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Q. Dear Umbra,

Generally speaking, sustainability advocates seem to be a serious crowd. Have you got any jokes or one-liners that can bring some levity to our work? Especially ones related to recycling?

Robert D.
Jefferson City, Mo.

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"You HAVE to tell the one about the Clean Air Act at the next upcycling party."

A. Dearest Robert,

Have you heard the one about the aluminum recycling plant? It smelt.

Have you heard the one about the recycling bin with a sign that said, “Empty water bottles here”? Pretty soon the bin was full of water.

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Know why environmentalists are bad at playing poker? They avoid the flush.

Chortle, chortle, chortle. Robert, you have touched upon a serious gap in our cultural lives, and I’m hoping your fellow readers will weigh in with some good jokes to keep our spirits up. To be honest, we at Grist have struggled with this since our founder got the oh-so-brilliant idea to launch an environmental news site infused with humor in 1999. Because it turns out “environmental humor” is not that funny, at least in the form of the classic jokes and one-liners. Please do not tell our auditors.

Others have found this a tricky topic, too. Bill Maher, for instance, once said the environment is “one of the hardest subjects to do in comedy.” British comedian Marcus Brigstocke has called climate change “far and away the most difficult comedy subject I’ve ever dealt with.” Some will be eager to blame this on the perceived earnestness of the movement and its members — but shouldn’t that make it all the funnier?

Back to our quest for one-liners. A few chestnuts from stand-up comedians might elicit a titter, depending how free you are with your titters: George Carlin remarked of national-park camping reservations that “when you have to wait a year to sleep next to a tree, something is wrong.” Robin Williams compared clean coal to “wearing a porous condom — at least the intention was there.” Stephen Wright eschewed cars with his typically profound observation that “everything is within walking distance if you have the time.” And Sam Levenson offered this take on overpopulation: “Somewhere on this globe, every 10 seconds, there is a woman giving birth to a child. She must be found and stopped.”

If late-night TV is your thing, you will find plenty of lukewarm climate gags in the collected works of Jay Leno, David Letterman, Conan O’Brien, and Jimmy Fallon. Here is a compendium of somewhat dated examples. My favorite (and I use the term loosely): “According to a new U.N. report, the global warming outlook is much worse than originally predicted. Which is pretty bad when they originally predicted it would destroy the planet.”

If you lean more toward literature, you might like this Mark Twain musing: “Learn to ride a bicycle. You will not regret it if you live.” Or how about some Ogden Nash? There’s this classic: “I think that I shall never see/A billboard lovely as a tree./Indeed, unless the billboards fall,/I’ll never see a tree at all.” And the produce-averse “Further Reflections on Parsley”: “Parsley/Is gharsely” (yes, that’s the entire poem). And “The Purist,” which unintentionally offers a wee bit of insight into why scientists have a hard time speaking passionately about climate change:

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist …
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

I would also point you to The Onion, which offers some of the most incisive environmental humor around. (A couple of classics: Consumer product diversity now exceeds biodiversity and Suburban recycling program now accepting broken and discarded dreams .)

And needless to say, our very own Grist List is an insanely wonderful source of good guffaws, each and every day.

I encourage you to keep your quest alive, with the warning that your average “environmental joke” search on the interweb will give you scintillating results such as this: “Your so hot you must’ve started all of globle warming.” Sic.

Finally, because I care, Robert, I have come up with an Umbra Original: A recycling joke just for you. Are you ready?

“What’s the worst way for glass to get around town?  By downcycling.”

You may now toss rotten tomatoes in my general direction. Or leave a better joke below in comments.


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