In A Time Of Climate Anxiety, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Is Paving A Hopeful Path Forward
With disasters like metal-melting, marine life-boiling heat waves across the Pacific Northwest, flash floods turning streets into rivers and subway stations into toxic lakes, wildfires in Oregon so intense they filled the New York skyline with a smoky haze. Then there's the ocean surface burning due to oil spills while companies are still trying to force oil pipelines through Indigenous lands. It's been especially difficult these days to feel hope for the future.
In a 2017 study by the American Psychological Association, researchers used the term "eco-anxiety" to describe the mental health impacts of climate change and its social and ecological consequences. Think: fatalism, chronic stress, fear, exhaustion, anger, depressive episodes, even violence. Honestly, how can you not feel that way when you doom-scroll through social media and watch the 24-hour news cycle of climate emergencies happening around the world?
Greta Thunberg, one of the youth movement's biggest voices, has talked about struggling with depression in the early years of her activism. This was brought on by her frustrations with the continued inaction of adults in positions of power. It's no surprise that the doomsday prep and emergency management industry is expected to grow by billions of dollars by 2025.
As much as we'd like to disconnect or look away, climate change and its many intersecting consequences — and the planet-damaging systems that got us into this situation — aren't going away any time soon. How, then, can we move through this collective anxiety we share about the future? How can we come together locally and globally to lessen the blows of environmental change, especially for our most vulnerable communities?
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson's tireless work as a marine biologist and climate policy advocate should be an example to us all of how to build a path forward together through education and collective action. Maybe you've heard of her, or at least heard of her work: She's written about racism as one of the biggest obstacles to stopping climate change, coastal and ocean conservation efforts across New York City (she's also a board member of the Billion Oyster Project), and how environmental justice is essential to the Black Lives Matter movement.
A co-founder of the coastal cities policy think tank Urban Ocean Lab, Dr. Johnson co-authored the Blue New Deal. This plan was released during Senator Elizabeth Warren's 2020 presidential campaign and would prioritize restoring America's ocean habitats and rebuilding coastal economies and communities impacted by warming oceans, pollution, and overfishing. Dr. Johnson's even discussed being a climate justice advocate with Billie Eilish.
But it's her current role as the co-host of Gimlet Media's podcast How To Save A Planet where Ayana's passion for climate change education and collective empowerment really shines. Episode subjects range from agriculture's greenhouse gas emissions to the history of wildfires and land management. Listeners' questions often take center stage. Think: Is the carbon footprint a helpful tool for measuring our individual action against climate change? Are electric cars really that much better for the environment? Does recycling actually make a difference? No environmental justice-shaped stone is left unturned.
Dr. Johnson, with the help of great guests including farmers, activists, and researchers, reframes these ongoing debates in a way that's refreshingly accessible. Listeners not only learn about topics left out of their science textbooks, but they gain a better understanding of how climate science terms and theories manifest in our day-to-day lives. She also covers what we may experience at our local level to big-picture changes in our regional and global ecologies as well as our economic and political systems.
Through Dr. Johnson's solutions-focused approach, the scary unknowns that tend to paralyze our discussions around climate change—and make us feel like none of our actions even matter—feel a little less scary. Dr. Johnson's intention, throughout this show and through all of her work, really, is not to shame people for not doing enough or fear-monger without offering a course of action. Instead, she engages with everyone, regardless of how much they know and their proximity to the climate movement, to build a better foundation of our environmental understanding, to challenge misinformation, and to inspire us to make change together.
The stories collected in the anthology All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions For The Climate Crisis, which Dr. Johnson co-edited alongside Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, are urgent reading. Especially in this perpetual era of environmental calamity wherever we look. Poems about the Anthropocene share pages with stories of climate migration, Indigenous resistance, stories of communities of color fighting against systems of environmental racism, and motherhood during the climate crisis.
The collection uplifts just as much as it educates. Flip through each chapter and you'll find terms defined, statistics and insights marked for your attention, offering accessible entry points into looming threats and ongoing struggles that oftentimes feel beyond our comprehension.
In her chapter on mental health and the climate crisis, climate adaptation researcher Susanne C. Moser notes how "climate grief" has sprung up in many of us. Scholars define this as an attempt to process the traumatic effects of living on a changing planet marred by overwhelming impacts of natural disasters, and forced migration and displacement. But both Moser and Johnson call for resilience as opposed to giving into the fear. As Moser writes, "Burnt-out people are less effective people. Burnt-out people can become sick people...Burnt-out people aren't equipped to serve a burning planet."
We cannot predict the future. Already, climate change has defied our modeling and our expectations, impacting communities across the world in disproportionate ways. It's understandable to avoid thinking about it until the climate crisis ends up at your front door.
Those in power who strive to continually get away with the damage we've done want us to focus on everything that's gone wrong and want us to give up. But now, more than ever, we must educate ourselves, unite, build political power, help enact community-based change, close the gaps and mend the harmful systems that have impacted frontline communities for so long.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson's ongoing climate advocacy is a reminder that all hope is not lost. Her work suggests that taking care of our bodies and minds is critical now more than ever.
So take a step back and breathe. Remember to celebrate victories and good news and treat yourself and each other with compassion. Listen to the marginalized communities who have been and continue to be most victimized by this climate emergency. Look to them for guidance and support their fight with the resources and tools you already have. As Dr. Johnson writes, together with Dr. Katherine Wilkinson: "Roll up your sleeves. Everyone has a role to play."
Eleonor Botoman is a critic and poet based in Brooklyn, New York, whose work has appeared in C Magazine, Artforum, Sunlight Press, Interiors Journal, BUST Magazine,The Mantle, and Dream Pop Journal. A former sketchbook librarian, she now studies in NYU's Experimental Humanities program. When she's not reading science fiction or visiting museums, she's working on her newsletter, Screenshot Reliquary.