'All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis' (Book Review)

An anthology of essays and poems shows how women are fighting for the climate.

female climate activists

Emanuele Cremaschi / Getty Images

The world is a scary and confusing place these days. Our news feeds present us with a steady flow of climate-related horror stories about wildfires, flooding, melting ice, and droughts. Despite all this coverage, there is minimal action taken to address it. No government leaders seem scared enough to do something drastic. It creates a situation in which we feel discouraged and overwhelmed. 

What should one do? How does a person keep trudging along without losing hope? One suggestion is to pick up a copy of a new anthology of essays called "All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis" (One World, 2020). Edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and policy expert from Brooklyn, and Dr. Katharine K. Wilkinson, an author and teacher from Atlanta, the book is a beautiful assemblage of 41 reflections on the climate fight, written by an all-female group of scientists, journalists, lawyers, politicians, activists, innovators and more.

The book's title is inspired by a poem by Adrienne Rich: “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.”

The essays and poems give a much-needed voice to women, who are often missing from the proverbial table when it comes to high-level discussions about the climate crisis. From the book's introduction:

"Women remain underrepresented in government, business, engineering, and finance; in executive leadership of environmental organizations, United Nations climate negotiations, and media coverage of the crisis; and in the legal systems that create and uphold change. Girls and women leading on climate receive insufficient financial backing and too little credit. Again, unsurprisingly, this marginalization is especially true for women of the Global South, rural women, Indigenous women, and women of color. The dominant public public voices and empowered 'deciders' on the climate crisis continue to be White men."

In response to this, we need feminine and feminist climate leadership. Where this exists, environmental laws tend to be stronger, environmental treaties more frequently ratified, climate policy interventions more effective. "At a national level, higher political and social status for women correlates with lower carbon emissions and greater creation of protected land areas." Including more women at all levels of climate leadership means starting to listen to what they have to say. 

All We Can Save book cover
K Martinko

The anthology is divided into eight sections that address different aspects of the climate crisis, from advocacy strategies to reframing the problem to persisting in the face of challenges to nourishing the soil. It includes contributions from author Naomi Klein, Sierra Club campaigns director Mary Anne Hitt, teenage climate activist Alexandria Villaseñor, Green New Deal co-author and climate policy director Rhiana Gunn-Wright, and atmospheric scientist Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, among many others. Each describes a different perspective on the fight to save our planet, with unique approaches and tactics that, put together, depict an impressive network of people, all doing whatever they can to make a difference.

While each of the essays and poems has its own merits, several stood out for me in reading. In "How to Talk About Climate Change," I appreciated Hayhoe's insistence on finding common ground whenever talking to someone about the climate crisis, particularly if they don't believe it's real. The crisis is affecting everyone in different ways, depending on their location and their interests, so the key is find a place where both people can relate.

"If they're a skier, it's important to know that the snowpack is shrinking as our winters warm; maybe they'd like to hear more about the work of an organization like Protect Our Winters, which advocates for climate action. If they're a birder, they might have noticed how climate change is altering the migration patterns of birds; the National Audubon Society has mapped future distributions for many native species, showing just how radically different they'll be from today."

In "Wakanda Doesn't Have Suburbs," New York Times columnist Kendra Pierre-Louis offers a word of caution about the stories we tell ourselves in films and TV shows. Our cultural fixation on tales of ecological devastation inevitably following in the wake of humans puts us at odds with our own environment and dangerously reinforces the idea that there's nothing we can do to save it. 

"The stories that we tell about ourselves and our place in the world are the raw materials from which we build our existence. Or, to borrow from the storyteller Kurt Vonnegut, 'We are what we pretend to be, so we must be very careful what we pretend to be.'" 

Environmental journalist Amy Westervelt delves into the complex issue of mothering in a world filled with instability in a beautiful piece called "Mothering in an Age of Extinction." Usually any climate references to parenting refer to the debate over population growth, but there's so much more to it than that. 

"We rarely hear about how today's mothers are processing climate grief for two (or more) or how our panic might be directed toward action. We talk about the youth climate activists, but we rarely hear from the parents who are enabling, and inspiring, their activism, fueled by their own desperation to protect their kids from the worst-case scenario. On climate, for the most part, mothers are a wasted resource, and we can't afford to waste anything anymore."

Westervelt suggests instead that we embrace collectively the notion of "community mothering", of providing maternal love and guidance to all members of a community as it weathers a crisis. This kind of love isn't done exclusively by women, though traditionally it has been.

There are just a few examples of the insightful, thoughtful pieces in this anthology. It's inspiring to see how many different ways there are to step up, to take action, to shake off the lethargy that follows the negative news cycle. And as always, using stories to get that message across is more effective than dry scientific facts. 

As editor Katharine Wilkinson said in a Washington Post interview, "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.' 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." 

You can learn more about "All We Can Save" and order it here.