“All We Can Save” Is the Big Tent Approach to Climate Activism We Need

The diverse collection of essays offers fresh ideas, hope, and solidarity

By Wendy Becktold

December 5, 2020


A few years ago, I was on a long car trip with my mother. To pass the time, I played the podcast Mothers of Invention, hosted by former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and Irish comedian Maeve Higgins. The tagline of the show is “Climate change is a manmade problem, with a feminist solution,” and the pair spend the hour—in between gently ribbing each other—interviewing mostly female climate experts and changemakers from around the world. 

After a few episodes, I asked my mom what she thought. “It’s just nice to hear women talking so expertly about something,” she said. I knew what she meant. She wasn’t surprised that women could be experts; she was just so used to men filling the airwaves in this capacity that she hadn't realized until now how refreshing the alternative is.

I remembered this conversation while reading the anthology All We Can Save (published in September by One World). Edited by Katharine K. Wilkinson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, the book consists of nearly 60 essays written by female activists, scientists, artists, policymakers, writers, and thinkers.  

“The impetus was frustration,” Wilkinson told me when I asked her why she and Johnson embarked on the project. “So much of the public discourse about climate change was dominated by the same small cabal of white men.” It wasn’t fair, the two decided, nor was it “going to get the job done.” The point of the book, Wilkinson and Johnson explain in the introduction, is “to advance a more representative, nuanced, solution-oriented public conversation on the climate crisis.”

Yes, All We Can Save is a bit of a grab bag, but somehow a grab bag feels like just what we need right now.

The essays present an eclectic mix of styles, topics, and fields of expertise. Some, like architect Amanda Sturgeon’s “Buildings Designed for Life,” are wonky; others like ecologist Jane Zelikova’s “Solutions Underfoot” are science oriented. In “Black Gold,” food justice activist Leah Penniman writes about racism in the food system and how Black farmers are using heritage practices to reduce emissions and trap carbon in the soil. In “A Field Guide for Transformation,” Leah Cardamore Stokes delves into energy policy, and in “We Are Sunrise,” Varshini Prakash writes about building a political movement. Journalist Amy Westervelt grapples with grief and eco-anxiety in “Mothering in an Age of Extinction.” 

It’s hard to pick a favorite, but I love Sarah Miller’s “Heaven or High Water,” in which she poses as a potential buyer and tours Miami’s luxury real estate market with a couple of agents—a shared exercise in magical thinking (“I walked around the condo as if I already owned it, as if within my lifetime the lobby beneath us would not be decorated with kelp.”)

Yes, All We Can Save is a bit of a grab bag, but somehow a grab bag feels like just what we need right now. “We know so many women who, with their ideas and bold analysis, are leading in this space,” Wilkinson said, comparing the process of putting the book together to a quilting project. As with a quilt, patterns emerge; the varied pages communicate a consistent message: There are many points of entry to engaging in the climate crisis. There is something for everyone, including you.

This message is crucial because to adequately address the climate crisis, the climate movement needs to vastly expand its coalition. We need everyone on board—those who identify as environmentalists and those who don’t. As with ecosystems, the climate movement will thrive the more diverse it becomes, benefitting from a full spectrum of ideas and lived experiences. Female climate leaders, with their inclination to “pass the mic,” have proven adept at this kind of complex, diffuse, and multifaceted organizing. As Indigenous youth activist Xiye Bastida puts it in her “Calling In” essay, “A vibrant, fair, and regenerative future is possible—not when thousands of people do climate justice activism perfectly but when millions of people do the best they can.” 

The book has struck a chord with readers hungry for its inclusive, reassuring take on the climate crisis, climbing up half a dozen Indie bestseller lists since its publication. In response, Wilkinson and Johnson quickly organized a reading guide and invited readers to form circles—small groups committed to discussing a section of the book each week. To promote the idea, they partnered with journalist Emily Atkin, who publishes section-specific questions once a week in her newsletter Heated (she also has an essay in the book). At least 350 people have signed up to lead circles through the All We Can Save website


Katharine K. Wilkinson and Ayana Elizabeth Johnson | Photo by Jennifer Robinson

Bay Area resident Nory Griffin is one of these readers. She started to worry more about climate change after her son was born, but “the real kick in the pants,” she says, came while looking out the window on a flight to Southern California during the state’s recent four-year drought and seeing the parched landscape below. She started a circle with four other participants—two were strangers she connected with via Twitter. The weekly discussions have been rich. “I love the way the book comes at the [climate crisis] from so many different angles,” Griffith told me. “You can be cerebral about it; you can be issues oriented about it; you can be an emotional wreck about it; you can wax poetic and philosophical about it. It just opens all the doors.” 

Even though she’s an ocean away, Eva Bishop can relate. She’s formed a circle of six where she lives in the UK. Also a mom, Bishop says she suffers from significant eco-anxiety. She’s participated in the occasional Extinction Rebellion protest and has worked in renewable energy and other sustainability-related fields, but she still sometimes feels like an outsider in the climate movement. For her, meeting weekly with others who share both her anxieties and her desire to do more is a huge relief. The book, she says, connects “the experts with the rest of us earthlings and invites everyone to come be part of it…. It’s really helping me to believe that there are lots of other people out there trying to imagine a better future and doing what they can in their little way to help get there.” 

Leslie Sobel belongs to a group of artists who are working their way through All We Can Save and planning an exhibit based on ideas from the book. She and other members took part in a similar project based on the book Project Drawdown (which Wilkinson helped write). Sobel, who lives in Michigan, says that the essay “Harnessing Cultural Power” by Favianna Rodriquez especially resonated with her circle. “It’s the core if you’re going to be an artist activist,” she told me. Discussing the book has led to “amazing generative discussions about climate, our artistic response to it, the cultural underpinnings of capitalist society, and how we really need to change some of the myths that society is based on.” 

Common to all three circles is the sense that reading and discussing All We Can Save is the start of something, not the end. After I spoke to her, Griffin emailed me to say that her group had decided to become what she called a permanent climate learning and action group. “We've formed a real bond,” she wrote, “and none of us wants to let it go.”

Wilkinson and Johnson’s initial goal for All We Can Save was to bring more voices into the conversation about climate, but as they write in the introduction, they soon realized that the book had become something more: “A balm and a guide for the immense emotional complexity of knowing and holding what has been done to the world, while bolstering our resolve never to give up on one another or our collective future.”

Effectively addressing the climate crisis requires us to hold multiple truths in our minds at once: We are in great danger—ecological systems are collapsing, so much has already been lost, and we may not survive. And, we are on the cusp of enormous transformation—every one of us alive right now has the great privilege and opportunity to do our small part to bring about a healthier and more just world. 

Ultimately, All We Can Save is a powerful tool because it articulates and holds space for this complexity, perhaps nowhere better than in Sherri Mitchell’s essay “Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth.” In it, she writes about Native prophecies that foretell of destruction and ecological decline—trees dying, waters running black with pollution, depleted soil that can’t grow food, insects disappearing. But, she explains, there are also prophecies that “tell of a time of unification and healing.” She recounts how in 1877, Crazy Horse prophesied about such a time, “when all the colors of mankind will gather under the sacred tree of life and the whole Earth will become one circle again.” 

Or maybe there will be many circles, overlapping.