Climate change: Franzen is wrong

Jonathan Franzen, in The New Yorker, claims a conflict between conservation and climate change activism. That says more about liberal America than environmentalism.

In its 6 April issue the most stylish American general magazine of politics and culture, The New Yorker, published an essay on climate change by perhaps the most celebrated American novelist, Jonathan Franzen. As Franzen is incapable of mounting an argument, his formal case is barely worth refuting. However, what Franzen feels about the question of climate change and, even more, what he is willing to admit about what he feels, illuminates something about the sensibility of contemporary liberal America that seems to me to matter a great deal. "Artists", Ezra Pound once proclaimed "are the antennae of the race". If so, the signal Franzen has received and then sent out is very bad news indeed.

First the formal case. Franzen likens those who fear the impending catastrophe of climate change to guilt-ridden Puritans waiting for the coming of the Apocalypse. He regards those who care in the present about the well-being of living creatures, like himself in the case of birds, as belonging to the tradition of St Francis of Assisi. According to Franzen, there is a cultural conflict between the Apocalyptic Puritan climate activists and the humble and gentle Franciscan conservationists. Most troubling for him, climate change is such an overwhelming and overbearing issue that it has forced conservationists into retreat.

What then is the evidence for this conflict? Apart from a comment of an obscure blogger in an obscure American newspaper, none is presented. This is no accident. To me, Franzen's case is absurd. Every climate activist I know believes in the struggle to save the whale. Politically speaking, for them, the Sea Shepherd and the Rainbow Warrior sail together.

Or take the instance of Australia. At present the most important conservation battle is for the future of the Great Barrier Reef. The most committed and effective groups engaged in this struggle are those central to the fight against climate change – like Greenpeace and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Throughout rural Queensland the fight to preserve the natural environment from the fracking corporations, and throughout the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, the fight to save rich farmlands from the ever-expanding coal mining corporations, have created unlikely alliances of farming communities defending their country and climate change activists. Franzen's claim about a conflict between conservation and climate activism is psychologically-driven, a product of his private prejudices, irritations and resentments.

It seems to me that Franzen's core argument not only lacks anything that looks like evidence but is obviously pursued without any real interest in the politics of climate change. Franzen tells us that at Copenhagen Barack Obama "was frank about how much action the American political system could deliver on climate change action: none. Without the United States … a global agreement isn't global, and other countries have little incentive to sign it. Basically, America has veto power, and we've exercised it again and again." The clear implication of this passage is that the US under Obama has made no commitments to emissions reductions. Does Franzen not know that on 12 November 2014, in a historic agreement with China, Obama pledged a US reduction of carbon emissions of 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025?

Does The New Yorker discard its small army of fact checkers when publishing the work of the Great American Novelist?

Without blushing, he tells us that in general he doesn't read books about climate change. Recently however a friend recommended Dale Jamieson's Reason in Dark Times. Franzen tells us he couldn't put it down. Why Jamieson's far from original book appealed to Franzen is apparent from its subtitle: "Why the Struggle Against Climate Change Failed – And What It Means for Our Future." What Franzen admires about Jamieson's book is not merely the argument that the struggle against climate change is already lost. He is excited by the cool academic, angst-free, disinterested tone in which the conclusion – that human beings have already decided to allow the Earth to be destroyed for future generations and other species – is reached.

Franzen tells us that he once imagined he would find a book that arrived at the view that the Earth is destined for disaster "depressing". But if anything, Jamieson's conclusion seems to have cheered him up. Even though, he tells us, he is acutely aware of his carbon footprint and, as a residual Puritan himself, has always felt vaguely guilty about it, his reason now convinces him that individual action is entirely useless when it comes to contributing to the solution of the impending climate change catastrophe.

Franzen asks: "Shouldn't our responsibility to other people, both living and not yet born, compel us to take radical action on climate change?" As his personal emissions amount to 0.0000001% of the total, he understands however "that it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike". What then is to be done? His answer is basically to give up.

Absence any indication of direct harm, what makes intuitive moral sense is to live the life I was given, be a good citizen, be kind to people near me, and conserve as well as I can.

Franzen's logic is flawed. No one would abandon the fight against racism on the ground that the problem could not be solved by individual acts of kindness to African Americans. But the logic is also revealing. Embedded in the hyper-individualist liberal consumer society, it apparently has not occurred to Franzen that commitment to the struggle against the climate change catastrophe is not about private lifestyle choices but collective political activity, or that rather than arguing that we have no alternative to abandoning hope, an author with his kind of public authority might lend his voice to the cause to which individuals like Al Gore, James Hansen, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein have devoted their lives.

At this point in his essay, it appears to me that Franzen reveals one of the elements that is really driving him – his hostility to the climate change movement. Given that a destroyed planet is a "done deal", he argues that our only real choice is between the "palliation and sympathy" for the Earth shown by the conservationists or the "disfiguring aggression" of the climate activists, revealed in their willingness to force hideous windfarms on the landscape for no better reason than to briefly delay the inevitable arrival of climate catastrophe.

Franzen has coined an unpleasant term for those who accept the implications of the scientists. They are called "climatists", as dismissive a term as "warmists" used by those who, unlike Franzen, do not accept the conclusions of the climate scientists.

"Like globalism'', Franzen tells us, "climatism alienates". And not only that. Climatists even threaten the natural world.

As long as mitigating climate change trumps all other environmental concerns, no landscape on earth is safe … Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats, rather than as an abstract thing that is 'dying,' can avert the complete denaturing of the world.

By now in the topsy-turvy Franzen worldview, the disfiguringly aggressive climatists have become the enemies of the earth. Only the gentle Franciscans like himself, who know there is nothing to be done about climate change, and who offer palliative help to what they love, are its true friends.

In his wonderful essay on Henry Miller, Inside the Whale, George Orwell tells of how he encountered Miller on his way to fighting against fascism in the Spanish civil war. Miller told Orwell he was a fool, unless he was travelling to Spain for some aesthetic purpose. Orwell thought Miller was an important novelist but he also was perplexed by his indifference to the coming totalitarian world. Miller was, like Jonah, inside the whale, "allowing himself to be swallowed, remaining passive, accepting." For Orwell, this was impossible.

Jonathan Franzen is the Henry Miller of our age. Except that his irresponsibility is worse because, unlike Miller, he pretends it is occasioned by something admirable, his Franciscan-conservationist love of nature. Franzen describes climate change as not only a tragedy but also as a "weird comedy". (For my part, I'm afraid, the comedic element contained in the suffering that will be occasioned by a four or six degree increase in the temperature of the earth escapes me.) Is Franzen really asking us to accept, without fuss, our generation's willingness to look on passively, even cheerfully, as eyes wide open and with a nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, we watch as our consumer society destroys the material conditions that have allowed human civilisation to flourish over the millennia?

In the end what Franzen seems to be saying is this: The prospect will be grim for humans and other species, but the worst is in the future, there is nothing we can do about it, and anyhow – and this is what I fear his cultural antennae have picked up and are signalling back to his audience – if we are honest with ourselves, who really in their hearts gives a damn about the destruction of a once human-friendly Earth?

So far as I am aware, no one of his cultural stature has expressed such a "daring" thought before. This is why Franzen's New Yorker article might tell us something rather unpleasant that we nonetheless need to know.

Robert Manne is Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.

First published by The Guardian

Image: Kevin Dooley

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