Now Is the Time to ‘Lay the Groundwork for an Equitable, Renewable Future’
By Marianne Schnall
Actress and activist Jane Fonda isn’t letting a pandemic slow down her mission to create awareness and action around climate change and other issues she is passionate about. On the contrary—not only has she taken her Fire Drill Fridays effort online but she is more committed than ever to using her voice and influence in this unprecedented moment to build momentum toward creating a more equitable and sustainable future. She’s busy advocating for our nation’s most vulnerable essential care workers, making the case for why we need more women in leadership, and putting pressure on Congress to pass a New Green Deal. She’s even working to keep the government bailout funds from the fossil fuel industry, which she calls a “yesterday industry,” and instead invest them in renewable technologies that are better for people and the planet.
Fonda created Fire Drill Fridays in October 2019 after being inspired by the words of climate activist Greta Thunburg who said, “I want you to act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” Vowing to fight for the climate, Fonda organized and led weekly protests every Friday on Capitol Hill to demand that political leaders take action to address the “climate emergency” we are facing. After 14 weeks demonstrating in Washington D.C., Fire Drill Fridays expanded to the West coast in January, and has now moved to a virtual platform in the wake of the pandemic.
I had the opportunity to interview Fonda via Zoom for a new video series I am launching called The Shift, talking to prominent thought leaders who are helping to usher in the necessary paradigm shifts to create a better world. She asserts that her activism—rather than being something that she feels obligated to do—is actually what has saved her from becoming despondent and depressed, and is instead the life force that gives her energy and hope in challenging times. She told me, “When I start flexing my activist muscles, when I start to do something that is bigger than me that is helping a bad situation, I tend to not be depressed anymore. I tend to feel empowered.”
Having interviewed Fonda numerous times over the years, I’ve always found these elements of her character to be consistent: her dedication, her candor, her caring, her courage, and her unwavering and fierce commitment to using her star power and influence as a positive force for change.
Watch a highlights video of our conversation below:
Below is our far-ranging conversation on the causes that concern and inspire her most. You can watch the full video here.
Marianne Schnall: First of all, I just would like to start out just by asking, how are you doing? How are you coping with all of this?
Jane Fonda: I feel guilty saying I’m doing fine because my heart is breaking. Yesterday I got a list, not even a complete list, of the essential workers who’ve died and it’s just heartbreaking. So unnecessary. I mean, we’re talking hundreds and hundreds. And I’m working hard on that front, as well as climate, so I’m pretty busy. I didn’t think I was going to be so busy. I thought I’d be catching up on a lot of reading and everything, but I’m pretty busy with everything. You know, I don’t mind being alone, so it’s not a difficult time for me, and I’m lucky to have a roof over my head and to have secure food and things like that. But I constantly think about all the people who don’t have those things.
Schnall: Absolutely. You had said that this was a unique moment in the history of humankind, and you’ve lived through so many different pivotal moments and milestones over the course of your life. How do you contextualize this moment in the arc of human history?
Fonda: Well, we’re having a pandemic crisis that is very quickly and very profoundly, all over the world, changing the way people are living and making it very difficult for millions of people to live at all. And the last time anything like this happened, I wasn’t even born yet. It was in the thirties; I was born in the thirties, but not during the Great Depression. So it’s shaking up everything that we thought was normal. And the challenge for us is, these vast amounts of money, trillions of dollars of money that is being put out there by the federal government to try to stimulate the economy. And there’s a lot of pressure from Democrats at the same time to try to help workers. It’s not what comes automatically from this administration, but Democrats are forcing them to think about workers and hospitals and protective gear and things like that. Not nearly enough, but these vast sums of money are not going to continue forever. When this pandemic ends, we’re not going to see that size of government aid. Certainly not during my lifetime and probably not for most of the viewers.
So how this money is spent is going to determine the future—not just of me or you, but of our children, of our grandchildren. For example, if they continue to do what Trump is doing, which is to bail out the fossil fuel industry, spend billions of dollars to big corporations that don’t need it, but most particularly the fossil fuel industry, that locks us in to an unlivable future because we are at a moment—because we haven’t acted sooner—where we have a very small window of opportunity. I think there’s nine and a half years left, according to the scientists, to cut our fossil fuel emissions in half. That is so hard to do, but it’s doable. But it’s not going to be doable if this government spends billions of dollars on the fossil fuel industry and nothing on renewables, nothing on the infrastructure that would make a transition to a fossil free future possible.
And when we fight for that, they say, “Oh, there goes the Green New Dealers and they just don’t care about the workers and what’s happening.” I’m sorry, but the Green New Deal lays the groundwork for a just transition and for taking care of exactly the very workers that are dropping on the front lines. Teachers and nurses and transportation workers and farm workers and all these very vulnerable people—of course, mostly women and people of color, the same people that are the most impacted by the climate crisis. So what we do right now, the extent to which we can put pressure on Congress to use these unparalleled amounts of money to lay the groundwork for a just, equitable renewable future is absolutely critical.
Schnall: That is how I also see it: as all of these cracks in our system and society are being exposed, there’s this opportunity to course correct. What shifts do you think most need to be made in this time? And what are the opportunities?
Fonda: One shift that I hope is happening is people recognizing the importance of government, big or small. It doesn’t matter the size of government. What matters is who is it working for? If government is working for corporate executives, the already rich and powerful, we’re lost. But I think people are realizing, “Hey, wait a minute. If we don’t have government, we don’t have safety, we don’t have food, we don’t have all the things that are kind of invisible”—we don’t even notice that they’re in place and that they are what make our lives livable. That’s government. And I hope that people are realizing it.
The other thing is the necessity of being prepared, you know? There’s no excuse for a country like ours to have been hit by this pandemic and been in such a state of unpreparedness. A country like ours should have been prepared and been able to deal with this from the get-go. So preparedness. And the other thing is listening to the experts, paying attention to the scientists—both the health scientists and the climate scientists. You know this current administration and a lot of these people existed before Trump. What are they—corporate libertarianism. They don’t like science because they don’t like the truth, and they don’t like the experts. But the scientists warned us about this pandemic, and they are warning us this pandemic is going to pass, but the climate crisis isn’t going to pass. This is really serious.
Schnall: Are you concerned that the urgent issue of climate change could get sidelined by everything that’s happening with the pandemic? And how do you see the pandemic as interconnected with the issue of climate change?
Fonda: I’m no expert, but I read the science. They’re telling us the further the climate crisis is allowed to continue, the more there are going to be pandemics. Why? Well, one thing is there are pathogens in the ice sheets in the Arctic and Greenland, that when those ice sheets melt, those pathogens are released and humankind has never been exposed to them. We have zero resistance to them and we don’t even know what they are. This current COVID-19 crisis, why did that happen? Because of expanding population and poverty and deforestation. Humans are going into parts of the wild lands and forests that we aren’t supposed to be in and that we were never in before, chopping down trees. Animals are coming out of the forest that we don’t usually have much contact with. And when people are poor, they kill the animals and eat them and sell them. And so these animals that carry viruses—they’re called vectors—are being put into marketplaces. It’s not just COVID-19; it’s how AIDS came, it’s how SARS came, it’s how MERS came. It’s how humans interrelate with their environment, make us vulnerable to pathogens that we have no resistance to. And because of air traffic and how much we move around, they become pandemics very quickly.
So climate is very much related to COVID-19. But also, the climate crisis is felt the most acutely by people who are poor, people who are of color, in communities where oil rigs and fracking and petrochemical plants are placed. And these people die sooner. They have asthma, they have respiratory illnesses, they have heart diseases, they have cancer—they’re very, very vulnerable. So of course they are the ones that are most vulnerable to pandemics. So there’s this interconnection in terms of human well-being.
But there’s another thing that I think is positive that’s coming out of the pandemic. You know, we talk about essential workers—you notice CEOs are never referred to as essential workers. I don’t think that we really realized the importance of the checkout counter clerks and the people who put stuff in bags for us and who deliver things and and nurses and the people who pick our food. I think that there is a growing respect and understanding for the importance of these workers. We’re understanding why we’re calling them essential workers. And I think that we are horrified to see that these so-called essential workers are treated as totally dispensable. So what we have to do is turn the weekly applause for them into permanent healthcare, family sick leave, overtime pay, protective gear, a decent wage—all of those things that they deserve. I think people are more willing to see that and fight for it.
Schnall: Absolutely. I feel like right now people can feel very overwhelmed with everything that is coming at them and all the different ways it’s affecting their lives. But what can people do, especially at a time when they are feeling helpless in the wake of the pandemic and all the change that’s happening? How can we seize this opportunity to be an agent of change toward creating the more positive vision of the world that might be possible?
Fonda: Well, people’s experience of the pandemic right now is so different. I mean, how I experience it compared to how a farm worker or a nurse or even a middle class mother who is trying to keep her job and also homeschool young children, it’s so different. But my experience is, when I start flexing my activist muscles, when I start to do something that is bigger than me that is helping a bad situation, I tend to not be depressed anymore. I tend to feel empowered.
So my advice is, always do something to help. And the immediate thing is, do something that’s going to help these most vulnerable workers. Senator Elizabeth Warren has introduced an Essential Workers Bill of Rights. And one of the things that I’m going to be doing starting next week is to build up support for that. It’s going to be attached to one of the bailout bills, the stimulus bills. And I think it’s very important to try to get that protection included in the bailout. It’s really critical, and we have to fight hard for it. And if that means shutting down the phones in Washington DC, if that means pestering your elected official by calling every day—find out who your elected officials are, your Senator, your Congressman or woman, and call them and call them and call them and ask them to support the Essential Workers Bill of Rights. That’s one thing that you can do.
And the other thing is to demand that the bailout money not go to fossil fuels, which is clearly an industry that is on its way out. I mean, come on, who are we kidding? That’s a yesterday industry. Get them to put money into solar panels and windmills and charging stations for electric cars and building more electric transportation and retrofitting houses. And there are so many jobs that are connected to the climate crisis and how we can be resilient in the face of what’s coming and what’s already here. These are all things that you can demand of your elected official.
Schnall: You and I have both been working on women’s issues for many, many years. Do you think women will be at the forefront of the global reset that’s happening? And why do you think it’s important that they are?
Fonda: There’s no question that women will be at the forefront. Women bear the brunt of the climate crisis just as they are bearing the brunt of the pandemic because they start off at a disadvantage in terms of money and health and the freedom to make decisions just for themselves. Women tend to think, “my family, my community, my neighbors,”— whether that’s evolutionary or conditioning, it’s how we are.
Eighty percent of climate refugees are women, and we’re the last to be rescued. And then the global South where women are responsible for feeding the family and getting the food and the firewood and planting and harvesting and fetching and all that, when there’s an extreme weather event, it makes a woman’s work that much harder in terms of how far she has to go to, maybe if she’s lucky, find water and food and so forth. And so they’re just impacted first and foremost.
But women are also at the forefront of the solutions. You can see it especially in the global South. Women rise up to refuse a coal company coming into their community. Women rise up to demand their government ban plastic bags. Last Friday, I was with this young 17-year-old Ugandan girl, Vanessa, who is raising money to put solar panels and solar stoves in schools so they don’t need to chop down all the wood and they’ll have some heat in the schools. That’s just one example, but it tends to be women and girls who are coming up with the solutions.
During the four months that I was in DC with Fire Drill Fridays, I definitely noticed that two-thirds of the people that came to the rally—and they came from all over the country—to engage in civil disobedience and risk being arrested, two-thirds of them were women, especially older women. And as we sat in the police holding tank, there were always more women. It was very interesting to me. And the men would usually sit quietly, and the women would talk to each other and organize and plan. I like to quote Gloria Steinem here: “It’s not that women are morally better than men. We just don’t have our masculinity to prove.”
Schnall: Exactly. To me, change also starts with really imagining what’s possible. What is your most aspirational vision of the world that could be created if we really put our minds to course correcting right now?
Fonda: Well, I think every single ounce of all of our energies has to go to getting Biden elected. I don’t care if you like him. We’re not asking you to fall in love with him. We’re asking you to vote for him and get your friends to vote for him. Because look at the alternative. Look what will happen if he doesn’t get elected. So we have to get him elected, and then we don’t just say, “Okay, he’s a good guy,” like what we did with Obama. Suddenly it became a movie: “Oh, look what he’s doing. Aw, look at that all. Oh, we’re good.” No, this is not a movie. This is our lives. This is our future. So when Biden is elected, because pray God he will be elected, we have to force him to pass a Green New Deal because when that happens, the communities that are the most hurt by economic inequities and the climate crisis and racism and pollution will be the first to be lifted up and helped because it will create collective bargaining rights, organizing rights for workers. It will create decent wages, family-supporting wages for people. It will pay attention to farmers and rural communities, as well as cities and suburbs. It’s really very beautiful. It’s only 14 pages long, the Green New Deal, but it’s a path forward that shows us when we leave fossil fuels behind and we move to clean energy, so many things become less expensive and clean. And how we feel now when we look out the window and we see clean air, we hear bird songs, and we see animals starting to come out and all these things—this can be our future.
So that’s what I see. It starts with getting somebody elected who will have some empathy, and then forcing them to do the right thing. And that’s why I continue to work so hard with Fire Drill Fridays. I mean, just before talking to you, Marianne, I had a Fire Drill Friday with major labor leaders. It was very, very, very moving. We’re continuing to do the Fire Drill Fridays because we want to build a movement, an army of people who will be able when the time comes—whether we can gather together in person or whether we still have to do it sheltered in place—to force the government to do the right thing. Let’s claim our democracy. Let’s force our government to work for people and not for corporations. And we can do it. We only need 3.5% of the American people. That’s 11 million people. We can do that, for Heaven’s sake, and we will.
Schnall: How do you keep yourself so energized and hopeful to keep doing this work? Because I think right now everybody could use a little pep talk, and I’m in awe of everything that you continue to accomplish and your positive, hopeful attitude.
Fonda: Well, you know, I wasn’t an activist all my life. I didn’t really become an activist until I was in my early thirties, so I had a good few decades there of non activism, of hedonism, of “Who am I?” and “What is my life going to be?” and “Oh, my God,” and blah, blah, blah. It was pretty depressing. So I don’t ever, ever want to go back to that. When I became an activist, I started to know who I was. I started to feel okay about my place in the world. I knew how to move forward, and along the way, I saw so many other people change. So I know that we have such a capacity to change as human beings. We may be the only animals capable of profound human transformation—and knowing that gives me energy and optimism.
Schnall: Thank you so much, Jane, for all of your activism and for your voice and for doing this interview. Is there anything else you would like to get out there or let people know about?
Fonda: Text “Jane” to 877877. Join us, please. You can go online to firedrillfridays.com/volunteer and be a volunteer for us. We have so many volunteers now from all over the country getting us information and data and research that’s making such a difference for our ability to pressure the government. So if you have the inclination and the time to do that, please let us know. Firedrillfridays.com/volunteer.
Note: This interview was conducted in May 2020, prior to the murder by police of George Floyd and subsequent protests against racialized police violence and systemic racism, a topic about which Jane has been very passionate and vocal, and has covered in her recent powerful blogs at her website as well as several Fire Drill Fridays online events.
Click here to watch the interview in its entirety.
Click here to watch the highlights video.
For more information or to volunteer, visit Fire Drill Fridays.
Visit Jane’s website at www.janefonda.com.
Click here to learn about her new book What Can I Do? My Path From Climate Despair to Action.
Visit COVID Gendered for more articles, information and resources.
Marianne Schnall is a widely-published interviewer and journalist and author of What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?, Leading the Way, and Dare to Be You. She is also the founder of Feminist.com and What Will It Take Movements.