Building Community for the Climate Movement
My friend Carla has told me this anecdote a few times, and yet I never tire of it. She was driving near our street and saw a fuzzy little blond guy waving to everyone. She watched him traverse the block, greeting every single person, a Family Circle comic strip come to life, if Family Circle had a semblance of edge and ate Coffee Crisps and never remembered to brush his teeth. Of course, this person was my son, then 7. Carla rolled down her window and said hello too.
I decided to raise my kids in the city partly for scenes like this. My children have lives that exist outside me—when we’re out, people I don’t know greet Teddy. They know him from the Makerspace, or camp, or they’re friends with his babysitter/crush, Neve, who tells him stories of bush parties and assorted precarious teenage hijinks. Yes, of course I want to be her best friend.
Teddy’s often at the park, helping our neighbour Darlene hack away at some burdock in the Indigenous garden, or building a fort, or talking to all the dogs on our street. He gets kindly volun-told to do things too. “Teddy told me he gets up at 6, so I told him he could be in charge of putting flyers on everyone’s windshields on the day of the street party.”
Why is this so important? Ted’s a COMMUNITY guy. And community is what I’m thinking about all the time lately—with my colleagues, with my friends, in the community (reflexive much?). How do we create it? Who creates it? Why doesn’t the show hold up?
It’s important because community is the only way things happen, in the absence of anything resembling even a tragic commons, and given our rapidly dwindling “democratic habit.” I think about this bit from a 2018 Yoni Appelbaum piece often (yes, I did an MA in media studies, don’t hold this against me):
But the United States is no longer a nation of joiners. As the political scientist Robert Putnam famously demonstrated in Bowling Alone, participation in civic groups and organizations of all kinds declined precipitously in the last decades of the 20th century. The trend has, if anything, accelerated since then; one study found that from 1994 to 2004, membership in such groups fell by 21 percent.
The gist is that our community connectedness is shriveling at the very moment we need it most. At a practical level, we need friends and neighbors to pick up our kids and take in our junk mail and feed our extremely boring but modestly attractive guinea pigs. And at a climate level, we need our local community to tell us what works—for our housing stock, our weather, our municipality. Without community, an already impossible retrofit challenge becomes that much impossibler.
But what if community stewardship is a talent? And one that needs time and tutelage to bear fruit? Tim, an old acquaintance, reached out last week to talk local retrofits in our neighborhood. He’s a career climate activist and “green teacher” who has built trust in the M6G. People seek him out for advice on how to do all the green things, and I’ll share more of his words next week. My son Teddy is on this track. He wants to help, he wants to know everyone, and he wants to sell his diabetes-inducing lemonade to all the passersby. He’d tell our whole street about heat pumps if I promised him a treat, but he’d also do it without the promise of a treat, because he just likes talking to people en plein air. Like his mother and grandmother, who want to know everyone’s life story, and whether they’re looking to be fixed up.
For too long, I scoffed at joinery-ness (I spent a month at a park revitalization committee meeting one evening). But this was just because I needed to find the right things to join, and also create them myself. Climate needs all the joiners. We know that cities will be where climate action is shaped. We know that neighborhoods are where people create the action that ladders up to city-level change. We know that Listservs always descend into arguments about parking and dogs.
Bill McKibben says organize, organize, organize. You can also just join, join, join. But how do you start if this whole engaging with random humans thing is not your bag? You have to find just one piece and make it yours. As my friend L remarked at the park yesterday, “You’re doing heat pumps, and I’ve got the birds.” She’s single-handedly gotten our whole street to bird-proof the large glass doors and windows that have become hallmarks of the downtown Toronto renovation. She’s unflappable and unstoppable and has great cheekbones.
Climate-induced weather events mean community will become even more important in the coming years. I think of my lovely neighbor letting us borrow her water when our pipes froze in the deep freeze a few years back. And how lucky we were and are to have her there, tossing Teddy’s errant soccer balls and Nerf bullets back over the fence. But it’s not just about being close so that we can help one another in times of need—there’s joy too. It’s our street party tomorrow, where we assemble a harvest table so long my aged eyes cannot see from one end to the other. Someone will make a potato salad that no one will eat, someone will complain about park partiers, and someone will endure my spiel about electrifying our street. What’s not to like?
What are you doing in your community? Doesn’t even need to be climate-y. I’m just curious. Let a nosy neighbor know.
Confessions of a workaholic weirdbird. Who knew that so many of you went to the same arts camp as me? Even the great Charles, my pal Isaac’s dad, who writes:
I spent many good summers at NMC as well – music, art, my first overnight canoe trip, and of course, surrounded by beautiful ballerinas. Actually was a CIT there in my last summer, which was a program in child development, as well as the sports and phys ed recreational stuff, all set up by the U. of Michigan.
The motto about time hadn’t been invented back in the late 50’s early 60’s when i was there.
On my study wall for years however I’ve had this quote from E.B. White:
“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”
I love this, Charles. Thank you!
And thank you for this beautiful note, Jamey:
Sarah! I joined your mailing list a few weeks ago when a fellow Guelph GPO volunteer told me about it. Instead of screaming even more about the election (really, just Parry Sound-Muskoka…I was already resigned to the rest), I was pleased to see your latest newsletter this morning (well timed!). Your reference to what I assume was Interlochen (unless there are two summer camps in Michigan with music and corduroy?) prompted this reply! I’m a geologist/pianist myself and attended Interlochen from 1989 to 1993, working as a counselor for the last two of those years. Care to date yourself by sharing if you were there at the same time?
As I’m sure you hear a lot, your newsletter speaks to me at a very deep and personal level and I am truly grateful for your words! Your recent comments on the utility and challenges of protests, and the rebranding of them as “marches” particularly hits home.
I find our marches in Guelph sometimes increase my climate anxiety rather than make me feel like I’m doing A Thing.
This anxiety is usually because of the identity politics I witness at rallies and other events, especially in my beloved Guelph. I’m personally all in for personal expression and colourful costumes…but I worry about how they look to someone more in the mainstream who is just starting on a climate journey for example, or perhaps they are conservative voters who are thinking about climate financial risk. I can see, and have witnessed, such people who may walk up to the edge of one of our rallies and see the “Water Dancers” praying to our local fountain, or see vegan activists screaming about murder, or any number of other things and just “nope” their way out of there. They may be left with the impression that climate is a fringe movement and feel very much excluded or unwelcome. And, of course, we need these people involved! I don’t have a solution to this, and certainly don’t want to tell passionate people to stop being visible, but it leaves me with a cold feeling about public climate activities.
I sure do like the quiet volunteer approach though. I provide GIS and other data tape services to a few different political and climate groups and that keeps the anxiety down for a little while!
I do sometimes worry that marches look like whackadoodle conventions, Jamey, but in recent years, it does feel like they’ve become more “normal,” as average humans awaken to the crisis and bring their Dockers-clad selves to the fight. Of course, I love and appreciate your quiet volunteerism. Thank you!
- Thank you Oonagh and Dylan for inspiring me to be a little more free-range with my kiddos. Miss you on this street every day.
- I met the beautiful Diane Borsato when she was my teacher at Concordia 20-odd years ago and knew I needed to become friends with her. She created a piece called Sleeping with Cake (exactly what it sounds like) that showed me that art could be so much more delightful than I’d thought. Over the years, I’ve realized that her work is actually about community—whether uniting genius mathematicians and artists for cold-water swims in Banff, or bringing beekeepers together to meditate in Canada’s most prestigious art halls. She creates the most incredible niche communities you can imagine.
- “How sustainable is your city?” I’m a sucker for these lists, regardless of the metrics used.
- I’m not linking into any pieces about methane in the Permian Basin, because this is the kind of stuff that wakes me up at night.
- Strangely addictive FINNEAS climate song: “The Kids are All Dying.” “What’s your carbon footprint and could you be doing more? I tried saving the world but then I got bored.”
- Counterpoint: “Your Kids are Not Doomed.” Essential Ezra Klein.
- I think we may have hit capacity for my TO-sized backyard benefit for the heroes at Environmental Defense, but my perfect neighbor Karen has graciously volunteered her backyard for overflow viewing (community!), so message me if you’re in TO and would like to come. (Canada’s best/only remaining theatre critic singing As It Was! Yes, please!) You can also donate here. If you do, please let me know and I will send you a Buyerarchy of Needs print! Thank you!
Thank you so much for reading. Tell me how to make this newsletter better if you are so inclined. Have a lovely, community-connected weekend. Unless you are meditating or trying to get in touch with your deepest self.
P.S. This is my newsletter for the week of June 22, 2022, published in partnership with YES! Media. You can sign up to get Minimum Viable Planet newsletter emailed directly to you at https://mvp.substack.com.
Sarah Lazarovic is an award-winning artist, creative director, freelance animator and filmmaker, and journalist, covering news and cultural events in comic form. She is the author of A Bunch of Pretty Things I Did Not Buy.