The actress says her childhood in the Santa Monica mountains led to her love of nature and desire to protect it

Jane Fonda is an actor and activist who launched Fire Drill Fridays, a weekly rally in D.C. where scientists, activists and celebrities exposed the urgency of the climate emergency. In this week’s PEOPLE, she shares how her childhood in the Santa Monica mountains led to her love of nature and how her son’s battle with asthma led to her becoming an environmentalist. The world celebrates Earth Day on Wednesday, April 22.

I found solace in nature as a child. I grew up in the Santa Monica mountains in the 1940s and early ’50s; there were forests, canyons to explore, no freeways, no pollution—only
2 billion people on the planet. I would look out over the glistening Pacific Ocean and fantasize leading an army up the hill to conquer “the enemy.”

Over time I witnessed the smogging of my hometown: Trolleys and buses were tossed into the ocean to make way for freeways and more cars. My beloved ocean was less glistening. There were no auto-emissions standards, so I made a sign that I’d hold out the car window when we’d pass a spewing tailpipe: “FIX YOUR DARN TAILPIPE!” It was a rare day when the mountains surrounding Los Angeles could be seen. My son developed asthma. I wanted to understand what I was experiencing, so I read books.

Jane Fonda
Credit: Jose Luis Magana/AP/Shutterstock

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Now the scientists are warning that we’ve reached a crisis—and have but a decade to address it by halving fossil-fuel emissions. Individuals acting alone can’t solve it. It needs an army of individuals acting together.

That’s why, last fall, I thought, “Maybe I can raise an army like I fantasized about when I was young.” I launched Fire Drill Fridays in partnership with Greenpeace USA, a weekly rally in D.C. where scientists, activists and celebrities exposed the urgency of the climate emergency. Each week the group grew, with old-time activists and first-timers coming together, engaging in civil disobedience and risking arrest, saying, “We need action for the health and safety of our families.”

We know protests work. It’s the students’ mass protests that have forced the climate crisis onto America’s consciousness. Mass action is the only thing that has ever forced the government to heed the demands of its people over the voices of the corporations. And after 40-plus years of petitions, marches, lobbying and not being listened to, civil disobedience—putting your body on the line—is the next step in awakening people to the urgency of this crisis and pressuring decision-makers to act. It’s what Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, the students sitting at segregated lunch counters in the South and the Boston Tea Partiers did, and it worked.

I’ve engaged in civil disobedience and risked arrest so often that I’ve spent time in jail. Everyone asks me what that’s like, but it doesn’t compare to what others experience in jail. When you’re white and famous, police treat you better. In any case, I like aligning my body with my deepest values. And I intend to do it again—and again.

Now this pandemic is causing terrible suffering and changing what we can do in this time of social distancing. But it’s also an important teachable moment for the other pandemic that confronts us: the climate crisis. COVID-19 is teaching us how dangerous denial is and how important science and preparedness is. It’s also proving that we are able to take massive collective action when the stakes are high. Clearly we are capable of fundamentally changing our behavior to protect the health and safety of our families. We’re also seeing how nature can heal when we take action.

Jane Fonda Tracksuit
Credit: Jane Fonda/Instagram

It’s clear that our behavior—individually and collectively—is not, as we once thought, impossible to change. We can take drastic steps to protect our planet like we have for our health. In fact, our health depends on the planet’s health.

I never imagined protesting in front of my computer, but right now it’s just as important. I’m continuing to host virtual programming for Fire Drill Fridays. We mustn’t allow our government to help corporations, especially the fossil-fuel industry, instead of its citizens. Fighting for the climate can create countless jobs, reallocate funds to invest in clean, renewable energy and end our dependence on oil.

Change is coming, either by disaster or by design. Whether you’re a climate activist or a mom worried about her children, your voice can help us. I hope you will march up the hill with me to fight for change by design.

To get involved in Fire Drill Fridays, text JANE to 877-877.