Filmmaker Josh Fox on Being Team Bernie and Fighting Climate Change Despair

'Gasland' filmmaker has a new documentary that goes beyond fracking to look at climate change more broadly

Josh Fox's new film, 'How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can’t Change,' opened at New York's IFC Center this week, and debuts on HBO in June. Credit: Photo Courtesy of JMP Verdant

Activist-filmmaker Josh Fox isn't resting on his laurels. Or on anything, anywhere, ever. He doesn't seem quite capable of rest. When I arrive at his home office a stone's throw from the Brooklyn Navy Yard — the location of New York's Democratic debate earlier this month — it is one day before the New York primary, I am ten minutes late, and Fox, restless, has decided not to let any seconds be wasted by not working.

"I'm just in the middle of something, I'll be with you in a minute," he calls out. Adjacent to the eclectic living room — black and white graffiti sprawls across one wall — is a small, ad-hoc AV room, the size of a closet, and in it Fox is wrapping up his latest Bernie Sanders pitch video.

"Feel the Bern," he enjoins in his voiceover, "or else you might feel this burn." An image flashes on-screen, by now familiar to anyone who's followed the anti-fracking movement. A man with a blond mustache turns on his faucet, and recoils as his tap water is lit on fire. There's natural gas leaking into and through his water pipes, gas made unstable and deleterious by the process of fracking, the natural gas industry's controversial method of extracting fossil fuel from below homes, yards and even federally protected land — an environmental gamble Fox helped make famous with his Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland.

Bernie Sanders is the only 2016 candidate who's solidly anti-fracking, and Fox recently went from fan to endorser to actual campaign surrogate, joining the ranks of Susan Sarandon, Danny DeVito and Spike Lee.

It's an especially hectic time for Fox to be taking on new responsibilities considering that his latest film, How to Let Go of the World and Love All the Things Climate Can't Change, opened at New York's IFC Center this week, and debuts on HBO in June. You'd call it a perfect storm, if provocative work like How to Let Go — which goes beyond fracking to look at the whole, sometimes overwhelming, issue of climate change — hadn't made you feel the weight of using the words "perfect" and "storm" together.

Fox agreed to chat with Rolling Stone about his new film, working with Team Bernie and how to power through feelings of despair we all might feel about the state of our planet.

How did your involvement with the Sanders campaign come about? Did you offer yourself to them?
They reached out to me. I got an email when I was at Sundance, reaching out on fracking. Bill McKibben [who appears in How To Let Go of the World] has been close with the campaign, and his focus is climate, and he just wrote this huge piece in The Nation about fracking, so he may have pointed them in my direction. I was really grateful though. Because most of the time, the candidates go to the wrong people. They'll go to the Big Greens, who are sort of namby-pamby on climate. This campaign is really different. They're reaching out to grassroots leaders who really know what's going on, rather than going to the inside-the-Beltway environmental groups who don't always have the strongest positions.

And Sanders is the first major presidential candidate to come out against fracking, right?
Hallelujah! It's a big deal. I mean, Hillary Clinton, when she got up and talked about fracking at the first debate, it was a bunch of gobbledygook that came out of her mouth, and those are the moral somersaults that you're doing when you're trying to justify any fracking at all. She's proposing this "natural gas bridge to the future," which is of course the same thing that Obama is doing. And when you say, "Oh, it's a bridge to clean energy," that sounds like something relatively short. "Oh, we'll just go across the bridge and get to the other side." But what that really is is a 40-year overhaul of American energy, to convert to natural gas. You don't build 300 fracked gas power plants and then dismantle them five years later. They're gonna last three to four decades. That's the way they're financed. And that's dishonest, when you say, "Oh, it's a temporary thing," and then all of a sudden you're hooked. You've hooked the entire society on a fuel that is the worst fuel for climate change.

What do you like better about Sanders' position?
Bernie is saying, "We have to go to 100 percent renewable energy, and we have to do it as fast as possible." That's not an easy thing. But then again, neither is encountering the reality of where we're at with climate change. Bernie has correctly come out and identified this as the number-one security threat to the United States. And he invoked FDR, who overhauled the entire American economy to defeat fascism in Europe, and that is the correct mindset. We need that kind of FDR-like mobilization on renewable and on climate.

I've often thought about that similarity between converting war plants and overhauling the grid. My grandmother was a Rosie the Riveter, in a GE plant. They just said, "Stop making washing machines. Start making turbine engines."
Exactly. I gave a speech about this the other day, but I was paraphrasing Lester Brown, the great climate analyst. The story goes like this: FDR identified that we were going to have to fight. And he went to the auto industry and he said, "We're going to need you to start building planes, and tanks, and guns, because we have to defeat this enemy in Europe. And the auto industry looked at him and said, "Alright, Mr. President. We'll try. But it's going to be hard to do that while we're making all these cars for Americans." And FDR said, "You don't understand. We're gonna ban the sale of private automobiles in this country." And they were like, "Oh." And at that moment, Americans realized, "OK. The only way we get through this is if we win this war." And that's the same crisis now with climate change. We have to win the war against emissions. The only way we do that is by a radical and very fast overhaul. Is it possible? Of course it's possible. The only thing we can do at this late stage, at this stage of emergency, is a complete overhaul. That's what's exciting, and that's what's daunting, but that's what needs to be done.

That's a place where I really see your film and the Sanders campaign as being in synch. Your film is one of the first places where I've seen people talking seriously about needing to do something on climate change within the next four years. Climate accords usually talk about targets being reached by 2050, but your film talks about us needing to do something much sooner, like by 2020.
Without a doubt. We've warmed the Earth by one degree already. We have enough methane and carbon dioxide in the air and warmth and heat in the oceans right now to bring us to 1.5 degrees. At two degrees, we lose 30 to 50 percent of the species on the planet, we have most of our major coastal cities partially submerged. We have increased flooding, increased infectious diseases, 780 million climate refugees will be displaced. We simply don't have any time left.

What if we don't get it done?
Human beings, as [jailed environmental activist] Tim DeChristopher says in the movie, are going to navigate the most intense period of change that civilization has ever seen. It may in fact destroy civilization. What does that mean? My film is about all the things climate can't change. It's about a set of principles: courage, human rights, democracy, innovation, creativity, resilience, love. These are the things that we're going to need to guide us through that climate catastrophe. We're going to need those values if we're going to win anything at all. But we're going to need them even more if we start to really lose.

Lose how? 
Well here's the worst vision for me of climate: It's what's happening in Syria. The Syrian Civil War started with the worst drought in that country's history. That set off a chain reaction of political repression. Political repression is not a climate problem; it's a human problem. If we don't start to talk about the values that are opposed to that, climate will make those situations worse. My worst-nightmare situation for that was Hurricane Katrina — where you had a city that went underwater because of a storm, and all those inner-city people were told, "Leave your drowning city. Get on this bridge and walk across to the suburbs." And as you remember, they were met on the other side by the white, suburban police force, with shotguns, telling them to go back and drown. That wasn't a climate problem. That was a collapse of values. It was a collapse of ethics. It was a collapse of our own basic decency. For me, talking about climate leads us to talk about, how do we leave our humanity intact, even though some of our cities won't survive? It's not time to get ready the shotgun and the closet full of ammunition. It's time to get ready the spare bedroom, and the extra seat at the table.

The film has this beautiful Beckett-esque "I can't go on; I must go on" moment at its heart.
You're not the only person to say that. A small-town mayor in Abita Springs, Louisiana, came up to me and said, "It's that Beckett thing! I can't go on; I must go on!" You are right. And I'm very proud of that. Because oftentimes when we talk about climate, we get into this tennis match between denial and despair. And this movie tries to punch through and say, "It's OK. Go through it. There's something on the other side that's deeper."

I've often thought, though, that climate denialists almost seem like the happy folks. The left is shouting, "The end is near!" while the right is having a bake sale and saying, "Everything is OK!" Isn't it hard to be the person trying to get people to look at a difficult reality?
It is hard. It's hard for me. I practically quit in the middle of the movie. But when I get overwhelmed and I think it's too late, I have to ask, "What are the things that climate change can't destroy?" And the question really is, "What's so deep within us that no storm can take it away?" And when you think about it in those terms, it really is centering. DeChristopher says in the film, "I stopped trying to avoid despair, and then I stopped trying to get through despair, and then I just picked it up and carried it with me everywhere I went. And I had to find a place in my heart for despair." And he says, in happy times, that weight is oppressive, but in stormy times, that weight is an anchor that can get you through.

I really think of this film as Return of the Jedi, and those are the Jedi: Tim DeChristopher, the Pacific Climate Warriors, the indigenous environmental monitors in the Amazon who are trekking miles into the jungle to find oil spills, the wisdom of the people in the Rockaways in New York City. You've got a discussion of values in the most urban setting in New York City, and it's mirroring a discussion of values among indigenous people in the Amazon. And I think the time has come for that discussion. And, it's really wild, I'm walking around New York these days and I feel like people are like, "Hey! Sanders! Psst!" It's like the underground resistance! I feel like I'm in that TV show The Prisoner, where people had all these secret ways of letting each other know that they're on the same side. People see my Sanders shirt or my Sanders button, and it's like "Hey! Psst! Sanders!"

Did you get to talk to Sanders when you introduced him at his rally in Binghamton recently?
I did! He signed my banjo.

[He shows me the banjo. Where Woody Guthrie's instrument said on its outside curve "This machine kills fascists," Fox's simply says, "Bernie Sanders."]

"Sanders is already the president of this progressive movement."

Now that the New York primary has come and gone, and Bernie lost, people are questioning his chances. What if he loses or drops out? What then?
Bernie has already won. What's happening is that it's becoming increasingly clear that both parties feel that to maintain their platforms, they have to exclude voters. It's become an insular popularity contest. Some 126,000 voters were [removed from the Democratic voter rolls before Tuesday's primary vote] in Brooklyn. What does it mean to be a citizen if you can't vote in the most important election of your life? And I'm not even talking about Clinton/Trump, I'm talking about Clinton/Sanders. I'll answer your question, but I have a question: What does it mean for the planet when the climate has no candidate? Because Hillary Clinton's climate plan actually makes things worse. 

But seriously, what if? If it does come down to Clinton/Trump, what happens to all those people energized by Sanders? 
Look, the Bernie Sanders campaign is made of these movements that are already incredibly strong: the climate movement, the anti-fracking movement, Black Lives Matter, Occupy, all coming together under the big tent of the Sanders campaign. And he's been saying these things for 30 years. It's not like he came out of nowhere. But for a lot of people, it's like discovering buried treasure all of a sudden. So that's not going anywhere no matter what, because it was all already there. It's just getting stronger. And I think the more ridiculous and absurd these contests become, the stronger the movement gets. People see that Democratic incrementalism, plus Republican obstructionism, has failed to protect us. It has failed  to protect us from climate change, from the big banks, from big corporations. Bernie is offering solutions. But if they don't let him in, by excluding these movements, these movements will continue to participate. I think the real power in this country is with the movements. Real power in America isn't in the White House. Real power is in the streets. And Sanders is already the president of this progressive movement. 

What would you say to those who might tend toward despair? 
I would say we didn't have despair last night [at the IFC Center screening of How to Let Go, introduced by Susan Sarandon]. We had dancing and singing. Progressive politics is alive and well in America. It's there. If you stay in your house and stay on Facebook all day, if you wall yourself off in your cul-de-sac, you'll be depressed. But if you go out, you'll discover it. There's rallies in the day and there's rallies at night. And there's joy. There's incredible joy in it. I watched last night people dancing in the streets to Prince. And I heard six conversations on the street last night just going from my office to the sound studio about voter disenfranchisement. If we continue to be excluded from the process, democracy is insuppressible. We need it like water. If it comes down to an election between Hillary and Trump, it will be an election between two of the most hated presidential candidates of all time. I will do everything in my power to make sure a Republican is not elected, if it comes to that, but it's not over for Bernie. It's only gonna get wackier from here.

Can I just add that I'm really mourning Prince? Because he's the guy who got every dance party started.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.