How an organizer tries to be sustainable: Scheduling, biking and hope

A week in the life of diarist Daniel Sherrell

(Washington Post illustration; Daniel Sherrell; iStock)
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Climate Diaries is a series that sheds light on what an average week — the good, bad, easy and hard — is like for people who are trying to live a more climate-conscious lifestyle. Climate Diaries aims to show a transparent and honest reflection of what people face while on this journey.

Meet Our Diarist

Name: Daniel Sherrell

Location: D.C.

Age: 31

I am an organizer in the American climate movement. I’ve spent most of the past decade trying to force our political institutions to pass policy commensurate to the scale of the crisis. I try my best to do all the basic things: recycle, no red meat, bike to work. But I don’t believe our path to climate salvation runs through the accumulation of individual consumption choices. Fossil fuel executives invented the term “carbon footprint,” an ingenious means of foisting responsibility onto hapless consumers while they continued pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere and spending millions of dollars to prevent it being regulated.

Their interference has prevented the United States from passing any major federal climate legislation for the past three decades. Breaking that oligarchic stranglehold is not the kind of work an individual can do. That’s what social movements are for.

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I’m currently working with labor unions around the country on a campaign to decarbonize public school buildings. After hours, I’m helping organize an April 23rd rally in D.C. to get vital clean energy investments passed in Congress. I spend a lot of time on Zoom calls, trying to save the people, places and principles that I love. I spend less time than I’d like actually relishing those things. Last year I published a book called “Warmth,” my attempt to walk the impossible tightrope between the enormity of the crisis and the immediacy of my own little life.

Day 1

I wake up in a threadbare hotel in Springfield, Ill. It’s spitting rain on the big picture window and the city is flat as sheet metal. I’m here to meet with a coalition of labor unions that just passed what might be the most ambitious clean energy bill in the country, legislation that sets the state on a path to 100 percent renewable energy and attaches strong labor standards. It’s time to discuss the hard part: implementation.

One of the bill’s key provisions offers money for solar installation and energy efficiency audits at all the state’s public schools. In an overlarge conference room at the state AFL-CIO, we talk through the moving pieces. Which schools should be prioritized? (Those in the lowest-income districts.) How do we make sure the installation jobs are union? (Linking up with pre-apprenticeship programs.) How do we make administrators aware of the new policies? (Lots and lots of webinars.)

At the end of the day, we make tracks for the local watering hole. All the union operatives have come down from the state house. Firefighters, operating engineers, teachers, electrical workers. Lots of neat haircuts and good suits. Lots of men.

These guys are all on the right side of history, though I have to code-switch a little to engage them on the climate crisis. One of the state’s most powerful labor leaders tells me he used to be a coal miner down near Taylorville. The industry in that area is in sharp decline, though I know enough not to celebrate the planetary implications. Instead we focus on the future: union jobs in renewable energy. “We’ve got to build those turbines,” he says, waving a big, beringed hand. “As many as possible.”

Day 2

Meanwhile, the most important federal climate legislation in U.S. history is sitting in congressional purgatory. After summarily killing President Biden’s signature Build Back Better agenda, Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W. Va.) recently dangled his openness to a smaller bill containing $500 billion worth of clean energy investments. It would be the biggest ever federal boost to the renewable energy industry and is key to keeping our climate goals within reach.

A big tent coalition of environmental groups, civil rights organizations and labor unions has come together to organize a rally in D.C. on April 23 — a final push to reignite negotiations. I spend Saturday back in my apartment, struggling to write an op-ed articulating the stakes. Sometimes, the desperation is a conduit, and the words just funnel through me. Other times, I feel so sad and overwhelmed that it takes me half an hour to string a sentence together.

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My cat, Waffle, keeps wanting to sit on the keyboard. I nudge her off and look out the window. The sky is beautiful, cloudless. I close my laptop and head out for a stroll. This is a lesson I’ve learned over many years: Sometimes, facing the climate crisis means allowing myself to enjoy the weather.

Day 3

I head out in the early afternoon to help hang posters for the rally in D.C. This is a habit I’ve tried to cultivate: to assess how much time and energy I have outside of work, and then give some of both to the climate movement. I try thinking in specific terms: how many hours, which particular tasks. It helps make political work concrete — another deliberate choice I can make, like shopping with reusable bags.

A group of us are meant to meet at Logan Circle, but I’m the only one there. I didn’t organize the effort, but even so I get that sinking feeling, every organizer’s worst nightmare: You planned the thing and nobody came. I stress-pace around the circle’s oxidizing equestrian statue and text the actual organizer. Ten minutes later he shows up, followed by one friend I invited, and another she recruited from work.

I’m struggling not to betray the creeping mixture of shame, frustration and despair I feel every time a climate event goes bust. Around Logan Circle, people are having picnics. Some of them have dogs, or small children, or little cups of prosecco. It looks nice. I can’t tell which is stronger: my wish that they would join us, or that I could join them. The organizer gives us a short briefing, then hands us an overambitious stack of posters and a few rolls of tape. I wrench on my game face.

I’m surprised by which businesses are willing to hang the posters. The proprietor of a used bookstore says they don’t have any room, though we’re standing in front of his empty store window. A Starbucks barista takes the poster conspiratorially and says she’ll cajole her manager. The bakery, the sex shop and the nail salon are all enthusiastic and ask for more details.

After a few hours, my friend has to leave to go cook iftar for the first night of Ramadan. She’s been doing all of this while fasting. I feel guilty and grateful and spend another hour putting posters up by myself.

Day 4

RSVPs for the D.C. rally are not looking good so far. Familiar doubts start shuttling through my head. What does Joe Manchin care if a few people gather outside the White House asking him not to torch the world? He’s made his fortune burning coal. Screw the rest of us; the rich will survive a 3 degrees Celsius world.

And yet. The whispers from Capitol Hill are that something big could pass. Biden and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) need public pressure and political cover. I cannot tell if this is a story I’m telling myself because I need to, or because it’s true. Probably a little bit of both. I’m fine with that: Hope is a practice — a muscle I try to stretch daily, even when it feels stiff. I strap on my helmet and bike to work.

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Work is a treadmill of Zoom calls. Some I take standing at my standing desk. Others I take slouched and off camera. In the afternoon, I do a book talk with 50 people from Friends of the Earth Ireland. They want me to talk about navigating climate anxiety. I tell everyone that I am navigating a lot of it as we speak. The transparency feels good, but I feel so tired, guilty for not bringing my best self. A trenchant young Irish activist says she’s given up on national governments stepping up to the plate. I want to push back, but what evidence do I have?

Day 5

A little, it turns out! Just yesterday, Vice President Harris held an event at an elementary school in Southeast D.C., underscoring the importance of investing in energy-efficient and climate-resilient public school buildings, effectively lifting our campaign into the national spotlight.

Our communications director drafts a news release to help amplify the moment and maximize momentum for our Carbon-Free and Healthy Schools campaigns. We send the materials out to our labor partners in the states, who leverage the attention to put pressure on their local decision-makers. It feels, in a small way, like the gears are catching.

Later that night, grasping at emotional straws on the Internet, I watch a YouTube video titled “We WILL Fix Climate Change!” None of the information is new, but it’s a good articulation of the case against fatalism, and the narrator — sanguine, British — sounds like the voice from my favorite meditation app. Weirdly, all the characters in the video are little animated birds. I guess our story is easier to bear when we swap out the protagonists.

Day 6

Today is a long string of calls with union leaders everywhere from Maine to Texas. Every third call, I pour myself a mug of black tea and walk a lap around the office. The day speeds by in little blue blocks on my Google calendar, the red bar marking the present moving inexorably downward.

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After work, I make a few calls regarding the April 23 rally. I talk to a local Ukrainian American activist about the connection between President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression and Russia’s fossil fuel reserves. She’s excited to speak at the rally and agrees to spread the word through her Ukrainian networks. “If the U.S. passes this bill and invests in renewables, it will undercut oil-backed dictators everywhere,” she says.

Later, I head to the airport to catch a flight to San Francisco. I have meetings tomorrow with a big SEIU Local that represents 54,000 custodians, bus drivers, school administrators, and public employees across the Bay Area. They want to use collective bargaining to compel their school districts to decarbonize. Sitting on the tarmac, I worry, as I always do, about whether the strategic benefit of in-person planning outweighs the emissions from the flight. I have no answer. I pay for the onboard WiFi and start trimming my inbox.

Day 7

I wake up early, having crashed on an air mattress at my friends’ house in Oakland. We eat breakfast in their backyard, a minor oasis, overhung by a 40-year-old buckeye. It’s the platonic ideal of a climbing tree, and we lift ourselves into its crown. From the tallest branch, I watch the sun jump the freeway and run up the hills.

When I arrive at the SEIU office, the leaders of the local are outside smoking in the parking lot. We’ve only ever met on Zoom, but I already like these people. They talk quickly and like to tell war stories: the time they made a stingy manager cry during bargaining, the time their members led a racial justice march through Oakland after the murder of George Floyd. The energy is irrepressible, exciting, difficult to facilitate.

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After eight hours of strategizing, I meet up with my friend for a hike in the hills. The California poppies are all in bloom, and there are tiny buds on the blackberry bushes. I ask him about last year’s wildfires, and he says the strangest thing was how quickly it all got normalized: the unbreathable air, the days spent indoors. From atop the ridge, San Francisco Bay looks enormous and benevolent. I sneak a peek at my phone. RSVPs for the D.C. rally have shot up past 600. Good progress, and a long, long way to go.