Book Interview: “Bad Environmentalism” — Laughing at Gloom and Doom

By Bill Marx

Mainstream environmentalism is not just serious and sanctimonious, it also happens to be very white and very heteronormative.

Attitudes about climate change in the mainstream media see-saw between two extremes: gloom and doom at the prospect of a coming apocalypse or can-do optimism that capitalism, combined with technological know-how, will pull mankind through. Interestingly, both stances are propelled by an underlying earnestness. This is a problem we must take seriously; it will either mean learning to live with the hell of global degradation or turning economic priorities in radical directions, particularly away from fossil fuels.

Years ago, I complained that local theaters were neglecting environmental issues — and nothing has changed. On the rare occasions climate change has been addressed on our stages, for example, at The American Repertory Theater and Underground Railway Theater, the approach smacked of a solemnity triggered by a deep-seated fear. Ironically, studies suggest that, when it comes to galvanizing public action against climate change, current media strategies have become counter-productive: visions of a dead earth paralyze the will, the self-righteousness of environmentalists and scientists turn people off, and hosannas to the wonders of technology encourage complacency.

I felt that the media’s stereotypes, which yo-yo from pop-eyed panic to confidence there is a profitable fix, were reflected in the arts. But then I picked up Nicole Seymour’s Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age (University of Minnesota Press), an informative and provocative examination of a wide range of contemporary cultural forms — theater, video, film, performance art, literature — that use ambiguity, irreverence, subversion, and blithe disdain to satirize the “good citizenship” bromides of “mainstream environmentalism, corporate greenwashing, and political co-optation of environmentalist rhetoric.” These works are notable because they may turn some people off: “despair and hope, gloom/doom, and optimism are often merely different sides of the same coin, a coin that represents humans’ desire for certainty and neat narratives about the future.” In a refreshing way, Seymour’s book protests our acceptance of banality in the arts: her mission is “to see how cultural works present us with problems and make things messy rather than neatly resolve them.”

Seymour is Associate Professor of English at California State University, Fullerton and is currently collaborating with California State University and University of California system colleagues on Nxterra, an open-access virtual library of teaching resources on climate justice.  I e-mailed her a few questions about Bad Environmentalism, moving from the obvious — don’t the works she writes about trivialize environmental issues? — to her use of queer theory to critique hackneyed rhetoric about saving nature.

Arts Fuse: Are you worried that by championing irony, contradiction, satire, and irreverence you will be charged with trivializing a monumental problem — global warming and other forms of environmental degradation?

Nicole Seymour: Well, the artists and activists I look at in the book aren’t worried about it! In fact, they seem to be more worried that the “gloom and doom” and finger-wagging of mainstream environmentalism will alienate or overwhelm the public. I would also say that there are far larger forces that are trivializing the problem that we should be critical of – such as the climate deniers and Big Oil cronies in the Trump administration.

But I take your point; many people would say that a time of serious environmental ignorance and degradation demands an equally serious response. I guess I would say that I don’t feel comfortable dictating what art looks like in a given moment. For various reasons, these artists and activists feel compelled to, say, do drag in response to sea level rise (Queers for the Climate), or to devise comedy sketches in response to oil extraction (the 1491s). I’m interested in what that compulsion means, what that tells us about our current moment. In short, I think we should welcome any and all expressions of environmental concern, no matter how frivolous or ridiculous or goofy. If nothing else, they start great conversations!

A scene from Mike Judge’s 2006 satire “Idiocracy.”

AF: You argue that examples of what you define as “bad environmentalism” in film, theater, visual art are wide-spread. Why is it so little known? And why is it important that people learn more about It?

Seymour: In some cases, I think the works I discuss *are* known by the public, but just not known or thought of as being environmentalist – because that’s how deeply entrenched this image of environmentalism as serious and sanctimonious has become. I’ve actually had people write to me and say things like, “I’ve always loved Idiocracy, but I never considered it environmentalist until now!” And in terms of academia, I think that environmental humanities scholars have been very focused on works that seem to have the capacity to educate the public or mobilize viewers – and those tend to be things like the sober documentary or the apocalyptic “cli-fi” novel. But it’s important that people recognize what I’m calling bad environmentalism, and its associated artworks, because of their other, diverse capacities – to provide comic relief, to diagnose our current moment, to reach younger audiences, to make the conversation more accessible and engaging.

AF: You make the case that many mainstream environmentalists are so earnest and solemn that they are considered “killjoys sticks in the mud” — and that ends up repelling people rather than making them more concerned. Why do you think that strategy is still in play, given its failings?

Seymour: Well, I assume that part of it is that belief that serious issues call for responses that are serious in tone. I also assume that earnestness and solemnity are just central to some people’s communicative repertoires; it’s what they know. Now, I should be clear that I’m not railing against seriousness in all forms and moments. I also don’t want to prescribe bad environmentalism as the requisite mode; that would replicate that prescriptiveness around art that I just mentioned opposing. I just want to diversify the palette; I want us to try new things, or to recognize the people that are trying new things.

AF: At the moment, we are seeing an explosion of books that are apocalyptic about Global Warming, using fear to break down what the authors such as David Wallace-Wells (2019’s The Uninhabitable Earth) see as self-destructive denial. What is your feeling about the turn toward this kind of panic environmentalism?

Seymour: I haven’t read Wallace-Wells’ book yet, but I have read some of the debate around it, such as the recent New Yorker article. I personally don’t like the turn, and I’m definitely not alone; the experts consulted in that article think it simply doesn’t work and/or that it has unintended negative consequences, such as paralyzing people with fear or jading them. People really turn on you if it seems like you’ve issued a doomsday prophesy that doesn’t come to fruition! We also have to be honest about how people weigh risks. In California, we keep hearing this drumbeat about “the Big One” – the big earthquake – coming soon, and how we need to be prepared. I’m pretty comfortably middle-class, but even I find it annoying to think about spending $150 or more for an emergency kit that I probably won’t end up using and that I’ll have to replace in a couple years. How is someone with less means supposed to afford that? Is “panic environmentalism” speaking to those folks, or addressing their needs?

To be fair, I do read some of the gloomy-and-doomy reports, and they’re obviously not useless. They strengthen my resolve to educate students about climate change and to support climate activism. Again, you can tell I’m not a fundamentalist! I think we need to employ a multitude of approaches in this really critical time. But not those that replicate the social status quo, or that ignore how social inequalities and climate change intersect. I’d like to see more approaches that are rooted in the experiences of frontline communities and people who are otherwise underrepresented in politics and art.

Author Nicole Seymour — we need to employ a multitude of approaches to climate change in this really critical time. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

AF: I noticed that one source for “bad environmentalism” might be the Theater of the Absurd. In the postwar subversive comedies of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco nature has broken  down. And we are encouraged to laugh. For you, what is the most important impulse behind the genre? Absurdity? Moral instruction?

Seymour: The works I discuss come from such different sources, with such different histories and struggles – rural queer Appalachian folks, Pacific Northwestern and Midwestern Indigenous folks, Australian suburbia – that it’s hard to assign one single motivation to them. They’re each responding to specific environmental problems, and playing with the specific conventions of their given form or genre as they do so. But, yes, they all recognize something deeply absurd in the current state of environmental crisis, and something absurd about working to address it – yet they’re doing the latter anyway. (There was a recent op-ed in the New York Times that I think kind of captures this ethos: “Stopping Climate Change is Hopeless. Let’s Do It.”)

I definitely see all of these works as having some kind of moral or ethical center. But I start with a question from environmental humanities scholar David Ingram: Can a work of art be moral without being moralistic? Part of my goal in this book is to say “yes” – and look at all these crazy examples!

AF: You bring in a number of ideas from queer theory to explore the “dominant preference for environmentalism to be straight, white, clean, and neat despite the queer, diverse, messy grossness of the world, not to mention environmental politics.” Do you think racism and homophobia are inevitable targets of “bad environmentalism”? Isn’t Climate Change a threat to all?

Seymour: Climate change is definitely a threat to all, though it’s experienced differentially; less privileged groups bear the brunt of it, mostly in the Global South. Hurricane Katrina is perhaps an obvious example of how a “threat to all” plays unevenly out along the lines of race and class.

When I first started this project, I don’t know that I would have said that bad environmentalism “inevitably” targets racism and homophobia; I was initially drawn to the fact that these works were “doing” environmentalism in a very different, very playful register. But it turned out that almost all of them had anti-racist and/or anti-homophobic and/or anti-classist commitments as well as pro-environmental commitments. In the book, I wound up arguing that that’s not a coincidence; mainstream environmentalism is not just serious and sanctimonious, it also happens to be very white and very heteronormative. In taking aim at the former qualities, these works also have the chance to take aim at the latter.

AF: Your book is a provocative attempt to answer the question “What makes an art work environmentalist?” What are some of your favorite examples of alternative green art works, particularly those that readers might be able to view?

Seymour: I might start with something like the “Black Hiker” video by or a video from Isabella Rosellini’s Green Porno series. You can find them all on Youtube for free. The first pokes fun at white assumptions about African-Americans’ alienation from nature, and the second is a kind of parodic response to “family-friendly” nature programming, done in the style of a children’s school pageant. There are whale penises and mating shrimp made out of cloth and construction paper – it’s a good time!

I think people might also get a kick out of looking at these pictures of a recent protest against BP’s sponsorship of the British Museum. A “splashmob” of protestors dressed as mermaids and “merfolk” held up signs praising BP – under the satirical premise that, with raising sea levels thanks to climate change (in turn thanks to fossil fuels), mermaids will get to take over. I didn’t include this event in the book since I didn’t hear about it until recently. But it’s definitely got bad environmentalism written all over it!

Bill Marx is the editor-in-chief of The Arts Fuse. For over three decades, he has written about arts and culture for print, broadcast, and online. He has regularly reviewed theater for National Public Radio Station WBUR and The Boston Globe. He created and edited WBUR Online Arts, a cultural webzine that in 2004 won an Online Journalism Award for Specialty Journalism. In 2007 he created The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to covering arts and culture in Boston and throughout New England.

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