Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and climate drawdown strategist Katharine Wilkinson — co-editors of a new book by female climate leaders — met on Twitter in 2018 while co-curating an all-female climate retreat in Montana.
The two became fast friends and collaborators, and at another climate community gathering a year later, conceived the idea for the anthology, "All We Can Save."
"In the midst of this event we were feeling the rage that I think a lot of women in climate feel which is, why are all the microphones in the hands of white men? And why are there so many brilliant people who are not here who are not getting a platform, not getting amplified?" recalls Wilkinson. A book, the duo believed, could be "a pathway into thought leadership, for lack of a better term, for having public influence."
Their labor of love, published this week, started as a proposed collection of 20 essays, poems and calls to action. It quickly swelled into an anthology that features 41 contributors of all ages including journalist Naomi Klein, biomimicry pioneer Janine Benyus, Green New Deal co-author Rhiana Gunn-Wright, Sunrise movement co-founder Varshini Prakash, indigenous activist Sherri Mitchell and many others. Johnson’s mother, regenerative farmer Louise Maher-Johnson, contributed a poem.
"We wanted to bring the mighty chorus to life in one place and do it in a way that feels more like the way women are doing this work — which is with linked arms, passing the mic, shine theory, all of that," Wilkinson said.
We wanted to bring the mighty chorus to life in one place and do it in a way that feels more like the way women are doing this work — which is with linked arms, passing the mic, shine theory, all of that.
Johnson’s "fearlessness" (Wilkinson's descriptor) helped raise the money to attract a publisher, the One World imprint of Penguin Random House, and to "cast" celebrities to read the audiobook including America Ferrera, Jane Fonda, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Alfre Woodard. The co-editors plan other programming that builds on the "All We Can Save" message, such as creating "circles" dedicated to discussing the book and (in the future) financial support for cohorts of female climate leaders.
I co-interviewed the two about their collaboration in late August during a conversation punctuated frequently with laughter. Following is a transcript, edited for both length and clarity.
Heather Clancy: So, who should read the book? Who is it intended for?
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: That’s a hard question because we really do think that this book, there’s something in it for everyone. We edited it so that it is as welcoming as possible. We think of the 41 essays as 41 different invitations into the work that you could do, 41 different examples of how people are contributing to the climate movement.
We know that everyone can’t do everything, but for people who haven’t yet found their role in climate work, we hope that this book will help them see where they fit in. And for people who are already doing the work, we hope that this will help them feel less alone and bolstered for the next years and rounds and decades of the work that needs doing.
Katharine Wilkinson: In a very kind of unexpected twist of fate, I am getting to teach this book to a seminar class of undergrads at the liberal arts college where I went to undergrad. We just kicked off reading "Begin," which is what we named the introduction of the book because we felt like "Introduction" or "Forward," people might just like skip over that … One of the students said, "I was shaking while I read the Begin because I felt so empowered." That’s more than we ever could have hoped for with this book.
We hope that especially the younger generation who are new to the team, new to the squad, will see themselves in this book and that they will feel welcomed into this broader circle, this broader community and know that the ways they might be inclined to show up are exactly the ways that we need climate leaders leading.
Johnson: I would add another category of person and that’s people who’ve been like, "Isn’t there more to this climate thing than solar panels and electric cars? I feel like there’s more to this?" Because there is, and I don't think we talk enough about the diversity of solutions and areas of expertise that are needed in this moment. I think a lot of people haven’t been able to see what they could contribute because they’ve never been presented with what an architect and an artist and a farmer can add to the solutions that are needed.
Clancy: How will feminine leadership change the conversation and catalyze action?
Wilkinson: In the Begin section, we talk about leadership that is more characteristically feminine and more committedly feminist. And it’s worth just saying right from the get-go that none of that is limited to people of any gender, right. It’s open to all of us. But we saw big characteristics of this transformational leadership that certainly not only women but many women are bringing to the climate space.
The first is a commitment to making change rather than being in charge. Getting past the ego, the hierarchy, the control, the inability to share the mic or share, give credit, whatever. All of those shenanigans that just keep us from collaborating in the way that we really frankly have to, right?
Johnson: You're going to include in the transcript the parts where you roll your eyes and nod in agreement, right, Heather? [Laughter].
Wilkinson: The second is a commitment to addressing the climate crisis in ways that heal systemic injustices rather than suggesting that we’ll get to those later, as we’ve heard from way too many particularly old-guard men in the climate movements. Like, for instance, that equity is not somehow secondary to survival but that it is survival. And if you understand the root causes of this challenge, you are necessarily multi-solving as you go.
The third area is heart-centered and not just head-centered leadership. There’s an inescapable emotional and spiritual content to this crisis. So creating space for grief and anxiety and anger [laughs] but also courage and determination and love. And holding all of that.
The last one, which is the very thing that brought Ayana and me together to begin with, is that building community is a foundation for building a better world. Taking the time and making the space to do the relational work that make us stronger as a movement.
I don't think we talk enough about the diversity of solutions and areas of expertise that are needed in this moment.
Clancy: Is there anything you’d like to add, Ayana?
Johnson: The only thing I would add is that when we don’t include women leaders, we’re leaving out half the planet, right? Let’s just be reasonable: If we want to win, we should include everyone, and everyone includes women.
Clancy: I was very curious about what gender-responsive strategies look like for climate resilience and adaption. Can you give me some examples of solutions you’d like to see emulated?
Wilkinson: The question is taking me to the second section of the book that is called Reshape. Every section opens with an original illustration, and this one is about doing the work of mending. For whatever reason the two that are coming up for me are the work of Emily Stengel and GreenWave and regenerative ocean farming. She makes the point in that essay that it just so happens that many of the leaders, maybe the majority of leaders, in regenerative ocean farming are women, and that because it is a new field, a new sector, there are ways to get it right from the get-go.
I’m also thinking about the work of Kate Orff and the landscape architecture firm Scape, particularly on the resilience and adaptation side. There’s a wonderful line where she says that we can’t love what we don’t see and how the work of illumination designers and architects and others with visual skill sets can help us. There is this deep sense of generous dialogue that they bring into their work. Instead of master planning [laughs] there is this working with a community and teasing out and shaping and reshaping a vision that then we rally around and move forward together — as opposed to sort of parachuting in as experts and saying, "I’ll tell you what we’re going to do."
Clancy: Recognizing that feminine leadership can come from any gender, and maybe this question isn’t appropriate, what is your advice for male allies? How can they be better allies of feminine leadership in climate?
Johnson: That’s a perfectly lovely question. I think the only thing I would maybe quibble with is the term "allies" because it’s more like we’re all in this together. I think of "allies" sort of in the way it's used more in like a societal injustice context as opposed to a war context.
Clancy: You mean like optical allyship?
Johnson: Yeah, or like more like allies [that think] "Those people need our help, we’re going to be their good allies." That’s not what we need, we need to build the biggest team possible and respect what everyone’s contributing. So, yes, to "allies" in the sense of like in a world war where we’re all teaming up against this thing. At the same time, I sort of hesitate to say that because Katharine and I were really careful about where and how and how many war metaphors to use in the book. Typically, we’ve been talking about fighting climate change and defeating climate change and the battle against climate change and like all of these things.
What we really need to defeat is the fossil fuel industry maybe [laughs] or at least dismantle it and reconstruct for renewable energy. We’ve been really deliberate in thinking about this less as a demolition project and more as a rebirth. The term that we’ve embraced is one of a feminist climate renaissance.
We have this opportunity to think about how we change things: how we build the world anew, when we have all of these leaders, we have all of these solutions. And so how are we going to connect those dots and make it all happen as fast as possible? But to answer your question a bit more directly I think part of it like part of it has to do with sharing resources.
A lot of the resources that are going to climate work are going to a bunch of white men who are often well meaning but just don’t have all the answers. It’s impossible for them to have all the answers, right? So making sure that we’re not hoarding funding and instead saying, "I actually have enough right now." One of the essays in our opening section called "Root" is by this indigenous leader, Sherri Mitchell, who writes about this term in her language for there being enough. "Mamabezu" means an individual has enough, and alabezu means like we collectively have enough …
That concept, I think, needs to apply to sharing resources within the climate movement. Does your organization, does your research really need more funding right now, or can you pass the mic and say, "I’m not the right person for this, but this group is doing amazing work?" I think we need to do more of that: If everyone is successful, then we succeed, right? And that, I think, especially goes for the work of climate justice organizations who have been doing so much with so little for so long.
I can only imagine if they were actually fully resourced and didn’t have to write like hugely onerous grants to get like $5,000 or $10,000, what they could do if their full might were unleashed on the problem. I think what men can do is [laughs] send large checks to women leading the work.
I mean that: Literally give away your money. We’re just out of time. I think everyone wants to have the perfect strategy for philanthropy and have the perfect understanding of impact, but we’re just going to have to do some of this by trial and error because that’s going to actually be the more efficient way to proceed.
Clancy: What’s your call to action for companies? One of the reasons I’m asking is because I notice none of the essayists were from the corporate sector. But what’s your call to action for that sector, the corporate sustainability community?
Wilkinson: I think part of it for corporate actors is, yes, we need targets, yes, we need strategies. Yes, we need measurement and carbon accounting, but also [laughs] we need love, right? We actually need a different way of showing up to this work. And our sense is that there is a desire from people generally but within companies specifically to be able to come to this work with their hearts. Making space for that, I think, within companies where often it doesn’t feel like that is a way you can be is really important and really powerful …
In her quote for the book, Interface CSO Erin Meezan says that we need to raise the bar on what our aspirations are to what it is that the plant needs, and the planet needs a climate fit for life. So [address] corporate goals that are less than sufficient. Have the courage to put the bar where the bar needs to be. Meezan says that we need courage and optimism probably more than we need science and data to actually meet that bar.
I think recognizing that courage and optimism are not like fairy dust that you sprinkle on the top. You’ve got to help cultivate those things. Part of the way you cultivate them is in that relational work we were talking about. A sense of being connected and in community.
Clancy: How did you select these women? That must have been really hard. And part two of that question is did you intentionally think about the racial ethnicity of the contributors? What role did that play in the selection?
Johnson: There are so many different skill sets that are needed, and we wanted to show as much of that as possible. And you pointed out that the business perspective is one of the few main ones that we didn’t get in there, which we are bummed about, and thinking about the circular economy more generally. But yes, there’s only so much you can fit into one book.
I think our initial list was over indexed towards activists. We had to dial that back and bring in more architects, artists, farmers, journalists. We were trying to balance areas of expertise, which is tough because often there’s like 10 amazing women doing, say, work on the psychology of how we deal with climate change. And we had to pick one. That was really hard. I think one of the ways that we balanced that is that this is community building. We were thinking about who we wanted to bring together for future potential collaborations.
Let’s just be reasonable: If we want to win, we should include everyone and everyone includes women.
We wanted to think about, honestly, who’s a good writer. This is not just like who’s doing the best work. This is who can write about it compellingly. Although, some of the essays went through five or more rounds of edits because the story needed to be told and Katharine and I would just like bend over backwards to make sure that it came together perfectly. We thought about diversity in a lot of different senses. I described the areas of expertise: farmers, lawyers, activists, artists, architects, all of that, journalists, so that was one piece of it. We were thinking about the diversity of climate solutions that people were working on, too, from regenerative ocean farming to our electricity system to green buildings and everything in between.
We thought about age diversity as well, from youth climate activists to grandmothers. We thought about racial diversity. I will admit that we initially had a goal of having the majority of the women contributing the book be women of color. But we hid that column in our spreadsheet before we were done and sort of like added a few people at the last minute. It’s about 40 percent or something like that … And then geographic: We wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just a New York and California book. There’s a lot of work going on all over the country.
But we did constrain essayists to people living and working in the United States because the U.S. has been the largest contributor to the climate crisis in terms of emissions and just has so much work to do in terms of a solutions. We thought we would sort of that was the constraint that we put on this was having a U.S. focus. Because otherwise obviously, there are incredible people all over the world working on this. But then it would be really impossible to choose. ...
It was really hard to make these decisions because there were such an abundance of people to choose from. And I think that’s such a good sign. The fact that we had trouble narrowing it down means that there’s like so much wisdom and expertise so here for the taking and amplifying.