July 8th, 2014
A climate scientist, an economist and a politician walk into a bar, and…well, if you follow the news about climate change, you know it’s no laughing matter. But there were plenty of smiles, chuckles and belly laughs when “the world’s only stand-up economist” visited The Commonwealth Club.
Yoram Bauman co-authored The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, described by one reviewer as “An Inconvenient Truth meets Peanuts.” His Ph.D. in economics is fodder for some self-deprecating humor about his chosen profession, such as his series of “you might be an economist if…” jokes (“You might be an economist if…you’ve ever gone to a bank in hopes of getting a date”). Bauman joined host Greg Dalton and Free Range Studios co-founder Jonah Sachs to talk about how to tell an inconvenient truth – and get people to listen.
So, what’s so funny about climate change?
Bauman laces his stand-up routines with tough economic realities and a brief pitch for a carbon tax. During a typical hour-long routine, “I’ll spend five or ten minutes talking about carbon pricing,” he explains. “I think about it as sort of the pill that you put inside the ball of meat that you feed to the dog, right?”
The Commonwealth Club audience was treated to a sample of how Bauman delivers that pill. Anecdotes about his time spent living in Beijing segued into Bauman’s Five Chinas Theory, which divides the world into five chunks roughly the size of China. This leads to an explanation of world economic growth and development, and to what Bauman believes will be one of the century’s big stories: “the environmental impacts of dealing with 7 billion people growing to 9 or 11 billion people, who are all trying live the lifestyles that we live.”
“If you make people laugh for 45 minutes,” says Bauman, “then you can talk about anything that you want for five or ten minutes, and they’ll be open to it. They won’t necessarily agree with you. But one of the benefits of being an economist is, you get the benefits of low expectations, right?”
While he knows many of his audiences may not agree with his views on climate change, Bauman says humor does open doors to a conversation on environmental tax reform – one issue where he does find common ground with conservatives. It’s “the idea that we should have higher taxes on things we want less of, like carbon emissions, and then we can afford to have lower taxes on things who want more of, like jobs and income and savings and investment. And that’s an idea that economists across the political spectrum think is a pretty good idea.”
Sachs agrees that a spoonful of humor and storytelling can help the medicine go down. “There’s so much information out there. We don’t know how to sort through the amount or the credibility of it,” he says. “But as human beings, we’ve always really organized our sense of meaning and purpose around stories. We live by stories, we listen to stories and say, “that connects with my values and who I am, and therefore I will go along with that and I will act on it.”
Sachs' company Free Range helped create the popular web series ‘The Story of Stuff’ to educate people about the environmental impacts of consumerism. While its impact may be difficult to measure, Sachs says the series has been seen by 30 million people and has inspired an online community of 250,000 to take action in their own lives.
“Comedy is totally one way to do that,” says Sachs. “And with storytelling, on the internet for instance, stories can travel and hold those facts, and move them forward.”
Bauman admits that his message doesn’t always land on target. Once, after a presentation to a conservative audience, he remembers, “this fellow came up to me and said that the stuff that I said about climate change was the funniest part of my whole routine.”
Maybe it’s all in the timing?
– Anny Celsi
July 8, 2014
Photos by Rikki Ward
The Commonwealth Club of California