With a problem as big as climate change, it’s understandable that most people addressing it would hang their efforts, to some extent, on hope. But not marine biologist and policy expert Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. “I don’t really like the word ‘hope,’” Johnson says. “It’s very passive to me: ‘Hope that works out. Hope someone does something about that.’”
To Johnson, an Emerson Collective Fellow, the better approach—actively pursue truth, courage, and solutions—informs the new book, "All We Can Save." In it, she and co-editor Katharine Wilkinson, editor-in-chief at Project Drawdown, bring together a collection of essays, poems, and illustrations from more than 40 women leading the fight against climate change. At its core, the book is a treatise on the intersectionality of climate change—and on the ways we can all take an active role in saving the planet we call, “Home.”
Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson talks about the essays she curated for "All We Can Save," her own journey to becoming a leader on climate, and the emerging “Feminist Climate Renaissance.”
It’s a perspective drawn directly from Johnson’s life. Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, playing in her family’s vegetable garden in the middle of the densest city in the nation, she wanted to be a marine biologist; then, the lawyer who got Martin Luther King Jr. out of jail; then, a park ranger; then, an environmental lawyer—then, ultimately, she realized that “everything that I love professionally and personally could mash up into one job, and that could be ocean conservation.”
Johnson recently spoke with Elemental Excelerator CEO Dawn Lippert about the ways her lived experience informs her work; how that drove her to create a space, through "All We Can Save," for women’s leadership to guide informed action for sustaining the life of our planet; and how the current political backdrop can shape the continued path to climate solutions.
FELLOWS FRIDAY SERIES: Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson talks about the essays she curated for All We Can Save, her own journey to becoming a leader on climate, and the emerging “Feminist Climate Renaissance.”
You’ve written and spoken so much about the power of representation to shape people’s relationships to the environment. What shaped your own relationship to the elemental world around you?
I fell in love with the ocean like most kids do: You learn that there’s this whole other world happening under there. At five, I went on a glass-bottom boat, and went to the aquarium in Key West, Florida; and that was the summer I learned to swim. It was one of, I think, two family vacations that we could afford to go on. I grew up in a working-class family, and my parents deliberately were, like, “We’re going to teach her to swim. We’re going to introduce her to the ocean.” They thought swimming was a skill you should have. You need to learn to whistle, and sing, and ride a bike, and swim, and eventually, drive a stick shift. To dance, so you’re not embarrassed. They had a whole list of life skills — which maybe was different from other parents’ lists — and one was: getting to have the experience of wonder.
The thing I remember the most from that summer is holding a sea urchin in the palm of my hand at the touch tank in the aquarium. They have hundreds of tube-feet on the bottom that they use to crawl across the sea floor. I was just, like, “This is an alien. I have so many questions.”
But also, I learned to swim without anyone else in the pool because there were so many racists at the bed-and-breakfast we stayed at in Key West. They thought that the pool was polluted once my dark-skinned father showed up. Meanwhile, I was doing cannonballs with reckless impunity. And he’d been through similar things before, as a kid in Jamaica, with the tourism industry and all the White folks coming to the country, the culture clash, and all the justice issues mashed up in this neocolonialist structure that he was living through.
You mentioned your father’s experiences in Jamaica. How have the experiences of your family been formative in your work?
My dad immigrated to the U.S. when he was in his late twenties, early thirties. He grew up fishing, having fish fries on the beach and free diving—all of that. I learned through him a little bit more about the specificity of marine ecosystems, and how much they had changed within his lifetime. Marine ecosystems of Jamaica just crumbled. Part of my family story is: everything he loved disappeared before his eyes. He stopped going fishing because it was just so depressing. We’d go out miles offshore and still not catch anything. He watched that decline in Jamaica, and then moved to New York, fishing off of Long Island, and experienced the same thing again.
So, all of these things are intertwined and very much inform the way that I approached my Ph.D. research in the Caribbean, where I was trying to understand what it would mean to manage coral reefs and sustainable fishing—coming at it from the perspective of understanding the immense value of marine resources as a cultural cornerstone for the Caribbean community. Who wants to be a Jamaican if you can’t have a fish fry? You’re losing so much of culture and your identity as a people.
I spent a lot of years of my doctoral research just interviewing fishermen: knowing how much knowledge they had, and saying, well — I’m going to talk to all of them. I probably interviewed over 400 fishermen and scuba divers to understand, really, what they were seeing? What was changing? And what kinds of policy things would they support? I asked totally different research questions. This is just one example of why it matters who does science.
So it’s really about people and how they interact with these natural resources, right? Talk about the people who contributed to your book.
It’s this mix of journalists, youth climate activists, city planners, policy experts, and scientists, and farmers, and artists, and architects. There’s even a supermodel, writing her “Dear fossil-fuel executives” letter, explaining the parallels with the unsustainability of the fashion industry, and talking about the way that both industries need to completely change what they’re doing. It’s actually one of my favorite essays.
The goal was just to show how many different ways there are to be a part of climate work. And I know, Dawn, you’re familiar with this from the portfolio that you manage and develop. It’s not, one thing, right? It’s not, “solar panels and electric cars” — it’s everything. We need to transform our electricity; but also, our transportation; but also, our buildings, and our manufacturing, and our agriculture, and our land use.
One of the things I have been thinking about since reading some of these essays is this idea of the “Feminist Climate Renaissance,” the intersection of feminism and climate-solutions research. When did you become interested in exploring that idea?
My co-editor, Katherine Wilkinson, has been working on this intersection of gender and climate for quite some time. She has a brilliant TED Talk about it. So, she led the philosophy. The original idea for this book came about because we were cofacilitating a session at an Aspen Institute gathering on climate. We were annoyed with who had all of the money and power, deciding who got the microphones. There’s always a superficial commitment to diversity in those sorts of spaces: “We need an Indigenous person. Someone find us an Indigenous person to say the thing that they’re supposed to say.” It was male-dominated in terms of who the actual people were making the decisions and having the power — and that reflects the way the climate movement has been. It’s been a fairly small group of White men, historically, who have been considered to be the thought leaders and the experts.
But, of course, there are so many more people whose critical work has gone unrecognized, including the first person ever to discover that carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, Eunice Newton Foote. She did these experiments in her backyard in 1856, and published her paper describing, essentially, what later became known as the “greenhouse effect.” And then, a man — three years later — who, almost certainly, read her research — published a more detailed version of it (because he worked at a big institution and had all these resources) and now, is considered the “father of climate science.” So, Katherine and I wondered: how do we break that cycle?
And then, we were cohosting a retreat at a ranch in Montana last summer. We gathered women who are doing this work, to figure out how we can collaborate and support each other. We had to write a title for the event on grant forms. So, we were just, like: oh, “Feminist Climate Renaissance” seems like a great way to spend a week at a ranch. Those words — “feminist,” and “renaissance” — are important. “Feminist” does not exclude anyone: anyone can be for gender equality, which is the dictionary definition of feminism. And we have great social-science data saying that, when women have an equal role in developing environmental policy and enforcing it in all sorts of sustainability work, the outcomes are actually better. So, let’s make sure we have that parity. And then, “renaissance,” as opposed to “revolution” (or something signifying more-violent upheaval). We need a rebirth and a re-envisioning of our relationship with nature and each other.
When women have an equal role in developing environmental policy and enforcing it in all sorts of sustainability work, the outcomes are actually better.
Your book was released during this incredibly significant election season. What’s on your mind, as you think about environmental issues and these political races?
I’ve really been digging into the Biden platform, which is the most aggressive climate-policy proposal we have ever had in a presidential election. This is particularly notable because he was not leading the pack by any stretch of the imagination during the primary. But once he became the nominee, and realized that Americans were prioritizing climate action as a major voting issue, his team realized that they needed to step it up. He formed this, “unity task force,” and listened to activists, and listened to policymakers, and listened to scientists. And listening has completely transformed the Biden plan. To see how much his plan has evolved, from aiming for completely renewable electricity by 2050, to now, saying the goal is 2035 (a 15-year change)—is dramatic. And then, he released, in tandem, this, environmental-justice plan, which says, 40% of the resources for climate adaptation are going to front-line communities, and to communities of color.
It really does reflect a lot of the things that people for a long time have been researching and advocating for. We will all have to work to make sure the vision can get even better.