Drowning polar bears, ongoing drought, and species extinction do not seem like remotely funny topics. Environmental cartoonists, however, are not only finding the humor, but educating the public and advocating for change.
“Humor may be the only way to make some issues understandable, and there’s a lot of potential satire or lightness that seldom gets explored in environmental issues,” said veteran environmental cartoonist Steve Greenberg in response to an email message. Greenberg points out that cartoons are more accessible than other media since they can convey a message quickly and easily, as well as cross language, cultural, and generational barriers.
Greenberg has worked with papers up and down the West Coast, providing editorial cartoons on all the typical subjects around politics, society, and current events. His work has won numerous awards, and he has recently compiled his environmental cartoons into a book titled Fine-Tooning the Planet.
While these cartoons may make readers not so much laugh as shake their heads ruefully, they get their point across in a remarkable economy of words and images. They take on some of the most sober issues of our time such as overpopulation, global warming, and antibiotic-resistant superbugs. The visual nature of their medium allows cartoonists to illustrate these heavy subjects with powerful images.
While Greenberg’s work is easily classified as editorial in nature, environmental cartooning comes in a remarkable variety of forms and spreads all across the globe. A simple internet search yields everything from main stream cartoonists published in major US newspapers to a Finnish cartoonist with a forestry background, to multi-page cartoons exploring current environmental issues such as the food versus biofuel debate. An entire website, Grinning Planet, is dedicated to lightening up the job of fixing environmental degradation.
In Malaysia, cartoonist Cedric Gan has several cartoon lines dedicated to the theme of sustainability. These are book length works that seek to entertain, but also offer a moral and ask readers to join the cause. Gan, 37, refers to himself and his business partner, W.K. Wong, 25, both of whom work other jobs, as both cartoonists and “sustainability change agents.” Gan cites his parents’ love of gardening as one of the early influences that led him to sustainability. His commitment to service motivates him to do pro bono work for Tapir, a student publication of the Malaysian Nature Society. To Gan, cartooning is just another medium for talking about important issues.
“Our challenge is mainly how do we tell a story without being too preachy,” said Gan in an email correspondence.
Gan’s d-impossibles is more ambitious than most super hero tales. Besides plot twists and entertaining color illustrations, the cartoon challenges Fox News, references the major furniture chain, IKEA, and explains current events and scientific phenomena. With growing concern for climate change and other environmental issues, Gan has gotten enough positive response to his work to explore making an animated film.
While scientists continue to issue reports of their studies, and policymakers continue to debate solutions, a rich community of cartoonists offers a lighter look at environmental issues.