It’s disconcerting to re-listen to my interview with Colm O’Regan. Not because of anything he says; the writer and comedian is an avowed person who wants to be loved. But we are outside the Irish Museum of Modern Art and artists are playing discordant music in the courtyard. “Is this the soundtrack of the fight?” O’Regan asks, as the discordant notes swell. It’s the 4am collywobbles that make noise.
It’s a tribute to O’Regan’s skills as a comedian and writer that his new book, Climate Worrier, was the polar opposite of unsettling. It made me laugh, think, and feel a little lighter. It’s a one-man plea against tribalism, a stream of consciousness telling the vivid thoughts of someone who loves animals and eats meat and contains plenty of anecdotal advice on the changes we can make to make part of the solution to the climate crisis.
O’Regan is funny and the climate and biodiversity crises are not. But there is work to be done and he has rolled up his sleeves.
Is the book a plea for unity? “I guess there’s a bit of ‘why can’t we all get along’,” he says, “and ultimately like I’m hit by a tomato and think good ‘f**k this’ and choose a side and storm a barricade. But for now, why not try it as a thing? One of the things we might suggest (to use an expression from the book) is to be a “tactivist” , someone who enjoys “building consensus…Someone who has learned patience the hard way. Who knows that very little is useless,” he wrote.
These thoughts nudge us into a softer space of conversation. When we laugh, we breathe and connect. Social media conversations have become places where “you have to win the conversation. I think people are fine with being wrong if the person who is right didn’t care.
How does he mix the oil and water of the serious and the funny? “I think there’s an episode of The Simpsons where they go to see a comedian about climate change and everyone walks off crying. You don’t want to be that either. Serious comedy can be awful and not for the wrong reasons. It’s just that the nature of comedy is to flip the message, be the bold kid or whatever. Trying to be funny without preaching is very important. That’s what I’m trying to do. If I’m successful? Great. If not, tell me where. But don’t be a pimple about it.
The book begins at O’Regan’s childhood home on a dairy farm in Dripsey in West Cork, where his late father (whom he affectionately calls Dada throughout) was a “tasty” farmer or else tidy who pulverized rushes and bulldozed ditches to widen pokey fields. He was “biased about Gramoxone to remove moss from courtyards” but also a man who loved nature and planted trees to replace the dead elm. “So I knew he was one of the good guys.”
It’s a small country. That’s why we have a chance to do things. There isn’t this giant gaping chasm between the oligarchs in a gated compound and someone 4,000 miles and two time zones away making a living in North Dakota
Quotations recalled from Dada preface certain chapters. How would he feel about things now? “I would say what he would say… whatever business you’re in, whether it’s agriculture or cement, when you’re focused on a particular area and someone comes and says ‘you should doing it this way” is incredibly boring, no matter how fair… I would be really annoyed if someone told me that the manual work I was doing was wrong. And I would not have to a long time before reading the study.
O’Regan’s litter pick-up group in Inchicore was his first step in the kind of community action he hopes will help. Our smallness as a country is also our strength. “Who spends the same time outside doing thankless work for an hourly rate that would not be accepted? Environmentalists and farmers… there is common ground here. It’s not going to fix everything, but it’s a small country. That’s why we have a chance to do things. There isn’t this giant gaping chasm between oligarchs in a gated compound and someone 4,000 miles and two time zones away making a living in North Dakota. There is a strong shared experience and the degrees of separation here are about one and a half.
The lost decades were lost in part because of a deliberate campaign funded by fossil fuel companies. “I heard about climate change in 1988 and fell asleep for 20 years. If you asked me about climate change in 2005, I’m sure part of the answer might be “well, isn’t there some kind of guesswork around that? I thought it was something that actually last year was the coldest year in Greenland. I certainly wasn’t denying anything, but somehow these stories drifted into my thinking and it turns out it didn’t happen by accident. We wasted all that time in a very smart way.
Has Covid had lessons for the climate? “If we winter this one and winter the next and the next after that, we might have a summer. Yeah, so we won’t do a Seamus Heaney quote as a preamble,” he says.
There are two lessons from Covid, he thinks: the first was a demonstration of how quickly decisions could be made, the second was learning “how many types of frontline workers there are. It started with nurses and doctors, then men and women who work in waste disposal, postmen and women, people who work in a store, taxi drivers, bus drivers, people making food.
Networks like the WhatsApp group that “neighborhood” pink tie for someone’s debts the night before, and the kindness of most people are what give him hope. O’Regan has a dustpan and a brush in his backpack. He came across a broken bottle on the Rialto Bridge during the school run earlier and decided to come back that way on the way to maintenance. But someone else got there first. It was gone, the work already done by a good nameless person.
The media also have a role to play in sweeping away the mess. “If you’re an opinion maker and you stir things up and work in the opinion industry – I’m sure I’ve done something like that in the past, so tell me – that doesn’t mean we need to cover the biodiversity agenda without listening to anything else, but if you frame it as ‘transport wars’, ‘food wars’ or ‘culture wars’, you know what you’re talking about. Stop it.Since we all do a little, people who communicate with a lot of people have more of a duty than one person in their car or van.
“I have a column [in The Examiner], I want everyone to love me. See the attached email from the therapist,” he says with a smile, “but I also think if two people with different viewpoints can read this and not have their opinion hardened, then that’s a win. .
He hopes the book is the kind of gift an activist might receive for a parent who sees him as someone who’s just angry. “It’s my first job: number one, ‘save the planet’; two “don’t sound like a button”. Actually no, number one is ‘doesn’t sound like a pimple’…because we don’t have time for people to get over their dislike of me until they read.”
Climate Worrier, A Hypocrite’s Guide to Saving the Planet is published by HarperCollins