Laughing through Tears: Andrew Boyd on Better Catastrophes

In Yiddish there’s a term, “a bitterer gelekhter,” which basically captures the idea of laughing through the tears. There are some situations that are so absurdly grim that, instead of crying, you just gotta laugh. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author and humorist Andrew Boyd about his new book, “I Want A Better Catastrophe: Navigating the Climate Crisis with Grief, Hope, and Gallows Humor.” We examine what Boyd means by “a better catastrophe,” look at how the pandemic may have paved the way for Biden’s climate bill, and discuss the nature of gallows humor and how it can be used to heal rather than divide.

00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

00:13 Andrew Boyd (AB) – Two people in the back of a lecture hall and the person lecturing is listing all the things clean energy, safe communities that could come out from the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and the guy in the back is going, what if it’s all a hoax that we make a better world for no reason, you know, for nothing.

00:30 Narrator – In Yiddish there’s a term, “a bitterer gelekhter,” which basically captures the idea of laughing through the tears. There are some situations that are so absurdly grim that, instead of crying, you just gotta laugh. This week on Sea Change Radio, we speak with author and humorist Andrew Boyd about his new book, “I Want A Better Catastrophe: Navigating the Climate Crisis with Grief, Hope, and Gallows Humor.” We examine what Boyd means by “a better catastrophe,” look at how the pandemic may have paved the way for Biden’s climate bill, and discuss the nature of gallows humor and how it can be used to heal rather than divide.

01:13 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by author, activist and humorist Andrew Boyd. Andrew, welcome to Sea Change Radio.

01:22 Andrew Boyd (AB) – Alex, thank you for having me. I’m very happy to be here. It’s a pleasure to have you.

01:26 Alex Wise (AW) – I wanted to talk about your new book. I want a better catastrophe. What did you mean by that?

01:32 Andrew Boyd (AB) – It’s a bit of an oxymoronic term at first glance, but it’s based on the notion that we are we’ve blown past a number of the critical ecological thresholds, the red lines that scientists have told us not to pass on global warming, biodiversity, habitat loss, et cetera, and it’s going to be hard to scrape. Our way back and impossible in some cases, so we’ve already missed some critical time. So rather than pretending that we can prevent catastrophe, part of the argument of the book and the reckoning that I had to go through personally in the journey of the book is that coming to terms with that climate catastrophe is not a problem we can fix, prevent, but rather a predicament we must face. Navigate live through and so our goal then shifts to that we want to get the best catastrophe that is still available to us, given the constraints that we’re under and the targets that we, you know, we missed in the past decades. So we have to sort of find a way to want and have a strategy for an emotional create emotional space and embrace the notion that we must fight hard for a better catastrophe.

02:45 Alex Wise (AW) – Yes it seems like we all have to find a nice balance between hopelessness and hopefulness. And we try to be as clear eyed as possible, but there’s that cynical part of our brain which is telling us, why bother if we’re all going to hell in a handbasket? You actually have a chapter in the book entitled “Why The ‘F’ Do We Bother Recycling?” I remember having a conversation with my brother about that once. Why don’t you expand on this as kind of a jumping off point for this predicament that you say you face?

03:20 Andrew Boyd (AB) – No, a lot of the book takes up this question of why bother? Because a lot of people check out, right, either through despair or just assuming that we’re doomed or just I can’t get into the details and hold the complexity or hold the uncertainty. So I’m just going to assume other people are going to fix this problem because there’s no way we could do all the beautiful and amazing. And have built as a species and we blow it at the end, you know and blow it, like in the midst of our technological blossoming. So the book tries to navigate our way, you know, in between that denial, doom on one side and the kind of passive hope, if you will, on the other side and offer many reasons to why bother. You know whether that’s drawn from ancient philosophies or Eastern Buddhist traditions. I interview a number of, you know, eco philosophers who were very influenced by the Buddha dharma and looks at the kinds of solutions that we are generally offered and questions which ones are the ones that are most valuable to us and there’s some that are that we can do as individuals, others as communities, others as nations, others, as you know, an entire global civilization. And if you will, the powers that be the fossil fuel industry that would prefer to not have to would like to be able to pull out of the ground all of the oil that they own, even if it signs the death warrant of the planet. Would like us to not challenge the system or not do everything we can to keep it in the ground, which we must do and tries to track us into blaming ourselves and into very narrow individual solutions and classically represented by recycling. So I try to hold the fact that we should still recycle, right? It’s still. A useful thing to do, we should do all that we can all that’s available to us, even at the individual level, but not assume that that is sufficient to the task, right? But just as a way to maybe stay in alignment with our own values and in all the little ways that we can while we join large. Radical, ambitious movements to transform our society off of fossil fuels and be powered by renewables, while correcting remedying, you know, historic injustices along the way.

05:31 AW – Now recycling is something that everybody’s been faced with, but what about some of the more hidden areas that you plumb in this book. Some things that people may not have thought of, areas that they definitely should be bothering in, not just for their own conscience, but because if we did it in mass, it would really have some traction.

05:56 AB – Yeah. So I’m a very much of A let 10,000 solutions bloom kind of an approach and I have read somewhat extensively and talked to a number of people who are proffering a a whole array of solutions. I mean, just look at if you’re not familiar, if you’re, if, if, if the listeners out there are not familiar with the the Drawdown Project, for example, so there’s a whole array of incredible solutions there, some which might be surprising, like when it first came out. The number one solution there was better refrigerant management. You know, who knew that was a huge greenhouse gas producing thing and let’s say that was number one. Number 5 was better education for women and girls, and there’s many studies that show that when women are empowered with access to resources in their villages in the global South, as well as wider representation in parliaments, etc, than much more potent climate solutions are offered and pursued by those nations and by those.

06:53 AW – These are examples of more like macro issues that policymakers legislators need to be working on scientists. But I guess my initial question was, what can we all do that we are not necessarily thinking of to be a little more conscious about our decisions and a little less cynical and and to have some fun with a catastrophe and that’s kind of part of the message of your book.

07:19 AB – Right. I mean, I think there’s a reorientation away from sort of material grasping and getting our meaning and our value and satisfaction, our sense of status. And self-worth from consumer goods from consumer expenditures from all the things that the you know, the advertisers and the commodity economy broadly are telling us will bring us happiness and sort of dialing ourselves out of that and rediscovering community, rediscovering simplicity, rediscovering. Laughter and, you know, learning an instrument, learning a new art form, exercise all that stuff. So there’s a, you know, taking care of one another. There’s a way in which people. Trying to, you know, conceive of the transition that our economy needs to go through is not one of self-punishment and abnegation, but one of stepping into our full humanity, stepping into our lost, lost, you know, values and joys and a more of a kindness and service. So that’s, you know, and I I you know you speak about the humor in the book that’s up to, you know, every individual. I think we all like to laugh. So that’s, you know, up to folks to pursue that in the way they see fit. I feel like this the message. The climate news is can be so dark and psychically punishing that I think humor is an extraordinary like, it’s an existential, you know, a psychic survival strategy. You know it can leaven the darkness. It can reconnect us with our humanity. It can help us to face. Hold the truth while being defiant, if you will. Being human and defiant in the face of it.

09:22 (Music Break)

10:07 Alex Wise (AW) – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author and humorist Andrew Boyd. His new book is I want a better catastrophe so Andrew, we were talking about making ourselves better and trying to improve a lot of people thought that being locked down. During COVID would be a great opportunity to learn a new language or pick up a new instrument and a lot of people ended up myself included, spending a lot of time watching TV. What did it reveal to you? The pandemic in in in how does it reflect itself in in this book?

10:46 Andrew Boyd (AB) – It’s a great question, great question. Yeah, I think it was, you know, an extreme tragedy for many, you know, we lost a million Americans, you know, many, many old and more vulnerable. And it was profound mental health challenge and still and continues to be.

11:09 AW – And seem to really reflect our division politically with the masks and the no masks and the vaccine and the anti-vaccine.

11:16 AB – It was weaponized in a politically partisan way, so there was a lot. There was definitely a tragic and an ugly edge to it, but it was also, I noticed a lot of things. I noticed what you might call local solidarity. You know, people taking care of each other, this honoring of folks who were, you know, understanding what it meant to be on the front lines, the people who continue to do the necessary work so that the rest of us, you know, we all did a little bit of it, but some folks on the healthcare front and the critical retail and production sectors did heroic work and it was recognized. So there was like kind of a national spirit that felt like, you know, World War Two era, you know, everyone putting their shoulders to the kind of the thing people just checked in on neighbors and we’re, you know, we’re kind and generous to one another, felt like we were all in this together in a way. And obviously we weren’t, you know, in the same, you know, paradox that we talked about earlier. But yeah, I felt that. And then and then the government response, I think there was a political shift. That was very important, you know. The constant, you know, austerity politics that preceded it. No, we can’t do the right thing for the, you know, for the average Joe and Jane because, you know, there just isn’t enough money. But yeah, we can give all these corporate tax giveaways and blah blah blah and it just was like there was. A political demand for relief and for mobilization to get those vaccines. So there was a realization that government, when the demand was strong enough from enough people, the government could step in and do big things. And we need the government, we need to do big things right now at every level, individual community, social movement. But we also need the government to do very big things right now. And it you could argue that the pandemic that shift in politics set up, even though it’s insufficient to the task still the 350-odd billion dollars in the Biden’s climate package probably wouldn’t have happened if the pandemic hadn’t shifted politics to demonstrate that government could do big things when needed.

13:10 AW – And you talk about imagining your utopias. Why don’t you expand on that? It’s a hopeful message and a practice that we don’t do nearly enough.

13:20 AB – Yeah, I really like how you refer to it as a practice because we generally think of utopia as a fantasy, as as almost as a noun, not a verb. You know, as a fictional…

13:31 AW – But if we could start looking at things in a best case scenario more often, it’s like trying to put a smile on your face when you’re talking about something, you end up feeling better physiologically.

13:42 AB – And I think there’s a notion that we can’t create what we can’t see what we can’t imagine. So we have to exercise that imagination muscle. And that’s very close to that the hope muscle and or else we’ll just keep doing the thing that’s not serving us well. That’s actually, you know, wrecking the planet and you know, so it’s a it is a practice. There’s a famous quote from a Latin American poet that what is utopia for? It is, you know, to set our sights 10 steps ahead of us. So we know what direction to go in. It’s not something we ever achieve in full, right? That’s a misnomer. That’s an overly idealized notion and can get actually you try to create a utopia in reality and you can get into real trouble. There’s many failed utopias that have gone poisonous on us, you know, throughout history. But it is sort of to set our sights on the best possible world we can imagine, and then take, you know, practical steps, whether that’s treating people differently or passing better policies or, you know, yeah, creating institutions. That will serve that better world that we can, you know, sketch out but never quite achieve. And that’s OK, you know, a more perfect union is one way. That that, that phrase captures this notion within the US sort of political system. You know, we’re trying to achieve a more perfect union. We will never have a perfect union, but our job is to make it, each generation, to make it less imperfect, you know? And so I think that applies here, and it’s absolutely essential. You could even argue we are in an ecological crisis that we’ve got ourselves into, there will be dystopian elements that will be unfolding over the next decades. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have some utopian elements alongside it. And we have to reach for the best in order. To have a chance at staving off the worst if that.

15:49 AW – To build on that topic, you quote in the book, Adrienne Murray Brown, who talks of this utopianism, or she refers to it as visionary fiction, as, quote a medicine of possibility. I really like that, and it kind of speaks to the healing nature of optimism.

16:10 AB – And she actually herself is a healer, a doula midwife and a healer, body worker, and she styles herself in this very, very interesting way. And she’s a fascinating person to have interviewed and who and whose thoughts to share in in the book. But she’s also what she calls an organizational. So she will step in when grassroots and community based organizations are having difficulties or trying to find their way or have hit a stale moment and bring that medicine of possibility to reanimate the members’ visions and it’s part of a strategy process as part of a imagination process. And she encourages science fiction. Science fictional writing as part of that practice, if you will, as a kind of she thinks of social movement organizing as a kind of science fiction, you know, real world science fictional behavior. It’s really fascinating. And then a fantastic way to think about things.

17:25 (Music Break)

18:40 AW – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to author and humorist Andrew Boyd. His new book is I want a better catastrophe. So you also quote Jamey Hecht, the psychologist who talks about these, the kind of dividing our brains into different hemispheres. And then we can look at the same facts when it comes to climate change. Through completely different lenses and mode. When you look at the ugliness of our political divisions in this country, I think climate change is a poster child for us to do that kind of healing work where we look at the same thing and we can somehow use it to get to the same place. We all want to drink clean water and breathe clean air. These truths are pretty self-evident.

19:29 AB – You know, there’s so much in what you’re saying, so you’re just to circle through that. Jamey Hecht was, I interviewed these eight leading climate thinkers for the book climate – psychologists, organizational healers, grassroots strategists, climate activists, eco philosophers, etc. And Jamey Hecht was the psychologist. So he’s working with people when they get the sense that our civilization is headed for collapse. It’s a mental health challenge and he has developed lots of, he’s done a lot of writing and developed some approaches to work with that, so there’s, you know, climate anxiety is a is being more and more recognized as a mental health challenge out there. So yeah, so he talks about the left and the right brain and the left brain, you know, can at the in the same moment can appreciate the facts and the hard, hard eyed, clear eyed nature of the situation and then the right brain is more Gestalt operating and it can take us more spiritual. Broken-hearted, full-hearted embrace of the situation and together we are maybe able to grapple with it in in more of our full humanity. But we’re also talking about the partisan divide here and there is. It gets weaponized by the political elites, and so much of America is hate and is so tired of being pitted against their neighbors around this and you’re totally right that there is until you know what is there is, you know, secret isn’t the right word. But there is common ground to be found and just to give an example from the tour, I’ve been on tour. I did my 7th event a couple days ago and I’m about to head to the Midwest and then to the West and be in your neck of the woods in about a month. But I met somebody in Maine who turned a brownfield, you know, a poisoned brownfield in a small town in Maine into a solar field that powers now powers the entire town. And he sold it to the and he’s a he’s an engineer and he went to Dartmouth and really came to care deeply about climate, but he managed to sell it to the City Council, to the Board of Supervisors of that town, without mentioning the phrase climate change. Once it was just like do you want do you want to remediate this poisoned area of our town? Do you want to put energy in there? That is cheaper and cleaner than what we have now?

22:12 AW – No, it’s true. Yes, the language has been weaponized so much that if we can just look beyond the weaponized words and get to the same place that we all really want to get to, which is health, happiness and kindness, then we we’d all be better off. But I also am reminded of this quote by Carl Sagan, one of my favorites, who unfortunately, isn’t around anymore, but he said once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back. And I can’t help but think that that’s where we become so intractable. It’s like I’ve already kind of bought this car, so now I’m going to drive it into the ground.

22:54 AB – Yeah, you might be referring to the charlatan-in-chief of some number of years ago, but just to take this town in Maine is, you know, Maine is a blue is a purple state. You know this town was at least half Trump voting, and yet he made the case without triggering our our our cultural divide, you know, and the partisan, the partisan minefield. And was able to do something that will benefit all even if people are doing it for different reasons, right? He’s doing it because he wants to believe in the science of climate change and he wants to not just, you know, provide cheap, cheap, abundant energy to the town. But he wants to protect the ecosystem for generations forward and other people or whatever, looking at it in a different way. But they’re doing the same. Same outcome for different reasons. I mean, it reminds me of the very, very funny cartoon that I think many are familiar with and that actually is was given permission to include in the book. Two people in the back of a lecture hall and the person lecturing is listing all the things clean energy, safe communities that could come out from the transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and the guy in the back is going, what if it’s all a hoax that we make a better world for no reason? For nothing. You know, so it’s like, you know, it’s just hilarious.

24:06 AW – You talk about gallows humor in the book, and I I don’t know if you’re familiar with the comedian Anthony Jeselnik, who’s he’s very dark and he’s kind of a shock stand up comic. He’ll talk about, you know, dropping babies. And he’ll just, he’ll say the worst things possible. He makes a very good point. I’m probably gonna butcher it, but he talks about whenever there’s a tragedy, people are like “too soon.” But he’s like, “that’s when I shine the most. Never too soon!” There is some value in being able to laugh even right at the time when we, we also have to cry.

24:42 AB – Yeah, yeah, agreed.

24:44 AW – So what’s your approach to gallows humor? On the whole, what’s your philosophy when is too soon?

24:50 AB – Yeah. Well, what’s interesting about there’s, like, too soon after 911, but then there’s too soon is something is really different with climate because it’s a slow motion, you know, unfolding that we’ve already, you know, because there’s a long lag time between our emissions and the impacts. The disruptions to the our ecosphere and the Global Weirding and the climate chaos that kind of rained down on California now in these atmospheric rivers and and all the other extreme weather events, it’s like they’re the too soon is odd because the worst of it hasn’t happened yet, but yet the deeds are being done now and have been done in the past decade, so it sort of scrambles the too soon reckoning. So it’s like we needed to be making these jokes. The jokes would help. We needed to be making them decades ago because that’s when we needed to really shift gears. And you know what is the when is the the best time to plant a tree? 30 years ago. When’s the next best time? Now. So we have a lot of catching up to do in terms of action and in terms of catching up with our own feet. So partly the humor is is deployed as a way of processing our, quote, UN quote, climate grief, right? Because we there’s a lot to grieve as these impacts impact, but we also know that more and more griefs are baked into the future. And so people are needing to grieve what they know is coming. So he humor can play a role there. But the humor should not be dismissive. It should not lessen the truth. It should be a way to clarify the truth, but in a way that is gives us cosmic fortitude. You know, in the way that laughter does and the way that it allows us to laugh and cry, if you will or laugh and have that a cursed, grieved, broken hearted laugh, not the dismissive pretending you don’t care. Kind of laugh. How do you laugh and care? How does the laugh open you up to care more, but also open you up to be able to care more? That’s the right here.

27:03 AW – We see these disasters unfolding on our TV and we want to cry, but we also are not supposed to politicize it. We’re not supposed to connect the dots directly with climate change, or that’s a whole different discussion similar to every time there’s a mass shooting. It’s too soon. We shouldn’t be talking about guns.

27:25 AB – Bill McKibben suggested that we name these hurricanes after, you know, there should be the Sonoco hurricane and the Exxon hurricane and the Phillips 66 hurricane. They should be named after who is perpetrating the original crime. You know who’s holding the smoking gun, even if they’re separated by several, A cause effect chain like you got to tie these things back to the cause so that we can eventually shift our consciousness enough to fix the problem and go to the source of the problem.

27:52 AW – Well, the book is definitely worth everyone’s time. It’s called I want a better catastrophe. Andrew Boyd. Andrew, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

28:01 AB – Alex, pleasure. Thank you so much.

28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis, and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Irving Szathmary, Van Morrison and the Grateful Dead. To read a transcript of this show, go to stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.