The Marine Biologist Building an Inclusive Climate Movement

After leaving a conference at the Aspen Institute last year, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson took what she calls a “rage hike” with Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, a fellow climate activist. They were frustrated with who had the power in the climate movement: a small group of white men calling the shots. The climate crisis, they thought, had a crisis of leadership.

“We were so disappointed to see the same small group of white men control the money and decision-making,” Johnson said. “They parade out people of color, Indigenous leaders, women, passing them the mic for a hot second but not actually sharing any power.”

Out of this frustration came an idea: what if they gathered women from across the environmental movement to share their wisdom? Out of that idea came a book: All We Can Save, a collection of essays by women climate leaders, co-edited by Johnson and Wilkinson, released this year.

Johnson is a marine biologist, but she devotes an increasing amount of time to projects like All We Can Save. This year, while the world grappled with collective isolation, Johnson left the coastal city of Brooklyn and retreated to upstate New York to live with her mother on their family farm.

Without access to the ocean (or a social life), Johnson focused on building leadership and representation in the climate movement. She launched a podcast, called How to Save a Planet, and focused on her two non-profits, the All We Can Save Project and the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities.

Her first love—and what got her fighting for the planet—was the ocean. Her passion for marine biology was sparked when she was five years old on a family trip to Key West, and evolved into a professional devotion that led her to positions at New York University, the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), and the Waitt Foundation.

Her time spent underwater understanding marine ecology, however, was never divorced from human communities. Johnson earned a PhD from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography with a dissertation on the socio-economics of sustainably managing coral reefs, co-directed the March for Science, and founded a conservation consulting firm called Ocean Collectiv.

Johnson’s focus on people and policy come from an understanding that climate has a real impact on people, and that impact is different based on where you live, how much money you have, and the color of your skin.

“There are actual people experiencing the impacts,” Johnson said. “All of these people live within the world as it exists.”

The flip side of acknowledging the disparate impact of climate change is honoring the wisdom of different communities. Johnson’s frustration with the climate movement isn’t about the current leaders doing a bad job—it’s just that we need more leaders. Her vision of the world includes people from every community in climate leadership roles.

That’s the idea behind All We Can Save. The book elevates the wisdom of farmers, artists, women working in fashion, activists, scientists, and policymakers. It takes a collective, feminist approach to the climate movement, challenging the idea of who gets to be a thought leader.

“If we leave out half the brainpower and changemaking might on the planet—accumulated in women’s minds and hearts—it’s just so foolish,” Johnson said.

Johnson and Wilkinson were astounded by the response. They never dreamed that a book of climate essays would become a best-seller. They took it as proof that this change they desperately needed—a reframing of the problems facing our world—filled a gap others felt as well.

As reading circles became action circles, Johnson and Wilkinson set to capture that momentum. They founded the All We Can Save Project to carry forward the mission of the book: supporting women climate leaders and building community.

Aside from giving Johnson the time to focus on work, this year—with the pandemic, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and the numerous climate disasters—deepened her understanding that we need to devise entirely new ways of living on this planet. Looking forward, she wants to do more dreaming. Culturally, in dystopian movies and dire climate predictions, we’ve got a good vision of the worst-case scenario. What we don’t know yet is what happens if we get it right.

“Because we don’t know what we’re building, we’re sauntering away from the apocalypse instead of sprinting towards this better future,” Johnson said. “What the climate movement needs is more imagining.”

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