Should Environmentalists Learn to Take a Joke?

Nicole Seymour is fed up with sanctimoniousness, with judgment, and especially with normative expectations of what environmentalism should look and feel like ...

Early in my graduate school career I attended my first ASLE conference, which gathers scholars working at the interdisciplinary crossroads of environmental humanities and literature. The conversations were invigorating and the mild June weather invited un-conference-y activities, like a late-night Frisbee game on the quad, lubricated with convenience store beer.

On the second evening I found myself with my University of Wisconsin–Madison cohort, chatting up several folks we’d met earlier that day. One of my friends is an experienced beekeeper, and she began to describe her hives. A 30-something man, cross-legged on the floor, piped up.

“Yeah, I’m just not comfortable exploiting animals like that,” he said.

“Exploiting?” sputtered my friend, whom we’ll call Hannah. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I’m a vegan, so I don’t believe in consuming any animal products, including honey. It’s unethical to confine bees and then steal their food.”

The room quieted. “But you always leave plenty of honey for them,” Hannah said, attempting cordiality. “You have a relationship with your bees—they’re not slaves.”

“You’re still forcing them to live under your control.”

“Wait,” I interjected. “Aren’t you controlling living creatures any time you raise food for human use?”

He looked at me. “Plants are not sentient. It’s totally different. Should I assume that you eat meat?”

“Yeah, I do,” I said. “I try to make sure it’s sourced ethically and I don’t eat much of it.”

He snorted. “Then there’s no point in talking to you. If you’re not even vegetarian, this is a waste of my time. We’re not on the same planet.”

The gathering didn’t last long after that. Conversation shifted and faltered; people filtered out. Later, I lay awake. A room full of environmentalist intellectuals had been divided by shame, when we should have felt solidarity. What the hell was this guy’s problem?

Nicole Seymour, an associate professor of English at California State University, Fullerton, is fed up with sanctimoniousness, with judgment, and especially with normative expectations of what environmentalism should look and feel like. Her most recent book, Bad Environmentalism, gives an earful to all manner of salty vegans and stern mansplainers who have set the emotional expectations for environmental art and critique. Either it must traffic in didactic, doomsday droning à la An Inconvenient Truth, or it must rise to the brink of apolitical naturegasm à la Planet Earth. Other emotional registers and responses (broadly, “affects”) are simply inappropriate to the nobility of capital-N Nature and the manifold threats it faces in the contemporary age.

There are, of course, compelling arguments for the utility of fear as well as the value of wonder in cultivating environmental engagement. If we do not feel a deeply positive attachment to our shared planet, and if we are not sufficiently frightened about its future, then how will we act to deflect threats like climate change? This simple binary of affects, however, has reached its shelf life: mainstream environmentalism is “out of touch and unrelatable,” Seymour argues, while environmentalists are widely regarded as “killjoy sticks in the mud.” Meanwhile, the severity of our environmental challenges and the breadth of measures indicated for their amelioration is growing (globally, we need to educate girls, for instance, as much as we need to transition to plant-rich diets). It is only natural to feel complex, ambivalent, even ugly feelings in response—all the more if one is part of a marginalized population.


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Yet tucked within this seemingly negative topography of feelings are pockets of resilience, humor, self-reflexivity, and irreverence that suggest alternative models for coping with environmental crisis. Bad Environmentalism showcases and theorizes such models, clearing space for a more diverse definition of who counts as an environmentalist and what counts as environmental art and scholarship.

Seymour builds a new archive of writers, actors, and artists who display unconventional affective responses to the environment, from irreverence and camp to irony and disgust. Riffing on Mel Chen’s definition of queerness as “improper affiliation,” Seymour suggest that the works analyzed in Bad Environmentalism are broadly queer, “insofar as they affiliate improperly with environmental phenomena.”1 This queer impropriety, in turn, both has “diagnostic” value—that is, it helps reveal insights about our cultural and ecological condition—and also reflects an “ironic form of adaptability” to environmental crisis that eludes environmentalists who cleave mainly to self-serious concern.

By radically revising the canon of texts and the range of virtues expected of environmentalism, Seymour earns her rather hipster cover image (a fabulous deer-human in a turtleneck, fronted by white, crayon-like scrawl). This is fresh criticism for a new generation of readers, writers, consumers, and activists. Moreover, this is criticism about texts whose authors and performers know how to make, and take, a joke—and who have the affective wherewithal to be “self-reflexive” about it.

Such, indeed, is the crux of “ironic adaptability”: loosening our hold on seriousness enables authentic, contextualized environmental attitudes whose worthiness does not hinge on traditional green bona fides. The artists in Bad Environmentalism are unserious despite, or rather because, their subjects—climate change, racism, species extinction, mountaintop removal—are so serious. In the face of these multiplying crises, particularly when one is indigenous, or queer, or poor, ironic adaptability becomes essential, as a “cathartic relief from stringent affective expectations”—a way of laughing, very often, through our tears.

“Bad Environmentalism” clears space for a more diverse definition of who counts as an environmentalist and what counts as environmental art and scholarship.

Like the texts it examines, Bad Environmentalism balances on a wink, and this balancing act is both ingenious and, occasionally, precarious. Seymour at once reimagines “improper” feelings as critical affective responses to the Anthropocene and suggests that environmentalists should back the hell off and stop telling people how they should feel. The result is a vigorous amalgam of both/and arguments. “Can we imagine,” she asks in chapter 3, “a shallow, immature, bitchy, hedonistic LGBTQ persona that articulates a proenvironmental position?” Such propositions, it becomes clear, follow from the characteristic disaffections of our age, in which Millennials in particular inhabit a “complex affective position: a perverse mixture of nihilism, glee, politicized drama, and canny self-awareness.”

This last quotation comes from an analysis of the “New York–based collective known as Queers for the Climate,” wherein Seymour rather brilliantly observes how an “arch and camp” riff on “It Gets Better,” called “It Gets Wetter,” humorously centers the issue of climate change while resisting both antifuturist and pro-future visions of gay politics. “It Gets Wetter,” Seymour writes, asks what it means

to insist to young people that … a normative future is both desirable and available, in an era in which climate change–associated disasters are accompanied by, say, postindustrial collapse, downward mobility, massive unemployment, rampant police killings of unarmed youth of color, and, at least in the United States, astronomically rising tuition costs.

Seymour’s efficient catalog of crises readily reinforces why earnestness, sanctimony, and awe-mongering, on the one hand, and fear, shame, and guilt, on the other, are insufficient to mobilize the contemporary public. We are caught in a series of binds whose answers are wickedly elusive and in the face of which our governments are appallingly inept. Big, simplistic feelings just don’t cut it.

But Seymour is actually uninterested in mobilizing anyone: she resists “useful” or “instrumentalist” approaches to environment, which impose specific calls to action, since “instrumentalism potentially marginalizes artworks that do not articulate obvious or recognizable environmental agendas but that nonetheless have something to tell us.” In contrast, her texts address difficult issues, not all of which are strictly environmental, by appealing to “cathartic relief.” This non-prescriptive orientation ensures some degree of affective autonomy for authors as well as for the subjects of their texts, and encourages readers or viewers to interpret the texts on their own terms.

Chapter 2, for instance, takes up the TV show Wildboyz, in which Steve-O (of Jackass fame) shows what care for wild animals looks like when you subtract recognizable virtues like “lovingness” and “moralism.” It turns out that Steve-O actually identifies as a vegan, and he and his cohost Pontius bring their singular humor to bear on the genre of animal advocacy films. Balls and butts are risked to tooth and claw; sexual norms in environmental film are ignored (the Boyz dress in drag and joke about being sodomized by a moose). In a slick maneuver, Seymour extends her theoretical framework to show how the Boyz animate a “catastrophic intrusion of the queer”:

As queerness is associated with the obscene and with excessive genitality, sexuality, and anality, so it ironically goes that nonhuman animals, who regularly engage in sexual behaviors without apparent shame, must be positioned as at once asexed/asexual and heterosexual/domestic/parental to win the hearts of the public. Wildboyz … decline[s] to participate in this paradigm … To laugh at the Boyz is to experience relief from the regimes of sexuality that nature/wildlife programming, like so many other public cultural outlets, subtly normalizes.

Seymour identifies here and elsewhere the stakes in that “relief,” and it’s a crucial contribution to contemporary environmental thought. In brief, how one chooses to perform “excessiveness” and therefore to control one’s exposure to others is central to ironic adaptability, because it can enable agency amid threat and marginalization.

Hence, in chapter 4, Seymour demonstrates how “racialized peoples are at once constrained by affective tropes and stereotypes … and derided for being so constrained.” For Sherman Alexie, the response is to repossess stereotypes of the “stoic,” “Ecological Indian,” simultaneously demonstrating regard for the natural world while “indulg[ing] in some skeptical, antisentimental eye-rolling.” And, in chapter 5, we see how the ability “to make do,” for two rural, low-income queer women in coal country, reflects profound capacities for resilience while undermining negative stigma around shamelessness and vulgarity.

Yet if Seymour finds in her texts “relief” from restrictive frameworks, feelings, and interpretations, she is not herself relieved of the mandates of scholarship in Bad Environmentalism. Her evident desire to bring levity to the field is hardened by the need to claim intellectual novelty, to make arguments that stick, to tidy up her “messy” methodology with conclusive “thuses” and “thens.” And this dynamic can make the “noninstrumentalist” imperative feel, at times, oddly contradictory and imposed.2

Loosening our hold on seriousness enables authentic, contextualized environmental attitudes whose worthiness does not hinge on traditional green bona fides.

Seymour skillfully dismantles the twin virtues of knowledge acquisition and moral responsibility that scaffold instrumentalist approaches to the environment. But she quietly cultivates her own sacred cow, which is the familiar ecocritical idea of an “environmental ethos”—translated, roughly, as a non-dominating relationship with the natural world that also rejects an artificial separation of human and nonhuman. Seymour avoids “straightforward ethical stances,” in other words, but “ethos” repeatedly appears as a dialectical aim. In her own words: “Bad affect becomes not just a tool with which one takes down stereotypes and expectations but the tool one needs to salvage an environmental ethos out of … a fraught atmosphere.”

By identifying what’s worth salvaging, Seymour effectively answers the “so what?” questions that haunts all scholarly writers, and her answer is, basically, that bad environmentalism can be a covert vehicle for underappreciated expressions of environmental ethics. But how does this compelling claim differ from one in favor of the “prescriptive” messaging found in more “didactic” environmental documentaries, which, Seymour complains, gain scholarly value insofar as their “eco-aesthetics” have corresponding ethical value for a given critic? Fundamentally, I don’t think it does. It’s difficult to read Bad Environmentalism without feeling as though it models, in multiple forms and across many texts, something we’re supposed to adopt. If it is not prescriptive, it is certainly corrective—with similar effects.

In laying out a unique framework for environmental ethics, Seymour assembles a gutsy, alternative green archive, which is its own accomplishment. Still, I kept waiting for a bad environmentalist in deep cover: a mainstream figure who might soften Seymour’s argumentative edge while also extending her affective reach. Someone like Mary Oliver, for example—a queer writer who expresses a feeling-rich, non-prescriptive environmental ethos, who is generally ignored by scholars yet hugely popular among regular readers—deserves mention in this book, if only to show her ill fit. I see this omission as not merely random (after all, one must delimit one’s archive, and Seymour’s is overflowing already); instead, it reflects how Seymour’s exceptionally inclusive arguments can come to box some people out. How are untrained audiences included, or excluded, by the “thoroughgoing irony” in Hannes Lang’s documentary, Peak? When Seymour begrudgingly acknowledges that conventional wildlife programming may have “something to offer contemporary viewers,” what is the implicit judgment made about those for whom such programming remains a form of affective nourishment?

Years after that first trip to ASLE, I published my own take on joining affect and environment in order to imagine more productive coping mechanisms in our age of crisis. Imperfect people who haven’t been baptized in the pure waters of environmental virtue, I said back into the haze of conference history, still have much to teach us. Like Nicole Seymour, I proposed that we don’t always know how to feel in the face of things like climate change—and that such uncertainty is, in fact, crucial to understand.

Much to my delight, Bad Environmentalism goes further, raising a grinning middle finger at sanctimonious moralizers. Yet Seymour, despite my quibbles, is not adversarial so much as ambitious, keen on inviting more and more people into the conversation, and on making marginalized feelings and stories central to environmental thought. From this vital stance, she has crafted an important book that asks us—but also teaches us—to drop hierarchies of morality and identity and open our eyes to alternative visions of surviving on this planet, equitably, together.


This article was commissioned by Stephen Twilley. icon

  1. See Mel Y. Chen, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Duke University Press, 2012), p. 105.
  2. Seymour admits to engaging in “some form of instrumentalism,” to the extent that Bad Environmentalism “diversifies the scope of the field and participates in a valuable form of self-assessment.”
Featured image: A Horse Walks Into a Bar (2017). Photograph by Mark Gunn / Flickr