Wege speaker: Everyone has a role in saving the planet


For the environmental movement to be effective, it must be something that everyone participates in, marine biologist and climate policy expert Ayana Elizabeth Johnson said during the Feb. 23 Wege Lecture on Sustainability.

“We all have a stake in the future of life on this planet,” she said. “We need to figure out how we can contribute what we have to offer and make everyone feel like there’s a role for them in this transformation we need to have.”

Nearly 800 participants tuned in virtually to the 20th annual Wege Lecture, U-M’s flagship sustainability lecture series, co-sponsored by the Center for Sustainable Systems, School for Environment and Sustainability, Democracy and Debate, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, and the Janice Charach Gallery: Environmentally Speaking.

The Wege Lecture typically takes place each fall, but a second lecture was added this year to mark the 30th anniversary of the CSS. It was moderated by Sara Hughes, assistant professor of environment and sustainability, and included a question-and-answer session with students.

A Brooklyn native, Johnson is the co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities, and co-creator and former co-host of the Spotify/Gimlet podcast “How to Save a Planet,” which focuses on climate solutions.

Because “everyone has a role to play” in climate work, Johnson said, it’s imperative that people utilize interdisciplinary expertise to develop climate solutions.

“One way in which the climate and environmental movement has failed us is by asking everyone to do the same thing when, as everyone here well knows, there are different academic disciplines and areas of practice and areas of knowledge that are all really needed,” she said. “Just being really respectful of where we each will best fit in that work is really important.”

Watch a video of the Feb. 23 Wege Lecture.

Because the environmental crisis feels so pressing, Johnson said, people often forget how “extremely fun” and “satisfying” it can be to do this type of work.

“There are innumerable ways to contribute to climate change solutions, and you should do the ones that are delightful for you, and work with the people and organizations you really enjoy,” said Johnson, who co-edited the bestselling climate anthology “All We Can Save” and co-founded The All We Can Save Project.

“We need to be more deliberate about embracing the work and not making it sound like homework. I love riding a bicycle, so it’s not a sacrifice that I make for the planet. It’s not about framing everything as a sacrifice, but how can we use all of these opportunities to make our lives better and more enjoyable?” she said.

Diverse communities often have trouble imagining the future and how they fit into it, given that “big transformations and transitions in the past have been really damaging for certain groups of people,” Johnson said.

“I think a lot of the resistance that we see to the transition away from a fossil-fuel-based economy and toward a regenerative one is because people don’t see a place for themselves in this future.”

She added that when people talk about diversity and justice, it’s important to look backward and forward at the same time.

“We can’t ignore the past. We can’t just be thinking about the present. We have to be aiming toward something bigger and making sure that we don’t make the same mistakes again,” she said

When asked what the “recipe” is for working with communities, Johnson said, “There is no shortcut for building trust in communities. It just takes time. It’s five parts time, one part revealing yourself, and three parts figuring out where you can specifically be useful.

“We have to move at the speed of trust.”


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