A Tool Library Is a Seed


How Collaborative Communities Can Reduce Global Warming

Why it’s Hard to Make a Difference on Our Own

Photo by Henrique Xavie, via Unsplash.com

The planet is on a fast track to become increasingly unlivable for humans and many of our fellow beings, and the scientific community tells us that we have, at best, until 2030 to get our carbon dioxide emissions (to say nothing of methane and other greenhouse gases) down by 45% and thus prevent catastrophic change.[1] That’s almost no time at all.

Those of us who are concerned about that short window and interested in limiting emissions can make behavior changes to our lifestyles in hopes of making a significant difference: we can drive less, use more efficient light bulbs, recycle plastic, etc. But if the rest of the world continues to not only use oil and natural gas regularly, but to consume and buy products from clothes to technology to power tools at our current global levels (especially in rich, consumer-driven countries), our individual efforts won’t make enough of a difference. But what more can we do? We may be willing to turn our air conditioners and our thermostats down, or we can limit our purchases of single-use plastic containers, but what does that amount to in a world where many of us feel like the only ones making those sacrifices?

Additionally, many of us have essential jobs requiring us to drive to work despite the pandemic, and many folks still need to drive to buy groceries and run errands, so we’re still contributing to the global emissions problem. We can’t necessarily afford electric cars (though versions are becoming affordable in comparison to fossil-fueled cars)[2], but even if we could, a lot of the power used to charge those cars is still coming from natural gas and coal, which means that the emissions you save by not driving a car with an internal combustion engine are partly lost by charging your car, depending on your location.[3]

In some places, changing our own personal lifestyle does add up across communities to make a difference, such as buying clean energy through the utility company where available, buying solar panels, or just leasing our roofs to solar; these force utilities to change their infrastructure. Again, not everything works in a particular region, and of course, we need to focus efforts on the most impactful climate steps.

Photo by Tobias Tullius, via Unsplash.com

Critically, there are the governments’ and corporations’ massive uses of carbon-based fuels to consider. The U.S. military alone burns[4] as much fuel as some nations. Without their cooperation, we can’t meet our emissions goals, and what is the likelihood that we’ll get them to switch over to renewable resources, or just use far less, and how quickly could that happen?

Communities are Key, but They Need Strengthening

We can multiply our impacts via our communities.  By acting together, communities can create broader change and make bigger differences than individuals can.  Unfortunately, far too many people in the first world don’t interact with their communities in the ways we used to. Our society has been “atomized” by marketing and technology that has encouraged and enticed people to stay home instead of getting together with neighbors. Where do we go to meet and catch up? Churches? Church attendance is way down in Europe, and America is following that trend quickly. Bars? Some of us do that, but that leaves a lot of people out. Some of us catch up in grocery stores, but unless you live in a small town, meeting the people you know there is fairly rare and random. Some of us meet through sports, book clubs, quilting clubs, dinner clubs, but not enough, and as a result, there’s an epidemic of loneliness (although fortunately, it has leveled off during the COVID-19 pandemic due to people recognizing the importance of friendship and using technology to keep in touch)[5].

Photo by Francesco Ungaro, via Pexels.com

We just don’t know each other anymore; we’re not expected to even get to know our neighbors, for instance. Even though we may like the idea in theory, when it comes right down to it, we don’t particularly feel like going out of our way to get to know them, though maybe we’ll knock on their doors tomorrow — maybe.

Another contributing factor is the concept of self-reliance, particularly strong in America ever since European colonists first came to the shores of North America carrying certain Protestant worldviews,[6] such as: “God helps those who help themselves.” There’s nothing wrong with self-reliance, but unfortunately American culture can make it seem abnormal to approach others for help when we really need it. And since we hardly know each other, it’s harder to ask.

At the same time, in many consumer-driven countries, we’re taught that if we don’t know how to fix something, we should pay someone to do it, and we’re expected to be earning enough to be able to afford to do so.  Despite it being harder to afford things nowadays, asking people to help simply because they’re neighbors or even if they’re friends just seems to be out of the question or too great an imposition to cause them.  

How Getting to Know Our Neighbors and Sharing Resources can Improve Our Lives

United Nations Covid-19 Response graphic, via Unsplash.com

People used to help each other out a lot more; in some places throughout the world, people still do. We don’t have to do everything by ourselves, and we can share some of what we have so that each home doesn’t have to buy every gadget. Importantly, studies have found that communities that are better connected have been shown to be more resilient when disasters arrive,[7] as many of us are finding out in this pandemic:  neighbors shopping for elderly or ill neighbors,[8] lending tools so people do not have to go to potentially crowded stores to buy items (as described more below), etc. And there are systems we can create to help bring communities together and make them stronger – more adaptable to climate change.

Tool Libraries and Libraries of Things

Jim Benton and Tessa Vierk, Founders of the Chicago Tool Library, Courtesy of the Chicago Tool Library.

One great tool (pun intended) that helps build shared resources within a community, and thus community resilience, includes what many neighborhoods[9] in the US and Europe have already created in some places:  a tool library or library of things. A tool library works like a regular book library: tools are there for lending, instead of buying or renting them. Why do we need tool libraries? Well, does everyone one on the same block need their own staple gun or electric lawnmower? How often do people with chainsaws use them? Answers: no, no, and not all that often. These tools could be shared. Some tool libraries also include kitchen tools even, and it’s the same idea: how often do you use that stand mixer? What about your pizza baker? Borrowing kitchen appliances and devices leaves more room in the house for other purposes, or, better yet, we can even live in smaller houses with smaller carbon footprints. Also, with less need to buy stuff, fewer non-essential goods will be manufactured and transported, leading to subsequent decreases in emissions on the one hand and savings for people who would otherwise be buying or renting these items on the other.  This leaves more families with extra money to improve homes and their lives.

How to Implement

Photo by Cottonbro via Pexels.com

In some places, the tool library is part of the book library, and the taxes that pay for the overhead and management of the books is extended to the tool section. Elsewhere, a stand-alone building is used for the tool library, and members pay dues for overhead and upkeep. In that case, the more people you can get to join, the lower the dues. In either system, if people damage a tool or don’t return it on time, they’re fined. If they abuse the library, they lose access to it. There are guides to creating and maintaining tool libraries online and/or demonstrating various approaches for creating one,[10] and it’s not hard to find someone to talk to who’s already started one and will offer you advice.

Additionally, some towns have “Libraries of Things”: instead of just tool libraries:  you might be able to take out a bicycle for a couple of days or maybe a projector for family entertainment or community education. Again, if more people are borrowing these things, fewer things are purchased, fewer are manufactured, a culture shift happens, and global emissions go down.

Repair Cafes

Amelia Looft and  Max Easton at the electronics repair worktable with mentor Frank Szenher, New Paltz (New York, USA) Repair Cafe, photo courtesy of John Wackman. [Image taken pre-COVID]

Once you have a tool library, you can create a repair cafe. (You can start a repair cafe without it, but it is better to start the library first so as to (a) have the core tools needed for the repair cafe, and to (b) start building relationships with the community that you’ll expand in the repair cafe.) Much of what we buy is actually “designed for the dump,” meaning that most of it is designed to either break down or, in the case of computer technology, to be obsolete in a few years.[11]  And far fewer of us seek to repair our broken belongings these days. But if you could repair those things or have them repaired, why throw them away?

A repair cafe offers people the tools they need to repair their belongings instead of buying new ones. Some communities hire people to help members figure out how to fix their stuff instead of throwing it away. In some repair cafes, there’s a sewing machine or two – with people who know how to use them and/or classes to teach people the skill – so people can repair their clothes instead of discarding them. Everything you repair leads to less manufacturing and less transportation of goods, and therefore lower emissions.

New York State (USA) Repair Cafes: upper left photo courtesy of Leeds Repair Cafe; upper Right: Cyd Charisse Villalba and Adam Factor at the New Paltz Repair Cafe, photo courtesy of John Wackman; lower right: Rob Shaw and mentees at the Warwick Repair Cafe, photo by Elizabeth Knight, courtesy of Rob Shaw; lower left: Erik Turner and his son with repair coach “Ken Fix It” at the Esopus Library Repair Cafe, photo courtesy of John Wackman. Photos taken pre-COVID.

Perhaps what’s most important in the long run about repair cafes is that they give us a new way to get to know each other by helping each other. It’s a lot harder to impress your neighbors with your ideas about limiting carbon emissions when you haven’t talked to them besides to say “hello.” Additionally, if you get a space with enough room for your cafe, you can share literature (perhaps even create an actual book library inside the cafe), hold meetings and classes on other community projects, and use it as an educational space.

Your repair cafe could also birth community gardens, so that people might grow more of their own food, which would limit the amount we buy from the grocery store and thereby limit the emissions tied to the transportation of some of that produce. In the process, neighbors garden next to each other – another way to get to know each other. 

Or the information you share might get more people interested in Community-Supported Agriculture, also known as CSAs, where you can buy food from local farmers to limit those same transportation emissions. If the CSA farms our communities support are using regenerative agriculture, which builds soil and sequesters carbon,[12] we achieve another step on the road to limiting the carbon in our atmosphere, and our support of those farms gives us leverage to make sure that’s what our farms are doing.

Further possibilities

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            Once communities begin working together, many new possibilities emerge, including free stores, where people bring the things they no longer want for others to take,[13] toy swaps, where toys that once belonged to children who’ve outgrown them can be reused,[14] and other ideas that allow communities to work towards a greener planet with fewer unnecessary purchases and thus lower emissions. Climate Steps has an article about the Buy Nothing movement[15] and other ways of sharing (aka, recirculating) goods (https://climatesteps.org/2019/10/19/recirculating-stuff/). 


Connected communities can also co-create rich compost for everyone’s gardens to grow  more clean, nutritious food while absorbing carbon.

Photos by Edward Howell (left) and Conscious Design (upper), via Unsplash.com.


Further, if we know and trust one another, we may be better able to convince each other to vote in elections for the change we want, as well as to vote with our wallets and purses by buying from companies that respect the limits of our biosphere.  A community that understands each other’s needs can have more influence over local politics, including the formation of participatory budgeting, well known in some Western Australian communities,[16] in which citizens can work together to decide what tax money will be spent on,[17]  such as local versions of the Green New Deal. Some communities in Western Europe and the United States have gone so far as to redesign their towns to be self-sufficient,[18] with artisans supplying all the necessary skills and with all necessary supplies created nearby, limiting the need for the transportation that adds to our already too-high emission levels.

Learning How to Talk with Each Other

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio, via Pexels.com

            None of the latter is possible if we don’t take the first steps to get to know each other. This article suggests that a tool library is an excellent seed for starting this process –  giving a community the tools to start the repair cafe and other community services. Maybe your community is different, and you’ll need to find some other way to get started. But in order to get enough people on board to make the kind of change we need to effectively lower our global emissions – and adapt to climate change, you need to find a way to build your community and make it more comfortable with interdependence before any of that is possible.

            However, the current atmosphere in the US and, to a less extreme degree, in Europe, can make the initial necessary conversations seem impossible in some cases; as soon as we mention some of the issues that are most important to us, we give away which camp we’re in, and conversations are shut down. Nevertheless, neighbors will work with neighbors toward common goals. People may have different political opinions, but most believe in thrift, and tool libraries are very thrifty.

Still, in order to know what else is possible, we need to listen to each other, and we need to make it obvious that we’re listening and that we are appreciative of the needs of another person when expressed, as opposed to each of us demanding that the person we’re trying to convince shut up and listen to us.  We can use some of the information we learn from each other to discover some of those common goals so that we can work towards the ideas we all agree on, and try to expand our agreements. It’s not impossible, but it’s not easy. First we need a way to make those conversations begin. A tool library, a repair cafe, a community garden, can be the seeds for growing stronger community connectivity, reducing emissions, mobilizing climate action, and building resilience.

“Let There be Light.” New Paltz repair coach Marisa Villarreal, photo courtesy of John Wackman

Mark Stewart is a writer, educator, and wine consultant living in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, USA.  He wants to begin his New Normal and is seeking any kind of green employment. markloup@earthlink.net.

[1] https://www.livescience.com/12-years-to-stop-climate-change.htmlhttps://www.ipcc.ch/2018/10/08/summary-for-policymakers-of-ipcc-special-report-on-global-warming-of-1-5c-approved-by-governments/;

[2] https://plugstar.com/cars/browse

[3] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/electric-cars-are-not-necessarily-clean/; https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikescott/2020/03/30/yes-electric-cars-are-cleaner-even-when-the-power-comes-from-coal/#2c5d6d8a2320.

[4] https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/06/190620100005.htm.

[5] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/in-the-midst-of-the-pandemic-loneliness-has-leveled-out/

[6] https://www.sparknotes.com/philosophy/protestantethic/summary/  

[7] https://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/planning/abc/Pages/community-resilience.aspx

[8] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/realestate/pandemic-food-shopping-neighbors-coronavirus.html

[9] https://localtools.org/find/

[10] https://www.moneycrashers.com/tool-lending-library/

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planned_obsolescence

[12] http://www.fao.org/soils-portal/soil-management/soil-carbon-sequestration/en/.

[13] https://www.greenamerica.org/green-living/store-where-everything-free

[14] https://www.thespruce.com/how-to-organize-a-toy-swap-or-toy-exchange-2764999

[15] https://buynothingproject.org/find-a-group/

[16] https://empoweringparticipation.com/case-studies/

[17] https://www.participatorybudgeting.org/what-is-pb/

[18] https://transitionnetwork.org/

4 thoughts on “A Tool Library Is a Seed

  1. Great article, with relevant background info and practical steps. I’m interested in developing a career around sustainability consultancy, education and probably writing… This exactly the type of thing I’d write about! I’m an environmental science undergraduate. Love to read any further articles you write and share them.

    • Thanks Tonia! I totally missed this reply. But I think our next ones will include 2 sets of interviews, plus an article I’m going to call the “Umpteen Rs of Use and Reuse.” Holler via our email if you have ideas of what you’d like to see.

    • Thanks from me too, Tonia. I’d love to reorganize my career to do something similar. I think that if some organization was willing, it might make sense to train people to help communities begin these initiatives.

      In the meantime, are you aware of transition initiatives and transition towns? You might find that interesting.

  2. Pingback: Your 2020 low-carbon Christmas gift guide – Intellect Goals

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