In this episode of the DesmogCAST, host Farron Cousins speaks with me, Kyla Mandel and Justin Mikulka to talk about the breakout documentary...
Tar Sands Have to Be Made Funny Before They Can Be Made to Go Away
Seasoned comedians Andy Cobb and Mike Damanskis have decided the Alberta government’s invitation to ‘come and see’ the tar sands is just too tempting. After all, the province’s tagline, they say, is “remember to breathe.” Sounds just like the holiday two hardworking jokesters from L.A. are in need of.
But before Andy and Mike pack up for their trip, destined to un-spin the PR surrounding one of the biggest and dirtiest industrial projects on the face of the planet, DeSmog caught up with them to ask a few questions.
1. What got you two interested in the issue of industry spin regarding the tar sands?
Andy: It's just so egregious on so many levels. It's the galling face of the most important issue of our times, climate change. So, y'know, there's the whole “poisoning local populations, destroying the planet” angle, which is (I spose) bad enough. But as a comic and a videomaker the sheer craptastic-ocity (technical term) of their campaigns adds a special flavor to the whole thing. I mean, to have as part of their greenwashing campaign an invitation to visit an environmental disaster area as tourists? It's just so in-your-face stupid and shameless that it's more than an ecological nightmare. It's a satirical wet dream. We had to take them up on it.
Add to that the Alberta tourism board's catchphrase “remember to breathe,” and I just can't stand it. I mean, can you imagine the brainstorming session of supergeniuses that came up with that? “We're making an entire region smell like someone broke wind in a refinery, while destroying the climate for like, everybody everywhere. What's our theme?” “I know, respiration!” It's hard to imagine actual functioning human beings capable of spelling “Alberta,” “Remember, “breathe,” and “to” actually thought that was a great idea worth writing down, but it happened.
Somebody has to make fun of these people. And it's the kind of Big Lie and absurdity that really has to be countered with humor. There's no rational response to it, there's no way to argue with that level of cruel untruth. It has to be made funny, I think, before it can be made to go away.
Mike: When I first saw former tobacco lobbyist Ezra Levant refer to the tar sands as, “Ethical Oil”, I nearly lost my mind. He says they’re the “fair trade coffee of the world's oil industry”, conjuring feel-good images of happy little subsistence elves that are just making an honest living. He might as well have said that they’re “the artisanal craftsmen of renewable, sustainable planetary destruction.”
2. Do you think misinformation about large industrial projects like the tar sands is hurting public discourse about these projects?
Andy: Yeah, it doesn't help. But it's not just facts that will counter the millions of dollars being spent to greenwash this project. The facts have been against this project from the get-go, but it's finding the narratives that make people listen that has been missing from this debate. That's what we want to do, find funny, compelling counternarratives to this tidal wave of propaganda that will make this tough, enormous problem more digestible and accessible.
Mike: It takes years - sometimes decades - for society to make changes. This climate change fight is different than other battles throughout history. Our planet really doesn't have decades - we have just a few years before we pass the tipping point.
3. What role does humor or satire have to play in informing the public about serious issues like climate change, environmental pollution, or threats to human and animal health?
Andy: I remember the buildup to the Iraq war, working at Second City in Chicago. It just seemed so huge, so blindly accepted by the media, so unstoppable. It wasn't till the Daily Show and others started to make fun of it that it actually seemed worth protesting - like we needed humor to break down this enormous, impossible problem and make it seem human-scale, like something that could be addressed by people. That was inspirational for me as a comic then, and it's a launching-off point for this project - the idea that humor is a necessary tool for people to understand and internalize problems of international scale.
There was nothing funny about the Iraq war, and there's nothing funny about the tar sands. But there's absurdity to be had by the eyeful, which is the base material for satire. That's the foundation for this project: finding the stories and comedy in human beings bravely responding to inhumanity. There's a rich deposit of it there to be mined. As it, y'know, were.
Mike: I was lucky enough to start my career as an intern at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart back in 2005, shortly after Bush won re-election. I was fascinated by the way Jon was able to use comedy to speak truth to power and influence public opinion.
Climate change is a hugely depressing issue, and many people feel powerless to do anything to stop it. People don't like to feel guilty for driving to work, or for going about their daily life - people don't like to feel like hypocrites.
We aren’t trying to preach to people - it's harder to make changes in society that way. Individual choices are important, yet our energy policy is not determined by everyday citizens - it's determined by a very small number of wealthy and powerful individuals who spend millions of dollars to spread lies so they can get rich. We’re using comedy to fight back.
Humor can help relieve stress and forge friendships - the planet needs as many friends as it can get. By using satire to counter oil industry messaging, we can reach a new audience and talk about these issues in a way that gives people hope that we can make a change.
4. Are you looking forward to visiting the tar sands?
Andy: Totally. Comedy's fun to make. If it's not, it's probably not very good. That's the weird directive that's the fate of a comic: better enjoy it, or you're not going to do it very well. It's like sex, from what I've read. I personally have no idea. That, unfortunately, is the other fate of comics.
Mike: Yes! We're excited to trade an intellectual wasteland (Los Angeles) for an industrial one. For years, people have told me to “go to Hell.” Now they can get a tax deduction to send us there - and help save the planet in the process.
To help Mike and Andy get to the tar sands - or Fort McMoney, as they've rechristened the region - go to their crowdfunding page at indiegogo. There you'll find more information on the project, their budget breakdown, and why they are so committed to a hilarious tar sands takedown.
You can also watch some of their previous environmental hilarity here: