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The privilege of knowledge work in climate crisis

I’d been hearing warnings for days.

The storm would be serious. I should take precautions. My neighbors said it. People in town said it. The radio said it.

But this wasn’t about the recent, torrential summer rains that scoured the northeast, flooding towns, destroying homes and carving away roads.

This was six and a half months ago, as a strange winter storm bore down.

That day started with intense rains and wind, and felt oddly warm. Things were closer to the t-shirt weather I’d expect in Vermont’s October, despite being a week from the New Year. Still, the strength of the storm knocked out power as early as 8 AM.

By noon, grim state officials warned that devastation was substantial. More than 70,000 homes had lost power. Unlike other storms, we would have to be prepared for restoration to be a multi-day effort. Worse yet, the day’s events weren’t over. Things would get even worse as evening came and temperatures dropped. We should plan to be somewhere safe no later than 4 PM.

I took the opportunity to stock up on sandwich fixings and other foods that wouldn’t need a working kitchen.

Then the turn came. I’ve never seen anything like it.

At 4 PM, you could be out comfortably in shorts. By 6 PM, the temperature had dropped to below freezing, snow piling up fast.

At home, we scrambled to insulate the windows with towels, trapping what meager heat we could. Without power, the boiler couldn’t run. If the house’s internal temperature dropped to 20 degrees Fahrenheit, we’d run the risk of pipes bursting, damaging everything.

A large pile of wood was fed continuously into the wood stove. In the mornings, I’d fight a 120v generator, yanking its pull cord desperately. After 20 minutes of these ministrations, it would keep the refrigerator running and charge our devices.

In total, my house spent six days without power.

At Foo Camp, Mika McKinnon had once advised that you survive disaster scenarios with the help of your neighbors. And it’s true: the kindness of neighbors whose generator could power their boiler and well pump provided a few much-needed showers, as essential to sanity as hygiene.

That week felt like one of the longest in my life. The house needed care and protection, lest it succumb to the cold. The cats needed the same. I was stuck with the situation.

And yet, I was lucky

As a knowledge worker, whether I’m drawing a salary or working freelance, I have abundant flexibility. I can move my schedule around, take time off, and work where I want to.

A week without power was a week where I could focus on the problems right in front of me with no economic penalty, and no work-related distractions. As a salaried employee of a public technology firm, in fact, I’d already been given that Christmas-to-New Year’s time off.

I needed every minute of the day, either to work or to rest. Keeping a house working amidst infrastructure failure is a serious job. It required hauling wood from outside to inside, and managing buckets and improvised plumbing for the toilet. The generator needed to be tended on a regular schedule, to keep the food safe in the refrigerator, along with errands to replace the propane that it consumed for fuel.

But I had those minutes.

The structural feedback loop of luck

Last week was no picnic, either. After 16 hours of rain, the drainage system in my basement gave up. Water came pouring from two floor drains, swiftly filling the basement by two inches at its worst. Holding the line against the water was a whole-day project of pumps and wet/dry vacuum cleaners, and eventually the water started winning.

But even in this, I was among the lucky. Just minutes down the road, homes and businesses too close to the river would be properly flooded, and no amount of pumping could protect them. The waters would destroy or contaminate everything they touched, from bedding to appliances to furniture, inventory and clothing. The basics of everyday life and commerce, lost overnight.

Further on, some places got it even worse, with houses torn loose from their foundations. There are now streets lined with ruined household possessions, caked with mud, piled eight feet high.

None of these people experiencing these losses did anything to deserve this. They were just living where their economic circumstances allowed, in a historically tight housing and rental market.

As a knowledge worker, I had a little exposure to the extreme prosperity of the innovation economy. I still have to work for a living, but I got just enough to give me a downpayment on a house, and broad choices about where to settle down.

Fearing exactly this category of weather, I chose a house with characteristics that seemed resilient. In this case, being on high ground, with slopes and other features that would draw water away from the most important structures.

Water pooled in the basement because the ground was saturated by continuous rainfall, not because the immediate surroundings were flooding.

Just as it seemed the battle against the basement drains couldn’t be won, experts arrived to install a sump pump. The proposition cost $4,000 and involved a jackhammer punching a hole in the floor. The tradesmen had to deploy a temporary solution at first, so they could get themselves back home—rains were intensifying more quickly than we’d all expected.

But by 6 PM, drains were draining again, a sump pump was clearing the water, and there was no further danger to my house.

The day was stressful and exhausting.

But that night, I slept in my bed. I didn’t have to abandon my house to mud, stay in a shelter.

Once again, I had the flexibility in the day to do battle with the elements. When it came to expert help with my crisis, ready access to credit made an easy decision: spend $4k now to protect the long-term integrity of the house, and keep it habitable in the immediate term.

Not everyone has this flexibility.

Renters don’t get to make this category of decision. They’re at the whims of their landlord, who may have a very different decision making calculus around whether to preserve immediate habitability, versus taking an insurance payout.

Worse still, not everyone can absorb a sudden $4,000 expense. For me that still hurts, but the math works out: money put into the house increases its value. I can tell any future buyer that the property is now resilient even against hundred year rainstorms.

The climate comes for us all, but first it comes for the vulnerable

Things have been edgy since the flood. The threat of more rains kept anxieties simmering. At last we got some serious sunny days to raise our spirits.

Only for the air quality index to soar, adding haze to the skies and to our lungs. Forest fires in Canada are ongoing.

As a knowledge worker, I’m handling my client work from inside. My economic leverage allowed the addition of heat pumps to the house, so I can keep things cool without opening the windows. Air filtration in multiple rooms keeps fine particles out of my lungs.

Once again, I am annoyed and inconvenienced, but overall I am safe.

For those whose jobs keep them outside—work in the trades, agriculture, and countless others—the air poses more serious problems that can impair breathing and, eventually, long term health.

Luxury in the climate crisis is maintaining routines and self-regulation

Someday, I must assume the climate crisis will come for me. It probably won’t be flooding. I’m hopeful it won’t be fire. Extreme winds are probably my biggest threat in the future. Moreover, I’m not independently wealthy: I have to work for a living.

Still, my economic position as a knowledge worker gives me substantial resilience against many other threats. Let’s recap:

  • Past access to prosperity granting me more options for where to live
  • Schedule flexibility
  • The ability to create serious economic impact regardless of where I’m located geographically
  • Economic leverage to make climate-related improvements to my house, even at a moment’s notice

This stuff leaves me likelier to remain in the driver’s seat of my life, even with the variety of curveballs the climate throws at us every year.

The more insulated from these consequences I am, the more likely I am to be well-rested, able to maintain my health and continue making good decisions. I’ve been absolutely wrecked by the events of the last week. Limiting the damage from water took days of effort. Mold is serious shit, and I’m deathly allergic to it.

But I’ve been merely inconvenienced. In between ripping out basement carpet, I could maintain progress with my business, continue meeting with clients, continue doing work.

I can’t imagine how much harder it would be to be displaced from my home—especially with the lingering effects of Covid adding risk to sharing shelter with others. I can’t imagine losing my everyday property. Seeing my clothes ruined, my kitchen unusable, my house unlivable. I can’t imagine trying to keep the economic wheels turning with those pressures on my back.

Ten years ago, in reference to McIntosh, I took some time to unpack my own knapsack. While there is much there I would likely say differently today, I’m back to the same conclusion:

I feel fortunate within my circumstances, and feel a responsibility to others who don’t share my advantages.

These crises will continue. We’ve just had the hottest week on record. Whether it’s extremes of temperature or intense weather, whether it’s immediate natural disaster or distant fires polluting our air, whether it’s new invasive life or even disease—the effects of climate change are now constantly upon us.

People are hurting. These events are callous and damaging. The immediate stress and exhaustion are serious problems, but there’s long term trauma to contend with as well.

We must also understand elements of the growing labor movement in this context. A primary issue for UPS drivers is an aging fleet of trucks not equipped for modern heatwaves. Heat is harming farmworkers as well. Entire categories of work are becoming consistently unsafe as a consequence of climate change.

You don’t have to take my word for it, because none of this is isolated. There’s been catastrophic flooding of New York City’s subways, plus heat waves and forest fires in the Bay Area. Tangible evidence is all over the place. And however it manifests itself, some workers are exposed, while knowledge workers have more options.

Justice and decency demand we look this problem in the eye, in proactive solidarity. We owe each other better than letting the most vulnerable among us simply absorb the brunt of these consequences.

This is just the beginning. I can and do take local steps to support my community, but I don’t know what to do about just how big the problem seems.

If you have any ideas, I hope you’ll reach out and share them with me.

The privilege of knowledge work in climate crisis The privilege of knowledge work in climate crisis