Jane Fonda's New Book What Can I Do? Is a Climate Crisis Call to Arms
For half a century, Oscar-winning actress and activist Jane Fonda has been at the forefront of our culture's most arduous fights. Now 82, Fonda shows absolutely no signs of letting up. She is a bonafide body-and-mind warrior, a woman wholly unafraid to allow her physical and intellectual presence to take up space.
Now, in a new book, What Can I Do?, the indelible doyenne applies her no-nonsense brilliance to the climate crisis, offering a number of pragmatic ways to join her in the fight for our planet. In late 2019, Fonda made headlines for being arrested five times while protesting climate change, typically with a famous friend in tow. Her book is infused with the same spirit, inspiring people not only to read—but to do.
O's Books Editor Leigh Haber sat down with the Grace and Frankie star to discuss how women are leading the charge in combating climate change and the importance of getting to the polls this November.
I didn't really realize, until reading your book, that women bear the brunt of climate change. Can you tell us more about your research?
In many parts of the world, it is women who till land, plant the crops, harvest them, chop the wood, carry the water. So when there is a very intense weather event, a drought or flooding or whatever, women's work gets even harder. A woman might have to walk for an entire day to try to find food and water. After all that she might come back empty-handed. Not only does this mean she can't provide her family what they need, it also unfortunately often means that she will get beaten by her husband for not doing her job.
You also say that women make up 80% of the climate refugees. Why is that?
Women often are the last to be rescued from the cataclysmic events caused by climate change because they stay behind to help—to help their families and their larger communities. They put themselves in danger in order to do what they see as the right thing.
In the book, you make the point that all over the world it's often women who are leading the climate change charge.
Yes, it's women who are bringing solar power into villages that have no electricity—into schools so classrooms will have light, into homes so food can be prepared on solar cookstoves, and people don't have to burn wood to cook their food.
It's not just women putting their bodies on the line to protest fossil fuel companies—which we see in our country and all over the world. You found that women in certain ways are more susceptible to the negative effects of fossil fuel emissions, right?
That's right. Because we carry more body fat than men, we sequester toxins just like whales sequester carbon in the oceans, which helps combat climate crisis, by the way. That means that in pregnant women, these toxins can damage the fetuses that we're carrying, and the babies we're breastfeeding. Not to mention that research shows that 93 million young people under the age of 16 globally are breathing polluted air. The Right to Life movement should be focusing on fighting climate change, when you come right down to it.
In the book, you also point out that in countries where women are in charge, more is being done to mitigate climate change.
Yes, treaties are being signed in many of the countries run by women. According to the Yale project on climate communications—a very reputable institution—women care more about the climate, than the men do. And that doesn't surprise me because on the Fire Drill Fridays I participated in and write about in the book, it was mostly women in the demonstrations.
You say about two-thirds are women—and many of them older.
Older women tend to be more willing to sacrifice for the common good. And we also we tend to be less vulnerable to the disease of individualism.
Is that nature or nurture?
It's a matter of social conditioning, but it's also evolutionary. All the way back in the days of the hunter gatherers. The men would go out to try to collect meat, but it was the women who stayed behind gathering around the campfires. We gathered the nuts and the berries and were the primary source of food for the community, and we would help each other raise our children. It was baked into our bones to be interdependent. And eventually the gathering around the fires became sewing circles—and today, book clubs! Tens of thousands of them around the world, mostly women. In times of collective crisis, it’s women who step up.
What Can I Do? portrays how generations of women have converged around climate crisis—how it's young girls like Greta Thunberg and writers like Naomi Klein who helped inspire you to act, to make "good trouble," and ultimately to write the book.
Yes. It's an intergenerational revolution of women. When I was young, I thought activism was a sprint. At 82, I realize it is a relay race. The most important thing we adults can do now is join and support the next generation of climate activists ready to lead the movement.
Gloria Steinem joined you on Fire Drill Friday protests. You quote her as saying: "The most egregious assault on women right now is the one against mother nature," which is I think a really compelling way to think about all this.
Yes, she’s been an inspiration to generations of us.
Are there books that have shaped your views on climate and activism?
Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything, which I think is one of the most important books about climate. She very much inspired me to put myself on the line. Also Paul Hawken's Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. Another must-read.
What Can I Do? offers answers to those who want to make a difference in the fight to end the climate crisis. What adjustments would you suggest people make, especially leading up to the election?
Well, the most important thing is to register to vote, and to vote as early as you can. Each state is slightly different in terms of early voting but vote as early as you can. And try to bring 10 of your family members to accompany you to vote. Each person, if you could expand your number to nine more plus you, that makes a big difference. Right now, getting people to the polls is absolutely critical.
We need an administration that is focused on the climate crisis, not denying it and rolling back regulations put into place to change it for the better. The day after the election, we have to roll up our sleeves and makes sure that the president does what's needed. We're going to have to put a lot of pressure on him. We need unprecedented numbers of people putting pressure on the government to make new policies and new programs, to protect the environment just the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt did in the '30s with the New Deal. He lifted this country out of Depression and desperation with big, bold programs and actions. We have to be sure that our next president does the same.
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