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Aug 20, 2020

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Wants YOU to Save the Planet

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is asking us all to work together on answering a very big question: What does the future look like if we get it right? (Photo: Brad Ogbonna)
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is asking us all to work together on answering a very big question: What does the future look like if we get it right?

Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has to be among the busiest scientists in the world. She runs a conservation consulting firm, Ocean Collectiv, as well as a think tank focused on the future of coastal cities called the Urban Ocean Lab. She was an advisor to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign. In June, she wrote an influential op-ed for The Washington Post that explained to white environmentalists why it’s critical for them to join the movement for racial justice. She’s currently editing an anthology of essays by women climate leaders, and also writing her own book on solutions to climate change. And starting this week, she’s cohosting a new podcast with industry titan Alex Blumberg ambitiously titled How to Save a Planet. Her journey to becoming a star in the environmental movement has been defined by a collaborative approach to problem solving, and now she’s asking us all to work together on answering a very big question: What does the future look like if we get it right?


This episode of the Outside Podcast is brought to you by Hydro Flask, maker of the new Trail Series bottle, which lets you go farther with less weight. Learn more about it and purchase yours at hydroflask.com/trailseries    

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

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EPISODE BEGINS 

Outside Podcast Theme: From Outside Magazine and PRX, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Michael Roberts (Host): If you wanted to save the planet right now, what would you do? Like if you had enormous resources and could take one action, what would it be?

Invest billions in renewable energy? Galvanize a campaign to get people to eat more plants and less animals? Pour everything you’ve got into education?

Or, maybe… maybe you’d start a podcast. 

Alex Blumberg (audio clip from How to Save a Planet preview): I perhaps have an outsized faith in the power of podcasts...

Roberts: That’s Alex Blumberg, being very forthcoming in a trailer for a new show called How to Save a Planet. If you don’t recognize his name, maybe you recognize his voice. 

Blumberg (audio clip): I was talking with a friend of mine, who was talking with her friend, who’d been selected to be a Nielsen family. And I said to her, “Isn’t it weird that they’re all named Nielsen?”

Roberts: Alex is a big, big figure in the audio world: he was a longtime producer for This American Life, creating some of that iconic show’s most popular episodes, and he also co-hosted Planet Money for National Public Radio. 

Blumberg (audio clip): But first our Planet Money indicator: it is 31,000.

Roberts: More recently, he co-founded a podcast company called Gimlet... 

Blumberg (audio clip): I’m Alex Blumberg, and you’re listening to Start Up, the podcast mini-series documenting the launching of my podcast company.

Roberts: . . .which was sold to Spotify last year for a reported $230 million dollars. Which brings us back to saving the planet. 

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: So he sold his company, he bought a Tesla and decided that he wanted to do a podcast on climate.

Roberts: That’s Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist and policy expert, and Alex’s co-host on How to Save a Planet, which launches on Spotify and other podcast platforms tomorrow, August 20th. As Ayana tells it, she was sitting next to Alex at a dinner party last year when he told her his plans for a climate change podcast.

Johnson: I was just like, okay, but like, who are you to host that show? Do you know anything about this? Do you know the science? Have you considered co-hosting this with a scientist? And he was like, yeah, totally. I'm thinking about a co host and someone with some scientific expertise would be great. And I was like, have you thought about having a woman as a cohost? Because like just white men leading the narrative on climate change is sort of how we got into this mess. And he was like, yes, that sounds good. And I was like, maybe a person of color, so you could have some insights into the communities that are being most affected and the people we need to be bringing into this work. And he's like, yes, that too is super important. And I was like two glasses of wine to dinner. I was like, Oh, you should just pick me. (laughs) I should be your co host. And he was kind of who are you?

Blumberg: (laughs) Like every origin story, there was a hint of truth. I think the only thing I would take issue with is the origin of my interest in doing a climate podcast. It was not that we sold the company and then I bought a Tesla and then I was like, I want to do a climate podcast like some sort of like dilettante, nouveau riche douchebag. It's been something that has been on my mind for a long time.

Roberts: Fair enough. But still, Alex did need a co-host. And he was very lucky to land Ayana.  She seems to be one of the busiest scientists alive. She runs a conservation consulting firm as well as a think tank focused on the future of coastal cities. She was an advisor to Elizabeth Warren’s campaign, and she’s currently editing an anthology of essays by women climate leaders, and also writing her own book on solutions to climate change. 

Ayana has emerged as a uniquely powerful voice in the environmental movement due to her collaborative approach to problem solving, and her talent for explaining the intersections of climate change and racial and social justice. These are critical pieces of the puzzle that we all need to comprehend if we’re going to make any progress on, well, saving the planet. 

To really understand Ayana, you need to start with that time she broke out into hives when she was five years old. 

She was on a family vacation in Florida in the mid-1980s, sitting on the back of a glass-bottom boat feeding the fish at a coral reef… because, feeding junk food to wildlife was considered ok back then   

Johnson: We were feeding the fish cheese popcorn, like all the kids on the boat off the back deck and I'm really allergic to milk. And so I was like armpit deep in a massive bag of cheese popcorn before my mom caught me and I was just covered in hives. And so she rinsed my arm off and took me off the back deck into the cabin where there was this glass bottom, while everyone else was outside feeding the fish. And so it was like I had this private view to this underwater magical world. 

Roberts: For Ayana, it was love at first sight. 

Johnson: And I went to the aquarium and got to hold a sea urchin in my hand and feel it's hundreds of tube feet crawling across my palm. And I was just like, I'm hooked. What is this called? This is my job.

Roberts: Eventually, it would be. But the journey to becoming a marine biologist was a long one for a middle-class bi-racial kid growing up in Brooklyn, New York. As a child, Ayana had most of her nature experiences in her backyard.  

Johnson: I was always trying to find ways to be outside and enjoy the outdoors. And our backyard was a super special place for me. We grew vegetables. We had an herb garden. I had this totally awesome jungle gym, and  I would just dig up my dad's tulip bulbs and he would be really bummed and I would just have been looking for worms and I was into making mud pies and I spent a ton of time in my childhood running through the sprinklers in the backyard.

Roberts: From an early age, Ayana developed a sophisticated understanding of how humans relate to the environment around them and also how they can change it. Much of this came from the fact that her Jaimacan-born father was an architect and an artist who kept a pottery studio in the basement of their brownstone.    

Johnson: So there was always this sense of design and understanding how the buildings and objects that we live in and around and with are really important. And they are decisions that are made how we construct our world. 

Roberts: Of course, we don’t always make the best construction choices, which is something else that Ayana learned early on.  

Johnson: There's a great picture of me as a kid, like with ears of corn coming out of like all of my pockets wearing overalls in my backyard in Brooklyn, like a tiny farmer, but we actually had to stop growing food because our neighbors started using all these super harsh pesticides to control weeds in their garden cause they didn't want to weed their tiny patch of land. They also didn't grow anything in its place. They just wanted it dead and empty. And so that was my first exposure to the ways in which we try to beat nature into submission in some weird form that it doesn't want to be in.

Roberts: Ayana’s mother taught high school English. She pushed her students to read critically and love books. She was the same way with her daughter. When Ayana was 12, she had to read a biography for her science class. Her mom handed her a biography of Rachel Carson, the legendary marine biologist and conservationist.  

Johnson: I was just completely in awe of her. As a young person reading about her and the huge impact that she made on the world, it was super inspiring because until then I had only really heard about civil rights leaders. And so when I was five and decided to become a marine biologist, and next thing I wanted to be when I was 10 was the lawyer that got the next Martin Luther King out of jail

And I watched the Eyes on the Prize documentary series when I was too young to handle it probably. And I was terrified that the Klu Klux Klan was going to throw a Molotov cocktail in my window and steal me in the night when my parents couldn't protect me because I was a mutt because I was biracial. And so the people who fought against that were the heroes, and so to then be able to put someone like Rachel Carson in the same category was I think a really big step for me.

Roberts: Ayana went to college at Harvard, where she majored in environmental science and public policy. After graduating, she earned her PhD in sustainable coral reef management at the University of California at San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She began her field work in 2007, in the Caribbean nations of Curaçao and Bonaire, where she redesigned fish traps to reduce bycatch. 

Johnson: Hundreds of scuba dives later, I was able to prove that if you put this escaped slot, this narrow, vertical, rectangular hole in the corner of a fish trap, the 80% of the bycatch can escape. 

Roberts: It was a simple and cheap solution that had a strong conservation impact without hurting fishermen’s income. 

Johnson: And so that was very formative because it showed me that it's not about fancy technology. There are these really valuable, low tech solutions. And if you design your research to fill a need that is expressed by the local government and you work with fishermen that you can actually be useful. And I didn't want to just write papers that no one was gonna read and wouldn't ever result in any action. 

 

Roberts: It was that desire for action that caused Ayana to largely abandon the underwater data aspects of her research and instead focus her energies on connecting with the people who had the most at stake in how coral reefs are managed.

Johnson: What I realized is that I really needed to just be talking to fishermen. I needed to talk to the people who had for generations been on the water, under the water, seeing what's changed and whose livelihoods depended on getting management right. And so I interviewed over 400 fishermen and scuba divers and it was fascinating. It was this incredible window into why people do what they do.

Roberts: She asked them a very long list of questions, but one proved to be especially revealing.

Johnson: If you could write the rules to manage fishing in the ocean, what would they be? And that was the question that a lot of people were just so surprised to be asked. And they often had really great ideas and insights based on just a really intimate knowledge of the problems that the ocean was facing. So the hundreds of hours that I spent sort of interrupting dominoes games and hanging out at the docks and in dive shops really changed the way that I see the world.

Roberts: That new perspective would guide her professional career. At the Waitt Institute, a nonprofit focused on restoring fish populations, she launched an initiative that helped the citizens of Barbuda to craft their own marine regulations. The result was one of the most progressive and comprehensive ocean management policies in the region.

Still, when Ayana moved back to Brooklyn in 2016, she struggled to figure out how she could have the greatest impact on ocean conservation. 

Johnson: I made a spreadsheet of everyone I respected in ocean conservation, and I set up meetings with all of them and just asked them if you could have any job in ocean conservation or work on any project, what would it be? And I got basically no good answers.  

Roberts: All those meetings did, however, result in Ayana getting a number of consulting gigs: she worked with Grenpeace, the XPrize, and World Wildlife Fund. She was getting so many offers that she couldn’t handle all the work herself—and she didn’t want to.

Johnson: And so I called up a dozen of the coolest people I know who were working independently on ocean conservation and said, Hey, if I form some sort of collective where we can work on projects together, would you be down? And everyone said, yes.

Roberts: That’s how the Ocean Collective was born. Ayana envisioned it as a vehicle to provide targeted support for conservation groups that are doing things differently—and in a way that is careful about the justice implications of their work. Among their early projects was a program for the Bezos Family Foundation that awarded grants to small environmental organizations involved in community engagement.

Ayana’s instinct to collaborate surfaced again last year, after she read the text of the Green New Deal, the resolution introduced in congress by Democrats that calls on the federal government to combat climate change in a number of ways. She was impressed... but also struck by a major shortcoming.  

Johnson: I was reading through this, I was like, wow, they really went for it. They were really connecting a lot of dots here. I don't know if people are going to go for this. And then I got to page 10, and that was the first time I saw anything about the ocean. And it just listed the ocean in a string of like “things we should protect include” kind of a list. I just was like, what? This is all we get. And it just made me think people really don't look to the ocean. When we think about climate solutions, we think about the ocean as a victim of climate change: the ocean heating up and acidifying, and we think about overfishing and pollution. But we don't think about all the ways in which the ocean can and must be a part of our climate solutions.

Roberts: Her reaction was to work with Chad Nelson, the CEO of Surfrider, the largest grassroots ocean conservation group in the world, and Bren Smith, co-founder of the regenerative ocean farming organization GreenWave , to co-author an opinion piece for the environmental outlet Grist. Their piece calling out the “big blue gap” in the Green New Deal. Soon after, Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign tapped Ayana as a consultant—and made her the star of a campaign video:

Johnson (audio clip from campaign video): Warren has really elevated climate policy to a central role in the debates and in the primaries. We’re also seeing this upsurgence in climate activism around the country. 

Watch the video here: https://www.instagram.com/tv/B3aQQzqF705/

Roberts: Ayana entered 2020 with a full head of steam. She started off by co-founding Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank that cultivates policies that help coastal cities prepare for . 

She started working on the How to Save a Planet podcast, and on her book projects.

When COVID-19 hit in March, it didn’t slow her down at all—it just made everything more complicated.

And then George Floyd was killed, spurring a nationwide uprising in the face of ongoing police violence against black Americans. For the first time in her career, Ayana‘s work came to a standstill. 

Johnson: I was just so heartbroken watching all these murders and just wondering what I could contribute to that moment. And the thing I decided that might be helpful was helping people connect the dots between environmental work, climate work, and the need for racial justice. 

Roberts: She began writing an op-ed for the Washington Post that would go viral.

Johnson: And so I drafted that op-ed to share my personal experiences over the course of those weeks, and then to basically frame it as a letter to white environmentalists to say, here's why you need to care about racial justice and be part of dismantling white supremacy, because we simply cannot successfully address the climate crisis without people of color as a part of that work. And as part of that solution, and as long as all of these violent structures of oppression exist, people of color cannot fully do the work.

And I sort of laid out all of the ways in which my work had been derailed over those weeks. All of the things that you're told you're supposed to do to contribute, to be a good environmentalist: writing the policy memos to Congress on wind energy and advising Hollywood film on ocean conservation messaging and the climate science they're including, and fundraising for an award for women of color climate leaders and work on urban ocean lab. 

Like none of that happened because I was just completely consumed with the news and taking care of my people and checking in and helping organize things and processing what this meant for my work. And so I wrote that op-ed out of fury and grief to try to say, like, I know white environmentalists, I know you just want to ignore racism because our environmental challenges are already massive. And I too wish we could ignore it, but I am proof that you can't ignore it and still get this work done. 

Roberts: We’ll be right back.

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Roberts: Ayana’s op-ed in the Washington Post op-ed was everywhere—and it made her a sought after speaker. In the weeks after it was published, she hosted Instagram Live discussions about environmental and racial justice with Julia Louis-Dreyfus and former secretary of state John Kerry. 

Ayana had written something deeply personal, but it served as a call to action for white environmentalists—a group of people who are very engaged in the state of the world, but who were largely staying on the sidelines of an enormous social movement because they didn’t understand how it related to them.

Johnson: People who think of themselves as good people, people working to save the planet just really weren't engaging in the movement for black lives. It was a separate issue to them. They weren't seeing the way these things were intertwined.

Roberts: But there was another reason that so many organizations and media outlets jumped at the chance to promote Ayana’s message.

Johnson: Environmentalist's were grasping for straws of like content they could share that connected their work to Black Lives Matter. Cause they were unprepared. There are a few major environmental groups that have been focused on racial justice and have been thoughtful on this intersection and their communications were fluid. And there were others who were like “oh my gosh, who can I share? A reputable person who can talk about this? Who can be on our podcast? Who can we interview?” And there was this scramble for what we can share to prove that we care. And so I think my op-ed also got caught up in this moment where people were like, Oh, we're supposed to be amplifying black voices. Oh wait, here's this op-ed. Okay, great. It doesn't make us feel too bad. It tells us that we're welcome and our help is needed. Right. Got it. And that racism is like distracting people from doing the work they seemed to be doing. That seems like a not so scary thing to say, okay, we'll share this. 

Roberts: The widespread attention Ayana received elevated her to a new level of intellectual leadership in the environmental movement. She had starkly revealed the moral link between the actions we need to take to create a healthier planet, and those we need to take to bring about racial justice.

It’s not surprising that Ayana is the one to make this connection—she was, after all, that little girl who dreamed of being Rachel Carson and the lawyer for the next Martin Luther King Jr. 

And if you go a bit deeper into her story, you see how those dreams intersect. Remember that trip she took to Florida when she was five, and fell in love with coral reefs and decided she wanted to be a marine biologist? She also learned to swim on that trip, in a hotel pool. It was a joyous experience, but decades later, she would learn that it was tainted by racism.

Johnson: So my dad's black and my mom's white and, and it had been unremarkable when I was down there with my mom. When my dad showed up, none of the white people would get in the pool. They wouldn't let their kids in the pool because he had polluted the entire thing because his skin had more melanin in it, which I would not have understood at the time. And my parents didn't tell me. It just meant like I can do all the cannonballs I want, I didn't have to worry about splashing people.

And my dad later told me that when he learned to swim and dive for coins, it was in Kingston Harbor where the tourists would throw coins off the cruise ships for the little black kids to go dive for as their form of entertainment. And so him teaching me to dive in that way, it was bringing back those memories for him.

Roberts: Today, persistent racism undercuts efforts at combating climate change. As Ayana points out, studies have shown that people of color are more worried about the impacts of climate change than white communities. And yet, their voices are so often ignored. 

Johnson: And the number that I just can't get out of my head is 23 million. That is the number of black people in America who are already deeply concerned about climate change. So how stupid is it to create a movement and a society that welcomes all of those people into this work that desperately needs all hands on deck? Like, do we want to win or not? Because if we want to win, we need all the people who already care working on this as much as they can. The pushback that I get to talking about race and the intersections with climate: climate is already complicated enough as it is, we don't want to scare people away by talking about racial justice.

And like, you're worried more about scaring away racists than about welcoming people of color who already care into this movement. And honestly, I want to see the Venn diagram between racists and climate deniers, which would probably further cement the fact that we should stop worrying about scaring away racists from climate work. Because there’s some portion of them that are never going to be into it. 

Roberts: If you talk to Ayana’s collaborators, one of the things they’ll tell you they appreciate most about her is her directness. 

Katharine Wilkinson: Ayana is fiercely loyal, and she is willing to speak truth in situations where others would squirm away from it. Right. Or just wouldn't deliver it with the same clarity.

Roberts: That’s Katharine Wilkinson, the editor in chief at Project Drawdown, a group focused on climate solutions. She spoke to me during a thunderstorm. 

Katharine and Ayana recently partnered on a project that takes on their shared frustration for the way that women have been marginalized in climate work. It’s an anthology of essays by 40 women climate leaders called All We Can Save. They came up with the idea while at a conference in Colorado last year, when they were feeling… pissed off. 

Wilkinson: And in the midst of this conference we were sort of grappling again with like, God, there are so many brilliant women with big, bold ideas who don't get the mic, who don't get sufficient resources, too much of their great work is a side hustle or is kind of happening in work arounds of existing structures. And we went on what Ayana has come to call a ‘rage hike.’ And that's really where we sketched out the idea for this book. 

Roberts: The contributors to All We Can Save include the kinds of scientists, lawyers, and policy experts you might expect, but also people you wouldn’t: farmers, artists, designers, and poets. 

In addition to the book, Ayana and Katherine are creating a non-profit that will provide significant funding to women climate leaders.  

Johnson: We cannot save the planet as our side hustle. We have to unleash our full might on this problem and the people doing the most important work need to be supported.

Roberts: It’s hard to argue with that. But it’s a point that got me wondering… is Ayana doing so much, that she risks making climate change her side hustle? In particular, why did she want to be the host of a weekly podcast?  

Blumberg: We're doing this every week from now until -- as I like to joke with Ayana -- the job is done. And so this if it works and it's like successful, this is like a multi year commitment.

Roberts: I mean, I get why Alex Blumberg wanted her, but of all the ways she could apply her energy and intellect, is this really the best choice? I called her back to ask . 

(to Johnson) Is this podcast How to Save a Planet like getting in the way of you actually saving the planet? How do you have time to do the kind of work that leads to the action that you’ve always focused on for a long time when you’re doing all the things that it takes to record a regular show? I know it’s a lot of work. 

Johnson: (laughs) Yeah, well, I guess the first thing I would say is let's lower the bar. I am not personally going to save the planet. So this is not getting in the way from any sort of savior thing that I would alone be doing. And instead it's part of this broader effort to think about what we collectively can do together.

If we can push legislators and companies and individuals to do better than it's absolutely worth the effort. And especially because of what I think we really need right now is a cultural shift. We need to shift the status quo of how we live on this planet, how we interact with each other when it comes to the climate and culture shift happens through media and art. So yeah, this was not something I ever thought I would end up doing. But it seems like it's worth a shot

It's not the podcast that saves the planet, right? It's opening up a line between people on what's possible. And it's part of what I think I can contribute to the question of what does the future look like if we get it right? Because that's the question that people don't know the answer to. We can't see it. And so it's really hard for people to work towards something that they don't even know what it is or what it looks like. We have this really strong vision of what the apocalypse look like, right? The fire and brimstone and all of that, but we don't actually have that many positive visions of the future that are leading us to run towards it and said, we're kind of like sauntering away from the apocalypse which is not going to cut it at this point.

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Roberts: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg launch How to Save a Planet tomorrow, August 20th, on Spotify and other podcast platforms.

Ayana and Katharine Wilkinson are the co-editors of the anthology, All We Can Save, out on September 22. You can preorder it now at allwecansave.earth

This episode was produced by me, Michael Roberts, with support from Bonnie Tsui. Bonnie guided our first conversation with Ayana, and her profile of Ayana is in the upcoming September/October print issue of Outside Magazine, which includes an awesome photo of Ayana holding a chicken on her mom’s farm. Get your copy by subscribing to Outside Magazine at outsideonline.com/summerspecial, where we’re offering a discount for a limited time. 

Music for this episode, and all our episodes, is by Robbie Carver .

This episode of the outside podcast was brought to you by Hydroflask, makers of the new Trail Series Bottle, which lets you go farther with less weight. Learn more about it and purchase yours at hydroflask.com/trailseries.

We’ll be back in two weeks. 

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Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.