Ever heard of a stand-up economist? I hadn't either, until I was invited to see Yoram Bauman's gig here in London last Friday night. Dubbed "the world's first and only stand up economist", he began the night with delightful puns to tickle the hidden economist within anyone (think along the lines of "my father said I was crazy and there is no demand for it, but that's ok because I'm a supply-side performer").
laughing audience image by hebedesign
As if a stand-up economist isn't a surprise enough in itself, there were more surprises throughout the night. Around mid-gig, the tone got rather more serious and Bauman, who is also an environmental economist, began speaking about climate change.
I've been to quite a few (non-economics) comedy gigs in my time, and there is always a level of nervous laughter. In fact, that's one reason why comedians engage with the audience in the beginning of a show, to create the nervous energy with people who are afraid of being put on display, as nerves and laughter go hand in hand. But when Bauman started talking about climate change it was a different type of nervousness that seemed to quietly fill the room.
Although he presented some optimistic graphs, for example showing that while using a 'revenue-neutral carbon tax' approach British Columbia's GDP per capita had a better growth rate than the rest of Canada (good news for those who don't want climate change mitigation to be at the expense of economic growth, but this deserves a whole different discussion), most of the facts presented were decidedly depressing. We have a real problem to face up to.
In the Social Brain Centre's recent report A new agenda on climate change: Facing up to stealth denial and winding down on fossil fuels, one of the findings is that people don't talk much about climate change. In fact, only 60% of a representative sample of Britons has ever had a conversation about the issue, and of those who do talk about it the majority (71%) spend less than 10 minutes on it.
Perhaps sneaking climate change into a comedy routine is one approach to starting a longer discussion. After all, Bauman had a captive audience, and with the promise of more jokes after the climate change part was done, had an incentive to stay and listen. Worryingly, Bauman admitted that after one particular gig, someone from the audience remarked that "the climate change part was the funniest bit". Not suggesting that the rest of the material was unfunny, but illustrating that perhaps the concept of climate change is so uncomfortable that we dismiss it or disavow it, preferring instead to think that the catastrophe is being overblown to comedic proportions.
So while climate change is no laughing matter, balancing the gravity of the issue with a certain levity - just enough to make the concept a little less uncomfortable - may help to prevent disavowal and encourage longer conversations about the topic. The stand-up economist might just be on to something.
Nathalie Spencer is a Senior Researcher in the Social Brain Centre