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  • Writer's pictureLihong

What's humour got to do with communicating on climate and human rights issues?

I need to preface this reflective post: My mind has been on the topic of compassion and communication all day from practising RAIN meditation with Stephanie at lunchtime (which I have to add, is very good, please give her guidance a try), to reading about non-violent/connective communication.

So I started listening to this episode of the Human Rights Film Festival Berlin podcast, which interviewed Belina of Sustainable Stand Up and Pablo Suarez of Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre. The episode is a juicy discussion of how humour can help us to communicate complex, difficult issues like climate change and humanitarian work. The difficult part in this type of communication is three pronged:

  1. you need to deliver bad news

  2. you need to connect and be compassionate

  3. you need to deliver a call to action.

All this while also trying to hold space for your own internal turmoil. Oh, and there's the constant urgency of a crisis. Boom. No space to think.


On the podcast episode, Pablo Suarez mentioned he told a person consumed with anxiety about the climate: "Enough about the climate, how is your mother?" It's funny and also revealing. Seemingly not a relevant question, but actually it's true, climate joins the ranks of all the other things in life that cause us grief.

So what is the role of humour in this mammoth challenge? I've captured some listening notes below that might help illuminate this.

Communicating about climate change is a lot like communicating about personal injustices

As I was reading about nonviolent communication for interpersonal communication, I thought the tools might apply to communicating about climate injustices too. Whenever we're under stress and there's no time and we don't have the mental space to graciously receive information and evaluate it, our defences spring to life. We don't even wait to hear the other party out. As they're talking, we're already preparing our comeback.

"Oh come on, you never see when I clean!"

"I did what I had to do because you wouldn't have taken the initiative!"

"I feel like you don't care if you offload the emotional labour on me."

Or we run away and hope the problem disappears. Except it doesn't.

It's natural to want to defend ourselves or escape, if we feel we're being judged without being given a chance to plead our case. A lot of judgment is also disguised as feelings, e.g. "I feel like you..." is different from "I feel hurt".

Anyway, going back to communicating about climate change, it's often counterproductive to use shame and guilt to move people into action. Drown them in data can be paralysing too. A common response to these tactics is for people to shut down. I do note that grave facts have to be delivered, and the trick is to engage at a level that communicates respect for our listener, establish the facts free of judgment, explain how one's actions have contributed to the result, and how the result has caused harm. To go one step further, relating the harm back to the wellbeing of the community requires even better research and communication skills.

Climate Change Theatre Action

It sounds simple in theory, but is hard to put into practice. Before I came across Sustainable Stand Up though, Nervous Laughter (the show I co-produced in 2019) did embody similar ideas and concepts, striving for connection rather than judges alienation. I do think we can play more and do something cool this year not in spite of, but because of the trying times we're in. We need humour and fun all the more now.

I've been trying to come up with the concept for a climate change theatre action show this year, and having started a comedic improvisation class very recently, there's a part of me that wants to explore a show concept that integrates humour, play, curiosity, theatre and of course climate change action.

Interested in writing your very own Sustainable Standup set?

At this point, I'm not too certain about having the time and energy to put up an in-person show (to be done between 19 Sep and 18 Dec 2021), but I'll have more clarity maybe around July or August.

However I do want to continue engaging in the art of engaging with tough topics with humour, and I'm currently seeking interest in doing an online Sustainable Standup course. If we have 6-7 people, I can get Belina to do a course in our time zone (evening?). The cost would be 280 pounds for 6 sessions (90 min) each, with a showcase at the end. Maaaaaybe this could be part of a climate change theatre action show.

Check out the performances from a sustainable stand up course run in Singapore in 2019.

Please e-mail ( or ping me (@mozza_rella on telegram)!

Listening notes: How humour can help us communicate complex, thorny issues

  • Role of comedy in communicating about climate change and human rights issues

  • Belina from SSU worked on developing improv mindset and practice with people in social enterprises or working on climate issues, found that their strategies lacked story, were too data driven (this should be a research strategy), acted from a place of anger or judgment. How to transmute anger and fear around issues they care about and instead share with people what they love and what their hopes are.

  • Explaining the science is important, and researchers tend to be very good at it, but it can be complicated and boring and people tune out. Pablo noticed people were engaged when humour was in the air and they retained the information that was being transmitted in those moments. Humour can help people engage, connect and remember.

  • Anchor specific or complex information you need to communicate (e.g. our disconnection from the means of production is hurting communities and ecosystems) in relevant playful insights.

  • Humour has been used by people to communicate on very serious issues. Martin Luther King, Mahatma Ghandi tactically used humour to engage and strategically used humour to communicate.

  • Humour emerges when there is a collision between what is and what could be, when there is something that is unacceptable. From this perspective, humour as a device can help us reveal if used properly.

  • Some brands of comedy tends to put people down? It's important to examine who is being put down. Are they already marginalised? What is the effect of punching in this way? (side note to self: when I did a sketch comedy class earlier this year, we talked about comedy that punches up. Comedy that empowers.)

  • Reality is absurd and people admit their choices are questionable.

  • Dark humour helps us cope with very difficult situations. helps reveal absurdity with a thud, sometimes we need this to validate the feeling that something is not okay. Conflict, danger, incongruity are the places where humour can be found.

  • We're in very trying times and one thing we can all do is help each other be on a treasure hunt for the light spots. We still share the darkness of the cave but we take time to transmute it to bright spots.

  • In Sustainable Stand Up, Belina invites people to sit in the cave of that discomfort, and if we sit long enough, all of a sudden their minds will find a bright spot. SSU is about finding those bright spots with the audience.

  • In the climate space, there's a lot of humour that ends with a thud (energetically) but it doesn't lead to anything inspirational. Sharing our light (even if weird) gives permission to others to embrace and share their weirdness.

  • A perspective (which I like): Jokes are not the only way for humour to emerge. Humans crave laughter, we will find it. Laughter does not need to be provoked. Humour can be part of the design of an interaction, not as an instance or moment, but as part of a process, an arc or narrative flow which enables the joy and wit to emerge. We can think of humour as a process of taking us from darkness to illumination. Once we acknowledge and recognise there is scarcity, covid-19, climate change, ecosystem collapse, we can build humour into the interaction with someone, whether that's a 3 min hello, or a speech, or a play or film.

  • You cannot be a person who is both informed and sensitive and not experience the darkness. But we need to harness the power of collective agency to make the darkness a motivator for the pursuit of light.

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