Last Sunday two things happened in Ireland.
In the first half of the day, Tommy Tiernan’s testimony about his recent trip to Somalia was published in a Sunday paper. There was something about it, its directness, its clarity, that signalled Tommy was now, never going to take “no” for an answer when it came to things like climate inaction or political abdication in the face of abject poverty. From his writing, there was a sense that Tommy had been changed in some resolute way. It was the kind of work that could win a Pulitzer, but not the kind of work to be flagged on the paper’s front page. Far away famines don’t make us buy papers in all likelihood.
Asking Tommy Tiernan to go to the drought-ridden horn of Africa was a genius stroke. Aid agencies know they need to make us care. In a post-pandemic world, faced with the challenge of climate change on the one hand and war on the other, care is thin on the ground, there’s a feeling that empathy has given way to apathy.
Then out goes Tommy, a man who eyeballs everyone from presidents to sex workers, and asks them questions like: “Are you happy?” followed by stoney silence on national television. We’ve rewarded his work with our own eyeballs, his Saturday night show overtaking The Late Late Show at times in terms of viewers.
So when Tommy goes to eastern Africa and tells you about it, a baby he met in one part of the day, who he finds out later in the same day has died of hunger, you listen.
You press pause on your protective apathy and you let yourself be moved by what he witnessed in a place called Luuq. You know you’re running the risk of being paralysed by that familiar sense of powerlessness, but there’s something about this Somalia piece, the tale of failed crops and arid land, season after season, that doesn’t tip you back into apathy.
That was Sunday morning.
Then on Sunday evening, in the cosy confines of Dún Laoghaire’s Pavilion Theatre, out walks the 82-year-old Margaret Atwood. While most of us know her as the acclaimed author of The Handmaid’s Tale, and Booker Prize winner for its 2019 sequel, The Testaments, the Canadian writer is also a poet.
So here she was on stage in Dún Laoghaire talking poetry to a jam-packed theatre thanks to the local council, Poetry Ireland and Creative Ireland.
It was a comfortable evening in the presence of a literary superstar with a razor-sharp mind and a more than articulate tongue. You got to sit back and take it all in.
But anyone who follows Atwood knows she’s a highly-informed and impassioned climate activist and so sooner or later, you knew you could be knocked out of your south county Dublin comfort.
You hoped the conversation wouldn’t turn to climate, but then this is a woman who did the promo for her Handmaid’s Tale sequel with the Extinction Rebellion badge on her lapel, and who collected her Booker Prize with the same badge on her lapel too.
So of course, the conversation would turn to climate.
And you couldn’t change the channel, scroll your phone or leave the theatre.
Here comes the climate lecture and the resultant anxiety.
Any activist worth their salt, just like whoever’s idea it was to ask Tommy out to Somalia, knows that you must empower people to change.
Shaming and scaremongering might feel like the path to go, but all research shows that they bring you on the road to nowhere. Shame, science shows, leads to inaction.
So what did Margaret Atwood say in that cosy south county Dublin theatre last Sunday night?
She told a story. Because, she knows that stories, and analogies, work too.
Margaret Atwood has this friend who either works on or stars in this real-life MacGyver show. She referred to him as “survivor man”. He would be dropped into a remote place in the world like somewhere in the Andes and have to make his way out of there.
To survive he always needed four things: experience, know-how, some tools like the match or sellotape, and willpower.
She then turned to climate action saying we have the knowledge, we have the skills and we have the resources. The room kind of started to heckle then, and the audience, in an impromptu manner, started saying words like “politicians and willpower”.
This poetry night turned townhall worked out that all we really are missing is willpower in this climate fight. And that’s the kind of thing not outside the realms of possibility.
There was more agreeable heckling from the audience then, that it wasn’t punters who lacked the willpower, but politicians. Then there were more solutions from the townhall and a shared realisation, an agreement that politicians are led by punters, that its people, their voters who embolden them with willpower.
Margaret Atwood then mentions a website. This is a woman who has written with a scalpel her entire life, every utterance is more than considered.
Drawdown.org is the website. Officially it’s called Project Drawdown, a list of about 90 or so climate solutions. The name, the idea — drawdown, meaning the point in the future when greenhouse gas levels stop climbing and start declining, if we take action on these 90 or so solutions, locally, globally, personally, and politically.
There’s everything there from family planning to composting, and from improved fisheries to carpooling and bamboo production.
You won’t be able to do all of them, but you might be able to do two or talk to your local politician or neighbour about another.
You have Tommy Tiernan’s moving testimony on one hand and Margaret Atwoods’ call to action on the other, and all the recent news about devastation on the horn of Africa or the Gulf Stream potentially collapsing no longer feel as paralysing.
There are problems, but there are solutions too.
In 2018, when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) said we had a few short years to get our climate act together before it was literally too late, the sense of urgency was palpable.
Four years later, that urgency has not manifested into palpable action, but into a sense of powerlessness. That is a state we cannot afford, nor a resigned state actually need to be in. There are more than 90 solutions on the table, the only thing lacking is willpower.