A Best-Selling Book, a Pair of Ambitious Influencers, and the $400 Sweater Forcing a Reckoning Among Climate Activists

A Best-Selling Book, a Pair of Ambitious Influencers, and the $400 Sweater Forcing a Reckoning Among Climate Activists

Photo: DisobeyArt/Shutterstock (Shutterstock)

In late September, the editors of the best-selling anthology All We Can Save: Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis announced they had formed a non-profit of the same name. “As we midwifed AWSC into the world,” they wrote in a newsletter, “it became clear that it wanted to be more than a book.” The corporation was the culmination of a relationship that, according to the new organization’s website, began two years prior when the founders met on Twitter and bonded at an Aspen Institute conference over climate events that expressed only a “superficial commitment to diversity,” as evidenced by a speaker pool that skewed white and male. The pair, both rather well-connected and visible fixtures in the climate movement, wrote that they were “enraged by how many brilliant, innovative people,” particularly women and people of color “rarely got the microphone and too often got passed over for resources.” The new initiative would elevate those previously unheard voices and eventually get them some funding, too.

Its founders are women with some experience using those rare microphones, two veterans of the TED Talk circuit who host climate podcasts: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, a marine biologist, works primarily as a consultant and founded the think tank Urban Ocean Lab. Last year, she launched a Gimlet podcast with the company’s founder Alex Blumberg called “How to Save a Planet.” In 2019, Katherine Wilkinson, a former Rhodes scholar and self-described “author, strategist, and teacher” was named by Time as one of the 15 “women who will save the world.” (Until recently, she was the principal writer for Project Drawdown, an environmental non-profit.)

The resulting company described itself on a salmon pink landing page as “building ⚡️power + ☀️ joy to support women leading on climate.” It’s partnered, somewhat counter-intuitively, with lingua franca to sell a $380 cashmere sweater with “climate feminist” embroidered on the front. Bill McKibben wears one when he Zooms.

The non-profit’s stated goals are to subvert the pattern of male-dominated activist spaces and the movement’s tendency to “focus on short-term profit and prestige,” though at the moment it appears to be mostly soliciting donations and organizing reading groups based on the material in the book. (Mentorship programs and future investment in climate activists are said to be under development but remain TBD.)

But the launch of the organization came as a surprise to some contributors that participated in offshoots of the women’s early partnerships, the same activists and writers whose presence helped bolster the project’s impact. In interviews and in emails shared with Jezebel, a handful of All We Can Save contributors expressed frustration with what, to them, felt like something of a bait-and-switch in which an initiative purporting to bring women climate activists together ultimately served as a platform for two already well-known women to advance their careers—and their fundraising capacity. Some anthology contributors only learned of the non-profit as it was launching; others criticized a lack of transparency around the organization’s goals or balked at having their names associated with practices like that rather pricey cashmere sweater.

All of which raised tricky questions about what exactly the non-profit hoped to solve. Was the organization—which brought dozens of female climate activists to Montana for a retreat and then contracted dozens more to contribute work to the anthology—fostering a feminist climate movement or building a brand?

These feelings are complicated and muddled by the broader context of the movement: There’s a real need for the climate activism the founders envisioned, one in which environmental works operates in tangent with other forms of intersectional justice movements. And five people who spoke to Jezebel gave a variety of reasons for not wanting to criticize the organization publicly or putting their names in the press, deeply aware of the optics of raising questions about the All We Can Save project’s process and intent. Some didn’t want to go on the record in a way that might hurt the work of the early-career climate writers who appeared in the anthology. Others were reluctant to get into a public spat with other women working towards the same goal, conscious of how disagreements like these can be gendered as “catfights” and concerned for how the movement they care deeply about might be perceived: “I’d rather publicly fight with Chevron than other individuals,” said Mary Annaïse Heglar, who contributed to the book.

In the rather intimate and too-often minimized community of feminist climate activism, these concerns carry significant baggage: “There’s been a specific and concerted effort for a long time to discredit anyone who talks about climate,” says one participant. People concerned with climate justice, she says, are often portrayed as grifters just looking to make money. It gives the situation a particular sting.

Still, tensions have been high enough that the founders have held two conference calls with people involved with previous iterations of All You Can Save. Emails sent to a shared listserv last month expressed concern over what some participants considered an “extractive” or “self-focused/serving” turn for the project. And questions remain about what, exactly, the non-profit is doing, seven months after its launch. As one person put it rather pointedly: “It just seems like a lot of star-fucking and clout chasing to me.”

But the question of who speaks for diverse and distributed social movements is of broader concern in a moment when activist-influencers have some of the most powerful platforms from which to direct the conversation and raise money. “They’re building the brand, doing what is incentivized and rewarded,” says another of the anthology’s contributors. “This is what happens when there’s this system that only pays attention to you if you self-promote.”

 


In the summer of 2019, not long after they met, Johnson and Wilkinson co-hosted a retreat for 30 female climate activists on a ranch in Montana they called the “Feminist Climate Renaissance.” To the surprise of some attendees, a videographer was there documenting the event. The resulting short, an uplifting montage of women speaking about their commitment to the climate movement, featured speakers self-identifying as “an immigrant,” “a climate scientist,” or an “advocate.” (It didn’t include their names.) Shortly after the retreat, Johnson and Wilkinson began soliciting submissions for an anthology from some of the people who’d attended their event. At least one person was invited to write something for the book and then abruptly stopped hearing back. For some, the rapid progression from community-building retreat to marketable asset was jarring.

The anthology, which featured over 40 contributors, was released to universal acclaim. It was called “powerful” by the New York Times and was among the best-selling non-fiction titles of the year. Johnson and Wilkinson called in favors to secure celebrities for the audiobook, and a group that included Ilana Glazer, Jane Fonda, America Ferrara, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, and Janet Mock participated. Authors recall being asked to promote the book heavily, sometimes at the expense of their own projects. Shortly after it published, Johnson and Wikinson told book contributors they were launching a non-profit of the same name and held a conference call to explain the project. Contributors had been paid what is by most accounts a competitive fee for their contributions; in an email to Jezebel, the founders say “all royalties from the book will go directly to the project to further the mission.”

The website for the All We Can Save Project, formerly the website promoting the All We Can Save book, features the anthology prominently, along with the names and biographies of the book’s contributors. For the moment, the non-profit is offering resources for interested parties to start their own “reading circles” and, as the founders write, “developing open-source curriculum materials based on the anthology.” They also tell Jezebel they are creating a free mentorship program for newer climate activists: “There’s so much good work happening to address the climate crisis and, increasingly, to center women, especially women of color—we’re excited to contribute to this ecosystem in useful ways,” they write. But outside of the dissemination of teaching materials and a promise to fund other climate feminists at some point in the future, the All We Can Save Project’s plans seem somewhat opaque.

In early March, following another Zoom meeting, a number of All We Can Save contributors wrote to the founders on a shared listserv expressing concerns about how the project had progressed. “If I had known I was lending my name and work to a new nonprofit, I probably wouldn’t have participated,” wrote one. Another asked to be disaffiliated with the project over concerns about “authentic solidarity, which requires accountability.” Wilkinson and Johnson tell Jezebel “we heard a lot of feedback that this area of work feels promising and needed …. We also heard some critical feedback, including the need for clear communication about the relationship between book contributors and the project.” In an email, they note that they began working to create the non-profit over the summer, “when it became clear the anthology was gaining traction. Such moments of opportunity are rare and fleeting in the climate movement, and this one was quite unexpected.”

On the All You Can Save Project’s website, the founders liken their idealized movement to aspen trees, “all connected, interwoven underground, supporting each other.” And everyone Jezebel interviewed was committed to a collaborative and inclusive feminist climate movement, one that was, to take words from Johnson and Wilkonson, based in a “collective spirit.” The problem of who speaks for—or directs—such movements when well-connected or influential figures have the best chance to capture attention and dollars isn’t unique to the climate movement at all, and multiple people Jezebel interviewed noted that the activist spaces in which they ran were, thankfully, becoming more diverse and intersectional.

But the sour taste comes in part from a sensitivity to how complex movements can be distilled and flattened in the rush to make them more legible and more mainstream, with the most powerful facilitators becoming the loudest voices. It’s a problem that’s plagued intersectional activism for decades: “I think this story is about how second-wave feminism continues to poison feminist spaces,” one person said. As always, the question remains of whether movements can also become brands and whether when leaders emerge—even leaders intending to create, in the words of the founders, “leaderful” movements—it’s a growing pain or an erasure.

Molly Osberg is a Senior Reporter with G/O Media.

DISCUSSION

mamrsjfngffd
JurassicSnark

I’m not sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, yes.

On the other hand, I feel like anytime women helm something in the nonprofit world and inevitably have to create some sort of structure out of chaos, there’s a bunch of sour grapes for questionable reasons.

“Authors recall being asked to promote the book heavily, sometimes at the expense of their own projects.”

That stood out to me because it seems like someone complaining about something they weren’t obligated to do? What does “promote heavily” mean that it would actually take away from their own projects - it’s not like anyone was doing book tours during COVID - and what would the fall-out have been if they didn’t do it? It seems like they willingly participated, were paid a fair amount for their contribution to the book (as you wrote), and now they’re mad because, like literally any anthology of authors, they were asked to promote the work they’ve... contributed to?

And as far as the sweater goes, I went to their site expecting to find it there, which I didn’t - I feel like the way this is written kind of obscures that it’s really another company producing it, separately, and donating $100 per purchase to the organization, which is a hefty amount and accounts for a lot of that price point. Yeah, it is a luxury item still, but I find myself not thaaat mad about it? Anyone can buy the book at its affordable price; why shouldn’t people with more money shell out? They’re buying expensive sweaters anyway. Might as well support a cause. 

Lingua Franca is a line of sustainably-sourced, fair trade luxury cashmere sweaters, all hand-stitched by women in NYC” like... this could be worse?

I would honestly be less impressed if they partnered with an “affordable” company making $30 sweatshirts thanks to the nimble fingers of children in Bangladesh and dumping toxins from cotton production in their waters there, like every other “feminist company” out there does. No one NEEDS a sweatshirt. Hard pass.