Jonathan Franzen Isn’t as Fatalistic on Climate Change as He Thinks He is

Last week, author Jonathan Franzen published an essay on the futility of hope when it comes to the climate crisis. At least, that’s the impression the world (and, more importantly to the zeitgeist, the Twitter-verse) took away. Of course, the zeitgeist responded.

Much criticism of the essay focused on his somewhat shaky take on scientific facts and his heavy-handed doom-saying. I found most of the criticisms valid. But I also didn’t think Franzen’s take was as fatalistic as Franzen himself seems to think it is.

The essay, “What if We Stopped Pretending?” asks what happens if we stopped pretending that we can “stop” climate change. He writes:

“Many of the groups that support those proposals deploy the language of “stopping” climate change, or imply that there’s still time to prevent it. Unlike the political right, the left prides itself on listening to climate scientists, who do indeed allow that catastrophe is theoretically avertable. But not everyone seems to be listening carefully. The stress falls on the word theoretically.”

He then does his own assessment of climate science which, not being a climate scientist, is not the best look for him. (It is, however, very fitting with the image of Jonathan Franzen that so many people love to hate. At one point he even says “As a non-scientist, I do my own kind of modelling.” Dude, read the room.) But he eventually gets back to a more important point: even if we can’t prevent the planet from warming by 2℃, we should still reduce emissions, protect ecosystems and support local agriculture.

The farmer’s market: the individual part of collective action or a necessity in a post-ecological future? Photo by Anne Preble on Unsplash

“If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing,” Franzen argues. His point is hyperbolic but informative — any action to reduce suffering in the wake of climate crisis is worthwhile. He stays on the optimist’s soapbox: “Any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action. Securing fair elections is a climate action. Combatting extreme wealth inequality is a climate action.” Here, he sounds much like the Sunrise Movement.

But Franzen seems stuck in his own trap. He argues that we can’t stop climate change, so the only ethical thing to do is to focus on protecting people from coming catastrophe. We’ve spent too much time focusing on “stopping” climate change when we should have been reducing oncoming suffering.

Franzen is right — we can’t stop climate change. It’s here, folks. Right now. But we can reduce the severity of climate change and eventually (though not before the crisis worsens) reverse it. Franzen almost gets to this point without distraction, but stumbles on the landing with false equivalences like: “Every billion dollars spent on high-speed trains… is a billion not banked for disaster preparedness, reparations to inundated countries, or future humanitarian relief.”

According to Franzen, we should be building canoes, not carbon-free trains. Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

He thinks we shouldn’t have hope for the planet’s future but thinks we should refocus our hope on small, meaningful action. He knows we can’t “stop” climate change but doesn’t see that the small steps he champions to mitigate climate change are the path to “stopping” climate change. Most glaringly, he wants to reduce emissions (“Halfway cutting our emissions would make the immediate effects of warming somewhat less severe”) but he doesn’t want to focus on reducing emissions (“Even if we invest much of them in a longest-shot gamble, reducing carbon emissions in the hope that it will save us, it’s unwise to invest all of them.”)

Jonathan Franzen seems to be both upset at activists and a champion of individual, daily activism. He should really take his own advice: “If you accept the reality that the planet will soon overheat to the point of threatening civilization, there’s a whole lot more you should be doing.” The Kafka quote at the beginning of the essay — “There is infinite hope, only not for us.” — seems to best apply to the author. But maybe that’s the point.

We live in an imperfect world, with imperfect problems and imperfect solutions. Part of the struggle is figuring out what, exactly, we’re trying to fix in the first place. Maybe Franzen wants a better world and is too scared to allow himself hope over more than he can control. For as much as he bemoans that humanity will never gather the courage to address the climate crisis head-on, he’s not willing to let himself address the climate crisis head-on.

But it’s hard to blame him for that.

Conservationist, storyteller, semi-professional Ira Glass impressionist.

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