Jeremy McKane


whm: dr. ayana elizabeth johnson is fighting to save our oceans

March 21, 2019
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Where would our community be without the women? From big names that you know like Fannie Lou Hamer and Ida B Wells, to the names of women fueling Black social movements whose names we don’t hear, women have long been the backbone of our activism.

This Women’s History Month, AFROPUNK is spotlighting women in the movement.

The face of the environmental justice movement is overwhelmingly white. And when you consider that marginalized communities are the ones facing the disproportionate impact of climate injustice, that’s a problem. But luckily there are Black women at the forefront of  the fight for climate justice who are making sure our voices aren’t left out of the conversation.

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist and conservation strategist. She founded Ocean Collectiv, a strategy consulting firm for conservation solutions grounded in social justice. Her conservation work is grounded in activism; she served as co-director of partnerships for the March for Science where she inspired over 1 million people around the world to take to the streets to support the role of science in policymaking.

How did you get involved in your work to study and protect the oceans?

I fell in love with the ocean when I was five years old, on a family vacation to Key West, Florida. I saw a coral reef through a glass bottom boat and started a shell collection. I got to hold a sea urchin in my hand and felt its hundreds of tube feet crawling on my palm. I decided on the spot to become a marine biologist. Then I was stubborn, lucky and diligent enough that it actually happened. My love of nature endures, but what keeps me in this work is my deep concern for the future of coastal communities, love of coastal cultures, and desire to contribute to solutions to our climate crisis.

Why is protecting the ocean so important?

So many reasons! But here I’ll just name four: climate change mitigation, food security, jobs, and cultures. The ocean is a key part of our climate system, having already absorbed about 90% of the excess heat and 40% of the excess carbon emitted by burning fossil fuels. The ocean is also an important part of the solution to our climate crisis. Coastal ecosystems like mangroves and wetlands can literally protect us from storms, and they can also absorb about five times more carbon than even rain forests. So we need to protect and restore them. The ocean is also important to food security — around 3 billion people rely on seafood as a significant source of protein. While relying on wild fish to feed the world isn’t sustainable, we can farm oysters, mussels, clams and seaweed in abundance. There are around 3 million jobs in the “blue economy” in the US, spread across shipping, fishing and coastal tourism. Coastal communities have cultures that depend on the ocean, whether that’s jobs like fishing, traditional foods like jambalaya or paella, or just hanging out at the beach and swimming. Oh, and oxygen. Phytoplankton, the base of marine food web, produces over half the oxygen we breathe.

The face of environmentalism is pretty white, yet Black folks and other marginalized communities overwhelmingly deal with its impacts. What can we do to change the face of the environmental movement to reflect those dealing with its impact?

To me, it feels like this is starting to shift. The environmental justice movement is growing bigger and stronger, and more environmental groups are taking equity and intersectionality seriously. There’s certainly still a long way to go, however. It’s really encouraging to see how much conversation there is around climate justice in the Green New Deal. There is also more awareness that ocean conservation is a social justice issue. Communities of color and poor communities remain most disastrously affected by pollution, overfishing, human rights abuses, loss of coastal ecosystems, storms strengthened by climate change, and sea-level rise. Two very concrete and practical things that can be done to change the face of environmentalism: first,  pay interns a living wage so that people can afford to join this work and, two, ask all job applicants the same questions so the jobs don’t end up going to the people with whom you had a great chat about sailboats or something.

What’s your advice for Black people who want to be involved in the fight to protect the ocean?

Do it. Join us. Find where your skills and interests fit in. We need all the help we can get and there is a huge diversity of organizations working on ocean conservation in different places and with a broad spectrum of approaches and areas of focus. If you want a place to start – to learn more about the key issues and groups doing great work – I’ve compiled a bunch of this info on my company’s website here.

Who are your heroes or idols?

Rachel Carson, self-taught scientist and author of Silent Spring, whose science-based activism overcame sexism and corporate lobbying, and led to the ban of DDT and the regulation of pesticides. My mom, Louise Maher-Johnson, a public high school English teacher for 37 years who is now a regenerative farmer raising heritage chickens, growing vegetables, and with her Skyhill Farm creating an example of a way we can nourish and be nourished by the earth.