How do we laugh at our doom?
Environmentalism is considered a humourless field, but do we really understand humour? And maybe the incongruity of what is happening offers some opportunities, as Sumit Kumar of Bakarmax explains
One of the criticisms laid at the feet of environmentalists is that they have no sense of humour. This was the charge that Donald Trump hurled at Greta Thunberg, when he said she needed to “work on her Anger Management problem”, earning an epic comeback. But this form of dismissal, or “tone policing” is not unique in being directed at climate activists. Other activists too have had tha charge flung at them – for being “too angry”, “too rigid”, “too boring”.
We do not really have a full theory of what is funny, though. We know that even babies seem to find things funny, but the scientific theories of what makes something funny are far and wide, encompassing everything from something that gives a feeling of superiority to something incongruous. Bluntly put, though, we do not really know.
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Like many social constructs “funny” is something we agree to, and like all social agreements, there are a lot of discrepancies about what we agree with.
When it comes to issues of deep injustice, though, like the climate crisis, it is hard to summon a sense of superiority, or even a feeling of “dangerous but harmless” things that makes things sometimes feel funny. Neither drought nor flood are particularly funny. There would be something obscene at a laughing at a world where the poor and powerless pay for the bad choices of the wealthy and cosseted. This may be why our environmental disaster has not really become the stock of jokes for comedians and stand-up artists.
Nonetheless, there is no lack of incongruity in our rapidly warming world, of the moral grandstanding of economic titans declaring that they are saving the world with their immense wealth and power, and yet continue in their investments in everything that is destroying the world. One of the recent such pieces was the release of the Environmental Performance Index recently. While every such index has its own way of measuring things, it was somewhat incongruous, even darkly humorous, to find that the country ranked as the best performer in South Asia was… Afghanistan. Nor was that the end of the incongruity.
Both the two countries at the top of the EPI – Denmark and the UK respectively – are ranked amongst the lowest on the Biodiversity Impact Index. Both their levels of biodiversity intactness hover in the mid 40% level - in the lower 10% of the world. The average for South Asia is above 70%, and it ranks at the bottom of all regions of the EPI.
In a way, though, this explains much of our current problem. The countries most responsible for climate change and biodiversity loss, historically, are the ones often performing the best in maintaining the degraded ecosystems within which they live. The countries least responsible, historically, are the ones neither financially or institutionally able to protect the wealth they have, or are uninterested in doing so.
In conversation with Dr Martin Wolf of Yale, who led the research on the EPI, I asked whether this should mean that richer countries should be putting in funding to strengthen governance structures in poorer countries. He agreed. The sad, the incongruous, thing is that both of us knew this was a joke.
It is this tragedy that makes it difficult to find humour in the situation. And yet, the critics are right, too, to a degree. Humour is an enormous resource when it comes to communications. Yelling can get you attention, but humour stays with you, it starts and maintains conversations. In this edition of the newsletter, Sumit Kumar of Bakarmax comics explains how he has recently used environmental research – the retreat of glaciers – in one of their webtoons, and the role of humour and environmentalism. Enjoy, laugh, and maybe cry.
Sumit Kumar is a cartoonist. He is the author of graphic novels - The Itch You Can't Scratch, Amar Bari Tomar Bari Naxalbari and Kashmir Ki Kahani. He is the founder of Bakarmax - a comics and animation studio.
Q. Your recent webtoon "Small Thunder" started off with a nod to receding glaciers, where did you pick up on that idea?
When I was building my webtoon I wanted it to stand apart from the story I had adapted it from - The Mouse That Roared. For this I was looking for the flesh of the story. On this hunt I reached Bhutan where I walked into the offices of the Bhutan Observer. The editor was the one who explained this problem. This I then used as the beginning of my comic.
Q. Although it's a very tongue-in-cheek series, your first episode had a lot of research, why?
That was mostly because at that time I was making my Kashmir comic and research had become second nature. Although I later learnt that research should never overtake the story, which is reflected in the later episodes. In the first chapter - I had done, with my limited research even a story of the pre king era - including the scene where monks see dragons rise from the mountains I have attached that chapter which I later removed - it will be incorrect at a lot of places.
Do you think these issues provide material, like how much of writing like Amitav Ghosh and some music is looking at it?
I am now a believer in the idea that research should be in the background and writing should be simple. I would rather impress people with solid ideas that might not even be real. For example, what we discussed - Lunar Panels - an idea of how one could do fraud in the world of renewables because so much greenwashing exists.
Bakarmax has a particularly irreverent style, which is characteristic of much humour, would you say this is something things like environmental issues need more of? How could these issues be addressed like that?
It sure can. For example - much of what I do is pointless and absurd. Which is fluff. Which I also like very much. Comedy with a purpose is good but it can get boring. On the other hand - I think people like Rohan Chakravarty of Green Humor will be remembered for having served some purpose to help the planet. His strip is currently the most important piece of work in my field. Small Thunder however is the story of a small carbon negative nation fighting the results of global warming.
How did you get into cartooning? What would you do differently?
Somebody pointed out that I was doing all the ingredients of cartooning - ideas, writing and drawing. And once that simple realization hit me - I started making them. If I would get a redo - I would want to start sooner - right out of 10th standard studying arts. I would also make tonnes of DIY comics and animation - which I never did because I was worried about the proper "method".
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