INTERVIEW BY WILLIAM DEFEBAUGH
For their new book All We Can Save, climate experts Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson gathered a chorus of 60 courageous women who are using their individual voices to create collective change around the climate crisis. The resulting anthology is an anthem for the world—at once a battle cry and unifying hymn, a mournful melody and a song of salvation that will ring true for generations to come.
INTERVIEW BY WILLIAM DEFEBAUGH
I would love to know how All We Can Save came to be. What is the story behind the stories?
Katharine K. Wilkinson
Ayana and I connected through the weird world of Twitter. We had one phone date and decided that we were going to cohost a retreat last summer for 30 women climate leaders in Montana. Because we recognize how much need exists for building community and doing a better job of supporting one another, frankly. As Ayana always says, this is the time when everyone needs to have each other on speed dial. In the process of working on that retreat together, the idea for this book was born. We also happened to be really suffering in Aspen, Colorado [laughs].
We were there for a conference, and yet again, lots of older white male voices were dominating the conversation. We went on what Ayana has come to call a “rage hike,” feeling the frustration of how many brilliant humans with big, bold ideas are not getting the mic and not getting resources, which is particularly true for women.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
Yeah, and one of the realizations that we had during the hike that led to this book is that publishing a book is still one of the primary paths to being considered a thought leader. There are women doing incredible work who are not going to stop doing that in order to write a whole book about it—nor do we want them to stop. This anthology was our effort to bring the book to them, so to speak, and display this incredible chorus, this mosaic of voices that’s not just individual heroes. It’s going to take everyone. It’s the lawyers and the journalists and the artists and the scientists and the teachers and the designers—they all have a role to play.
We were hoping that highlighting these incredible leaders, but also the diversity of ways that people can contribute to climate solutions, would really broaden the movement. That it would welcome more and more people in, as more and more people could see themselves in it. Not just through the lens of the women who are leading, but through the diversity of the work they’re doing, and through representing the breadth of geographies in the US, and the three generations of women leading, and the racial diversity as well—all that’s represented in the book. We really tried to show that to change everything, you need everyone—that’s another layer of how the concept came to be. Then we got a book deal and actually got to do it.
The idea was born last spring. We started the book in December. The manuscript is going off to the printer tomorrow and it comes out in September. From the day we started putting it together to its date of birth (publication) on September 22nd will be almost exactly nine months. I don’t recommend anyone try to put together 60 contributors and build an entire anthology in that time. But Katharine and I have an incredible partnership that has emerged from doing this project together, which made it all possible.
Well, I think there’s some poetic symbolism to the fact that it took nine months for this to be born.
What did you learn in the creation of this chorus and bringing these voices together? What was challenging? What surprised you?
One of the things that was challenging was just dealing with so many people who are living their lives. We became part of the ups and downs of all the essayists’ lives. People miss deadlines because life is happening. We got intertwined in all of these complexities, and it became a very intimate process. I’d expected it to be very professional, but besides the fact that we’re going through a pandemic—before that even started—it was people dealing with cancer in the family. Or relationships falling apart. Or having to move and take care of their elders. And all of these things that happen that prevent us from pretending that everything is okay and just getting on with life as if it’s normal.
This really did turn into much more of a nurturing process than I think I had imagined. And a much more creative process when we realized the heaviness of putting together all these essays on climate. We realized that we needed to find a way to make the content more approachable and digestible, and so we started putting in poetry and then quotes and art, and it became this incredible multilayered piece of work.
I feel all of the things that Ayana said. We’ve joked that, at this point, we are a Venn diagram that looks pretty much like a circle. I think we also felt a great deal of responsibility because there’s a power that comes with being an editor and extending invitations to some people but not others. How could we make sure we were doing that in a way that felt like it was serving the audience but also serving this community of leaders?
I think that was a more emotional process for us than we had anticipated. Because this is a small a cappella group inside a much bigger gospel choir, and we wanted to make sure that we weren’t missing critical contours of the work of this community. It ended up feeling a lot like quilting. Like, “Oh yeah, these are some nice denim swatches. Remember that old polka dotted tablecloth? That was really great.” The other thing that I will say about the process: I don’t think I have ever had a collaboration that felt as strong and as trusting and as supportive as the collaboration, the partnership, that was born between Ayana and me. That was quite interesting for two people who signed a book contract together 364 days after the first time they met. But, in some ways, it feels as if we’ve been working together for eons. That has been nourishing, really deeply nourishing, personally.
“It’s almost that we’re giving people 60 doors into joining this work. Pick a door, any door—but come in, we need your help.”
It’s just one layer of the many examples of how we can’t solve this alone. There’s not, like, one book by one dude that’s going to give us the answer, and we’re all going to read it, and then the climate crisis will end once we take their wise advice. This book has actually become an extension of the community-building work that Katharine and I first came together around. This book will be an anchor for carrying a lot of that work forward. There’s something about the way the book evolved that—I wouldn’t say was surprising, but we signed a contract for 60,000 word book, and it’s 130,000. We just couldn’t stop adding essays.
Late in the curation process, we saw these two incredible TED Talks: one by a woman who lives in the bayou of Louisiana, Colette Pichon Battle, another by Christine Nieves Rodríguez, who lives in Puerto Rico. Christine talks about Hurricane Maria and Colette about Hurricane Katrina, and they both speak to the need for adaptation and for community building. We raced to edit their talks into essays so that we could include them in the book. I cannot imagine this book without their voices. There are so many people doing incredible work, and that’s the point. We need to be highlighting all of these different ways of doing this work, because as much as the marching and the donating and the voting and the calling your political representatives and reading and spreading the word matters, what we really need in this moment is for everyone to figure out how to use their special skills to be a part of a solution.
We hope that people will see themselves in this book and say, “I could do that. My cousin would maybe really dig this one. My uncle would be really excited to support this group.” Or whatever the case may be. There are 60 contributors, including the essayists and the poets. We think—I’ve never said this before, Katharine—but it’s almost that we’re giving people 60 doors into joining this work. Pick a door, any door—but come in, we need your help.
I love how you talk about what’s happening right now as a shift toward work that integrates both the head and the heart. For so long, it’s just been really head-driven, and that has been linked to the masculine and the patriarchal, or however you want to understand it. What have you found to be the value of emotional or heart-driven storytelling?
I think part of the power is simply that it means people are coming to whatever storytelling they’re doing with their wholeness as human beings. Think about this idea of “bring your superpowers”: If we’re only showing up with only our intellectual superpowers, or only our tactical superpowers, or only our emotive-connective superpowers, then we’re not bringing all of our strengths to the table.
I also think as human beings we’re constantly scanning to see if what’s happening inside that person is coming through on the outside. Does what’s happening on the outside seem to reflect and connect to a deeper inner core? I think that’s what the word “integrity” really means. Integrity has become this cheap corporate value. But are we actually integrated? That’s powerful. I think it’s really important from the perspective of building trust and feeling, Okay, this human feels solid, I feel like I could link arms with them.
I also think, particularly around climate, we know how much emotion people are holding about this moment and what’s happening to the planet. My personal take is that’s because we’re deeply connected to the planet’s living systems and to one another—that we actually can feel more of what’s going on than we’re maybe consciously processing. But even if it is just consciously processing dire media headlines and whatever else, if you don’t feel like you can bring all of that to the climate conversation and have space for it, well, that’s something that keeps people on the sidelines. If I can only show up with hope and absolute courage and not also own the grief and the fear and all the rest, that has some sort of pullback effect, and I think we see that play out: “Climate is about science and policy, and these other things have to sit over there.” This is part of the power of youth leadership. Xiye Bastida, one of the essayists, is such a great example of coming into this work in a deeply integrated way. This integration of head and heart is part of why the collective youth voice is really ringing through so clearly.
The way that I think of the power of the youth climate movement is the moral clarity that they bring to this work. Some things are wrong and some things are right, and relegating the future of humanity to a planet that is on fire and melting and in drought and all of these things at the same time is unfair. It’s not right, especially given who’s bearing the brunt of all that: people who usually have done the least to cause it in terms of their carbon footprint or emissions.
We need to build this whole other way of being. We’ve had the science since the ’70s, and that hasn’t done the trick, so throwing more science at people is not the answer. Although, there is lots of science in this book—we are currently doing the final wrangling of many hundreds of footnotes. It’s not that we don’t think everything should be grounded in science, but that clearly hasn’t been enough to get us there. Like Katharine said, making sure that the storytelling is a part of it so that people see themselves reflected and included and welcomed.
But you’re asking about why the head and the heart, and I think it’s almost as if the question should be the opposite. Like, why did we think we could solve the biggest crisis of all time without dealing with our humanity? How are we fooling ourselves so thoroughly that we thought that, without connecting to each other as humans, we could somehow get through this existential crisis? I think this is just one contribution to this reweaving of all of the things that we’re going to need in order to get through this together. One of the ways that I’ve been writing about it lately is: How did we think we were going to solve the largest crisis humanity has ever faced without caring about the humans? It doesn’t make any sense.
There was a point at which we realized that the emotional piece needed its own section of the book. The book is divided into eight sections, with about five essays each and two poems and a few quotes. But there is a section called “Feel” that is about how we deal with something this big emotionally, psychologically. How do we provide emotional support to the people who are doing this work and carrying a larger share of this weight in their day-to-day lives? How do we think about being a good friend or a parent in this moment? How do we get our heads around this? This section is in the center of the book—it’s not the beginning, it’s not the end. Of course, there are elements of that that weave through a lot of the other essays as well.
But that is something that a lot of people are thinking about and that we don’t often address directly because of this American cult of the individual and the “just work harder” and “power through” and “man up.” All of these turns of phrase about the way we should approach our work and contributions to the world. Many people are not engaging in climate work because they don’t even want to think about the scary what-ifs. We realized we needed a section of the book so people could address it head-on, in the same way that I listen to extremely depressing jazz ballads when I’m sad, and it makes me feel better because it lets me know that someone else has felt the same way. I think that some of these essays might be helpful in that they make us understand that this is actually a normal reaction to fearing the end of life as we have known it: I’m not alone, someone was so concerned about these same things that they wrote these few thousand words for me.
It’s making me think that, in so many ways, we created the climate book that I wish that I had 15 years ago when I was trying to knit all these different pieces together. There was a moment where I got—I don’t know if it was spit out of the movement or if I stepped myself back because I didn’t know where to find a place that didn’t feel bureaucratic, technocratic, wonky. None of that felt like home. Frankly, the last couple of years of coming into this broader community of women in climate has finally made the work feel like home. That’s something also that we’re thinking about for post-publication: How do we allow the book to help bring people into the community in the way that we know is so important? And a one-off retreat—like the one we hosted where a billionaire gives us his ranch for a week—that is not a scalable community-building strategy. We’ve been laughing about the language of “weft and weave,” which is language I really love.
But, frankly, we needed that space to do some healing. It’s a lot—and not just what’s happening to the planet. What we heard from a lot of women last summer was about the violence that happens. Patriarchy and racism play out within the climate movement, and that is what’s really hurting people. That’s what’s making the work really hard. How do we try to counter some of that, heal some of that, give folks space that actually does genuinely feel loving? There’s clearly a deep love of this planet and of humanity that fuels climate work, but sometimes climate work doesn’t feel particularly love-filled.
I kid you not, the next question on my list was about community or, as you call it, “investing in the weft and weave between us.” Janine Benyus talks about how we see nature through the lens of how we have traditionally viewed our economy and our culture: through the lens of competition. I love how she talks about forestry through that lens, and how forestry has evolved, and the understanding we have now that trees are really social creatures that are looking out for each other. I would love to speak a little bit more of this shift from a mindset of competition to community and how this book is really a testament to that.
I think the best example of that is the back cover of the book, which is a list of all the contributors: all the essayists, all the poets, the illustrator. That is the best endorsement and the most important thing. We don’t need book blurbs from other people. Every time I see that list, I’m like, This is what it’s about. The contributors to this book are starting to become a community, and I think about all of the collaborations that have been born simply because we’ve been able to connect people—as with the gathering that Katharine and I curated and facilitated in Montana last summer, and future ones that we’ve been planning and thinking about.
It’s exciting to think about groups of people coming together to read this book and to think about what it means or how they continue to live on this planet and do their work or other manifestations of it. This is going to sound a little bit cheesy, but I’m just going to say it anyway. I commissioned a piece of art from a dear friend, Reggie Black, and he is this super hip calligrapher. I don’t know how to describe it—he has this way of writing words that are refined graffiti or something. Not that graffiti isn’t refined—as a kid from Brooklyn, I can’t believe I just said that. But I commissioned this piece, and it’s just black ink on white paper and it says, “Community.” It hangs on the wall in my living room, and I have a very small apartment, so I can basically see it from anywhere in my tiny apartment.
My personal mantra is building community around solutions. How can we build community around the solutions that we need? I also care about friendships that have nothing to do with being productive, but when it comes to how I like to think about my work, then that’s it. “Marine biologist” doesn’t quite capture it, or “writer,” or whatever. I think the most important work that I can do is that community-building piece, but specifically building community around solutions toward this collective progress.
This question, William, is sending me a little bit down memory lane. I think I care so much about the community building because I feel like my entire identity as an environmentalist, earth healer, planet warrior, or whatever—there’s not a good word for it—was born out of community and has been sustained in community. Maybe there are more fierce beings who can go on a lone hero’s journey, but that’s not me. When I was 16, I spent a semester living in the woods in western North Carolina in Pisgah Forest with 25 kids. It was a deeply politicizing experience around environmental issues, sort of my kick start into high gear.
Then I think about when I was in college and a Udall Scholar for a couple of years. It was wonderful because they would bring 80 undergrads to Tucson, Arizona, and that ignited so many new projects and ideas. There have also been episodes of not working in community, which is when I’ve felt myself sort of peter out—my PhD being one of those. I did complete it, but it was terrible. We are just better together. We feed off of each other’s fire, and that allows for the ebb and flow that inevitably happens of vigor and then exhaustion, of courage and heartbreak.
I imagine this kind of connected rippling system that can keep us all going with work that is too big, too hard to do alone. Especially when with most of the things we’re working on—we may see small wins, but we’re not probably going to see the big wins that we’re ultimately collectively working toward because it’s so planetary and diffuse and long-term. I think we need the near-term joy and reinforcement that you get in community and in partnership.
That also actually really feeds into my next question, which is: We’ve seen really unprecedented worldwide climate demonstrations in the last few years. How much of that do you think is owed to the #MeToo movement and the Women’s March that came right before. How do you see the connection between the two in terms of what is possible and the power of activism? I suppose this was on my mind a little bit after I was watching Katharine’s Ted Talk last year on the intersection of gender equity and the climate crisis and how they are inextricably linked.
There is something beautifully contagious about seeing other people step forward and step up and speak out, even if it’s on something that’s kind of different than your day-to-day focus… The upwellings of these different movements, I think, definitely have that kind of impact on one another… I feel anger and rage. I think the climate space was, maybe still is, not very comfortable with those emotions sometimes. But there’s real power in them.
It’s interesting that you ask this because the one thing that they cut out of that talk in the edit was basically a line that said, “In the era of #MeToo, I hope we may also begin to hear Mother Earth too, because she is also crying out, ‘Enough, see me, hear me, and respect me.’” It made me so sad that they cut that because I do think that these things are incredibly intertwined, especially when we think of climate change or gender-based violence not as “the problem,” but as manifestations of systems, values, ways of being in the world that cause harm—that cause planetary harm, that cause bodily harm and emotional harm. It took Ayana and me a few rounds of revision to really hone our articulation of that link in the book’s “Begin”: Really, what connects these movements is the things they’re trying to change at the root and the things they’re trying to enliven at the root and bring into being.
I also think there is something beautifully contagious about seeing other people step forward and step up and speak out, even if it’s on something that’s kind of different than your day-to-day focus. It’s empowering. The upwellings of these different movements, I think, definitely have that kind of impact on one another. Also, one of the particular things about #MeToo is honoring that anger and rage have a place and can be incredibly powerful. I feel anger and rage. I think the climate space was, maybe still is, not very comfortable with those emotions sometimes. But there’s real power in them.
Yeah, and those emotions are justifiable given what a small group of greedy bastards have done to our planet. I don’t think there’s a direct connection between the number of people marching in the climate strikes and the #MeToo movement. But there might be an indirect one in that most of the leaders of the youth climate movement are girls, they’re teenagers. They’re girls, and I think they have been perhaps emboldened by seeing older generations finally say, “Enough, get out of my way, don’t treat me like shit. I have a contribution to make, and you need to take me seriously.” I think older women, matriarchs putting their foot down in this not just powerful but collective way—#MeToo is a collective.
I’m tearing up, thinking about how women farmworkers were writing to the celebrities in Hollywood and saying, “We’re with you, we have your backs.” And just to know that is a way that we could move through the world. I had a window into some of that because I have some friends who were in the initial inner circle leading that work and I saw, of course, there’s tensions, and this stuff is really hard, and it’s fraught, and the decisions about how and where and when to say exactly what can be really challenging, but the way that was really centered around sisterhood made it so powerful.
We can help to facilitate something similar in the climate movement, across generations. That would feel like something very worth contributing to. One of the ways that we like to word that is the “Feminist Climate Renaissance.” This needs to be a rebirth, where gender equality is part of the game, where women’s voices and expertise are valued. We can’t suppress the brilliance and contributions of 51 percent of the people on the planet and succeed. It’s not possible. The term “renaissance” instead of revolution—I think that it points to a sort of feminine power of giving life that is something that we wanted to focus on as opposed to a tearing apart. It’s a rebirth, it’s a new phase, it’s life giving, it’s life-protecting this work.
I’d love to close with giving an opportunity for both of you to share some of your favorite pieces from the book and some essays that you would like to shine a light on.
One of the pieces that I love that maybe people wouldn’t think would be a part of this book is Alice Walker’s poem “Calling All Grand Mothers.” I was kind of nervous to put it in because it’s the one piece that’s really like, “Men just get out of the way. Let us lead.” Also I’m obsessed with this concept that grandmothers will lead us forward, that they’ve seen generations of this nonsense. If we would just gather the wisdom they are trying to share, then we would be much better off. I don’t think people normally think of Alice Walker in the same breath as the climate movement. Her poem is a really nice addition to the book.
I love that and also what Sherri Mitchell says in her piece about how time as we understand it is really an illusion, and therefore, we’re operating with the knowledge of our grandmothers, our grandchildren.
William, I feel like you and I are in some kind of mind meld because I was going to mention Sherri’s piece. I feel so incredibly honored that her voice is in this collection because I have learned so much from her over the past couple of years. I guess we’re coming up on maybe three years since we met at the Omega Institute. Her book, Sacred Instructions—among books by just one person, that is the most important one for this moment. She is one of those people who has such incredible wisdom, who clearly is tapping into the wisdom of generations before and generations yet to come, and the world has not heard her voice nearly enough.
I feel really excited for the acquaintances that are going to be made as people read this book. I also feel really excited that the book includes Sarah Stillman, who I went to grad school with and Ayana became friends with in real, grown-up life, who’s this beautiful, beautiful writer for the New Yorker. This is really her first climate piece. That feels really exciting in terms of exactly what we’re trying to do: bringing people in, welcoming them into this big, growing, beautiful team, and inviting them to come with their superpowers. Sarah is a superpower writer of epic proportions.
Sherri has this term that she coins in her essay, “kincentric awareness,” that I think speaks to what Katharine was just saying. And my favorite part of that essay is that she shares these two words in her indigenous language. One is mamabezu, which means, “he or she has enough, an individual has enough,” and alabezu, which means “everyone has enough.” I think that those concepts are so powerful—it’s connecting the individual with the broader community and it’s acknowledging the concept of “enough,” both of which I think we’ve lost sight of a bit.
Well, I think that is a perfect note to end on. Thank you all so much for taking the time. I know you have a lot on your plate, and I really appreciate it and the work that you’re putting out into the world.
Thank you, William.
William, thank you for such a beautiful conversation.