Roux Distinguished Scholar Ayana Elizabeth Johnson Talks to the NYT about Climate Attitudes

By Bowdoin News

Johnson was recently interviewed by New York Times's legendary interviewer David Marchese, who was curious about her forthcoming book, What if We Get It Right?, and whether people are "changing the mood" on climate change.

Portrait of Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Climate expert Ayana Elizabeth Johnson has a three-year faculty appointment at Bowdoin. 


What If We Get It Right?, which will be published this summer, is a "provocative and joyous" collection of essays and interviews about possible climate futures, according to its publisher, Penguin Random House.

Johnson is a marine biologist and policy expert who cofounded and leads Urban Ocean Lab, coedited the best-selling climate anthology All We Can Save, and cocreated the podcast How to Save a Planet. She has a three-year appointment at Bowdoin to teach, give public lectures, and engage in other programming and initiatives.

Johnson and Marchese had a lively conversation with many notable moments. At one point Johnson encouraged her interviewer to probe his own obstacles to taking bigger steps to tackling climate change.

“The real answer to why I might be reluctant to change behaviors actually has more to do with selfishness,” Marchese admitted. Johnson replied that it’s normal to want to hold on to our comforts. The antidote, she added, is to consider community.

"We have to be responsible to more than ourselves. We have to feel an obligation to more than our children,” Johnson said. She added later, “Do we all try to make sure we have a world where there’s enough for everybody, where no one takes too much and we share what we have? I’d rather share.” 

She also reframed a tendency some of us have to dwell in dark thoughts about the future. Instead she suggested that mitigating climate change might not require sacrifice and hardship, but could actually lead to happier, more fulfilling lives—with fewer garages filled with plastic junk, a cleaner environment, and maybe even more social connections.

“I don’t think consumerism is that satisfying for most people,” she said. “We’re taught that we need to keep up with these trends and buy all this stuff, but it doesn’t really make us happy. Happiness levels are declining. People have fewer close friends.”

“It’s not like the current status quo is awesome and we should be fighting to hold onto it. We just have a bunch of junk. Instead of being surrounded by beautiful, durable, repairable things that we love, we’ve got a bunch of single-use plastic garbage. Having piles of garbage everywhere is not super delightful. Having all this fossil-fuel-based plastic on every beach and in our drinking water and in our rain and in our beer and in our seafood, which is currently the case—it’s not like that’s a life I want to hold on to.”