Some time ago, against what is perhaps my better judgment, I volunteered to become president of the condo board.
The association was in the middle of a messy and expensive bylaw update initiative. One roof was on its last legs. Generalized anxiety about ventilation issues and an incomprehensible feud over the 2015 removal of some dead bushes cropped up at every annual meeting. I was, at the time, recommitting myself to a positive view of the group project that is our planetary future.
I am likely to regret this board appointment, I thought, but it will offer opportunities to benefit my neighbors and the earth — maybe I can get solar panels on the roof.
Both things, alas, were true.
Anyone who has ever been on a complaint-receiving committee can fill in all the gaps here. I hardly need to detail the irritations of this role. I will focus instead on what went well:
- fortuitous timing. We needed at least one new roof. A new roof is the perfect roof for solar panels. Almost all roofs are good roofs for solar panels– but it’s easiest to make arguments about investing in them when you have 25 years of payoff time. Also, the Inflation Reduction Act has changed the game with 30% tax credits (for homeowners) and rebates (for nonprofits, like condo associations, who don’t pay much in tax.)
- city support. My beloved, expensive, ridiculous, well-funded Ann Arbor has a city Net Zero plan and a dedicated solar expert, Julie Roth, a real whatever-is-the-feminine-of-mensch, who zoomed with me about the Solarize program and invited me to a group buy that took an additional 15% off the installation cost.
- a congenial board. I am very grateful for my two co-board members, who are reliable, long-suffering, and indulgent of my schemes. Also, there is something to be said for the fact that no one else in the association was much interested in the board’s decisions, so long as the parking lot was regularly plowed.
Did I despair at several points? Yes.
Did it involve weeping and gnashing of teeth? Of course it did.
It turned out we’d need to finance them, and I had no experience obtaining a loan on behalf of a condo association. (My brother sent me a very helpful excel template for cost and income projections after I did the aforementioned weeping and gnashing on the family zoom call.) An 11th hour update that, actually, there’s a processing fee that will raise our monthly payment, led me to break down entirely. Plus no one seems to know much about how the federal credit works, given its newness, and I signed my name on behalf of the association on a number of documents of which I understood only about 78%. At least once I woke up in the middle of the night panicked that if co-owners stop paying their HOAs reliably, we won’t have the cash on hand to replace the second roof in 2024.
Here is the lesson– one of many, really – that emerged for me: tomorrow has enough trouble of its own.
My climate anxiety is, at its root, about uncertainty and control. A lot of scary things are happening, and our best science tells us that a lot of scary things will continue to happen, and we already know that a lot of people will suffer and die because of those things.
I really, really want to be able to guarantee that everyone I love will be okay and also nothing will change in a way that grieves me. I cannot do that, no matter how many hours I spend strategizing sustainability initiatives for a 16-unit condo association. I can’t even guarantee that all the choices that I made with this solar project – the documents I signed, the trust I have placed in Matt at the solar company and Will at the lending company and even Julie Roth – will turn out well for us.
Installation doesn’t even start until June! A thousand things could go wrong then and over the five years of our loan and the thirty year life of the panels. A smaller number of things almost certainly will.
It comes down to this: I have to trust myself, the board, and the team we’ve brought together to deal with what comes.
It turns out, maddeningly, that there is no definitive victory. There is only our best, most faithful attempt – and then we rest, and then we meet the next challenge. This is true of climate change, of democracy, of the life of any one church and the capital-C Church too.
We struggle to pick the right battle, remember who the real enemy is, and understand our part in the fight. And then we pass along both our best work and our failures to others. Someone else will inherit stewardship of these panels after I move away, and I can’t control how they maintain them or whether they will be as annoyed with me as I am now with everyone still bickering over those decapitated bushes from 2015. In order to live with that uncertainty, I remember that what I inherited emerged from constraints, fears, and priorities that are unfamiliar to me. I remember that what I hand down is less an absolute good than what I could manage under the circumstances. I hope they remember that too.
This is probably why a biblical command to “act justly” has a companion about humility.
I do believe this project is good, and it matters, and I did all I could to make it right. I am hopeful it could have effects beyond itself – the best predictor of whether someone gets solar is whether their neighbors have it, Julie says. And I feel hopeful, now, whenever I see solar panels – or even a roof with good solar potential. So many people have worked hard to make this world beautiful, to safeguard its beauty for another day. So many people are still working.
We’re in excellent company.