Is Reading Books on Climate Change Enough?

Lately, I found myself pondering the state of ‘my’ climate activism, as it has been effectively reduced to attending zoom meetings of a local activist group, doomscrolling through the news cycle and social media feeds – and reading books on climate change. Does that still count, and even more important: (how) does it help advance the climate agenda?

Last year around this time, during the first lockdown, I attended an online postgraduate course on climate change & health and leadership for transformation, and for the course assignment I wrote an essay on online advocacy and teaching. It seemed practical at the time to mold something I had been doing professionally for a couple years (organizing and facilitating online workshops) into a formal, topical concept. Back then I was expecting “it” to last over the summer, maybe into fall/winter, but I remember that we were all pretty hopeful that a year from where we stood, we could resume our normal activities. No one had any experience with the timescale of a pandemic. I probably would’ve had trouble grasping the idea of everything – social life, work in an office, travel – coming to halt for more than a full year. Certainly, the don’t-worry-it’s-not-that-complicated action plan I laid out in my essay would’ve had a gloomier touch.

I’m pretty new to activism, though I’ve worked in climate protection for most of my career. Only recently did I begin to embrace the label ‘climate activist’ for myself, which coincided with me starting a job in an area that wasn’t as closely associated with government-funded climate action as the one I worked at before. It wasn’t something that I was aware of from the beginning, but in hindsight it was an inevitable shift of perception that I had to make – everyone who has ever worked in the field will know what I’m talking about. What I learned since then is that activism can take many forms and that its embodiment depends on one’s individual preferences, ideas, experiences, and skills. The label still does feel foreign to me sometimes, especially so as what would typically be called activism isn’t possible: finding creative, peaceful ways to protest with hundreds of thousands as we did in the summer and fall of 2019. Normal activism. By now, I’m an activist in a pandemic for a longer time than I had been pre-Covid.

When I recently joined a newly founded book club within a local climate activism group, I revisited my understanding of what activism entails. What I like about book clubs, as antiquated and as they may seem to some, is that they give room for doubts, questions, and the opportunity to see another person’s perspective on something. Some English language books offer questions for book clubs in the annex, and even if I read a book just for myself, I find these questions to be very enriching to my reading experience. In lieu of being visible on the streets, interacting with a public that in part questions the facts and the presence of the climate movement, we have to be the ones asking ourselves nagging questions and allowing room for doubt. Some of us simply chose to do so in a book club.

I don’t have an answer to the question posed in the header, because for many of us, reading and talking about climate books is the only practical kind of activism at the moment. It is still a privileged position to be in, and we shouldn’t expect too much to come out of it either. We’ll have to make it count by talking to others about what we learned, by reminding everyone that despite the global health crisis, there is an even bigger crisis looming on the horizon. One, that will one day too have a detrimental effect on human health and ecosystem health if we don’t act.

I hope to preserve some of the ideas for a more active role I see for myself in a future after the pandemic by keeping a reading journal and this blog. It started as a reading project, and I will continue to write about reading experiences and books, but I don’t want it to stop there. Real, transformative, sustainable change may start with someone picking up a book, but I’m very much aware that reading books doesn’t directly translate into change. I am honestly still looking for a designation where I could take the Climate Reader, or where it could take me in the future – but this openness fills me with hope and excitement, and that is worth something after the year we’ve had.

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