Actress Laila Zaid has started using satire and irony to popularise climate change discussions on social networks. Laila is known for her roles in TV productions such as Malhação [Working Out] and Orgulho e Paixão [Pride and Passion], both ran by the Globo Network; and, more recently, Netflix series Todo Dia a Mesma Noite [Every Day the Same Night]. She claims that humour is good way to sensitize Brazilians — who are all 'far too busy just trying to survive', as she puts it.
'Average Brazilians still fail to grasp the ABCs of climate change. How can I talk about decarbonisation, energy transition, or preservation when people still get confused when referring to Indigenous peoples? Many Brazilians still call them "Indians", or "tribes". I think humour could help us develop a new culture', she adds.
Laila says that she has inherited a close relationship with nature from her family. She started working on socio-environmental topics during a project she ran with public schools in Rio de Janeiro, using theatre techniques and tools. When working in soap operas, plays, and films, she was often considered an annoying 'tree hugger' by her castmates.
Among the general public, however, she only became known as a socio-environmental communicator after she launched her children’s book The Superhero Handbook: The Onset of a Sustainable Revolution in 2021. Since then, she has been sharing more and more content on sustainability on social media.
'During the pandemic, we moved to a community in the middle of nowhere, where we developed a forestry school with a wonderful group of educators. And when I started talking about it on my social networks, I realised that there was a demand for this type of content’, she recalls.
'People wanted to know what they could do in their own lives: fast and easy behavioural changes that were more aligned with the environment. At that stage, I understood that I was becoming sort of a bridge.'
Today, Laila has almost 300,000 followers on Instagram, and close to 190,000 on TikTok. She discusses topics ranging from the excessive list of school supplies requested by her children's school to oil exploration at the Amazon River delta. She also makes fun of the reality of social networks, playing a blogger who promotes sustainability in a rather misconstrued way.
The posts that generate the most impact, she says, are those that manage to link the climate crisis to financial or health issues. 'Humans lack the cognitive capacity to deal with distant threats, so we have to bring problems as close as possible to our reality', she explains.
Climate activists say that we need to engage people not only through reason, but also through emotion. There is a growing interest in doing this with art and entertainment. Would you say that it is actually easier to get people's understanding and involvement that way? Absolutely. If you try to search your brain for school memories, you will probably come up with something that is much more related to affections, sensations, or experiences than to actual school content.
I firmly believe that messages can be conveyed through emotion, and art does this brilliantly. I am not saying that this is the only way to talk about climate: we have to keep getting information from other sources.
We need scientists at the forefront, researching and developing knowledge and information. We need journalists, translating that knowledge into more intelligible content for regular people. And we can also rely on artists and influencers, considering that we live in a country that is one of the biggest consumers of social media in the world.
How did you become a socio-environmental activist and communicator? I think I have always been one. Since I was a child, I have always felt strongly connected to the environment through my education. My father was a hippie surfer. I grew up on the beach, and all of our trips had a link with nature, somehow. My grandparents were also strongly socially-engaged people, and from an early age I got used to seeing their engagement as something natural.
I have always used my voice. While working on a soap opera, for example, I would be that kind person that got on everyone’s nerves among the cast and the production team. An annoying tree hugger!
It took me a while to start using social networks. I only really started when, during the pandemic, I was about to launch my book [The Superhero Handbook].
During the pandemic, we moved to a community in the middle of nowhere, where we developed a forestry school with a wonderful group of educators. And when I started talking about it on my social networks, I realised that there was a demand for this type of content.
People wanted to know what they could do in their own lives: fast and easy behavioural changes that were more aligned with the environment. At that stage, I understood that I was becoming sort of a bridge.
You said on another occasion that you use tools you got from working in the theatre to talk about the environment. What tools are you referring to? Could you give us a concrete example? Perhaps from a job that you did and that got positive results in this field. My first work in this area was in a classroom. I developed a social project that I shared with several schools, and that later was used at a boys' shelter in Rio de Janeiro. It was based on acting classes.
I developed very dynamic classes, with lots of games to provide emotional, environmental, and social education to those children. You could see — in a very beautiful and practical way — that those games evoked their understanding of collectivity and care for the environment. This is something I learned from working in the theatre.
What I have been doing on social networks is basically the same thing. I pick, for example, a very sensitive, or complex topic, such as oil exploration at the Amazon River delta, and I develop content about it using humour and irony. Sometimes, I write some sketches, which I may perform solo, or with a friend at home; or I may call a comedian friend to do it with me.
Your work has been recently acknowledged by singer Ivete Sangalo, who spoke during a performance about the importance of what you do. She even joked that, because of you, she now feels very nervous about forgetting her water bottle when she goes to the gym. Considering all your Instagram posts, which one has had the most impact so far? I remember something that went viral: my complaints about school supplies. You get to know the contents that will do better, because they speak to larger groups of people.
I was buying my children's school supplies, and I realised how excessive it all was. It seemed that no one really thought about what they were doing, or considered that the costs were totally out of line with Brazilian reality. So, I made a video, and it sprang up like mushrooms.
When I made fun of plastic toys, it was really cool too. It was one of my first videos that went viral.
This tends to happen when you manage to create a link with financial or health aspects. It is a great learning opportunity. Humans lack the cognitive capacity to deal with distant threats, so we have to bring problems as close as possible to our reality.
You have worked on many theatre and TV productions. Why have you prioritized humour in your work as an actress, and as a communicator and socio-environmental activist? After my first audition ever, the casting producer called me and said: 'You really stink, but you are very funny. Come back tomorrow'.
So, I started doing humour, and the market has a lot of that. When you do something well, they put you in that 'compartment'. For many years, all I did on television, cinema, and theatre was humour. It became my comfort zone.
When you decide to talk about something like the climate crisis, which is a subject that nobody wants to know about... Nobody wants to know that the house is on fire, nobody wants to hear that it is our responsibility, and nobody wants to have to put out that fire.
How could I deliver such content, something that is so difficult to digest, without facing resistance? Humour was the most efficient way I found to do this.
Your book is a fun and interactive handbook on the sustainable revolution written for children. How have they reacted to the book? Children really believe they will become our planet's superheroes forever, and they actually do! Their first two missions are saving water and energy. So, these children are now monitoring what their families do at home.
I have been getting a lot of feedback from families saying: 'As soon as I turn on the tap, my daughter starts complaining. If I open the fridge, she is there watching me, or telling me to close it'. The book is a call for active child participation. It builds on the idea that it is much more difficult for us, adults, to change our habits than it is to create new habits in children.
You believe that leading a more sustainable life is a direct consequence of our love for nature. How could we cultivate that in Brazilian cities, where the majority of our population live, and where we find such severe socio-economic and environmental indicators? There is a bottleneck. Children need more contact with nature to understand it, to see themselves as part of nature, to love nature, and consequently to take care of it. In an urban environment, access to green areas is more limited, especially for the most underprivileged population.
So, we need to engage in two major efforts. We must encourage public policies that promote this contact, investing in areas that foster socialisation, such as parks and squares. And we must also understand that when a child goes to their community football pitch, for example, that in itself is a very enriching experience, because that child can see the horizon, can run, and play. It's the beginning of something.
If we cannot have such direct contact with nature, we should at least develop a sense of collective belonging, which tends to be much stronger in poorer communities than in wealthier parts of the city.
Laila Zaid, 38
Laila has a degree in Advertising from PUC-RJ, but she found her professional path in the performing arts, including soap operas, plays, and films. She is the author of a children's book called The Superhero Handbook: The Onset of a Sustainable Revolution, published by Editora Melhoramentos in 2021. She also writes a column for the Um Só Planeta [A Single Planet] project, published by the Globo Group. Laila has a specialist degree in Climate Change from the Climate Reality Leadership Corps, and has also studied Health and Climate Crisis at Harvard University.
ABOUT THIS SERIES
Planeta em Transe [Entranced Planet] is a series of reports and interviews with new players and experts on climate change in Brazil and around the world. This special coverage will also focus on the responses to the climate crisis during the 2022 general elections in Brazil and at COP27 (UN Climate Conference that took place in Egypt in November 2022). This project is supported by the Open Society Foundations.