What if we get this right?
The next generation marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a policy expert and writer, and a Brooklyn native.
Her thoughts on hope…better served as possibility:
‘While I’m not a fan of hope as a guiding principle, because it by definition assumes that the outcome will be good, which I know is not a given, I am completely enamored with the amount of possibility that’s available to us. So that’s the word that I try to embrace when I think about what if we get it right, is how much possibility remains.’
‘And we live in a species moment, is how I think of this. It was probably true, pre-2020, but it is clear, post-2020. And I believe that underlying every grave and wondrous potential that we have as a species, and ratcheting up the panic that leads us away from rising to our highest human capacities, in every sphere of our life together, each of us knows and feels the disarray of the natural world at a cellular level, in our bodies. What is true is that we are not separate from it. It’s not even so much that we are in it — we are of it.’
We are one of 8 million or so species on this planet.
‘(Johnson) is cofounder of the Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities. She co-created Spotify-Gimlet’s podcast How to Save a Planet, on climate solutions. She coedited this beautiful climate anthology, which I had not discovered until now, and I so recommend it: All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis. And also, you’re cofounder of the All We Can Save Project, which I recommend that people look up online. I love how you stress, in the description of that work, that you’re nurturing the “we” in that “all we can save.”’
I’ve always been focused on solutions. I have this extremely practical approach to most things — I’m like, OK, who’s doing what? What’s the plan? Like, let’s not talk about feelings so much; let’s figure out what’s next. And so that is the vibe that I’ve tried to take into my work as it’s broadened from oceans to climate more generally, is we have most of the solutions we need at our fingertips, for all of these climate challenges, whether it’s agriculture or green building retrofits or bike lanes or composting or wind energy in the ocean or farming seaweed or whatever. We know how to do this stuff. We just have to do it. And so figuring out how we can welcome more people into this work, get people excited, help them find where they fit, is really where I’ve been focusing my yammering energies, these days.
I mean, the most depressing thing I can think of is to just watch the world burn and crumble before my eyes while I just wallow in self-pity on the couch. Right? So I don’t have any delusions that I can “save the planet,” but you’ve got to try to do your part.
And that’s how I think about all of this. We know what we’re supposed to do, in that same way that you were describing we know that it’s wrong right now. We know that things are out of balance, on a cellular level. We can feel that sort of friction, with the way that we move through the world. I mean, I dare you to stand in a redwood grove and not be humbled, or to dive on a coral reef and see even just the glimmer of its former magnificence and have some respect for these ecosystems and the fact that we are sharing this planet.
So I think that climate communication has focused too much on the problem. I will admit, I don’t read the details of every UN climate report, because I know the summary is, it is worse than you thought, it is happening faster than you thought, and we really need to get our act together. And I focus on the getting our act together part, because I think that’s the pivot that we need right now. We have more than enough information. I’m grateful for the science, and it’s helping us make more nuanced and clear decisions, but the broad strokes that everyone needs to pitch in, have been there for a long time.
Eunice Newton Foote
There’s a whole lineage that you are in — names we don’t remember, people who’ve contributed. And I wonder, also, just —
It was Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, coeditor of All We Can Save, who introduced me to Eunice. I feel like I’m on a first-name basis with her, even though she was doing her research in 1856, when she discovered that carbon dioxide was a greenhouse gas and would warm the planet. A woman discovered this through experimentation in her backyard and was essentially erased from history. An Irish physicist a few years later came to a very similar discovery and was credited as “the father of climate science.”
Someone with a Y chromosome.
And Eunice also signed the Seneca Falls Convention.
So she was, as Katharine and I like to say, the first climate feminist — although she didn’t really see this whole apocalypse coming, per se. [laughs] She was just like, This turns out it will warm the atmosphere, if we emit all of this carbon dioxide.
This conversation, a must listen, was recorded at the 2022 TED Conference. Click the box above.
“To whom much is given, much is expected.”
Listening to this podcast with Johnson, a marine biologist, I remembered the sweet and very real aspirations of 10-year-old Maite Rodriguez. A student brutally murdered at the school in Uvalde, Texas. Maite was a lover of animals and the environment, and she dreamed of becoming a marine biologist. She often wore a pair of green (her favorite color) high-top Converse shoes with a heart drawn in marker over her right toes. The work I do going forward for our planet, for the oceans, will be in Maite’s memory, a life cut short because of access to automatic weapons in the United States.
Held at press conference in D.C. Maite was wearing green Converse shoes when she was massacred with other students and two teachers in Uvalde. The only way her little body could be identified were by her green high tops. She drew the heart on the right toe.
For Maite. For Uvalde. For our planet. 🌏