Dr. Katharine Wilkinson is an author, strategist, teacher, and co-host of the podcast, A Matter of Degrees. Dr. Wilkinson co-founded and leads The All We Can Save Project with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, in support of women leading on climate. Her books on climate include the bestselling anthology All We Can Save (2020, co-editor), The Drawdown Review (2020, editor-in-chief and lead writer), the New York Times bestseller Drawdown (2017, lead writer), and Between God & Green (2012).
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Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them all our one question in these crazy and unusual times. In all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right? Our guest today is Katharine Wilkinson. She is an author, a strategist, a teacher, and one of 15 "women who will save the world", according to Time Magazine. Her books on climate include best-selling thought anthology All We Can Save, The Drawdown Review, The New York Times bestseller, Drawdown, and Between God & Green. She co-founded and leads The All We Can Save Project with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, in support of women leading on climate. She co-hosts the podcast A Matter of Degrees, telling stories for the climate curious with Dr. Leah Stokes. Previously, Dr. Wilkinson was the principal writer and editor in chief at Project Drawdown. She speaks widely, including a TED talk on climate and gender equality, with more than 1.9 million views. A former Rhodes scholar, Dr. Wilkinson holds a doctorate in geography and environment from Oxford. And now, Katharine.
Welcome, Katharine, to What Could Possibly Go Right? As you know, this series is threading the needle between facing reality and a dedication, as your book title says so well, all we can save still. We don't always talk about the "who" does the saving. Not the "what" or "how" of saving what we can; "who" decides who has power. For you, that seems to land on women. I remember back in the day - and I'm saying that a lot now, like this crazy old lady. Three women - myself, Dana Meadows and Hazel Henderson - were often the only women with a platform among a sea of men. For Dana in her famous Places to Intervene in a System, the highest level of intervention was love. And Hazel was the first to talk about the love economy, the unpaid essential work of culture making. Yet, we've also had Margaret Thatcher and now we have Marine Le Pen, so it's not as simple as gender. So I want to offer you a chance - and you can overlook it - to talk about what women bring to things going right. So over to you, Katharine. What could possibly go right?
Thank you so much, Vicki. I really feel very honored to be in conversation with you. It's been really nourishing actually, to hold this question about what could possibly go right for the last couple of weeks. I did think that maybe it made sense to start with the stanza from an Adrienne Rich poem called Natural Resources that gave rise to the title of the anthology, All We Can Save. It's the closing stanza of this poem and it says, "My heart is moved by all I cannot save. So much has been destroyed. I have to cast my lot with those, who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world." We were having such a hard time naming this collection of writings that hold hard truths and keep a forward gaze on what a more just and life-giving future might look like, and the work that needs doing to get us there. So much of climate communication either flips out into pessimism, doom, it's all going to hell in a handbasket; or into sort of Pollyanna starry-eyed optimism that also feels disconnected from reality. So this idea of all we can save acknowledges how much has been lost, how much more will be lost because what is already baked into the system and says, we're going to show up for this work and this hard and magnificent moment that we are living in. All of the pieces in the book, 41 essays, 17 poems, and also original art; they are all written by women. I think it is, well we hope that it is, a representative mosaic of the "we" that is rising in this moment. As you pointed out, there is nothing magical about gender. Certainly women are just as capable of embodying the patriarchy as those who identify as men. And yet, I think we are seeing a different kind of leadership that women are bringing in droves on climate. What is exciting to me about possibility and what could go right is how many people are wanting to be of use in this moment, and are rolling up their sleeves to figure out how they can best contribute. I can only imagine how much bigger the team seems now to you looking back some decades. I think that being of use can certainly look like action in the world; marches, campaigns, execution of this strategy or that strategy, creation of this thing or that thing. But I think it is also reflective of something internal that's happening. Life force seems to me to be the most remarkable and persistent dynamic on this planet. Janine Benyus has written about this so beautifully, the way that life propels forward to more life, despite all of the odds. I think at our very best, we as human beings are active and generative participants and collaborators with lifeforce. We are helpers. We are in these relationships of reciprocity and almost play with the planet's living systems. More and more I think the action that we're seeing in the world seems to be growing from... Well, I won't say the world. More and more the action I think we're seeing on the climate crisis that feels more manageable is growing from tending that route, that lifeforce connection that we all have that is clearly our inheritance and I think, in a most ideal world, is our legacy also. I spent about five years working on climate solutions, and understanding what tools are in the toolbox around solutions. So much of the dialog about solutions is about scale and speed. I'm finding myself increasingly interested in solutions at depth, and your point about Dana's insight about love as the most powerful leverage point. And I know you've had Sherri Mitchell on the show, so I won't cover too much of Sherri's content, but she's been a really helpful teacher for me in all of this, and understanding the polarities and dynamism of masculine and feminine, which of course, we all have within us, whatever our gender identity. This crystallization that the masculine is about action in the world, and the feminine is about heart-centered wisdom; when we step back and think about, really, how did we get into the mess that we're in? A whole bunch of action in the world, in the absence of heart-centered wisdom, feels like a pretty good distillation. So, as I think about what could go right, as we continue to be in the onslaught of the quest for power and profit and prestige, that maybe these things could actually be replaced with care and courage and connection and community and creativity. Things that I think are emblematic of that life force, and the ways that humans live into that, and that maybe we start to build a more life-giving present in our work, to build a more just and life-giving future. So that's what's been rumbling around for me as I've sat with your gorgeous question.
I love it. I have so many little branches off the central trunk of your tree if we stay with natural metaphors. One thing I'll just comment on is that the separation of the masculine-doing and the women-heart-centered, I think our challenge is - and I think a lot of people in your book are like this - is the challenge is to bring your heart into the public sphere. To come from the heart, to speak from the heart, to speak about the heart, to talk about the importance of the heart. To use the sort of masculine explosive consonants, like the "Ps" and all those explosive consonants, and to bring in the lyricism of the vowels. I know it's difficult as a woman to present your heart and not cry, so we have to learn to cry in public and to let that be part of our communication. I think that separation of being and doing, is like we need to "do what we be, and be what we do", and somehow or another, that transcends gender. Anyway, that was just one thought I had. Yeah, I know that you said, it's not exactly a question of scaling, and yet I know, my explosive consonant self is all about scaling. When I did my food work, I was like, No, we're not going to scale up. You can't scale up local food, because it's local, but you scale sideways. Somehow or another, there's this feeling that we really need to increase our influence at this critical moment. I know I always live with my hair on fire, I have done for 40 years, that's just how I am. But it's like, how do we come into the public square where there's so much resistance and denial and the infrastructure of the old order that just won't budge. How does this urgency to save what we can intersect with this impossibility and denial and opposition? And it's only getting greater. I mean, how do those forces work together in your view?
Yeah, this is such a great reflection and constellation of thoughts and questions. The way that you put that, Vicki, of making our hearts public; I haven't quite thought about it that way. I've think a lot about the integration of head and heart. Certainly, in the years from my student activist days to now, over the last couple of decades of working in climate in one way or another, and all the times that it was suggested to me that really, I should just check my heart at the door, tuck away those feelings. Actually, when I was working on the talk that I gave at TEDWomen in 2018, just a couple weeks before, one of the curators was like, You've got to take the emotion out of this. You can maybe hit some feelings at the end, but these need to be out of the talk. And I just was like, No! A) because there's not enough time to rewrite the thing, B) because that's not authentic for me, and C) because that's what we have been doing on climate for so long, of facting at people, and showing another chart and another graph and more data. I understand the need for rigor, and the recovering academic in me is like, Yes, dot the i's, cross the t's. When we stop there, we just stay in this prefrontal cortex mishmash that doesn't get us moving. And I think, when we do show up with our hearts, as I tried to do in that talk, I think as all of the contributors in All We Can Save have done, it is an invitation to other people to show up, because how in the world can you have your eyes focused, your antenna up about planetary emergency, and not be feeling anything. Right? You would never follow someone like that. You would never trust someone like that, because there's no sense of integration. So I think actually, it has been a real undermining of the movement. I think it's been part of why the climate movement struggled for so long to gather steam, and I think that it is the way to find cracks in that power, profit, prestige... I'm imagining castles and walls and skyscrapers and all of that infrastructure of the patriarchy and capitalism. How do you get in there? I don't think you get in there with the same kinds of logic, the same kinds of approaches, the same sort of mechanical things. Actually, I feel like what we're trying to do is less an infiltration, and more an invitation; like an opening of a door to something else and welcoming people in, which is something that, I think the climate activism space has been so woefully bad at. It has felt like a place where you're going to get shamed, and you're not going to know enough, and if you don't have a PhD and... But we're humans alive on the planet in this moment, so this is for everyone. How do we create that sense of warmth? And nothing about it is fuzzy or easy, but we're gonna try to find joy in the work as we can and to nurture the relational web that is between us, because that's the only guarantee. And that's also the way we stay in the work. What I'm holding in my head is a lot of thoughts about moss, sort of creeping sideways, and all of a sudden, you've been pulled in and it actually feels like a nicer place to be than the system that you have been a part of.
You had to bring up moss because it makes me think of slime mould. The thing I love about slime mould is that in some conditions, it's solid and in some conditions, it's fluid. That it moves by the right conditions, it multiplies and it moves; and in the conditions of dryness or threat, it will stay still. There's processes in nature, and this is part of your work, that really inform us. I love the term serotiny, which is basically the process in nature that's activated by fire. When a forest burns, the lodgepole pine opens its cone and spreads its seed, and it will only do that in fire. And then the fire weed is activated. So in a way, that's another natural metaphor of these times that, as you say, people are being activated in a way. It didn't seem necessary, they could just stay put like a slime mould, but now we're on the move. I want to share one thing because I love that we've wandered over here. One of my early guests was a woman named Victoria Santos, and I pitched the question "What could possibly go right?" And she just sat there. She's an African American woman who does diversity training. She just sat there and talked about the pain. Why can we not change? Why are people of color separate? It just kept kept going, and I'm sitting there kinda antsy like, Wait a second, get around to the question. I want you to answer my question. Then I realized what could possibly go right is that feelings enter the public square, that if you can't feel the world, you can't heal the world. I think we're trying to do that, because we have marginalized the feminine. With the wealth gap, we're really able to ignore the suffering of, because we're not suffering. It brought me to this sense that what's missing is, what you're saying, is empathy. What's missing from the formula of energy and environment and ecology etc, is empathy. It really is still relegated to being such a weak sister.
A nice to have, but not maybe critical.
Yeah, like do it at home. Do it with your girlfriend. A little empathy will go a long way, I guarantee. So, any other thoughts from all the authors in your book and from your own experience of being a woman of influence in a world of men? How do we bring this quality of empathy into the public square?
I think it's part of why I've really chosen to focus on communication of various stripes and culture-making of various stripes as at least a good chunk of what I do professionally, and what I do on on climate, because I think that whether it's poetry, whether it is film, any number of mediums can take us to a place that we might otherwise feel antsy about or resistant to. And we kind of settle in around story. There's something, I don't know whether it reminds us of childhood in some cases, whether it feels like some kind of ancient practice in some cases, but I think it helps us see differently. It helps us feel into different experiences, different scenarios. There are two really wonderful pieces in the book. One by Favianna Rodriguez, who is an artist and activist, which is a letter to the climate movement about the need for cultural strategy, and the way in which when we are not proactively using the tools of culture, we are leaving something really critical to the side and we're potentially setting ourselves up for failure, right? Because we are not tapping into these incredibly powerful, transformative, many mediums that are culture-related. Then there's another essay by Kendra Pierre-Louis, who at the time that we started reaching out to folks about, Would you want to write for this? She was at the New York Times and our question was, What would you like to write about that you haven't been able to write about at the Times. And she has this brilliant essay called Wakanda Doesn't Have Suburbs. She looks at Black Panther as one of the only pieces of popular film or TV that paints a picture of what could possibly go right of humans living in reciprocity. She talks about the opening scene, where you're coming into Wakanda and you might overlook the fact that there are no suburbs. Wakanda has farms and forests around it, and then it has this kind of thriving urban center. Both Favi and Kendra call for the need for radical imagination in this moment, and for feeling into each other stories, but that we are inundated with images of what could be catastrophic. We've got lots of stories about apocalypse, and we have very few visions of what a lifegiving future might be. I just think that there is so much need for more work in that space. Also, I think it's a really powerful way to help people begin to see themselves in climate work or climate contributions of various stripes. There's a Marge Piercy poem in All We Can Save, that's one of my long time favorites. It was sort of mind-boggling to be able to be like, could we include To Be Of Use in this? Well, yes, we just reach out to the publisher and we'll ask about it. But this idea that we want to be of use, we are crying out to be of use, but a lot of times we don't know how to be of use. And when you start to see stories of people being of use and finding their way to collaborate with life force in so many different sectors, spaces, geographies, with so many different superpowers, I think that it creates that kind of invitation, and you begin to imagine yourself in the roles that you could play. Then soon enough, maybe you find yourself stepping into them. That's my hope.
That's beautiful. It almost brings me to tears. One thing is, and I can't tell you which essay it is, but it's one of the essays that just basically talks about how black communities know a lot of the things that we need to learn because of the very pressure of having to move in a society that resists their being. It made me think of culture, like if we're working at a cultural level. Culture is what we create together, when we know that our survival depends on one another. And there is a sort of dissolution or marginalization of culture that can happen in a consumer society. So it just feels like story, culture, empathy, feeling, somehow or another; that thread is what I am pulling out of this conversation. So I really appreciate what you're bringing to this whole field. It's really important. If you have one final thing that you'd like to say, you can do that or we can wind it up here.
Maybe should we end. I could read that Marge Piercy poem, as a final word.
I love that one by the way.
I first encountered it on our retreat with Parker Palmer for, quote unquote, young leaders and activists. This was a little while ago. So this is from a collection of hers called Circles on the Water and it's called To Be Of Use.
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.
Thank you, Katharine.
Hey, thanks for listening. Don't forget to subscribe and leave us a five star review so that this hopeful message can get out to more people. Check out Post Carbon Institute's Resilience website for show notes and for more guest information. Thanks also to Asher Miller, Amy Buringrud and Clara Winter at Post Carbon Institute, plus production assistant Michelle Wigg from FrugalityandFreedom.com