serves as an example of how comedians can be used to encourage pro-environmental action, even when they are not directly talking about environmental problems. 

A snapshot of the ‘treemathon’ which shows that viewers are more inclined to donate money to the cause simply because Kenny Sebastian is associated with it. This serves as an example of stand-up comedians using their platforms to encourage action on environmental issues even if they don’t directly mention it. | Source: Tanmay Bhat/YouTube

However, the environment simply doesn’t feature in the content of a large proportion of comedians in India. There is no mention of the issues that ravage our planet, almost as if the jokes these comedians are cracking exist in a world far removed from the one we inhabit. The implications of this are perhaps the worst. They suggest that these problems are not worth mentioning; that they are not important enough to acknowledge or pervasive enough to be noticed.

Joshi suggests that the reason for this paucity of environmental content is because “ultimately, [stand-up comedy] is a content game.” It is about gaining as many views as possible, and thus serves as a reflection of the pulse of society. The reason it is excluded from stand-up is because it isn’t considered a very topical or pressing issue. Joshi emphasises that “environmental issues are not on anyone’s radar, because they seem very distant, not something that can affect you immediately”, precluding its presence in the stand-up we watch today. The environment as a topic therefore caters to a very niche audience, and even when it is mentioned, Joshi fears that it runs the risk of being viewed as ‘performative wokeness’.

While stand-up would be an extremely effective method of talking about environmental problems, the argument can be made that the purpose of comedy, particularly the blossoming stand-up industry, is not for raising awareness. It is about entertainment and light-hearted laughter, where the world’s problems seem to melt away, if only for a little bit. Additionally, even when it is used for a social cause, it is about what each performer or artist deems important to themselves and finds worthy. According to Chakravarty, “you cannot impose a point of view on a fellow artist.” While he himself finds it his responsibility to mention the environment in his work due to an innate passion for wildlife and because he feels he “owes it to them” for being his muse, not everyone might feel this way and therefore we cannot “take the liberty to impose that” on others. 

How to Combine Humour and Climate Change

Recent pop-culture trends have shown that both outcomes are possible. Adam McKay’s 2021 hit, Don’t Look Up draws on themes from the climate crisis. It talks about two scientists and their attempt to convince the world about impending doom in the form of an approaching comet. The movie satirically addresses the idea that humans easily, and readily, choose to discredit scientific information for the sake of short-term convenience and benefits. It follows along the lines that climate change arguments from the perspective of the elites take today, where present wealth and power is prioritised over future safety and security of the planet. This serves as evidence of how two goals, that of entertainment and awareness, can converge into an award-winning comedy. 

As a growing economy and a booming population, it is all the more important for polluters in India to acknowledge their part in the climate crisis, become aware of the ways in which it will impact their immediate lives, and take steps to make the necessary changes. However, the way environmental problems are communicated today contributes greatly to shaping responses to them. The format through which information is presented affects not only how much people understand it, but how they relate and respond to it. Comedy is an effective medium for this communication, because it simplifies the topic while sparking an emotional response. It engenders awareness and triggers action. In India particularly, with the growth of the stand-up comedy industry through television shows like the Comedy Premium League and Comicstaan, avenues for this form of communication are proliferating. 

An important caveat here is that even the comedy used cannot be fearmongering doom-and-gloom predictions. Adding a positive and optimistic spin to the way environmental problems are talked about today further encourages action and creates hope that change is possible. Communication is a powerful tool that people have at disposal and using it the right way can make or break our future on this planet.

Featured image is of Deep Joshi participating in a protest to save Aarey Forest in Mumbai; courtesy Deep Joshi. 



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