A reader emailed me in the past week with a simple query: Amid this irresistible tide of loss, how do we hold onto hope?
This question is at the heart of the new book “All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis” — a collection of essays, poetry and art by 41 women in the climate movement that will be released Sept. 22. I contacted the anthology’s editors, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, policy expert and podcast host, and Katharine Wilkinson, editor in chief of the climate solutions nonprofit Project Drawdown. After reading 41 reflections on Earth’s altered future and editing 41 arguments for not giving up, I figured they would know better than anyone what it takes to be hopeful.
Our conversation, edited here for clarity and length, began with an unexpected twist: Hope is not what humanity needs, Johnson said.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: It’s funny to be asked about hope, because one of my mantras is something you cannot print. Which is just, [expletive] hope. Because, honestly, hope is not going to get us there. I personally perceive the word “hope” as passive. When I hear the word “hope,” I think, “I hope someone does something about that.” Or “I hope that works out.” And I’m just like, where’s the plan? Where’s the strategy? What are we going to do that we don’t need hope?
So if not hope, then what?
AEJ: Katharine and I were grappling with that. How do you name a book about a global crisis threatening the future of humanity and most other life on Earth, and have it still be something people might possibly want to pick up? And then our editor at Penguin Random House handed us this stanza from an Adrienne Rich poem.
Katharine Wilkinson (quoting the poem): “My heart is moved by all I cannot save: So much has been destroyed/I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely/with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.”
AEJ: I tear up every time I hear it or read it, because it’s just, like, we have to keep reconstituting the world. Even though there is so much we can’t save, the other side of that is there is so much that we still can save. So, who are we to give up? What gives us the right to give up on the planet and each other? The subtitle is the answer to, “If not hope, then what?” It’s truth, courage and solutions. That’s what’s going to get us there.
Scientists say natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change. These events were predicted, and they’re going to get worse, and the world hasn’t taken action needed to prevent them. What do “truth, courage and solutions” look like, given that reality?
AEJ: One of the things that gets to me is, apart from my deep and abiding love and respect for nature and biodiversity, is just, how many people are going to be hurt in a way that’s needless. There is going to be a lot of suffering, and there already has been. … But when I look at each new, jarring scientific report, the thing that keeps me going is that every graph, every projection has a range of possible outcomes. And when I see that range, I see millions of lives. I see families. I see ecosystems. I see all the things that hang in the balance, depending on how much we as a human species, as a society, can get it together. It’s both what breaks my heart and what keeps me going.
KW: One of the things that I’ve found really helpful is to create the time and the space to really feel the grief … and then rise back out of it. Sometimes when we just sort of shove the grief to the side, or stuff it down, it ends up creating this kind of malaise. And I think there is something about that willingness to go there that actually then lets you kind of move with more energy out the other side.
What excited you when you were editing the essays in this anthology?
AEJ: One in particular comes to mind is Leah Stokes’s essay, which is about how to have ever broadening circles of influence as far as bringing about climate solutions. So, going from worrying about your own carbon footprint and what you’re doing in your personal life to thinking about what you’re doing in your place of work, how is your company or school making a difference in terms of its environmental impact. And then thinking more broadly about how you can influence policy change, how you can get involved in your community. She kind of leads people through how we get to the bigger and bigger changes that need to be made. And starting with yourself is certainly fine. But if it stops there, that will never be enough.
KW: Mary Anne Hitt [national director of campaigns at the Sierra Club] wrote reflecting on her decade in the Beyond Coal campaign and what she’s learned in the process. [The campaign has fought for the closure of about 200 coal-fired power plants, which produce large amounts of planet warming gases as well as toxins such as mercury.] It’s such a great example of how some of the most powerful work just happens by showing up again and again and again and again and again at public utility commissions. It’s about figuring out how decisions are getting made and how to interrupt them and that those decisions are happening locally all over the country. So, it means that everyone, literally everyone, is proximate to major climate decision-making on a scale that they can personally be involved with if they so choose. And I think that’s, on the one hand, really scary. And on the other hand, it’s really exciting.
What comes next?
KW: Relational work is necessary in a movement or in any kind of social change effort — building community and investing in a web of relationships. We can’t hold [climate grief] alone. We can’t do the work alone. Oftentimes it’s that sense of partnership and community that can actually keep us going when the work is hard and the boulder is rolling back down the mountain.
So, one of the things we’re thinking about is actually how to use “All We Can Save” to catalyze some of that community building in a more diffuse way. We’re in the midst of designing what we’re calling “All We Can Save” circles — inviting folks to get a small group of thought partners, collaborators, friends, colleagues, whatever, to read the book section by section over the course of the fall together, and to open up space for really generous dialogue.
The climate space has been so “I’ve got the science and I’ve got the policy and I’m going to tell you and I’m going to fact you up.”
AEJ [laughing]: “Fact you up?”
KW: And nobody wants to go to that party. Like, can we have an invitation for folks to come off the sidelines and join this team? Because we need everybody.