Does the climate movement need a makeover?

Environmental advocates Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson on why saving the planet requires less guilting and more galvanizing, less emailing and more organizing, less doom and more joy

One year ago today, a scrappy little newsletter called The Ink was born. Today, after all this time, I can report that it is now, without exaggeration, a scrappy little newsletter.

It has been a steady and steadying joy, especially in the times we’ve been having, to be in conversation with you through these posts. In them, I have tried to probe both the very deep crises we are in — and the very real grounds for hope where they exist.

It’s fitting, then, that today’s post marking this anniversary is an interview with the climate activists and thinkers Drs. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson, who make plain how dire the climate crisis is and who argue, at the same time, that the climate cause needs a hope makeover, summoning people into a life-giving project rather than driving them away with fatalism, gloom, and an aura of impossibility.

Johnson, a marine biologist by training, and Wilkinson, a writer and strategist, are the co-editors of the new anthology “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis,” which brings together dozens of women at the forefront of the climate movement and shares their ideas in the form of essays, poetry, and art.

I asked Johnson and Wilkinson about where the climate movement falls short and how it can change, whether Priuses are a distraction from real environmentalism, and why email away messages may be a crucial part of doing the work of protecting the earth. (They took turns answering or decided between themselves who would take what.)

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“Life force is our inheritance, and it can also be our legacy”: a conversation with Drs. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson

THE INK: After this summer of climate doom, from the wildfires to the erratic weather to the flooding, it's possible and necessary to feel very worried about where we are. But you both argue, with great optimism, that the battle to beat back the climate threat is also a profound opportunity — especially for women and for feminism. Explain.

KATHARINE: Women and girls are getting disproportionately screwed by climate change, especially when you factor in other identities (e.g., those who are poor, of color, live in the Global South). That’s because climate change takes existing inequities and injustices and, pardon my pun, turns up the temperature. From being less likely to know how to swim when a flood hits, to being less likely to have funds in a bank account to fund evacuation or relocation, women are on the back foot when it comes to coping with the climate crisis.

But the story doesn’t end there. Gender equality and women’s leadership are a vital part of the solution. A growing body of research tells us outcomes for the planet are better when women have higher social and political status, are more fairly represented in leadership, and are centered in climate solutions. If you’re a feminist on a hot planet, you have to be a climate feminist.

THE INK: One of the challenges I've discussed with many who work on climate is the dueling imperatives of (A) scaring people about legitimately terrifying future possibilities in order to spur action and (B) inspiring people to want to join up and be part of this cause and not depressing them. How do you see the most effective climate leaders navigating that tension?

AYANA: I think the subtitle of the “All We Can Save” anthology sums up our thinking on that: “truth, courage, and solutions for the climate crisis.” It is this trifecta that we see effective climate leaders deploy. Yes, the climate crisis is deadly serious. So tell the truth about the scientific projections and make the stakes clear. Face that truth with courage; don’t shirk and cower, but rather gird ourselves for the work ahead. And stay forward-looking — focus on solutions and what we can do.

Because there is so much we can do. We already have most of the solutions we need. It’s just about how quickly and justly we can deploy them. I see effective leaders deploying this trifecta. And I would add that finding joy in this work is critical. Addressing the climate crisis is the work of our lifetimes, but it doesn’t have to be miserable work. We can choose to contribute in ways that make use of our skills, ways that bring us joy!

THE INK: There was this story recently about how Toyota very publicly and famously led the way on clean cars with the Prius, but has now, much less visibly, become a major lobbyist against climate-saving regulations. This is, of course, a common pattern. Do you think there has been an excessive focus among environmentally minded citizens on good personal choices like car purchases and recycling and composting, and a lack of attention to systemic change? How would you advise folks to change that?

KATHARINE: Did you know we love this topic? So much so that we’ve both done podcast episodes on it: “Give up your climate guilt” on A Matter of Degrees and “Is your carbon footprint BS?” on How To Save a Planet. Yes, the environmental movement has absolutely over-indexed on personal choices. Historically, there’s been too little focus on systemic change, too little focus on accountability for causes, and causers, of the climate crisis. And I think that’s been a real strategic miss, both because it distracts from bigger leverage points for change and because it creates a sense of guilt and shame that keeps people out of the movement. 

The interesting question is: why this trend? One of those reasons is BP. The company ran a big campaign in the early 2000s hyping “carbon footprints.” Naturally, the fossil fuel industry wants you focused on perfecting your light bulbs and veggie burgers, not protesting in the streets or running for office as a climate champion.

I think there’s also some deep-seated American individualism, whiteness, and even evangelicalism reflected in this emphasis on individual behavior. My doctoral research looked at what was then a burgeoning climate movement within American evangelical Christianity. Doing focus groups in churches, I encountered a recurring trope that isolated environmental responsibility to personal decisions and resisted more systemic understandings of climate change. It’s not dissimilar to persistent framings of racism in the U.S., right? That it’s something expressed in, and limited to, interpersonal interactions, which of course couldn’t be further from the truth.

The good news is that I think this is changing. The climate justice movement and BIPOC leadership are coming more and more to the fore. Climate accountability journalism is growing. Activists are more loudly laying blame at the feet of the fossil fuel industry. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do the things we can in our individual lives, but that will never be enough. Engaging as part of collectives, in our work, in civic life — that’s what we need to do what scientists have told us is necessary: “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

THE INK: What do you think the biggest internal shortcoming of the environmental movement has been thus far — and what would you advocate for it to be even more effective at achieving change?

AYANA: Asking everyone to do the same thing: everyone march, everyone spread the word, everyone reduce your own carbon footprint, and donate, and vote. And, yes, do all those things — I do them! But what an enormous miss for the environmental movement to not have been, this whole time, inviting people to bring their superpowers to this work. So instead of all following the same exact checklist, I encourage people to figure out the special things they can contribute to climate solutions. 

And one way to do that is to draw a climate action Venn diagram with three circles. One circle is “What are you good at?”, the next is “What part of the climate problem do you want to help solve?”, and the third is “What brings you joy?” And then figure out how you can work at the epicenter of that Venn diagram for as many minutes of your life as you can.

My own quest for how I could contribute to the collective efforts in my own bespoke way led to the “All We Can Save” anthology. It also led to using my training as a marine biologist, my nerdy love for policy and for design, and my upbringing in Brooklyn to co-found Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for the future of coastal cities in the context of our changing climate.

And, as Katharine said, too much of the focus has been on the individual, as opposed to how individuals can be part of a collective, contributing meaningfully to the system-level changes we need.

THE INK: You both have terrific, and somewhat bold, email away messages. Messages like these seem to be the only way to get creative work done. But they also offend a lot of people, and women seem to bear a particular brunt of a cultural expectation to be available always. Tell me about your messages and what you've learned from having them.

KATHARINE: I recently wrote to a friend that sometimes the exponential curve of email and to-dos feels like a metaphor for rising temps and tides. It was a somewhat flippant comment, but I actually do think they’re connected. My inbox feels like one way in which the impossible “more, more, more” of extractive capitalism shows up in my own small day-to-day. To extend the metaphor, my auto-reply feels a bit like a seawall that isn’t really working! But I am trying to shift norms, automate some answers, and say, “It’s too much. Let’s give one another, and ourselves, some grace.” 

I’ve definitely seen a few snide tweets about “lady boss auto-replies,” ironically from women in climate who are also buried and verging on burnout. Women are socialized not to have boundaries — to give and give more, with a smile. I’d love to see us support one another in establishing those boundaries, especially when we’re doing it to create more space and verve for the work that really needs doing — most of which does not occur on email. I think it’s critical for the work to secure a life-giving future to feel more life-giving in the present. Can an auto-reply help with that? Maybe.

AYANA: The subject line of my email auto-reply is “less email, more creating,” and it provides links to my FAQ document, my speaking agent, and places to look for climate jobs and volunteer opportunities. So while it makes it clear that people should not expect a reply unless we are collaborators, in many cases it does give them the information they seek. And offering some reply, even if it’s an automatic one, means I don’t feel I have to either keep typing out various “no” emails or that I’m rudely leaving people hanging. Interestingly, a lot of people think my auto-reply can’t possibly apply to them and send repeated follow-ups, so that’s been a fascinating lesson in hubris. But if there are snarky, gendered comments about my auto-reply, I’m blissfully unaware of them. And anyone who would make such comments is not someone I’d want to be emailing with anyway. 

The irony is that the reason I get a lot of emails is because people value the work I do, but then in these emails they are very insistent on pulling me away from that work to do some other thing. But I actually get lots of compliments on my auto-reply and requests to copy elements of it. To which, of course, the answer is yes! Consider it open source. 

Speaking of open source, for those who want to read and digest “All We Can Save” with a group, check out the circle resources and facilitation guide Katharine created. And we are developing lots of open source materials for educators and a mentoring series as well — using all those minutes we aren’t spending on emails.

THE INK: Katharine, on the topic of a previous book of yours, Between God and Green, what kinds of arguments should environmentalists be making to evangelical Christians? What are other possible cross-over arguments to unlikely allies that have yet to be exploited to their full potential?

KATHARINE: I learned so much from doing that research. I went into it probably overly idealistic about the role that religion, and religious framings of climate concern, could play in broadening and deepening public engagement and political will. One of the things that became clear is that, on climate, as with so many issues, religion is no panacea and political ideology often wins the day. Even with the tightest theology and most compelling faith-based messages, it’s hard to overcome the very savvy, very well-funded climate misinformation campaigns that have been operating, and targeting conservative white men, for decades. The Kochs too often win out over “creation care.”

But I also learned that the messenger is at least as important as the message, especially when the messenger shares fundamental values, beliefs, and experiences with an audience. (This same insight informs the work we’re doing with The All We Can Save Project, to center the voices of diverse women in climate discourse.) The climate scientist able to break through to evangelical leaders at that time, in the early 2000s, was Sir John Houghton, then co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an Oxford professor, and an evangelical Christian. So more than messages from environmentalists to evangelicals, I think we need evangelical environmentalists getting the support and platforms they need to do their work. And those messages can’t just come from elite leaders — they need to circuit through congregations, colleges, seminaries, communities. More and more, I think that’s happening. David Geselbracht and Kate Yoder at Grist have done some recent reporting on this topic that’s worth checking out.

But all that to say: I think the most effective climate communication is “biodiverse,” meets people where they are, and speaks to the things they already care about — whether that’s “God’s creation” or skiing or New Orleans or public health or justice or future generations. The thing about a crisis that literally touches everything: it’s not too hard to connect the dots. We just need a lot more dot connectors.

THE INK: Your new co-edited book, “All We Can Save,” makes the case that movements don't get anywhere by telling people what's hard or improbable. So let's jump forward to the middle of this century. Our children are looking back on how, against all odds, we did it. We met this crisis and solved it. Tell me the story of how we did it. What came together to change the equations?

KATHARINE: I think we should be clear-eyed about what a best-case scenario by midcentury might look like. If we halve global emissions this decade, then halve them again by 2040, then again by 2050, alongside ramping up natural and tech-based carbon removal, we will just be getting to where we need to be: zero. Zero means no rise in the heat-trapping pollution amassed in our atmosphere, and a chance to begin seeing it ebb. A lot of climate disruption will be unfolding, even if we take the very best path, so our children (should we choose to have them) will be living on a different planet. That’s part of the hard truth we need to come to terms with.

But about that best path: Various analyses — including the work of Project Drawdown, where I was previously editor-in-chief — tell us it’s possible. Except in a few “hard to decarbonize” sectors (e.g., air travel, heavy industry), the existence of solutions is less the challenge at hand. We have incredible practices and technologies in the proverbial toolbox and already working. But we’re talking about a transformation of our global economy at unprecedented speed, scale, and comprehensiveness. So: what might make that possible? 

Drawing on the wisdom of Donella Meadows, I think there are a few key things to highlight. Culture changes radically, as we tell different stories about who we are, what’s right and wrong, possible and impossible. We build collective power through organizing, movements, and more and better democracy. Many, many more people wake up and take their place in this work, and there’s an evolution in who leads and how. We rewrite many of the fundamental rules that govern our economy and society — putting an end to racialized, extractive capitalism. Capital flows shift radically, out of the sources of the problem and into solutions, correcting gaping wealth inequality along the way. Behavior — how we do things — reorients in trillions of minor and major ways, especially in consumer culture and climate-critical professions. Innovation continues, finding breakthroughs in key areas. 

Beneath it all, there’s a fundamental shift in values to care, connection, reciprocity. By midcentury, my hope is that human society writ large will have come back into our proper place within the web of life. Life force is our inheritance, and it can also be our legacy.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist. Dr. Katharine Wilkinson is a writer and strategist. They are the co-editors of “All We Can Save,” freshly out in paperback. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Photos: Jennifer Robinson; Jeremy McKane