You may have noticed some radical changes to this site in the last month.
Yes, I’m renovating! Please excuse the dust.
Last winter, I reviewed all of my web spaces, culled a few, downgraded others, and created an upgrade plan for this one. I literally drew out several new pages with fine-tip Sharpies and hand-lettered captions, set some goals for the site, and revised the content structure.
But I didn’t implement the upgrade plan.
“Stay in your lane” can be a noble excuse for inaction.
I didn’t implement the plan because I didn’t think I was qualified to. I thought it would be too technically complicated for the time I had to spend. And I figured it’d be smarter to outsource the project and focus on the communication and development work that was making me money. I know what it’s like to train for years in an area and then watch a total naif try to out-expert you. I didn’t want to be that naif.
So for much of last year, I swept up around the site’s edges, maintained the installed software—something I taught myself 2 years ago—and periodically wondered if the universe would send me someone else to create the new site. I have several friends and friends-of-friends who are trained web developers, and it seemed wise to call on their expertise.
The specialists know, right?
Around mid-year, I asked one of these specialists to take on the job, not as a freebie but as a paid project. But specialists are busy specializing and nothing else happened after “Yes, I’ll get back to you.”
This January, I dusted off my old drawings, reminded myself of why the reboot would a good idea, yet still didn’t implement it. Friends suggested new developers and I followed up with a referral from a client. But that second developer also failed to respond.
“I can do this myself with time,” I now told Facebook. “I don’t want to do it myself, which is why I’m looking for a developer to do it for me.” I also decided that if I couldn’t find someone by March, I’d spend the budget on myself.
I didn’t contract with someone, and I didn’t wait until March after all. Instead I did my own work and my reward is the budget I would have used to pay a specialist. A very merry unbirthday to me.
“If you want a job well-done, do it yourself” only works in some conditions.
When I was a child, I learned the phrase “If you want a job well-done, do it yourself.” The adults around me set it to a catchy tune and it also involved whistling. I haven’t heard it for years but it bubbled past my lips several times once I decided to take action to improve my site.
I bought into the Genesis Framework and StudioPress, selected two themes for comparison, narrowed down to one based on a features analysis, installed it, compared the demo site to my designs, added new widgets and plug-ins, researched how-tos, and did with reasonable ease what just a few weeks beforehand I’d hoped that someone else, anyone else, would have done on my behalf.
We can, many of us, do a lot more by ourselves than we think we can. When we’re looking at well-defined, concrete problems, it’s usually not that hard, and the only variable is time. Either the plug-in installs properly or it doesn’t. Either the site loads or it doesn’t. Change the default color. Shuffle the menu order. Upload new sidebar text.
When problems are more complex, ill-defined, or wicked, even the most intrepid individual will flounder.
I shared the classic definition of “wicked problems” in December: when we’re talking about wicked problems,
- issues are “nested or consequent to other problems”
- information is “not well-defined”
- decision-makers don’t “share common values”
- piecemeal approaches “change the system and [produce] unexpected outcomes deemed worse than the initial concern” and
- “the problem [is] either difficult or impossible to solve.” (Churchman, 1967)
Climate change is a wicked problem in every possible sense. It’s global, but affects different global regions in different ways and to different degrees—literally. It’s rooted in scientific processes and engineering outcomes, but is also the child of several thick socio-political problems: uneven resource distribution, multi-generational poverty, markets of privatized profit and shared risk, technology developed without long-term human impact assessments, scapegoating, marginalization, and various forms of racism. Along the way, it also intersects with problems like emergency planning, disaster mitigation, political scapegoating, food production and distribution, water and waste management, and urban and suburban design.
No single person, no matter how brilliant, trained, or determined, could resolve the human- and other bio-impacts of climate change on their own. No one would have the right to. The challenge is too big. Too complicated. Spans too much territory. Affects too many people.
In these cases, we can’t outsource action to the specialists, and we can’t throw up our hands and do it alone.
We have to work with others.
About 10 years ago, I was working in a civil engineering ethics program when two of my colleagues asked me to work with them on an environmental rhetoric project. We were in West Texas at the time, a region of the US that’s suffering from a shrinking water table, an expanding population, and strong values-based resistance to environmental science. (Climate scientist Dr. Katherine Hayhoe talks about these regional concerns in Years of Living Dangerously.)
So the three of us—a philosopher, a science rhetorician, and a technical communicator—started to explore how people’s values influenced their approach to the environment. “Creation care” wasn’t yet hot, but I did discover that my denomination had published two position statements promoting responsible human engagement with the rest of the natural world. And they were quite pointed statements too.
I quoted from those statements last weekend during a panel workshop with Peterson Toscano (Climate Stew), J Mase III, and Rev. Nancy Wilson (Metropolitan Community Churches) at the 2015 Creating Change conference in Denver, CO.
We talked about the knowledge, skills, and competencies that LGBTQ people have developed over the years:
- the power to push through stubborn political and religious denial and the many deaths that silence and complicity can bring
- the ability to self-educate, build solidarity movements, and strengthen humane care networks that support the most vulnerable
- knowledge of how to base sustainable action on healthy self-affirmation rather than fear
- attunement to justice, access, structures of privilege and oppression, and what it takes to include and mobilize the whole of a community, not just the favored, moneyed few; and
- concern for people beyond our cliques: pandemics, genocides, and super-storms have no respect for geopolitical borders, and so-called fictive kinship (what we call “chosen family”) saves our lives and boosts our well-being whether we’re in the midst of crisis or not.
We asked the other people in the room who they called on for support during crisis, and what motivated them to care about climate change. They found it much easier to respond to the first question than the second, and there may be a lesson in that.
People move people: people respond to others and people need others. “Who I’d call if I needed help evacuating my town” isn’t an abstract question. It’s a high-risk scenario, and may be scary to think about, but it’s also quite easy to answer because it forces us to imagine the faces of our friends and those we care about.
Over the last few years, climate change activists have moved away from featuring fluffy and carnivorous polar bears because we live and choose how to live with our families, friends, and fellow humans in mind. It’s people who motivate us—for better or worse—and when we see the “human side” of an issue, that’s when it becomes real to us.
I’m not sorry I went ahead and did my website update myself: I strengthened my confidence and stretched myself. I have no less respect for the specialists who can do this work faster or more fluidly. And yet it reminded me that the independence that works well at the level of the simple or linear problem may be a massive liability on complex issues, and on the things that matter most, I can’t afford to go it alone. None of us can.
Lately, there haven’t been many rewards for people who work across borders and social boundaries for the good of all people—but whether the topic is police violence or climate change, that’s precisely what we’ll need much more of.
“To change everything, we need everyone.” —350.org
That’s absolutely right.