Book Review

Reading “All We Can Save” against the backdrop of climate crisis

I can’t remember the first time I learned about climate change. I suspect it came in gently, briefly mentioned and followed by a quick rejection of the concept. In many circles I grew up in, climate change is still deemed too ludicrous, or perhaps too terrifying, to be believed. How could we, mere mortals, shape the trajectory of  an entire planet? Yet with near daily reminders in my life and studies that climate change is here, living unaware of what must be done feels inconceivable.

For better or for worse, climate change fills me with anxiety. When deciding where to live, I look at flood maps and sea level rise projections. When I conduct my research, I wonder about the future of the ecosystems I watch fall apart a little bit year by year. And when I watch the news, I am horrified by unprecedented floods, droughts, fires, and heat waves that rob people of their homes, lives, or loved ones. In the face of so much, it can be easy to feel paralyzed with despair. It is in moments like this that a book like All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis feels like a warm hand extended to help you get your footing.

All We Can Save is an anthology of essays and poems edited by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson. It aims to highlight the voices of the women who are often overlooked in a movement historically focused on white men. In choosing this, Johnson and Wilkinson wrote, “When women participate equally with men, climate policy interventions are more effective…It’s not about only women but about making sure women are included and leading at all levels.”

This powerhouse collection starts with a forward from the editors telling the story of Eunice Newton Foote, who first proposed that carbon dioxide could affect Earth’s temperature in 1856. The following pieces are split into 8 cohesive sections: Root, Advocate, Reframe, Reshape, Persist, Feel, Nourish, and Rise. Annotations highlighting  important people, terms, and takeaways, making it easy to return to each essay for inspiration or to delve deeper into concepts each writer introduced.

Though each piece will connect with people on different levels based on lived experiences, here are a few that stood out to me:

“Reciprocity” by Janine Benyus – A beautiful essay about mutualism in the forest and how we as humans must reimagine our place in the environment. Benyus writes, “One of the fallouts of our fifty-year focus on competition is that we came to view all organisms as consumers and competitors first, including ourselves.” This spoke to my tired, millennial, ecologist soul.

“Beyond Coal” by Mary Anne Hitt – A history of the movement to move away from coal in the US and the lessons we can take away from it. This essay not only left me feeling like change was possible, but also highlighted the importance of local movements, decisions, and community building.

“Collards Are Just as Good as Kale” by Heather McTeer Toney – A stirring reminder to not ignore the wisdom of the African American community in the environmental movement. Toney describes the tight connection between the Black community and the land, both in the history of slavery and in the way that environmental racism has meant that Black communities are frequently most harmed by pollution and climate change.

“Harnessing Cultural Power” by Favianna Rodriguez – Rodriguez, an artist herself, portrays the role of artists and storytellers in the climate movement. To fight climate change, we need a cultural change, something artists have always been a part of.

“Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs” by Kendra Pierre-Louis – I will never look out our roads and suburbs the same. Pierre-Louis explains how the development of suburban living has built a society that necessitates higher levels of pollution and may be harming us psychologically.

“Heaven or High Water” by Sarah Miller – A sad glimpse into luxury real estate in Miami, a city already exhibiting the effects of climate change. I read this piece weeks before the tragic condo collapse and I still can’t get it out of my mind.

“Did It Ever Occur to You that Maybe You’re Falling in Love” by Ailish Hopper – A poem that smacked me in the face with the several useless ways of not dealing with “the problem.”

“Mothering in an Age of Extinction” by Amy Westervelt – An honest look at parenting with climate grief and worry about the future. It was gutwrenching reading through the perspective of wanting the best possible future for your child while knowing that they will inherit the environmental and social upheaval that comes with climate change.

“Calling All Grand Mothers” by Alice Walker – A poem with intergenerational power. Grandmothers are so frequently the protectors of the future of their families, and thus as we prepare for our futures, we need their strong voices and wisdom.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson speaks during the Unplugged Session at TED2019: Bigger Than Us. April 15 – 19, 2019, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Photo: Ryan Lash / TED

To list even these feels like a betrayal to so many other pieces in the book that I adored or that have left me stewing. All We Can Save has stories about  love and loss, about oceans and forests and farms, about indigenous tribes defending the land, about young people rising up, and about both wins and losses. In short, this book seeks to reach out to so many corners of the climate movement to show that this is a movement for everyone.

Wilkinson and Johnson chose the name for the book from a line in a poem called “Natural Resources” by Adrienne Rich. Rich writes, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save,” to which Johnson and Wilkinson respond, “Ours too – and by all that we can.” Climate change can be addressed, but to do so, we must do it together. With a chorus of diverse female voices, the collection shows the many ways each of us has a place to contribute. Looking for the climate leaders we need, you can find them in the pages of these books, but you can also find them by looking in the mirror.


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