Why ‘All We Can Save’ Will Make You Feel Hopeful About the Climate Crisis
It’s hard to read the news these days, as ever-deadlier fires rage in the west and more intense hurricanes batter the Gulf Coast, and our president shrugs his shoulders and says “It’s going to get cooler, you’ll see.” Which is why it’s a small miracle that I read something about climate change recently that actually made me feel good. All We Can Save, a new anthology (out September 22nd) co-edited by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson, is a compilation of essays and poems by some 50 female thought leaders who run the gamut when it comes to age, race, geography, and experience — including scientists, artists, poets, lawyers, architects, activists, and designers. Taken together, the breadth of their voices forms a mosaic that honors the complexity of the climate crisis like few, if any, books on the topic have done yet.
The book includes calls to action, like teenage activist Xiye Bastida’s “Calling In” and Naomi Klein’s “On Fire.” There are revelatory essays about nature and the Earth’s delicate systems, like biologist Janine Benyus’ “Reciprocity,” on the way trees and plants work together to help each other grow. There are personal essays like policy expert Rhiana Gunn-Wright on how a century of “progressive” policy failures in her Chicago neighborhood led her to develop the Green New Deal. Or Abigail Dillen, president of the environmental law nonprofit Earthjustice, on how she bears the grief of climate change and found the power to take action. And there are thoughtful prescriptives for fixing what ails us, like Favianna Rodriguez on bringing the cultural power of TV, music, and film to bear in the climate fight — “imagine hip-hop songs that say ‘F–k the polluters’ or Indigenous storytellers being nominated on every Oscars slate.”
The book is a feast of ideas and perspectives, setting a big table for the climate movement, declaring all are welcome. And that is a comforting — and much-needed — sentiment, particularly in a time when isolation and polarization feel like the dominant cultural modes of the day. A moment when we have so many of the solutions to the climate crisis in hand and just need people to come together to actually make them happen.
Co-editors Johnson and Wilkinson have both long centered climate solutions in their work — Wilkinson as the editor in chief of the groundbreaking Project Drawdown, and Johnson as a marine biologist and founder of Ocean Collectiv, a consulting firm on conservation strategy. After meeting each other in 2018 “we realized right away that we had this shared commitment to climate solutions and to building community and particularly the kind of nexus of those two things in relationship to women who are leading on climate,” says Wilkinson. And they were also both frustrated with how often women’s contributions to the climate movement were being overlooked. “The conversation is still, in the public discourse, dominated by a small group of white men,” says Johnson, “and that clearly hasn’t gotten us where we need to go.” Thus the idea for All We Can Save was born.
Rolling Stone talked with Johnson and Wilkinson about how the climate movement has changed, how they hope All We Can Save can bring more people to the table, and the importance of the upcoming election. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell me about the decision to compile a book about climate entirely through women’s voices.
Ayana: We shared a frustration that so many of the most incredible leaders in the climate space who we know are women. As Katharine says, the climate crisis is a leadership crisis. And we wanted to take the opportunity to uplift dozens of voices of women who are doing incredible and transformative work, pushing forward climate solutions, and make sure that they got the spotlight and then hopefully the support and resources that they need to continue doing their critical work. Knowing that they weren’t each going to stop and write their own book, and that books are still one of the primary means to be considered a thought leader, we thought, “Well, let’s create an anthology and we’ll bring the book to them and we’ll bring their collective, phenomenal insights to the world.” How insane to leave at least half the brainpower of the planet out of the conversation, right? So that’s kind of how the book came to be.
How do you think the climate movement has changed in recent years, and how did that inform your approach to the book?
Ayana: I think one of the things that I’ve been really excited about as far as the shift in the movement is that it’s now three generations deep, it’s three generations strong. And so thinking about these youth climate leaders and the importance of their voices and their moral clarity, I think that is a really powerful shift. There are essays by two incredible teenagers in the book who have a lot of wisdom to share, far more than their years should require them to have. Unfortunately, this is the situation these young people have been put into by the climate crisis. So I think about the diversity across age and geographies and areas of expertise and race, and how all of that is reflected in the curation [of the book], like how do we make sure that we are representing as many perspectives and insights and sort of doors into participating in climate solutions as we can within the covers of just one book?
Katharine: I agree that the climate movement has really shifted in the last couple of years. And I think Ayana was absolutely right to start with the youth climate movement and the moral clarity they’re bringing — the insistence on listening to the science and how bold the science tells us we have to be in our response; their insistence on centering justice, that they are not willing to engage in this conversation unless that is at the core of our understanding of why we’re in this mess.
And I think also the climate movement feels like it’s become more human, like it’s just become more of a place where you can show up with the whole of yourself, and not just your, you know, engineering policy, your science brain, but as a human who’s living on this planet. And frankly, if your eyes are wide open, you’re probably angry and sad and probably scared. And making space for those things was something that we really wanted to do in this book. I think when we don’t make space for those things, people hang back, because I think a lot of us don’t know how to show up for this work without all of those feelings in tow. And I think that’s also the grounds for a connection between us and linking arms in the way that we need to do this work effectively.
You included a number of poems in the book. Can you tell me about the decision to fold in poetry and creative work like that?
Ayana: Now, it’s impossible to imagine the book without it. It wasn’t in the initial, initial plan. But both Katharine and I carry a big spot in our hearts for poetry and its ability to just cut straight to the core and help you see things in a new way, and that’s exactly what the climate movement, what this book, needed.
Katharine: And I think that the poetry and the art, to me, makes the book feel more like the way women are coming to this work, at least in Ayana’s and my experience. There’s a tenderness and also a ferocious love that come through in the essays for sure. And then it’s so beautifully highlighted in the poetry. And we also knew that people were going to need space to breathe, to kind of have a pause between the essays, feel their feelings, know that they’re not alone, and then dive back in. And I think that’s the kind of in-and-out and shifting of mode that’s really helpful, actually, for staying in the work.
Right. Obviously climate denialism is a huge problem, but on the other end of the spectrum, there’s people who believe the science but are so overwhelmed or maybe depressed, and then don’t engage with the issue for that reason. One thing that struck me when reading these essays by these women, is that you can hear in their voices that they’ve kind of developed this emotional muscle to deal with climate change — which we really all have to develop. So I was curious how you cope with the stress and grief of it all and just being with this information?
Ayana: When we think about who in the U.S. is concerned or alarmed about the climate crisis, it’s almost two thirds of Americans. It’s under 10 percent of Americans who are climate-science deniers. So when I think about the work that needs doing and how to build the biggest team to get that work done, I think about the fact that we should be working with 90 percent of people on this. The 10 percent who don’t get it, we can move on without them. I work with the 90 percent of people who are either not sure what to do or not sure how to engage. Because the vast majority of Americans are basically like, “Oh, shit, what do we do about this, though?” And just knowing that is actually where most people are coming from is really bolstering. Because then it’s about finding ways to welcome all of those people into the work. And I think seeing our challenge through that lens just feels much more like, “OK, I can work with this. We actually already do have the biggest team. And what are we gonna do together, guys?”
Katharine: And it’s interesting too that the denier camp is predominantly conservative white men. So why we were ever so worried about trying to engage in some kind of fact-based battle with them — which is in so many ways such a conventionally masculine approach. And it feels more like a feminine approach to say, “Well, where actually is there already common ground? Let’s look for that.” And then, as Ayana said, let’s welcome people in. And the first essay in the collection is actually called “Calling In,” by Xiye Bastida, who is one of the youth activists who wrote for the book. We know how many folks are on the sidelines and have just not had an invitation, or maybe not an invitation that felt good. And that’s how social movements grow. Someone reaches out and grabs someone else by the hand and says, “We need you.”
And I think that actually connects back to the question you asked, which is how do you cope? For me, so much of that is about relationships. It’s about collaborations like the one that Ayana and I have. It’s about being in communities of leaders who are grappling with the same sorts of questions. And we’re really hoping that the book can be a catalyst for more of that kind of relationship-building and community-building. There’s a line in the conclusion of the book, where we quote Adrienne Rich saying, “There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep and still be counted as warriors.” And through the All We Can Save circles, which will kick off a couple of weeks after the book publishes, we hope [to foster] the process of self-organized small groups working through the book together and having more generous dialog about the climate crisis. That’s the kind of work that’s so necessary for a strong movement, and that I think the climate movement has historically underinvested in.
Ayana: I think one of the things that keeps me going is just, you know, everyone has a different sort of deep-source motivation. And mine is I want to be useful. And to sit around and not be trying would be the most depressing thing. When I look at the science, [and] sort of absorb the shock of what’s projected as far as sea level rise or temperatures or storms, it really does knock me back and often brings me to tears. And then I conjure up my scientific training and remember that each of those projections is a range. We don’t know exactly how much the temperature will warm. But we do have a say in the range of possible futures. And I find that to be incredibly motivating. We still get to write some percentage of the future based on the decisions that we all make. And so as much as the science is heartbreaking, I think it’s really important to say, “OK, well, we can’t solve climate change or make it go away. It’s here. But how can we still create the best of all possible futures for the people and the ecosystems and the communities that we love?”
What do you say to doubters or naysayers, people who believe climate change is a problem but maybe feel like the solutions or the level of changes that are being proposed are unrealistic? Do you get faced with that a lot? And how do you answer that kind of skepticism over solutions?
Ayana: I choose to not engage every time, because it’s often a devil’s advocate game for people. But if we’re gonna do a cost-benefit analysis on [the question of] should we throw our full energy and resources into addressing the climate crisis, then we have to talk about the benefits of that, and not just the cost. Because so often people are like, “It’s terrible for the economy. It’s so expensive. We have other problems,” without ever saying, do you know what’s going to happen if we don’t do anything about this? How expensive 20 feet of sea level rise is? How expensive it is that so much of the West Coast is on fire right now? How expensive it is that we have these extreme weather events and hurricanes popping up more frequently? Let’s talk about that side of the equation, too.
Katharine: The other thing is that we can actually do more than one thing at once. We can actually solve near-term needs at the same time as we’re working toward this longer-term, diffuse challenge of climate change. So many climate solutions are health solutions, because they improve air quality. So many of them are solutions for a more resilient food system. So many of them are job-creating opportunities. And we’ve just been totally duped that somehow the economy and the environment are at odds. There is no economy without the planet. And right now we are literally stealing from future generations and counting it as good economic news today, and that is just unfathomably immoral.
With the upcoming election, we couldn’t be looking at two more starkly different possible futures, depending on who wins. What do these two different paths look like for you as far as how it changes your work?
Ayana: Well, one of the things that Katherine and I are doing next that has grown out of this book is launching a nonprofit on the same day that the book is published, which will be called the All We Can Save Project. And we’ll carry on the work of supporting women climate leaders, of nurturing that community, of making sure the book is used for education, developing curricula, creating a financial award to support women doing transformative, creative work at the leading edge of the climate movement. And so that is work that will be critical no matter who is in office.
The last thing I would add is, there is a group of people who are progressive and don’t think that Biden is different enough from Trump. And that could not be more untrue when it comes to climate. [Biden’s] climate plan has evolved dramatically over the last few months, listening to scientists, listening to activists, putting out a brand-new plan that actually accelerates the timeline for renewable electricity by 15 years. Meanwhile, on the flip side, Trump has been just rolling back now 100 environmental regulations, many of them on climate. So the decision there could not be more stark.
In the opener of one of the chapters in the book, it says “The problem of the climate crisis is a failure of language.” You do a lot of work communicating this issue obviously. What are some your pet peeves about how the media or other experts are communicating about climate?
Ayana: I think it’s a failure to connect the dots that drives me the craziest. Like, we should be talking about climate change in every story about the fires on the West Coast right now. And it’s connecting the dots with race and gender and who is impacted and who is leading on solutions. I think climate should be mentioned, you know, in the politics section and in the science and the technology section, in the style section. We have to acknowledge that the air we breathe at this point is changed air.
Katharine: For me, it’s that we use all of this fighting and war language about climate change. We say we’re going to “fight” climate change and we’re going to “tackle” the climate crisis. And it really represents sort of a fundamental misunderstanding of what we really need to do. Which is this work of healing. And climate change isn’t the problem. Climate change is a manifestation of the problem. The problem is our global economic system, the way dominant society has operated. It’s a problem of, in particular, fossil fuel companies operating with impunity. And so I think as long as we think that we’re somehow in a battle with the atmosphere, we’re misunderstanding the work that needs to be done. If anything, I think we should think of ourselves as collaborators with the atmosphere and the planet’s living systems, try to unwind some of the harm that we’ve done, and find better ways of living on this planet.
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