Marine Biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson on How to Catalyze Change with Awe and Wonder, How to Save the Planet, Finding Your Unique Venn Diagram of Strength, and Seeking the Minimum Effective Dose (#570)

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“I actually don’t that often think about the details of how bad the scientific projections are and exactly what’s happening to ecosystems. I focus almost entirely on solutions.”

— Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson (@ayanaeliza) is a marine biologist, policy expert, writer, and Brooklyn native. She is co-founder of Urban Ocean Lab, a think tank for coastal cities, and co-creator of the Spotify/Gimlet podcast How to Save a Planet, on climate solutions. She co-edited the bestselling climate anthology All We Can Save and co-founded The All We Can Save Project.

Recently, she co-authored the Blue New Deal, a roadmap for including the ocean in climate policy. Previously, she was executive director of the Waitt Institute, developed policy at the EPA and NOAA, and taught as an adjunct professor at New York University. Dr. Johnson earned a BA in environmental science and public policy from Harvard University and a PhD in marine biology from Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

She publishes widely, including in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Scientific American. She is on the 2021 TIME100 Next List and was named one of Elle‘s 27 Women Leading the Charge to Protect Our Environment. Outside magazine called her “the climate leader we need.”

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#570: Marine Biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson on How to Catalyze Change with Awe and Wonder, How to Save the Planet, Finding Your Unique Venn Diagram of Strength, and Seeking the Minimum Effective Dose

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear another episode with someone who’s working hard to save the planet? Listen to my conversation with Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, in which we discuss monkey birthday cakes, storytelling as a way to rule the world, respect, common misconceptions about conservation, resources for becoming more informed about conservation issues, training to think more long-term, and much more.

#285: Overcoming Doubt, Battling the Busy Trap, and Enhancing Life — M. Sanjayan
  • Connect with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson:

Website | Twitter | Instagram

  • Connect with Urban Ocean Lab:

Website | Twitter | Instagram

  • Connect with The All We Can Save Project:

Website | Twitter | Instagram


  • Why is Ayana not doing much public-facing stuff right now, and why did she choose to make an exception for this conversation? [06:59]
  • When did Ayana know marine biology and conservation were in her blood, and that she could actually pursue a career that wove all of her dream jobs together? [10:33]
  • What superpowers did Ayana inherit from her parents? [17:18]
  • Why do snorkeling and scuba diving provide such a transformative experience for so many humans? How does this drive home the immediacy of our climate crisis in a way that can’t be ignored? [26:31]
  • Why are Ayana’s parents the coolest? [32:34]
  • How can we get people excited about course-correcting climate change from a perspective of awe and wonder instead of hopeless guilt? [35:42]
  • Can Ayana guess which episode of her podcast I recently shared with my 5-Bullet Friday readers and why? [42:01]
  • Can Ayana guess which episodes of her podcast I might be hesitant to share? [48:53]
  • On the need for linguistic jiu-jitsu mastery siding with climate solutions, and why Ayana’s been keen on using the word “transformation.” [51:06]
  • How can we empower ourselves to make a difference against a never-ending number of environmental and societal catastrophes? What’s the right mindset for trying to solve problems that seem way bigger than us? How can we stay energized to fight the good fight without succumbing to apathy — or even just general disappointment in our fellow humans? [54:44]
  • Thoughts on the promising technologies and companies vying to provide solutions to our environmental problems. [1:02:31]
  • No matter who you are or what you do, there’s room for you to be part of the solution. [1:08:04]
  • Could humor be the secret weapon against climate crisis? [1:11:06]
  • How can we get both sides of the political spectrum to cooperate on legislation needed to fight environmental crises? [1:13:24]
  • As a constituent, what’s the outsized cheat code you can use for ensuring your voice matters to your elected congresspeople? [1:19:16]
  • What are the next actions we can take to goad politicians into taking more aggressive steps in stemming environmental crises? [1:25:23]
  • What can someone who has a general aversion to politics do to get involved in changing policy? [1:29:27]
  • How choosing not to eat shrimp is just one example of a small decision that makes a huge difference. [1:32:48]
  • How Ayana came to be cool with her name. [1:40:23]
  • Audience asks and parting thoughts. [1:41:14]


“It doesn’t need to be a partisan issue. We can all care about maintaining a habitable planet.”
— Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

“People don’t think about the full spectrum of ways you can be a part of the solution. You can be a tycoon and do this. You can be a tech nerd and do this. You can be a technologist and do this. You can be a health nut and do this. Whatever is your thing, we need you.”
— Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

“There’s a lot of money to be made in green energy, in food system shifts, in huge transportation. All of it.”
— Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

“We need more climate media that is deploying humor, because humor, quantitatively we know, is a way to have people open their minds to new ideas. When you’re laughing, you’re not fighting. You’re able to listen. It helps you let your guard down. It helps you be in community with people in a different way.”
— Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

“The majority of Americans understand that climate change is a massive problem. It’s only nine percent of Americans who are full-blown climate science deniers.”
— Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson

“I actually don’t that often think about the details of how bad the scientific projections are and exactly what’s happening to ecosystems. I focus almost entirely on solutions.”
— Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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15 Replies to “Marine Biologist Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson on How to Catalyze Change with Awe and Wonder, How to Save the Planet, Finding Your Unique Venn Diagram of Strength, and Seeking the Minimum Effective Dose (#570)”

  1. Hey Tim, awesome to hear you’re getting excited by seaweed. I’m the founder of an XPRIZE winning start-up, Blue Symbiosis, and am hosting a United Nations workshop panel called ‘Oil, Gas and a Healthy Ocean’ with a big focus on repurposing oil and gas infrastructure to large scale seaweed sites. We’re looking for diverse participants to be involved- if you want to come diving with your investor shoes- we would love to hear your voice. If so reach out.

  2. 02/11/22 5 Bullet response. Arcane is awesome!! Check out Vox Machina. Animated show as well but with a Different take. Has an awesome an awesome kickstarter story.

  3. I LOVE hearing this sort of content, but boy was it hard to listen to this episode. I’ve been listening to The Tim Ferriss Show for almost a decade and I have never heard him be interrupted and talked over so much as this one. Very annoying!

    1. Completely agree. I really tried to like this episode and take away as much info as I could. Not only was Tim constantly interrupted, but she came off as defensive and even condescending at times. I know Tim would never say this about himself, but he is one of, if not the best, interviewer out there. He researches the hell out of his guests and has recently been trying to speak on behalf of his listeners (e.g., “why should we care?”), which I really appreciate. You’re a saint Tim for keeping your composure and professionalism throughout this episode.

      1. Huh, I had the opposite reaction. I enjoy Tim and it is pretty clear that Tim enjoys Tim a lot as well. I was amused to hear him get some pushback for a change. C’mon, “take an antihistamine for your allergy and f’in figure out how to get involved”, that was priceless. We all need to get slapped around once in a while and have someone call us on our crap, even Tim.

      2. I have to disagree with you both! Dr. Johnson has a very important role in a high conflict community and has to be continually on the defense. Putting Tim on his heels a bit did not hurt him and having agreeable guests doesn’t get you very far. It was refreshing to hear from a black woman on Tim’s show who is highly regarded, effective, and willing to have a difficult discussion openly with Tim. I think the conversation was gracious and Tim knows that if you go unchallenged, you won’t progress, I would even go as far as to guess that he encouraged her to openly challenge him to get the message across.

        I think this episode was very educative, persuasive, and really effective. One of my faves!

    2. I came here to make the same comment. I’m half way through the episode and it’s a tough listen. Her interuptions and attempts to redirect the conversation kill the flow of the interview. The interviews are usually post edited pretty well. If this was the best parts of the interview, I can only imagine how bad the rest is.

    3. Yeah, I agree. I was here to mention this as well. A tough listen and it feels a lot of critical info was missed.

  4. I was really keen to listen to this episode because of the expected content. I got so distracted by the “question back response” or a “talk over the top of” every time Tim tried to ask a question. I think it just ended up being about a train crash of bad manners and a lost opportunity. But show notes have plenty to follow up on. So thanks for persevering Tim.

  5. Loved this episode, and the fact that Tim is finally bringing climate to his listeners. I think sometimes he underestimates his audience – we do care about these issues and there’s nothing political about wanting to safeguard our own survival and that of everything we love. As Ayana says, time to step it up!

    1. The info about shrimps was interesting, but there are bigger issues to be discussed like the cost of green transformation. For example in Europe electricity cost is through the roof in part due to shutting down coal burning electricity plants. Another example are wind farms being installed on mountains, thus compromising ecosystems. The episode would have been much better if such challenges and controversies were discussed.

  6. Local politics was an essential point I was super glad to hear mentioned! Often the only people in the room during “Public Comments” are a couple of retired NIMBYs, so it only takes a few people to radically shift the conversation. Right now, cities in the US and Canada have much higher per capita carbon consumption than cities in the rest of the world, largely because of urban sprawl and car dependent transportation. Cities are afraid that if they shift their transportation priorities from cars to more efficient and environmentally friendly options like transit and protected bike paths, that they could be sued because there’s not much precedent for tearing out and blocking off car infrastructure in American towns. If you can help push your city or town to be a trailblazer, then you set a positive example for any other town that wants to undertake a similar project but is afraid of the ramifications.

    Anyone reading this comment has far more power in local politics than national politics. And it’s all upside for your own personal well-being, as engaging locally helps you get to know your neighbors and community, rather than just being an infinite source of partisan toxicity and fearmongering. High climate-impact priorities are abolishing single-family zoning and parking minimums, allowing commercial uses like coffee shops and corner stores within residential neighborhoods, and building bike paths that can safely accommodate all kinds of people (not just lycra-clad young men with high risk tolerance).

    Strong Towns is a phenomenal (nonpartisan) non-profit working on informing the public about how pressing many of our local issues are. Everyone should check out their website and/or podcast.

    Addressed to Tim (/whoever on his team reads this for him): Strong Towns founder Chuck Marohn would make a phenomenal podcast guest. He is eloquent, thoughtful, humble, and funny. These urbanist-related issues have been resonating with a lot of people since the pandemic. Strong Towns’ audience is already growing fast, and you could really help amplify their impact even more.

  7. Hi Tim,

    Loved hearing Dr. Johnson on the show! I wanted to respond to a couple of your comments in the show about what to do, and your interest in interviewing on those topics. I wanted to recommend someone to contact: Dr. Denning, professor of atmospheric science at Colorado State, Semester at Sea, and Yale.

    I am a person who, over more than a decade, has studied sustainable ag and environmental issues with communities around the world. I recently completed a law degree in environmental law, and am currently completing a more science-based degree in forestry at Yale. In all of my years in school, attending conferences, and generally looking for accurate climate information, I’ve never met another person / scientist who is as excellent of a science communicator–especially on the carbon cycle–as Dr. Denning. I think he would a great guest if you were ever interested in doing an episode on how the carbon cycle actually works.

    As an anecdote about his speaking style, my experience of his class was like getting graduate-quality science taught with the enthusiasm of Bill Nye circa 1995. He was energizing and grounded in hard science. He did an amazing job of narrating how the sciences fit together to form climate and geologic processes. I.e., how physics interacts with chemistry through biology to make the carbon cycle work. He challenged and held a mirror to ideas and misconceptions about how climate science works, and my understandings were made so much better for it.

    If you’re ever looking for someone who can speak to how the carbon cycle works, he’s an excellent person to reach out to.

    Lauryn S.

  8. Since the earth has existed, the continents have joined and broke apart at least three times.  At one time there was 100 feet of ice covering Ohio. At another time there was no ice in Antarctica.  The climate is always changing and people have no discernible impact.  Carbon in the atmosphere causes trees and plants to grow more abundantly which generates more oxygen which lessens carbon in the atmosphere. It’s self correcting.