My days are filled primarily with two things. Sitting in meetings and sitting at a computer writing plans and responding to messages. I would say my work is pretty important and that I have accomplished something meaningful in the last 10-12 years. I work at a public Canadian University and when I started out there was no formal sustainability program there. Sustainability wasn’t integrated into the governance structure, policies or culture of the institution. Very few people considered the link between the environment, society and the economy (sustainability) in their jobs at the University.
Today I am the Director of an Office of seven staff and in charge of the University’s sustainability initiative. This initiative has built sustainability principles and practices into policy, the University’s planning framework, and strategic vision. We have built programs and projects that have measurably reduced the University’s environmental footprint. I report to a VP. This is supposed to be pretty important in the hierarchy of things. My team and I have elevated sustainability in the organization significantly. I can look back and say I have built something.
However, this type of work is an exercise in extreme patience. It took ten years to get sustainability into the core organizational structure of this very complex, bureaucratic, and political behemoth. It may take ten more before we can say that sustainability is truly embedded into the culture of this academic anchor institution. Unless I look way way back to where we started I have a hard time seeing my work as anything more than a series of meetings, proposals, emails, and planning. On a day-to-day basis it is extremely rare to feel like I have accomplished something at the end of my day.
I know that good things take time and patience is a requirement of social change both within and outside the University, but I find frequently the wait is artificial. In many cases we could easily (if we wanted to) make deep changes today. What I feel most days is the fight against what is really an organizational procrastination on pulling our sleeves up and attending to the greatest twin crises of our time: climate change and inequality.
I do not think I am alone in this malaise though. Many more of us work in service and information work; the white collar desk job has become the desirable place for a majority of middle and upper class people. I remember receiving the hard and fast rule of advice that a University degree and a good professional job were the sure way to a respectable, and likely happy, life. So, I went to school and got myself a couple of degrees. I worked my way up the ladder of a respected institution and attempted to contribute to a growing global movement advancing environmental and social change. And, yet, I feel like daily I can’t see the day-to-day impact of my job as a tangible and cohesive thing I have contributed to. I feel more a part of a system than a community. A cog in a wheel.
Creeping in at the edges of my mind is a nagging urge to see the direct result of a day’s work in a real concrete way. I’d like to do something I can see, touch, feel, and put to use. I want to be a maker, a community member, a mother, a partner, and a friend. Real things to real people in the real world outside of plans and promises. I’d like to see change that can be made in a year not ten. Related to this is strong dislike of spending the hard earned money I make at this job on cheap, disposable, badly made, and meaningless products. Things I mindlessly buy out of boredom, exhaustion, and convenience.
A couple of years ago I got it into my mind to make the red teddy bear my son wanted for Christmas. He had so many “stuffies” already and I just couldn’t make myself go and buy another one of those cheaply made and toxic toys for him. He was quite set on the red teddy though and had already gotten the thumbs up from the mall Santa so I decided to make one for him instead even though I had absolutely no idea how to make a teddy bear from scratch. Then I decided to make it completely out of reused materials. I found a pattern, I bought an old red wool coat from Value Village, I picked out the thread and I decided I could not fail.
This bear is clearly not made by a professional when you look at it close up but my son believes that Santa and his elves made it from scratch just for him. He also believes it is magical and he still sleeps with it every night. It is in excellent shape.
Making this teddy bear from scratch felt like one of the greatest accomplishments of my life. I did something I didn’t think I was capable of. I also made my son happy with something that didn’t come from a toy store and I reused material instead of contributing to the digging up of all sorts of raw materials to make yet another teddy bear.
Seems kind of silly to admit that in a lot of ways the making of that teddy bear has brought me more joy than 100 days at work. I have mostly loved my job for a really long time. I feel blessed to have had access to education and meaningful work. But, it is true that this teddy bear stills makes me smile with a pride that I rarely feel in the professional world. And, this is not just because I made my son happy. I can do that with gummy bear candy. It was knowing I had broken from my role as “consumer” and become a “maker.”
A couple of years ago a colleague at work taught me the basics of knitting. I began with great gusto and purchased many skeins of beautiful merino wool in vibrant colours, along with several sets of wooden knitting needles at great expense. But then I had some initial frustrations and failures and promptly gave up. This is not entirely new. I frequently get swept up in the excitement of a new hobby venture only to quit at the first sign of difficulty. This is why the handmade teddy bear seemed so fantastic to me. I had not given up on that project!
I have walked by the skeins of wool sitting in my knitting basket many times and feel a pang of quitters remorse. Yesterday though I was sick, tired, and wanting to do something mindless so I picked up some wool and started a simple scarf project. The thing is pictured above is no beauty. I have already quite buggered up the knitting, but I feel driven by a new goal. Instead of running around finding the perfect gifts for each person for Christmas this year I will make everyone a knitted scarf. The first few people will get very homely scarves truth be told, but I will have learned a craft, have made something by hand out of love for family and friends, and reduced the waste and consumer frenzy so characteristic of this holiday season.
Making a teddy bear and knitting scarves will seem like small and insignificant contributions to global sustainability. I think though that these are the most important things we can do. Making things instead of buying things gives me a kind of agency that “buying green” never will. Making things brings me closer to the raw materials, it helps me appreciate the work that goes into a quality product, and it makes me and my family appreciate each material possession we have all the more.
I am done with strategic planning, political posturing, and being patient in the wait for change. The time is now. The world needs more reused material handmade teddy bears and locally knitted scarves. It needs more direct and useful solutions to local problems. In many cases I have seen that it is the simple invention designed with local people in mind that makes the real difference on the ground. Each of us needs to transition into being makers and doers instead of consumers . When we stop and slow down to make something, to be part of something in our community, we build a better world with each action we take.