There’s this incredible leap in the American mind between personal responsibility, personal ability, and moral behavior. I notice it a lot because I talk a ton about climate justice. Here’s how a typical conversation goes:
Me: Le sigh. How I wish that our way of life were more conducive to a livable planet.
Rando: Well you can buy a hybrid or electric car, go vegan, stop flying, and have fewer kids!
Rando: Then you can go zero-waste! Buy only in bulk. Get solar panels. Have only electric appliances. Donate to climate-friendly politicians…
Eventually, I wander away because this conversation is unhelpful. First of all, I’m already doing a bunch of these things, and second of all, there’s no way I’d be able to afford some of them if I weren’t the lucky middle-class person I am. Five years ago, for example, I couldn’t afford a Prius. This year, I couldn’t afford an electric car, and anyway, where would I charge it?
Second, I think it’s very interesting how we look at individual responsibility in this scenario. Notice how all of the fixes for climate change that Rando suggests are individual ones for which I personally pay. This kind of follows on to the point that individual climate responsibility is expensive. When the solution to climate change is individual in nature, then it becomes incumbent upon every individual to be able to afford a hybrid, solar panels, a house for the panels to sit upon, all electric appliances for the house, and on and on. If you’re making minimum, you’re barely affording a crummy studio apartment even in the reasonable parts of the nation. If caring about future generations is moral, and you need money to take climate action and secure a future for those generations, then by extension, you need to be rich to be moral.
This is how climate action falls to the fallacious idea of the Gospel of Prosperity. If you can give money to personal climate action, then we’ll all go to species survival heaven. Poverty becomes more than just a personal misfortune, but a general burdon, or even an evil.
This is how people who are “doing their part” come to resent the poor. When it comes to traditional Prosperity Gospel Televangelism, the stakes aren’t nearly as high. Someone who fails to give money to the preacher won’t thrive on Earth or go to Heaven when they die, but that won’t affect everybody else. Climate action, on the other hand, affects everybody. It’s our collective habit of relying on gasoline-powered cars that’s tanking the planet. If only everybody would just man up and buy a Tesla, right?
The conundrum of poverty resentment seems inevitable in this model of climate action, so the system’s broken. We know that because it’s not just (or possible) to make everybody buy a $63,000 car that they can’t charge at their apartments anyway. So we need to go higher up the chain. Where does this logic go wrong?
Personal climate action is flawed from the point where we start thinking of climate action as a personal burden.
That’s when we come back to the American identity conundrum. Our national philosophy is to cowboy. In our minds, we’re all Teddy Roosevelt, rugged individualists (gloss over the failed ranching, bankruptcy, national parks protection, etc. for now) and we’d rather have fewer taxes and no government helping us because whatever it is, we can do it better ourselves, god damn it. (Many of us, anyway. Even if you’re a true blue Liberal, I’ll bet you have a few dregs of this. How do you feel about government surveillance, for example? Should police have assault rifles? There you go: you’re not 100% sanguine about the government either.)
Yet we’ve never had less agency over our lives. When’s the last time you harvested your own corn? Where do your clothes come from? With a few exceptions, we’re tended by a system. We live comfortable lives in the palm of a fossil-fuel god, and the only price is our ignorance. The idea that someone could buy their way out of our current situation is unfair at best, and at worst, it’s a way to shut down discussions about actual climate solutions.
Individual behavior change can only be powerful when taken in concert with a giant group of coordinated people, at which it’s no longer individual. If everybody agreed to only buy hybrids from now on, that would definitely prompt a change. But for reasons we’ve already discussed, the power of that kind of collective action is limited. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth taking. By all means, keep composting your kitchen scraps. But we’re not going to save the world unless everybody can compost. In fact, we’re not going to save it unless everybody has to compost.
That’s why we need to stop telling people to self-soothe with individual action and start working on our governments and corporations. These are the constituents of the fossil-fuel god that inescapably rules our lives. Our species is only going to have a chance of surviving climate change if that god changes first. Our lives are built on the back of highway programs and municipal waste treatment and Coca Cola. That’s good because once those change, everything changes. It’s bad because unless they change, there’s only so much that we can do.
Of course, corporations claim that they respond to consumer demands and our government, a body of wealthy, mostly white mostly men, essentially ignores the will of ordinary people unless it’s an election year. (And even then, they seem to go out of their way to gerrymand, bribe, and otherwise tweak the system in such a way that they can get any results that they want.) It’s frustrating to watch the wagon of our government careen downhill most of the time, only to have a moment now and then to give it a shove in an equally inscrutable, possibly no better direction. People get exhausted. As long as our system is set up like this, then getting Americans to be active in their government might be a big ask.
So what’s our solution?
Local involvement is a good option. People who want to see climate action happen can still get into their local governments and make this their main issue. Everybody else needs to vote for these guys because hyper-local elections for cities, towns, villages, etc. are probably the most direct form of government we still have available to us. People need to go to town council meetings, get involved in committees, and otherwise meddle in local affairs. The effect will percolate up to the rest of the government as climate-focused local pols move up the ladder and – this is critical – remain climate-focused.
This is easy to say. I myself don’t have time to accomplish much in the way of local meddling beyond casting my vote and attending CCL meetings when I can make it. I take as much personal action as I can, write letters to editors nationwide, and march when I can. But I acknowledge that this is more action than many people can take, while also being less than many people would accept as a minimum, and that’s OK. The same fossil-fueled system that drags us all onward by the hair makes sure that most of us are too busy to take labor-intensive action. But those of us who can, must. The rest of us need to be compassionate environmentalists. If we lose respect for each other, then we’ll never have the capacity for cooperation that we’ll need in order to win this. The Gospel of Prosperity conveniently excises the original bits about not judging others and removing logs from your own eye. If the eco-friendly movement makes the same mistake, we’ll guarantee our failure.
I spent the first part of last week at the Massachusetts Library Association’s 2019 conference. (Theme: Big Top? Circus sideshow? The Best Job On Earth! Could have used more jugglers, but nobody asked me, so.) I know a lot of people who skipped this one, citing an anemic program lineup. Granted, there were no jugglers, but otherwise, I actually found this to be far from the truth.
This is the first con where I actually attended the MLA catch-up session, where you get to meet your association governance. That meant that I finally had a chance to start divvying names between MLA, MLS, and MBLC. Not to mention NELA. I’ll be honest: I have always had trouble figuring out which of these guys does the big budget. (MBLC, I think.) I know MBLC provides a lot of statewide databases, like Gale, that most libraries couldn’t dream of having otherwise. MLS provides a lot of ebooks. However, the fact remains that if you’re going to be a good librarian in Massachusetts, you’ve got to know…
And if you want to get into library politics (GOD BLESS YOU) you’ll need to associate with and/or work for…
I briefly worked with the Air Force as a contractor librarian and during that moment I got fairly comfortable with alphabet soup. However, libraryland puts the military to shame. It doesn’t help that everybody hops around jobs, shares tasks, and generally herd-of-cats it up with the best of them.
So it was good to have a chance to kind of sort that out a bit. I can’t say I’m now an expert per se in MBLC vs. MLS. What I mainly took away from that session was that there used to be way more of these groups. MA used to have something north of a dozen library organizations in the state. Apparently, 2008 leveled them like wheat before the scythe, and every org that survived had to consolidate and downsize dramatically to survive. They’re only now recovering.
I was just going into library school in 2008. In fact, I graduated from SUNY Binghamton in December of 2007 and merrily took out a shipload of high-interest PLUS loans in preparation for the lucrative library career upon which I was about to embark. Of course, as soon as I’d signed the final paper, the economy crashed. No joke, everything went to hell literally the week after I’d finalized the loans. At the time this seemed very lame to me, but of course it was nothing compared to what happened to people who lost their retirements, houses, jobs, and livelihoods. Learning about how the Great Recession impacted libraries and their representatives is also quite sobering.
We live in a boom-bust economy. I’m too young and uneducated to know if Naomi Klein is right about this aggressive, low-oversight, take-no-prisoners version of T-Rex capitalism is a recent Regan-era phenomenon. However, there does seem to be a constant cycle of economic destruction and rebirth going on, and while it might be spectacular to watch from a penthouse (maybe? Someone must want this, right?), us little people are getting burned again and again.
What I hear now is that the same exact thing won’t happen again. Not sure whether this is accurate, but how would I know either way? I’m no economist. My point is that busts seem pretty inevitable in our model. Several have happened in my lifetime. Some were big, some were small, some were probably avoidable or predictable, but not by me. or anyone I know. They’re essentially like earthquakes. We seem to live on an economic fault line.
Libraries are one of the last social institutions that give people stuff for free, and when the power/Internet goes out at home, we’re where people come to look for jobs, freelance, and do whatever they have to do to get their lives together. Because we have Internet, and without Internet, you don’t have nothin’. So when the earthquake strikes again, it makes sense that we’d be good first responders. It’s time for us to stop being surprised when the economy goes to hell, because it seems to do that. Barring some major change in our economic model – and who are we kidding, even in the face of looming ecological disaster our model stubbornly refuses to give an inch – another crash seems like more a matter of time than anything else.
Whether bracing for it means somehow putting money aside, having a contingency plan for staffing, or just networking enough to know how we might be able to share material resources in a crunch will have to be situationally determined by each library and each org. Lord knows I’m not in administration, but I’m aware that each situation in libraries and in associations is essentially unique. This is bad because we can’t formulate a single cohesive plan and great because heterogeneous systems tend to be more resilient. I am of two minds about the library herd-of-cats effect, but that’s a topic for another post.
Second, we need to focus on mobile, material tech outreach. That could benefit our current low-income and struggling patrons now, but during the next downturn it could also benefit people who currently don’t consider the library at all. Promo seems like low-hanging fruit, but of course the traditional billboard costs money. I advocate showing up at farmer’s markets with free wifi and a couple of computers, stationing a librarian at the mall for on-the-spot Libby demos, and going into the schools with flyers listing the free stuff you can get at the library. If I had my druthers, I’d see every library with ten circulating hotspots. Would that the budget gods made that possible for all of us.
Library associations also need to start pushing tech outreach as a major duty of public libraries. Grants can help publics get into the information literacy groove. Talent clearinghouses can dig up librarians who know everything from web design to auto repair, so it might be a good idea to start building those. Your website and bookmobile are guaranteed to break down at the worst moment.
Most of all, more librarians need to get involved in and aware of the alphabet soup. It’s not about career advancement and it’s not about politics. It’s about maintaining the budget if the economy crashes, about keeping MLS in the black by any means necessary, and generally maintaining the integrity of the profession if something bad happens. Just being aware of the associations and systems and boards brings more talent to bear on a potential problem. More talent is more joy and a more resilient professional ecosystem.
No matter how we do it, we need to get ready for another economic dip. We need to be ready to catch our patrons when they start to slip out of the middle class. We also need to make sure that our orgs, who do amazing things for our radical little socialist outposts, don’t go under if 2008 ever happens again.