activism books climate change

Book review: All We Can Save

All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis is one of the top five books that I read in 2020. It’s taken me a while to get round to reviewing it, partly because I’ve been waiting on news of a UK release, but mainly because it’s taken me a while to read it. This is a book that you don’t so much read as one you spend time with.

The book is edited by Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and climate campaigner, and Katherine K Wilkinson, the lead writer on the Drawdown project. They were frustrated at the lack of female voices in the climate movement. There was no shortage of inspiring women doing great work, but many of them were too busy to write about it and their stories were going untold. (As I noted last year, there’s a serious gender disparity among climate writers, and even fewer writers of colour.) This collection of essays captures some of those stories and perspectives, the distilled wisdom of some 60 climate practioners.

All We Can Save is a collection of essays from “women at the forefront of the climate movement”, and it’s a very diverse set of contributors. There are activists and campaigners, lawyers, journalists and politicians, entrepreneurs, artists, scientists, farmers. Lots of them are women of colour, and there are indigenous writers too. Some of them are well known, many of them not. Some of my favourite climate writers feature, such as Mary Annaise Heglar or Emily Atkin. Others I have heard about but never heard from, such as Varshini Prakash from the Sunrise Movement or Leah Penniman of Soul Fire Farm. It’s great to find out more about their work and philosophy in their own words. Oh, and there are well chosen poems and artwork too, serving as beats between the essays.

What this broad range of people have in common is a more feminine approach to climate action. That’s not the easiest thing to pin down, but the editors point out at the beginning that “the dominant public voices and empowered ‘deciders’ on the climate crisis continue to be White men.” Given the scale of the crisis, ignoring “half the world’s brain-power” is just an all round bad idea. And it’s not just the total sum of ideas that matters, but the character of them. As any utterance from Boris Johnson on the subject of climate change will confirm, the aforementioned White male deciders tend to focus on “profit, power and prestige”, on commercial opportunities and economic growth. A more balanced debate with more women participants would pay much more attention to community, care and compassion. Recognising our inter-dependence, we would cooperate and look for shared solutions, rather than winning some imaginary global race, or boasting about global leadership and ‘world-beating’ technologies.

The essays here robustly demonstrate the alternative, and having edited a book of essays myself recently, I was slightly in awe of the quality here. Every entry is brilliant, whether it is taking on the importance of truth in journalism, lessons from sustainable architecture, the opportunities of ocean farming, or the frontline realities of living in a flood zone. This is why it’s taken me so long to read. I have had to read the essays one at a time, and sit with them and reflect on them.

For readers outside the US, it’s worth noting that every contributor here is writing from an American context. I didn’t find that too restrictive and many key points are entirely transferable, given the global nature of climate change. But it’s something to be aware of. With that minor caveat, I’d recommend All We Can Save to anyone with an interest in climate change, what it means to ordinary people, and what we do about it.

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