Class Snapshot: The Environment Can Be Funny

Alicia Brooks Waltman for PEI ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Jenny Price

The Instructor: As an environmentalist, an historian, an Urban Ranger, and a comedic writer, Jenny Price comes to Princeton University with a unique set of expertise and interests. It was this inimitable combination that led to her selection by the Princeton Environmental Institute and the Lewis Center for the Arts as the current Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in Environment and Humanities.

Prior to this appointment, Price has been a research scholar at the Center for the Study of Women at the University of California, Los Angeles since 1998.

A well-known writer, artist, and environmental historian, Price authored the book Flight Maps: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. She has also contributed chapters in numerous other books including “A Natural History of the Plastic Pink Flamingo” in The Nature of Nature: New Essays from America’s Finest Writers on Nature.

Currently, she writes a satirical environmental advice column called “Green Me Up, JJ” on the LA Observed website, and has published pieces in the Los Angeles Times, GOOD, The Huffington Post, and The New York Times. She also co-founded the Los Angeles Urban Rangers, an art-performance educational group.

Price is no stranger to Princeton having earned her undergraduate degree in biology (now known as ecology and evolutionary biology) in 1985, and was especially interested in ornithology. Her senior thesis research involved studying the ecology and social behavior of white-winged trumpeters in the Peruvian Amazon. She later earned a doctoral degree in history from Yale University in 1998.

One of the performances involved engaging people passing by to see if they could toss a plastic bottle into a recycle container. If the participant missed, they were awarded a candy fish imbeded with a slice of plastic bottle. If the participant hit the target, the award was a clean and healthy candy fish with no plastic. Photo: Igor Heifetz, PEI

Description: This semester Price is teaching an interdisciplinary course called The Environment Can Be Funny that is exploring the intersection of the environment and comedy. Price is asking her students to analyze and demonstrate how satire, sarcasm, and comedy of all stripes can be used to explore, and poke fun at, environmental issues. From the degradation of the environment to the self-righteousness of environmentalists, all is fair game.

“Why do people see environmentalists as humorless and pious?” asks Price.

“I’m asking the students to make the environment funny, and to use humor to persuade, communicate about, and critique the environmental movement. How might making the environment funny help us to communicate more effectively and possibly help promote change?  This is the type of question we’re asking,” she said.

Inspiration: A self-described “nature kid” who grew up in St. Louis spending a lot of time outside, Price was also a comedian from an early age.

“I’m the youngest of four kids, so what do you do to get attention? I’ve always used my voice as a little bit of a smart-aleck,” recalled Price. “And I just grew up in a funny household.”

As an adult and a trained biologist, Price uses her comedic voice as a tool to rethink environmental issues and to further the environmental causes she values. Her course is teaching students to develop their own powers of comedy to produce op-eds, cartoons, and skits that address climate change, pollution, environmental justice, and other critical issues.

“I wanted to teach a course that says the environment can be funny,” said Price. “I get so frustrated with the slow pace, seriousness, and moral high ground of the environmental movement that I think can be very counterproductive. Humor is a tool and a window into how to communicate more powerfully.”

Adlan Jackson '15 and Justin Poser '16 performing the Art Attack skit, “Do You Know Your Garbage?” Photo: Igor Heifetz, PEI

Areas of Focus: The syllabus for the course includes everything from reading essays and books such as Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor, to watching a live taping in Manhattan of the Jon Stewart Show, to viewing television  shows such as Portlandia (“Is it Local?”) and The Simpsons (“Two Cars in Every Garage, Three Eyes on Every Fish”).

For one assignment, Price asked her students to create the Great Princeton Art Attack.  In small groups, they presented performance pieces at different outdoor venues around campus designed to drive home a comedic, environmental point.

Two performance pieces included “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Dead Fish,” addressing the perils shredded plastic water bottles pose to marine life, and “Do You Know Your Garbage?”, a game show that involved trash strewn under Blair Arch and disturbing facts such as the number of plastic bags used every five seconds in the United States: an astounding 60,000. 

Students Say: Many of the students in the class are science majors, some of whom are also pursuing a Certificate in Environmental Studies designed for undergraduates interested in the scientific, political, humanistic, and technological dimensions of environmental problems.

Junior Kelsea Best, a chemical and biological engineering major, said the class is teaching her the art of using laughs to drive home a point.

“Comedy and satire can be tools you use to get people’s attention on subjects they might otherwise think are too serious,” she noted.  “It breaks down barriers and gets people to learn about things they might otherwise not be interested in. By presenting information in a humorous way, you may get people more interested in being involved.”

Jenny Price, the 2014 Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Proessor in the Environment and the Humanities festooned in plastic apparel during a debrief with students of their “Great Princeton Art Attack” skits. The skits were assigned as part of a course Price is teaching this semester entitled The Environment Can Be Funny. Photo: Igor Heifetz, PEI

Adlan Jackson, a junior majoring in international affairs, writes for the campus humor magazine The Princeton Tiger. The class segues well with that interest. “I do enjoy the class, it’s a reason to think about humor and how it can be used to further social issues,” he said.

Peter Johnsen, a junior and physics major, said the class has taught him a new way to communicate. “I am interested in the environment, and I’ve learned a lot about humor and how to use it to communicate in ways that will connect with certain audiences that might not otherwise engage. I anticipate this will be very helpful to me in the future.”

“That’s Not Funny Panel!” on April 16, 2014

Yoram Bauman, the world’s first and only “stand-up economist,” will come to campus on April 16.  As part of a series called “What Arts and Humanities Are Good For,” Bauman will join Jenny Price and Nathanael Johnson, a food writer for the website Grist, in a “That’s Not Funny!” panel on environmental comedy at 4:30 in room 10 of Guyot Hall.

Other forthcoming seminars in the Art and Humanities series include:

“What History is Good For” on Oct. 9, 2014
“What Literature is Good For” on Oct. 16, 2014
“What Arts Are Good For” on Nov. 13, 2014