A new kind of climate change book brings emotions to the table
"All We Can Save" doesn't shy away from doom or hope, encompassing the enormity of climate change
In early September, while sunbathing on a North Carolina beach that will almost certainly be underwater in 40 years, amidst a roiling hurricane season punctuated by rampant wildfires, I found myself reading All We Can Save.
All We Can Save is an unusual climate change book. Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine K. Wilkinson, it consists of 60 essays and poems, many of which aren't written by scientists. All of the essays are by women, from a huge range of different countries, racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages, and professions.
The book's central theme is made immediately clear: addressing the climate crisis requires inclusive, collective, and radical action. And, where it seems most climate change books take on one of two tones (either, "everything is doomed," or "WE MUST HAVE HOPE!"), All We Can Save brings every emotion to the table. Grief, fear, confidence, and enthusiasm about our collective future are all equally welcome and valid.
It's not fluff. The book centers racism and environmental justice to make the point that we can't successfully address climate change without every person and type of knowledge. In lawyer and activist Sherri Mitchell's "Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth," Mitchell discusses how to align Indigenous knowledge with Western ways of thinking – which is not how Western science has traditionally happened – and how Indigenous world views emphasize harmony with the Earth. In the same vein, climate reporter Kendra Pierre-Louis' essay, "Wakanda Doesn't Have Suburbs," challenges readers to re-imagine our social constructs, namely the idea that humans have an innate compulsion to destroy the planet.
Pierre-Louis takes the reader on a journey through dozens of pop-culture stories (Avatar, Waterworld, The Hunger Games, and many more) that feed this belief. She argues that the most hopeful vision for civilization in popular media is Black Panther's Wakanda. "Wakandans elected to tell a story about themselves...that it was possible to improve the quality of their lives without degrading the environment that they depend on – and then they did it," she writes.
I myself am guilty of having the pessimistic view that humans always destroy nature. Pierre-Louis' essay, among others, made me question my outlook. The fact that so many of the writers in this group, who know an immense amount about what humanity has already accomplished and what remains to be tackled, still have hope that we can overcome the climate crisis was encouraging to me. I'm not yet entirely convinced that it is possible, but I hope I'm wrong.
Both of these essays embody the central thesis of the book: that we cannot overcome the challenges of climate change without real, structural change. The way that traditional long-form essays are punctuated with free-form poetry, where words are scattered across the pages, subtly makes this point. The essayists say it bluntly.
For example, in her essay "A Field Guide for Transformation," Leah Cardamore Stokes reflects on her own efforts to address climate change at increasingly large scales. She started as a child by getting her friends to recycle their milk boxes from school lunch, convinced her local grocery store to stop selling Chilean sea bass as a teenager, and eventually ran a campaign to get residence halls at her university to cut their energy usage. Now an assistant professor of political science who studies energy and environmental policy, Stokes writes, "No one can unilaterally choose to live in a low-carbon economy." Climate change is an institutional and political challenge that will be solved if we can change these systems for the better.
Together, the essays provide a roadmap for that change. The book is arranged in eight sections laying out the path: we must root, advocate, reframe, reshape, persist, feel, and nourish, until we finally rise.
There was one sentence in nearly every essay that was so compelling I needed to write it down to digest later. Take writer and editor Sarah Miller's "Heaven or High Water." Miller set out to understand how Miami's luxury real estate market is addressing the threat of sea level rise by posing as a wealthy home buyer in meetings with Miami real estate agents. Along the way, she brilliantly illustrates the ways in which humans fool ourselves into thinking that we will be fine in the face of climate change – despite expansive evidence to the contrary. By 2100 Miami could be six feet underwater, and the city already experiences regular sunny-day flooding (when water rises up through the ground), and yet it is still billed as one of the most lucrative places for real estate investment.
It is unclear whether the real estate agents that Miller speaks with are outright lying when they say that Miami's flooding problem is under control, if they have been misled by city officials, or if they just misunderstand the science behind climate change. The answer is probably a combination of all three. But Miller's rendition of her interactions with them highlights the immense cognitive dissonance that we all face each day. We do mundane things like buy homes and go on vacation knowing that in a few short decades those places where we are buying homes and vacationing could very well not exist anymore. But we can't focus on that big scary reality – it is much easier to live our daily lives in myopic bliss.
We all do this. It's impossible to be a person who understands the science of climate change without drowning in anxiety about the future. Amy Westervelt's essay called, "Mothering in an Age of Extinction," focuses on the grief and power she feels as a mother and a climate change journalist. And artist Naima Penniman's poem "Being Human" asks, "I wonder if the sun debates dawn / some mornings / not wanting to rise / out of bed."
I found myself wanting to ask these women if and how the COVID-19 pandemic has changed their views on how the climate crisis will proceed. The parallels between these disasters have struck me many times during the past few months. Everyone seems to think that humans (or just they themselves) are special and magically safe from the rules of nature or the rules of a pandemic. But we aren't: if you don't wear a mask and keep partying with your friends, you will catch the virus. COVID-19 should have been a relatively "easy" disaster to handle – in a recent episode of the podcast "On the Bubble," Ed Yong called it a starter planetary problem, and said that climate change is the next big one. If we don't reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and right the wrongs in our global economic systems, climate change is going to rearrange the entire way we experience the world. If you turn on the news, you'll see that it has already started.
It is easy, and tempting, to keep your head in the sand about such things. But the courageous women who have written essays in this book have lifted their heads and are looking at our future possibilities clearly. They see the promises the world holds, and are arguing for a new system that integrates Indigenous knowledge, racial justice, and environmental awareness to create economies and societies that work for all of us. They are turning their talents into construction tools to build this new system, celebrating the victories along the way. And more importantly, they are dispelling the myth that the world is already lost, together working toward one collective goal: to save all that we can.