In the years following the release of his Oscar-nominated anti-fracking documentary Gasland, Josh Fox felt the full weight of the fossil fuel industry bearing down on him.
“I was public enemy number one for five or six years,” he says. “They followed me all around the country. There were arson [threats] and constant death threats. There were huge PR campaigns against the film, very, very much targeted at me.”
In 2008 Fox received a letter at the home his father had built in the upper Delaware River Basin in the United States. It was a natural gas mining company, offering him $100,000 to lease 19.5 acres of land.
Instead of taking the money, Fox travelled across the US with a camera to see how drilling for shale gas had affected other communities – and found himself in the fight of his life. People showed him water that fizzed and bubbled, water they could light on fire. In his 2010 film Gasland, Fox showed how hydraulic fracturing – fracking – was poisoning the air, contaminating groundwater, chemically burning animals and making people sick.
The documentary was critically acclaimed and ignited the anti-fracking movement worldwide. The sequel, 2013’s Gasland Part II, included the Bentley blockade, which succeeded in blocking gas drilling in Australia’s northern rivers region.
Fox is now in Australia, although not for reasons connected to his indefatigable climate activism (although that is never far away). He is here for the premiere of his new documentary, The Edge of Nature, which opened the Byron Bay international film festival. He is a fast-talking New Yorker, imparting information with urgency while wearing a straw hat, his banjo laid lovingly on his hotel bed.
The banjo was practically all Fox had with him when he retreated to a tiny shack in a Pennsylvanian forest, where he had grown up, during the pandemic in 2020. Suffering alarming neurological symptoms from long Covid, he lived in nature for nine months with no phone signal and only a battery and a small solar panel for power as he recovered. “Why won’t my brain work?” he beseeches his camera on one long, dark night.
The film begins with a rush of images and a startling monologue about the state of the world in 2019, before the “anthropause” of lockdowns: “2.09 billion birds mysteriously vanished, a third of all animals endangered, 17% of wildlife on the planet has disappeared, climate emissions through the roof.” As shocking as it was, the distress of the environmental crisis was soon to be compounded by the arrival of a deadly and disabling virus. “We did not know how good we had it,” he says. The juxtaposition with his self-imposed exile is profound.
In the forest he lived in a “squalid state of fever dreams”, as he says in the film: “The virus ripped through my brain, mixed and matched synapsis that didn’t seem to go together.” Fox struggled with breathing, couldn’t stop blinking. Doctors could not figure out what was wrong with him.
Living alongside an industrious family of beavers (“I love those beavers”), among other wild animals in nature, “away from the noise and the violence that made my brain fog worse”, he set out to heal himself “enough to keep fighting”.
While Gasland made Fox an accidental ecowarrior as he took on the political power of big oil companies, The Edge of Nature captures a totally different fight. “The frontlines were inside my head, inside my body, both psychological and physical. They were spiritual, they were emotional.”
Fox never felt alone in the forest – because he wasn’t. He was living and breathing with nature. “I found companionship in talking to the stars, talking to the frogs, listening to them trying to find a mate, the song of the species trying to continue itself.” He came to a new personal understanding of the seasons: “You realise that there are many more than four – I have at least 12 seasons in my head.”
One night he hears the rattle of gunshots and is frightened. “This was sending a message to everyone in earshot,” he tells the camera. “This is what a bear hears, this is what a deer hears, this is what the hunted hear and run from.” The guns make him contemplate human violence and the “scars of generations past deep inside me”: his grandmother, the only one of nine children to survive the Holocaust; his grandfather, who was left with no family.
He mulls over the violence of history (“America is built on genocide and slavery”). And then there is the death to come. “The genocide of climate change, this is the biggest one yet,” he says to me. “And not just us, it is every living thing on the planet. We are looking at an extinction event.”
His conclusion from his time spent in the forest is that “we cannot heal ourselves if we are also ignoring the planet”. “The planet has to factor into every decision we make. We need to understand that nature heals us just as we heal it – it is a symbiotic relationship. What is good for the garden is good for us.”
Although Fox still suffers symptoms from time to time, he says he is now feeling much healthier. “I don’t know what made my symptoms better exactly; it is still a mystery. I suffered these symptoms for 16 months. I do know that spending time in nature helped me enormously to overcome the PTSD and other symptoms of long Covid. What heals me is my activism for planet Earth. The film is a call for much more attention, funding and research on long Covid, which afflicts so many.”
During his time in the forest, he came to understand humanity’s ultimate purpose as caretakers of the planet. “The forest needs us. We are the only species that understands how we can help biodiversity, how we can help ecosystems.”
He looks up at Byron’s clear blue sky with a kind of wonder. “In the US you don’t see blue skies like this, except during that moment of pandemic,” he says. “Covid is the only time in our history as a human race that we reduced emissions enough to meet the climate change goals of Paris. There are lessons from that time that we desperately need to learn. The planet was trying to speak to us and breathe and we need to listen to that. Nature told all of humanity to go to your room and think about what you have done.”
Fox says Gasland, which premiered on HBO, would not be picked up for US television now. “It is the most repressive media landscape I’ve ever experienced,” he says. But he has also taken on the most formidable enemies possible, and remains undaunted, if traumatised; relishing, you suspect, the fight. It is never insurmountable, he believes. Fox has the might of right on his side. “We found that if we organise, we have collective power,” he says. “We have to have faith in our collective power.”
Fox doesn’t claim to have all the answers. He is motivated by questions, the biggest one being: “Can we do this?”
“The only thing I know is that movements are what create power,” he says. “We are beat up and suffering right now. This movie is a love letter to those movements, saying: we have to heal ourselves and walk forward. We can connect with the planet that takes all of our death and turns it back into life somehow. We can connect with that reality – or we can ignore it, and put more fuel into Elon Musk’s rockets and more fuel into our SUVs and spend more time behind screens.”