I call on all Grand Mothers
everywhere on the planet
and take your place
in the leadership
of the world
—Alice Walker, "Calling All Grand Mothers" from All We Can Save
A 2020 book is redefining the way the world thinks and talks about climate action. In a space too often dominated by white, male voices, All We Can Save features more than 50 essays, poems, and artworks by a diverse group of female creators.
Author Naomi Klein and Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the youth climate activism group Sunrise Movement, shared space with farmers and foresters.
Teenage activist Alexandria Villaseñor stood side-by-side with climate scientists, human rights attorneys, and Indigenous rights advocates.
But the women’s words and artwork only lay the groundwork for the book’s aim: an international feminist climate renaissance. All We Can Save‘s ambitions extend to educational book circles happening around the world, followed by a global project with the explicit target to put women at the helm of global climate action leadership.
Feminism as a climate change solution
Nurtured by activists and editors Dr. Ayana Johnson and Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, All We Can Save was conceived as an essential counterbalance in a world where the burdens of climate change bear most heavily on women, while men tend to lead both policy and dialogue. With its focus on intersectionality, feminist thinking is vital in resolving the interlinked challenges of the climate crisis. According to the academic Maria Tanyag, “Feminist research brings to the fore the interconnectedness of the social, political, and economic realms with the environmental in its analysis of climate risks and hazards.”
Yet All We Can Save is not only feminist but feminine. It highlights the archetypal womanly values of cooperation, compassion, connection, and creativity. And it pulses with awareness of our mutually interdependent world—a way of being and seeing that becomes ever more critical as the climate crisis rages. Already, campaigning organizations including Al Gore’s Climate Reality Project are taking its lessons on board.
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed”
—Adrienne Rich, “Natural Resources”
In 2021, the book entered a new stage, with the launch of the All We Can Save Project, an organization to develop and nurture feminist climate leaders. Where patriarchal climate actors compete to find the newest, shiniest technological solutions, the All We Can Save Project works together to tend and restore existing resources. As patriarchal climate thinkers focus on logic and data, ignoring heart and soul, All We Can Save acknowledges and hopes to soothe the grief we share for our vanishing world.
“Feminist climate leaders will hold a majority of power in the movements and experience deep joy in their work. ”
“The 2030 vision that we’re holding is that feminist climate leaders will hold a majority of power in the movements and experience deep joy in their work,” Wilkinson tells Means & Matters over Zoom from Atlanta. She hopes to give voice to climate feminism, invest in feminist climate leaders, build community, and develop emergent climate feminists of all ages and genders, both by running retreats and by funding their work.
At the heart of this project? Climate feminist reading groups—”circles”— that go far beyond the traditional book club, inspiring concrete action.
How conversation becomes action
For All We Can Save book circles, readers come together as a group, meeting once a week over 10 weeks for discussion centered on different sections of the anthology. After promising to share generous, equitable, confidential, growing, and courageous dialogue, participants address big questions from “Do you feel welcome in the climate movement?” to “Where do we go from here?”
In and of itself, shared reading is a driver to action, notes DeNel Rehberg Sedo, a communication studies professor at Canada’s Mount Saint Vincent University and co-author of Reading Beyond the Book. “The literature shows that there’s a transformational process that happens in your brain,” she says. “When you start feeling empathy, or a strong emotion, that happens inside yourself as an individual. But when you discuss it with others, it can lead to a transformational learning process where you act upon your emotions.”
Shared reading has a long history, spanning pre-revolutionary French salons, family Bible readings, colonial literary societies, and more, perhaps because the openness of the circle concept nurtures community. The open dialogue primes participants to absorb new ideas and ways of experiencing their world, be it their walk along the beach or their home in the suburbs.
“The transition from lush countryside to bustling city is so abrupt, so fantastical, that it’s easy to miss what the camera is really telling us: that Wakanda can maintain its ecosystems in part because there are no suburbs.”
—Kendra Pierre-Louis, “Wakanda Doesn’t Have Suburbs”
“The thing I thought about when putting the circles facilitation content together was to foster really generous dialogue,” Wilkinson says. “A lot of climate conversation becomes, ‘I think this, and you think that, and my fact says this, and my policy would do that.’ And that’s fine; that’s good. But what does it look like to create a space that invites more of our wholeness as human beings and some deeper personal reflection, but also reflection about our collectives?”
Historically, it has been hard to energize action around the climate crisis. It feels too big, too impersonal, too intractable for the individual human brain to address. It’s also overwhelmingly sad and terrifying. Reading, talking, and reflecting, from a feminist, grassroots perspective, enables circle participants to make the step from worrying about the climate crisis to taking action, whether that’s avoiding food waste, campaigning to shut down a polluting coal plant, or moving retirement savings away from banks and funds that invest in fossil fuels.
So sitting there, on sand and the countless soft shards left behind by clams and mussels and oysters over decades, I couldn’t unknow the fact that the oceans are beginning to die. A single one of the several ocean garbage patches contains nearly two trillion pieces of plastic. There are microplastics in sea salt worldwide. Fish populations are collapsing.”
—Emily N. Johnston, “Loving a Vanishing World”
Anne-Marie Brest, a life and climate action coach based in San Francisco, is currently leading her first All We Can Save circle. Her work centers on translating anxiety into action, but neither she nor the busy professional women in her All We Can Save circle consider themselves activists. Yet even at week five, their shared journey has shifted from talking to action—and, for some, to activism as well.
“We started from just a place of grief, and now we are sharing resources, talking about what we’re thinking we could do,” Brest says. “Some people are engaging with the Sunrise Movement; others are making plans to travel less, fly less; others are looking at how the media could be used to change our view on climate change, and another person is engaging with the Climate Reality Project.”
A practical tool for organizers
Madeline Karp, chapters program manager at the Climate Reality Project, works with the leaders of over 140 different activist chapters in the US, to empower them to make an impact at both the local and the federal levels. For Karp, All We Can Save‘s emphasis on climate justice makes it an invaluable teaching tool.
The book directs activists’ attention to the lived experience of people on the sharp end of climate change, whether they are losing land to oil wells, choking on power plant emissions, or facing floods, drought, wildfires, or all three.
“If we look at traditional climate activists from 10 years ago, 20 years ago, they were very grounded in science—’Can I communicate these statistics effectively to you to persuade you?'” Karp says. “There was less understanding that what might be happening in one sphere of inequity is directly related and directly correlated to what folks in another sphere are experiencing as well.”
Karp is leading a pilot project with Climate Reality’s chapter chairs where regional leadership groups form All We Can Save circles to read and discuss the book. “We’ll use them as a time for growth and reflection so that our chapter chairs can deeply reflect and internalize the messaging so that climate justice becomes an inherent part of their work,” she says.
“Ironically, the Indigenous ways of knowing and being that European colonists saw as primitive and uncivilized are now being actively sought out to save our environment and humankind from the brink of extinction. Indigenous knowledge is based on millennia-long study of the complex relationships that exist among all systems within creation.”
—Sherri Mitchell—Weh’na Ha’mu Kwasset, “Indigenous Prophecy and Mother Earth”
Besides their content, the structure of book circles is proving helpful. The respectful, generous dialogue provides a model for organizing activist spaces and foregrounding marginalized voices.
“The way that you’re asked to sit with questions, the way that you’re asked to reflect very, very specifically, the way that there’s a lack of hierarchy within that space is something that folks reflected on,” Karp says. “People said, ‘This is actually a really useful organizing template that I can bring back into my chapter spaces to continue to make them equitable and inclusive spaces as well.'”
Lightening the emotional load
The writing in All We Can Save is deeply personal. Texts mourn the loss of vanishing species or explore the challenge of mothering through the climate crisis; others hold out hope of a better future through nurturing techniques such as soil regeneration or ocean farming; yet more delve into climate crisis impacts on marginalized communities.
Burnout is a real and very dangerous problem for climate activists. Earth scientists and communicators have been speaking out about the emotional toll of working on climate change and the resulting burnout. Likewise, All We Can Save circles are intensely emotional, encompassing feelings from grief and exhaustion to love and optimism in a manner both feminine and feminist.
“Working on the climate crisis is working on the apocalypse. ”
“Working on the climate crisis is working on the apocalypse, working on something that’s inherently very depressing, and it’s really challenging to find spaces of hope and optimism and love,” Karp says. “The anthology really highlights the spaces where we can find hope.”
“Plants, fungi, and lichens were drawing carbon dioxide out of the air as early as 700 million years ago. Microbes have been quietly driving the Earth’s carbon cycle, with little fanfare and a lot of humility. We have been so focused on finding the elusive technological silver bullet that we turn a blind eye to transformations happening right where we stand, a climate solution rooted in soil that can be scaled to almost every acre of farm and ranchland.”
—Jane Zelikova, “Solutions Underfoot”
That sense of hope can continue once the initial work of reading and talking is done. “A lot of the circles don’t want to stop being circles,” Wilkinson says. “So they’re morphing into picking up another book, working on a collective art project, taking on a campaign in a city or community, continuing as a space for support and accountability.”
As the All We Can Save Project rolls out, with retreats, mentoring, and hopefully grants, that feminine (and feminist) element of nurturing and succor will become more and more important—to veteran activists and climate novices alike. The current, patriarchal approach to climate action is not enough: an epochal crisis requires a much more intersectional movement.
“We know the problems. We have the solutions. And yet, far too many leaders, across sectors, continue to focus on short-term profit and prestige,” states the All We Can Save website. “The status quo is not working.”
And to break into a new paradigm, we need both to acknowledge the power of a feminist approach to this overwhelming global challenge.
“The book’s title inspiration comes from a stanza from an Adrienne Rich poem,” Wilkinson says. “And we come back to some of her wisdom at the very end of the book: ‘There must be those among whom we can sit down and weep, and still be counted as warriors.’ And I think that captures the energy that we hope circles are helping to hold: there’s grief, there’s courage, there’s everything in between, and we welcome all of that.”