Sunday, June 29, 2014

ALA, Sustain Thyself

I’m putting my scold hat back on because I look so good in it.  But I’ll try to keep it brief.

Look: Las Vegas is an unsustainable city.  So why is the American Library Association hosting its annual conference there as we speak?

ALA supports environmental sustainability, as evidenced by the recent establishment of Sustainability Round Table.  Its charge is to move the profession forward “toward a more equitable, healthy and economically viable society;” its mission is “is to provide resources for the library community to support sustainability through curriculum development; collections; exhibits; events; advocacy, communication, library buildings and space design..”

I can’t think of a bigger library “event” than the ALA annual conference, and yet I can’t imagine a worse venue for it, from a sustainability perspective, than Las Vegas.  Water scarcity, air quality, urban sprawl and energy use are all major issues in Las Vegas--issues that are fed by tourist interest, and exacerbated by desires for quick fixes for human comfort, rather than systemic improvements.  (Don’t take my word for it--here’s a presentation given by a British schoolteacher.  You can trust anything delivered in a British accent, even when it’s only in writing.)

To be fair, the city is trying.  This article highlights the environmental problems facing Vegas as well as the efforts that the mega-business owners of the Strip are making to ameliorate matters.  Such efforts are admirable, but nothing will change the fact that living in and visiting places like Las Vegas and Phoenix just perpetuates the problems that such initiatives are scrambling to fix.  And no subterranean stream is going to help the mess that is the Colorado River, whose decline is helped along by Sin City’s demands for water.  The fact is that humans weren’t meant to live in deserts, much less vacation there in luxury.

And yet ALA chose to bring its conference, and the dollars of thousands of librarians, to this energy-sucking, man-made desert oasis whose bright lights can be seen from space.

With a world full of options, why do we choose to support one that is so in conflict with an important contemporary value?  

And much of what I’ve seen on social media from my colleagues is excitement.  I’ll admit it, when I first heard ALA ‘14 would be held in Vegas, I was excited too.  That was before it sunk in what it meant.  Let’s get serious: this is a city composed of knock-offs, built as a shrine to the act of gambling.  It’s a playground.  Any true beauty and culture developed as an afterthought.  When I considered what it costs to power, cool, transport, and light the place--and I’m not just talking dollars--I decided that there was nothing to get excited about.

All for the sake of a playground.

I’d like to be able to say that I’m sitting on my couch at home in Western New York right now because I decided to be principled and boycott ALA.  Alas, I didn’t have the money to go anyway, rendering any such intent to boycott meaningless.  Nor did I get my thoughts together in time to make a plea for other librarians to consider foregoing this year’s conference.  I’m not being a very effective activist right now, am I?  But that doesn’t detract from the importance of stating my view, and hoping that there are others out there who agree with me.  Maybe we can mobilize to make our feelings known, and prevent ALA from making a return to the heart of unsustainability.

What’s the endgame, if I get my way?  Well, if ALA made it a part of their platform not to patronize such cities, maybe the organizations that look to us and respect our values will make similar moves.  That could end up rippling out, as libraries effect publishers, who effect distributors, who effect and effect and effect...

Which leaves the question of how to get ALA to listen.  Boycotting is one way, and the great thing is that we can still get the benefit of programs and sessions without being there in person.  Lots of them are accessible asynchronously, and their materials are available for the asking.  Maybe not every little thing can be found without paying for some kind of attendance, but librarians aren’t really known for limiting access (especially when they’re presenters excited about their topic of interest).

A formal petition to ALA could also have an effect.  I’m going to look into starting one through one of the grassroots activism groups out there.  If you agree with parts of what I’m saying, watch out for that; I’d appreciate your support.

Finally, all those of us who care about the environment, and want to bring librarianship to a leading role in its defense, should join the Sustainability Round Table.  It’s ten bucks to join, which I don’t mind paying at all.  The point of this isn’t to punish ALA, after all, but to get its attention.  What better way than to see a flow of money going into the round table, rather than toward registration for the next unsustainable conference?

In the parlance of Sin City, I’m putting my money on green.