Today, we’re talking with Climate Ad Project copywriter Aaron Hagey-MacKay. Thank you for joining us. Could you tell us a bit about yourself, and how you got into climate activism?
My name is Aaron, and I live in Toronto. I’ve lived here almost all of my life. I’m 35. I spent my 20s and my 30s doing comedy here in Toronto, I was in a sketch troupe called ‘Jape’ for over 10 years. We won some awards, you know, but eventually, I was kind of like, ‘I’m in my 30s, and my career — writing comedy — I’d gotten some TV spots, some radio, but frankly, I was kind of getting dissatisfied with where I’d been able to get with that. So I started doing odd jobs here and there, and eventually, I realized… Yeah, I’ll get a little personal, my therapist said, ‘well, what would you be doing if money wasn’t an object, if it wasn’t a problem?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, solving climate change?’
I was already doing some copywriting. So I just transitioned full time into copywriting after that. I just looked for ways to contribute my skills to what needs to be done. ‘How can I make this problem less difficult for the world? How can I help?’ was the question I kept asking myself, so that’s how I got into it. I joined the Climate Ad Project, and I make my own videos, and sometimes I even get paid to do copy work for clients that are in this space. So, it’s been a joy to be able to do that.
On your Twitter, you have a link to one of your videos. It’s not called this, but my sense after watching it was that it was teaching, ‘How to Talk to Your Angry Uncle about Climate Change.’
I don’t actually have one of those. But you know, the angry uncle is a stereotype you can easily glom onto. There are a lot of conservative folks out there that are against climate action for various reasons, mostly because they’ve been bathed in a decades-long disinformation campaign. And part of what I realized in learning more about climate change is that actually, solving the climate crisis is 100% a conservative value. Like, if conservation is not conservative what in God’s name is conservatism, right? What are they actually conserving, if you’re willing to basically throw away the entire biosphere? What is that ideology? So, yeah, there are a lot of conservative arguments for solving climate change. I’m all about trying to get people to think in different ways about the problem. Just getting people talking is my end goal. Because if we don’t talk about it, we’re not going to solve the problem.
One of my takeaways from your video was that you’re still using your comedy background in your activism. Is that part of your approach?
Yeah. I was writing for the Canadian equivalent of The Onion — it’s called the Beaverton — for about seven years. And I was always trying to find satirical ways to get people to think about this issue, and various other ones, from a different perspective. And again, I was asking myself, ‘with the skills that I have, how can I contribute?’ I was pretty good at writing comedy, so I thought, let’s just see what I can do with this. And that’s how I started my YouTube channel. And I’m glad you watched it.
I enjoyed it! It reminded me a bit of a comedian called Jake Johanssen, who was really popular back in the 90s. Have you heard of him?
I haven’t heard of Jake Johansen.
He had this awkward, light-hearted approach, and he was able to talk about fairly serious issues without offending anyone, because of his approach. I can see that working in this context, as well.
I was just thinking about how effective comedy can be. You can use humor with such a serious and frightening topic to lighten the mood. but also to get the point across. I guess that was where I was going. Using comedy as a way to help make a bitter truth go down, with a spoonful of sugar, has a way of getting people to think about things in a different way. So, doing it in a way that’s acceptable.
Otherwise, they would probably want to disengage with it. So humor, I think, is one of those things that can make hard topics easier to think about. And climate change is one of the most depressing topics there is.
There’s a lot that’s really funny to me about it as well, like we’re just stuck in a lot of these habits that we’ve grown up with. And we take a lot of our history for granted, and we don’t even think about it. But it’s just so bizarre. If you step back for a second and think about this world that we’ve created, most of it is just by accident.
Do you still have that dream of being a comedian or an actor?
I gave up on that, I think. Ultimately, I was dissatisfied with it, just because it lacked a lot of meaning. Making people laugh is so fleeting, and I know a lot of comedians who have killed themselves, and a lot of them are kind of… You know, the laughs are addictive, right?
I think when I started working on myself, a lot of that became less satisfying. I wasn’t doing it to try to get people to think about something, like climate change, for instance. So what was the point? Educating people is something that motivates me a lot more than getting laughs because I need to be approved by other people.
Yeah, I worked at a comedy club in the 90s, and we got some big names in. It seemed like all of them were depressed, although there’s probably a connection between depression and climate change activism, too. But comedy seems to help that, don’t you think?
Yeah, talking about comedians in general, I can say from my own experience, and just knowing a lot of comedians, that yeah, a lot of them are very depressed. And I think with well-meaning people, mostly on the left end of the spectrum, there’s this tendency towards doomerism, and you kind of throw your hands up and say, ‘we’re completely fucked.’ And I think that’s an impulse that needs to be fought for two reasons. One, it’s inaccurate. We are almost certainly going to go past the point of 1.5 degrees celsius at this point. But there’s a range of possibilities, right? There’s a huge range between now and even just the end of the century. Whatever happens between now and the rest of your life, as long as we’re alive, we can make the world better.
Acknowledging that we’re past a certain point, we should be in damage control mode at this point, but just giving up is like, ‘oh well. The fire spread to the kitchen of my house. I’m not going to bother calling 911, I’m just going to let it go.’
I think the emotional response to most of this is a way to assert meaning or assert control over what seems totally helpless. Once you get that certainty that doomerism gives you, that in itself can be addictive. It’s like you look for confirmation, your confirmation bias kicks in, and you look for information that tells you that we’re all doomed. and what you’re doing is completely futile.
Ultimately, I think that impulse comes from a need for certainty in your life, and saying that we’re doomed, while dark, is at least comforting. It’s more comforting than just thinking that it’s all chaos.
I was recently speaking to a friend about whether being an activist helps that sort of thing. I would agree that the people who ‘get it’ aren’t very optimistic. But maybe that’s because, as you said, we know that we’re going to blow past 1.5 degrees. I wonder whether keeping busy with activism lessens that pessimism.
There’s a lot to be pessimistic about, and I understand the need for people to take it seriously. But things are bad enough without saying that there’s no hope, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy at that point, if you totally give up. Then who’s left to do the work? It’s just- you’re just giving in to the fossil fuel interests that have been working to delay action for decades, and have done so successfully, if we’d all just said, ‘oh well, let the world burn, I’m not strong enough anymore.’
And to me, that’s sad. I think — just getting back to your question about having some meaning in our lives — I think that’s something that everyone strives for. I think it’s something we lack in our very fractured, neoliberal, capitalist, global society, which has slowly eroded the idea of the public good. Intentionally, to extract wealth from people. We’re not feeling good about ourselves, on purpose. We used to feel more of a sense of community, and that’s just been robbed from a generation.
So I think the way out is to build that back up, be with other people, and find meaning in helping others. At least that’s one way I’ve found, that has been helpful to me.
And it’s probably better in the long run, because if things do get worse, and if society stops being able to provide those things that we need, at least local communities can do that. So building communities is important.
I think people finding each other, and realizing they have a lot more commonalities than they have differences, it’s a powerful way that we can regain meaning, and also build a better future together. Call me a glassy-eyed optimist, but I don’t think we’re totally screwed, not by a long shot.
What do you think non-activists should be doing?
First of all, they should become activists…
I’ve been talking about this a lot lately. Peter Kalmus posted recently on Twitter that everyone should be a climate activist. But for those people who aren’t driven to do that, or who are too introverted, or for whatever reason, are not doing that with their lives right now, what should they be doing?
I think we need to normalize the word activist, because it comes with a lot of baggage, like you think word association, what’s the first thing that pops into your mind, it’s probably going to be people in the street, getting arrested, chaining themselves to pipelines, that sort of thing. All that work is very good, and I want to 100% applaud the efforts of people who’ve been putting their bodies on the line, you know, especially at line three right now, or standing rock. There’s a whole lineage of activism that I celebrate, but that’s not realistic for everyone, right?
I think we do need people to look at what they can bring to the table and ask themselves, ‘do I feel upset about this? I should do something about it.’ So it’s about finding what you can contribute. Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has an excellent Venn diagram approach. It’s about finding an intersection between three questions to find what brings you joy, what you’re good at, and what needs to be done. When I heard her say that, I was like, ‘oh, that’s kind of what I did.’ I just didn’t realize that it was an already-established approach, so that made me smile when I found it.
I think activism is one of these things that we either normalize, or we call it something else. I didn’t identify as an activist until frankly, a few months ago, even though I’ve been working at this for several years.
So I think we either rebrand it, or we just normalize the idea, and explain that activism is more than justmarching in the street. It can be that, but it can also be anything from talking about it with people, or planting a community garden, or just canvassing for a local politician that knows what they’re talking about. There are so many ways you can contribute.
Do you think anything meaningful will come out of COP 26, just given that there’s suddenly so much discussion in the larger public?
The COP generally does pretty good work. I think the Paris Climate Accords were a great achievement, even though, if you look at the science, it’s woefully inadequate, because there were no binding targets. But, you know, we’ll take whatever we can get out of it.
I’m not holding my breath for a comprehensive, global plan that will completely dismantle the fossil fuel industry in 30 years. I just think it would be very surprising — a pleasant surprise, and a welcome one to be sure — but there are questions about whether or not COP 26 is even going to happen because of COVID. So, I don’t know.
We’re trying to figure out, at the Climate Ad Project, what exactly our messaging is going to be on that. But I think it’s one of those things that people ought to be paying more attention to, because a lot of big things can come out of it, if the world leaders that are there have the courage to go with it. It seems like everyone else is saying great words, but the actions…talk is cheap, right?
You said you’re not pessimistic, but you don’t expect anything different to come out of COP 26, and world leaders don’t seem to be doing much. So, if you’re still optimistic, where do you think that change is going to happen?
I think at the local level, there’s a lot that people can do, and I think there’s a groundswell that’s building. As more people start to realize where we are. It’s going to take some time, but I think, as more people experience the realization that the weather they grew up with is disappearing, and sea levels are slowly rising to a measurable degree, and places like Miami are under threat, and the wildfires are getting worse, there’s going to be more acceptance to larger solutions.
And this COP may not have that pressure yet. But I think that pressure is coming. I think the next couple of years are going to be a bit of a whirlwind. I hope that a huge, mass movement will get sparked.
Aaron Hagey-MacKay is a creative copywriter and climate activist based in Toronto. He volunteers his creative energy to the Climate Ad Project. You can follow him on Twitter, YouTube, and TikTok.