What improv can teach the green community


Improv builds on itself with one simple phrase. What does the green community do?

A friend was talking to me the other day about his improv comedy lessons. According to Ashish, an eye-opening moment in learning to deal with the “unpredictable” on stage is the unwritten rule to always use the phrase “Yes, and…” to begin your turn. Saying “Yes, and” serves two functions. The first is to force you to accept that you have to work with what you’ve been handed. The second is to give yourself the freedom to improvise. There’s even an yesand.com website.

We lack this sensibility in the green community. Instead, we are constantly warring with each other over the “best” solution to a given problem. Consider just a smattering of the debates we’re currently circulating as a community:

  • Biofuels vs. plug in hybrids
  • Carbon tax vs. cap and trade
  • Cellusoic ethanol vs. biodiesel vs. algae vs. methanol vs. butanol
  • Energy conservation vs. renewable energy

The list goes on and on….

An impartial look at these debates sees honest merit in many potential solutions to our green challenges. Furthermore, the mathematics of just one green issue — climate change — clearly illustrates that the scope of the problem calls for the fast implementation of many possibly imperfect solutions, rather than one perfect one. By 2020 we had better be on track to finding 10 billion tons of carbon reductions per year. Clearly these either/or debates are going to quickly turn into and/and challenges!

Of course, journalists love to write about these squabbles. “So and so from this green group says there are better ways to attack the problem. Instead of this, we should be doing that.”

Of course, the stakes are high and debate can be constructive. Not every proposed solution has equal merit. But when it gets out of hand, the infighting is destructive to enlarging the base of support for green issues. It is also a reason that many people are not quite sure whether they are “environmentalists” even though they care about green issues. But if we’re going to grow “green” into something more than the latest magazine theme, we’re in dire need of attracting many more people to help support us. Maybe you’ve been green for a long time, maybe you’re a newcomer. However long you’ve been involved, you should never forget that most people that get into the environmental community are somewhat shocked and dismayed at the level of acrimony.

So really this a call for our readers and leaders in the green community. The next time you’re interacting with someone’s work, treat it is a stage. Take their contribution, say “Yes, and” and extend the momentum with your own work.

And for those new to the green party, keep us honest. Ask us why we are fighting and make us blush and work together.

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  1. Anonymous - June 27, 2007

    Aren’t we trying to work together to find solutions to the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into? I saw a great bumper sticker: If we all live “an eye for an eye, soon the whole world will be blind”. That says it all.

  2. Kiff - June 27, 2007

    I teach improvisation at The Second City in Chicago and using “Yes and…” as an approach to coming up with new ideas for living green is a wonderful idea.
    Just to add to what was said, “Yes” is about AGREEMENT and validating not only the idea but also the spirit behind it. We already have agreement on the problem, but to penetrate different solutions, we must abandon our desire to explain how something won’t work and play with the idea. This is where the “and” comes in. “And” allows you to improvise more, but it’s also there to BUILD on what’s been established and HEIGHTEN the original suggestion.
    A great exercise for this is to describe a giant invisible painting that is on a wall. Each person takes turns describing various elements in the painting, but everything is built off something the other people said.
    For example:
    1. There is a pristine blue lake.
    2. Yes, and there’s an old man in a fishing boat fishing for trout.
    3. Yes, and he must have thought it’s going to rain because he’s wearing a yellow rain coat and hat.
    4. Yes and it looks like he’s got a bite.
    Each line built on what was established first. The thing that often gets in the way of this is a desire to control the scene or agenda by being the guy who is “right”. “Yes and” suggests that all ideas are valid and worth exploring until proven to be a cost prohibitive waste. But in the process of using agreement, you can find many more things than you can simply denying everyone else’s ideas.
    For more info, check out you’re local improv troupe for classes, or pick up IMPRO by Keith Johnstone. Other resources are Improvisation for the Theater by Viola Spolin and Truth in Comedy by Del Close, Charna Halpen, and Kim “Howard” Johnson.

  3. Tod Brilliant - June 27, 2007

    Okay, this may be the very best of many great newsletter articles I’ve read from y’all. Such a perfectly simply way to cut through the nonsense of “opposing” strategies.
    I’m going to use this strategy forever more (and give you guys credit every time I do!).

  4. Anonymous - June 27, 2007

    THANK YOU for posting this because I am definitely one of those people who “are not quite sure whether they are “environmentalists” even though they care about green issues.” Now I don’t feel so alone!

  5. Kathy - June 27, 2007

    “Yes and…” can be a powerful phrase — though what we’ll typically find ourself saying is, “Yes, but…” One is collegial, the other is adversarial.
    It’s amazing what simply working to change “Yes, but…” to “Yes and…” (even if you really MEAN “yes, but..”!) can do to change the tone of a dialog.

  6. Annie Beckett - June 27, 2007

    Adam, this is hands down the most important article you’ve written yet. I’m going to send it to my representatives in Congress! And quote it in my own column on global warming for my local paper. More even than the dire and deeply troubling news about climate from the science front, it’s the rancorous political divide and the raging divisiveness that has permeated our whole culture that keeps me awake at night. I keep thinking “How can we hope to develop the cooperative effort it will take to mitigate global warming enough to avoid catastrophe when we live in a collective energy of ‘in your face’ mutual opposition, in a collective energy of raw ego?” And there you go providing an answer.

  7. Adam Stein - June 27, 2007

    Thanks! But credit goes to Tom on this one :)

  8. Rob - June 27, 2007

    Yes, and I think this will become more and more apparent as these “competing” solutions find their complementary niches; neither biodiesel nor plug-in hybrids are universal, scaleable solutions, nor are they the end of the line of their respective engineering endeavours.

  9. Daniel Barker - July 17, 2007

    I agree with you – do not argue, just do! As long as we stop destruction of the planet we are right. Whether we use hybrids, carpool, vegetarian, we can all do our part.
    What else can we do? First, loss of habitat due to growth and destruction. I am doing my part. I have no children and plan on one child and adoption. I have been writing for years about adopting poor children. Celebrities are being to take my advice, which encourages others to follow their example.
    Second, we are running out of water. In fact, I believe rather shortly we will experience a severe drought which will make all other issues moot.

  10. Michel - October 20, 2008

    I would hope that the algae, biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol work out but I would rather not deal with methanol as the stuff is sooo very toxic. Biogas would be a good one to include here as it is such a help to clean up the environment.