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What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action, by Jane Fonda

Penguin Press. New York. 2020

I am of the mind that life is too short and Hollywood is too prolific to consciously screen any major motion picture more than once. Yet my wife tells me I have seen “Klute” at least three times now without ever recalling my previous two viewings. Everyone has opinion on the public life of Jane Fonda. No one will disagree that when she commits to a course of action; she is all-in. Whether you remember her as a famous film actress, an anti-war activist, a fitness guru or environmentalist, now is a good time to take another look.

Jane Fonda is 83. Over the past year she has written, What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action. It’s an attractive volume with full color photos on bright, heavy-weight paper throughout, yet easy to read, written in a straight-forward narrative style. It recounts her influences, thought processes and efforts in organizing “Fire Drill Fridays” demonstrations in Washington, D.C. for 14 weeks during the Fall of 2019 and early winter of 2020.

The structure of the book is formulaic: almost every chapter begins with a description of one of the major human consequences of climate change: how it profoundly affects our oceans, and food and agriculture, migration and human rights, and forests, to name a few. These themes, including environmental justice, its affects on women, war and the military, are deepened with even more useful information by invited experts and seasoned activists who speak at the weekly Teach-In Thursday evenings prior to the Friday street Rally.

Who spoke at “The Rally” and the substance of their exhortations are detailed next, followed by a description of the who and the why of voluntary civil disobedience arrests, then ending each chapter with a section entitled, as the book itself is: “What Can I Do?” Suggestions abound for individual action moving to joining and supporting local and regional groups for collective action.

“This is of utmost importance now because the climate crisis we face is a collective crisis that requires collective, not individual solutions. And the challenge is that, for the last forty years, the idea of the collective, the public sphere, the commons, has been deliberately eroded and individualism has risen to take its place, but individually we are powerless to make needed systemic change. That’s why individualism works to the advantage of the relatively few who wield power, and that’s why we need to set aside our differences, unify around our common needs, because together is how we gain power.”

Jane Fonda credits Canadian Naomi Klein’s book On Fire and Swedish teen Greta Thunberg’s activism with motivating and inspiring her to move to Washington, D.C. to launch Fire Drill Fridays. There she partnered with Annie Leonard and Greenpeace to highlight the leadership of women, particularly indigenous women who have been leading the fight to preserve the environment for generations.

Annie Leonard wrote the final chapter, “Fire Drill Fridays: Going Forward” and the two appendices, “An Introduction to Understanding the Climate Emergency” and “Civil Disobedience.”

Throughout, Jane Fonda is conscious of her celebrity and white privilege while targeting people who were concerned about the climate crisis but had not yet moved to activism that included civil disobedience. “Those who would prefer we not know the truth about the climate crisis never waste an opportunity to disparage celebrities when they use their platforms to raise awareness. (Think Colin Kapernick.) They do this because they know that when famous people speak out, the message reaches a broader audience.”

At the first Fire Drill Friday there were more cameras and reporters in attendance than demonstrators. 8,670 press articles online, on TV and in print followed. But imagine the result when you can make a phone call to Gloria Steinem, Martin Sheen, Bobby Kennedy, Susan Sarandon, Ted Danson, Lily Tomlin, Joaquin Phoenix, Sally Field, Ben Cohen & Jerry Greenfield, Abigail Disney or Sam Waterston and say, “Hey can you come down here and join me, give me a hand and speak out on the climate crisis?” By the 14th Fire Drill Friday more than 300 people were ready and willing to participate in an act of civil disobedience and get arrested, thousands more stood by in support.

“I view celebrities like repeaters, the tall antennas you see on the mountaintops. Repeaters are used to extend the signals in the valley so that they can cover longer distances. So, I want to thank my ‘repeater friends’ who helped insure that the experts, the voices from the front lines, were heard far and wide.”

Yet, given the Black Lives Matter protests of this past summer after the police killing of George Floyd and the brutal rubber bullets, tear gas and traumatic violent arrests that followed, some might cringe at the cheerfulness with which Jane Fonda describes her own arrests by completely nonviolent police as inappropriate and insensitive given our current times—even while she acknowledged her white privilege.

Chapters describing the purpose and meaning of the “Green New Deal,” “Holding the Fossil Fuel Industry Accountable,” and “Stop the Money Pipeline” disinvestment I found most informative. It has always struck me as disingenuous that many of those who promote sustainable, clean, renewable energy strategies as a solution to our climate crisis take the path of least resistance and do not show the moral courage to also agitate for putting an end to fossil fuel extraction. Standing up to the fossil fuel corporations, who donate millions to politicians, environmental organizations and other liberal causes requires a stiff resolve to refuse their “gifts.” To be successful in this fight we must focus on the supply side concurrently with the demand side. The time has come. End fossil fuels now!

“This is the last possible moment in history when changing course can mean saving lives and species on an unimaginable scale. It’s too late for moderation.”

Altogether What Can I Do? is an attractive and useful introduction to the climate crisis we all face and an inspiring guidebook to collective climate action. It is recommended as a practical companion piece to give perspective to our website readers who regularly check-in with us at for “Info to Know,” “Feelings to Share,” and “Action to Take.”


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