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Harper Speaker to Explore Power of Humor, Future of Comedic Approaches in Environmental Messaging

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Susan Dugan


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Nicole Seymour

Nicole Seymour

Nicole Seymour, English professor in the English, Comparative Literature and Linguistics Department and graduate advisor for environmental studies at California State University, Fullerton, works, writes and teaches at the “intersection of environmental studies and queer studies.” She is the author of “Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination,” the winner of the 2015 Book Award for Ecocriticism from the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment and “Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age.” Her most recent book, “Glitter,” provides an “environmental-cultural history of a substance often dismissed as frivolous.”

Seymour will speak at the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences (CAHSS) Harper Distinguished Speaker series at 5:30 p.m. on April 20 at Lindsay Auditorium, Sturm Hall, Room 281. Her talk will address how environmentalism has effectively employed alternative comedic messaging including irony, irreverence and campiness to address environmental crisis while reflecting on mainstream environmentalism’s doom-and-gloom approach, whiteness and straightness.  She will also focus on recent efforts by a new generation of white supremacists to coopt the progressive Left’s comedic approach to the environment and the future of such alternative mediums in addressing environmental crisis.

As an avid reader growing up in Long Beach, Calif., Nicole Seymour relished reading under the covers with a flashlight and maxing out on the number of books you could borrow from the local library.

She became captivated by environmental issues at age 12 and recalls cutting up plastic soda six-pack holders to help protect the dolphins, never dreaming she would one day make studying her two favorite subjects – literature and the environment — her life’s work.

As an undergraduate at UCLA, Seymour (BA ’01) majored in American literature and culture and minored in women’s studies. “It opened me up to the idea of analyzing all sorts of different things as texts, not just novels but movies, TV and comedy,” she said.

A self-proclaimed “eternal student,” she earned a PhD at Vanderbilt University in 2008, where she became fascinated with ecocriticism and studying the environment through the lens of gender, sexuality and queer theory after reading the novel “Cereus Blooms at Night.”

“It was narrated by a transgender person about the Caribbean environment being exploited and I thought, ‘oh my gosh this is all coming together.’” she said, laughing. “Of course, I thought I had discovered these connections but there was a growing field called ‘queer ecologies’ and I read everything there was to read.”

Examining the Intersection of Environmental and Queer Studies

In her subsequent writing and teaching, Seymour dove more deeply into the ways in which gender and sexuality influence the way we think about and respond to the environment. In an NPR interview last year, she discussed studies showing that men are larger consumers of fossil fuels, demonstrated in the association between gas-guzzling trucks and masculinity, for example.

“There’s a great book — “Biological Exuberance” — that talks about how there are animals that naturally engage in same-sex behaviors,” she said. “Scientists [primarily male and white] were always baffled by it and tried to explain it away but very recently scientists have begun to accept that same-sex behaviors are a naturally occurring phenomenon.”

Similarly, an article Seymour recently shared with her students called Men Think Recycling Is Gay is based on a study that shows that men perceive recycling as a feminized activity and are less interested in it than women are.

“Environmentally sustainable behaviors tend to be feminized,” Seymour said. “Even being vegetarian. There actually are a couple vegan male bodybuilders on Twitter but I think they’re overcompensating for this idea that veganism is for women.”

The Power of Comedy in Environmental Media

Through an Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment (ASLE) immersive, crash-course style workshop on environmental media Seymour began to notice the doom-and-gloom, finger-wagging tone of environmental documentaries.

 “So many of them talked down to the audience,” she said. “I personally had a reaction against that, and I started wondering, are they all so serious and sanctimonious?”

At the same time, she rebelled against the sentimental, emotionally manipulative approach taken. “Environmentalism has been very important to me since I was a kid, but I don’t like having my arm twisted,” she said.

That newfound awareness compelled her to explore an alternative approach being employed by activists and creatives that harnesses comedic modes including irony, irreverence and campiness to reflect critically on our environmental crisis and mainstream environmentalism, including its “whiteness and straightness.”

She discussed these themes in her 2018 book “Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age,” and plans to reference them in the first part of her Harper lecture.

Seymour describes “bad environmentalism” as using humor and playfulness to replace the overly serious, guilt-inducing approach often taken by environmental documentaries. In her book she analyzes examples of the comedic approach of a vegan, Jewish gay comedian, for example, and looks at a variety of other modes including cartoons, sketch comedy, novels and poetry.

Likewise, she points to the MTV program “Wildboyz” that parodied Discovery-Channel style nature programs.

“The stars dress in drag and do ridiculous things like tying meat to their buttocks and getting chased by hyenas to teach about nature,” Seymour said. “I argue in the book that although it’s a parody of the nature genre it actually does impart information. It’s more like a Trojan Horse situation where viewers come to be entertained but then actually learn something about this animal or habitat.”

The second part of Seymour’s Harper Lecture talk will revolve around her recent collaboration with a political scientist and friend focused on how white supremacist groups are appropriating comedic modes associated with the progressive Left. Seymour cites the example of former President Donald Trump playing songs by the Village People at his rallies.

She also plans to address whether bad environmentalism is still the answer to overly self-righteous approaches to environmental media and her enduring faith that comedy remains a promising avenue for educating people and promoting environmental change.

Seymour is currently writing about the 2021 movie “Don’t Look Up,” a sardonic satire of climate denial.

“It got criticized for sort of preaching to the choir but there’s a YouTube video that Netflix did featuring climate scientists who had watched the movie and they were all saying they felt seen and heard. For climate scientists to keep doing the hard work they have to do they need a little comic relief, too. It may not convert a climate denier but if it makes a climate scientist have a better week, that seems like a good thing to me.”  

The annual Harper lecture series welcomes alumni, Denver community members, colleagues and students to hear scholars that matter and join in engaging in and shaping critical conversations that make a difference in the world. Register and find more information here.