The cutting room floor
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson shares the B-side of “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.”
Marine biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson speaks on stage during NYC Climate Strike rally and demonstration at Battery Park. Photo credit: Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.
Last week, marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson wrote an important essay for The Washington Post. The headline: “I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet.”
If you’re a so-called “climate person” and you’re also on Twitter, I’d be surprised if you haven’t read it yet. But just in case you haven’t, here are the first two paragraphs, re-posed in the hopes they’ll inspire you to go check out the entire thing:
Here is an incomplete list of things I left unfinished last week because America’s boiling racism and militarization are deadly for black people: a policy memo to members of Congress on accelerating offshore wind energy development in U.S. waters; the introduction to my book on climate solutions; a presentation for a powerful corporation on how technology can advance ocean-climate solutions; a grant proposal to fund a network of women climate leaders; a fact check of a big-budget film script about ocean-climate themes, planting vegetables with my mother in our climate victory garden.
Toni Morrison said it best, in a 1975 speech: “The very serious function of racism … is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being.” As a marine biologist and policy nerd, building community around climate solutions is my life’s work. But I’m also a black person in the United States of America. I work on one existential crisis, but these days I can’t concentrate because of another.
Reading Johnson’s piece, it becomes clear why the environmental movement has long been so white. It’s not just because Black people feel unwelcome. It’s also because Black people are really fucking tired.
“How can we expect black Americans to focus on climate when we are so at risk on our streets, in our communities, and even within our own homes?” Johnson writes. “How can people of color effectively lead their communities on climate solutions when faced with pervasive and life-shortening racism?” You would have to be a legitimate superhero to deal with all that and the climate crisis. And yet that’s what Johnson—and every Black climate expert—has to do every day.
Johnson is one of the hardest working people I know. She advised Senator Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign on its Blue New Deal plan. She founded her own consultancy, Ocean Collectiv, and think tank, Urban Ocean Lab. She’s in the process of releasing two climate books and a podcast.
She also wrote a lot more for her Washington Post op-ed that the editors left on the cutting room floor. That’s normal, of course—newspapers gotta newspaper.
But I asked her if she’d share those left-out bits with HEATED readers, in the hopes they would they helpful as we continue to navigate the inseparable relationship between racial justice and climate justice.
She agreed. The excerpts are below.
By Ayana Elizabeth Johnson
For the last two and half months, I have been upstate New York with my mom, on the tiny farm where she lives. I am so lucky that she moved up there from Brooklyn nearly twenty years ago. It means I always have a quiet place to retreat to.
Like many, I’m even more tethered to my computer these days—endless Zoom calls and emails. But every day I go for a walk to clear my head. It has been such a gift amidst everything that’s swirling to look at the hills and dales and watch spring unfurl, and try to dream up ways to write a book about climate solutions that is captivating and inspiring instead of overwhelming and horrifying.
But often my head doesn’t clear. Because on every walk I see confederate flags.
One neighbor has his flag flying on a 3-story flagpole in the middle of his front yard. Another neighbor has hers on the wall inside her garage, and I find myself hoping the door is closed so I don’t have to see it, even though I get a twinge just knowing it’s there.
So I found myself back in Brooklyn, seeking the solace and solitude I could not quite find in the country. And on Friday, I awoke as a black person in the United States.
I queasily and obsessively read the news all morning, shared all the best resources I found, and encouraged others to commit to actions that address racism in America. By noon, I felt like calling in black.
Yet the show must go on.
I mustered the composure to interview a white man about the importance of planting trees. Despite being a tree hugger (literally), thinking of photosynthesis as my favorite magic, and re-greening being one of my favorite climate solutions, I was not at my best. And I hadn’t gotten any work done on my book.
And after a five hour sprint of meetings, I was eating rice cakes with peanut butter in the bathtub, drinking wine. Totally spent, not from the day, but from the week, the month, the year, this presidential administration. This country that keeps breaking my heart.
But then, in the bath, I thought maybe it would help you to know about my experience, about this under-discussed intersection between race and climate. So, as these ideas started to form in my head, I hopped out of the tub and wrote this in my bathrobe.
The words poured out, and just as I was considering how to conclude, as if on cue, through my open window I heard, “Black Lives Matter,” as protesters passed the corner of my block.
I threw on clothes and a mask, walked to the corner, and cried tears of momentary relief to see traffic completely stopped, a steady flow of marchers chanting and weaving their way upstream around the cars, with cars and a bus honking in solidarity.
It was the reminder I needed that there are so many good people in the world, who want us to be better to each other, who want our country to be better.
This last week has been a string of gut-wrenching and terrorizing reminders of the mortal risk associated with simply existing in America as a black person.
I’m one of the lucky ones—fancy resume, employed, you’re reading my words—yet these deaths and threats trigger grief and anxiety. All week, I forced myself to work through bouts of tears, through tightness in my chest, racing thoughts.
I don’t want to make this about race. Really, I don’t.
I want to focus on how to deal with fossil fuel corporations waging a war against climate science and buying politicians, and putting us on a fast track to catastrophic climate breakdown.
I want to dedicate my energy to the critical task of transforming our energy, transportation, buildings, and food systems within a decade, and reaching net zero greenhouse gas emissions shortly thereafter.
You know that thoughts and prayers won’t solve climate change.
Well, they won’t solve racism either.
OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!
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