From the outpouring of criticism U.S. novelist Jonathan Franzen is receiving for his latest piece of overwrought climate fatalism in The New Yorker, he might want to confine himself to writing fiction. Or maybe unmitigated climate despair is so far off the science that he never actually left his preferred genre.
“The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it,” the magazine wrote, in its subhead for Franzen’s September 8 post. The climate community pushback that followed carried a consistent message: the only way we’re guaranteed to lose the fight on climate change is if we assume it’s already lost. Which makes the rising tide of climate despair a big impediment to the decisions and transition ahead.
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Climate journalist Emily Atkin, publisher of the brand new HEATED newsletter, calls Franzen’s article “the most brilliantly unintentional fossil fuel industry propaganda I’ve ever read.”
“Shut up, Franzen!” climate scientist Kate Marvel agrees, in a headline in the normally staid Scientific American. “We are, I promise you, not doomed, no matter what Jonathan Franzen says,” she writes.
“We could be, of course, if we decided we really wanted to,” Marvel adds. But “it is precisely the fact that we understand the potential driver of doom that changes it from a foregone conclusion to a choice, a terrible outcome in the universe of all possible futures.”
In framing small, “winnable” battles as a counterpoint to the climate despair that infuses his post, Franzen is “far from alone in encouraging the masses to succumb to existential terror rather than believe there’s still ample, meaningful action to be taken to avert an utter crisis,” writes Grist climate advice columnist Eve Andrews. But every time a Jonathan Franzen rushes into (virtual) print, more readers lose track of that reality.
“The gravity of questions in my inbox has escalated from ‘What’s the best way to recycle my jeans?’ to ‘Should I end my own life to resolve climate change?’ I attribute the latter, which is a heartbreaking message to receive, to that insidious narrative,” Andrews states, when “there is so much to be done in between those extremes.”
Atkin recalls that this isn’t Franzen’s first dismissal of any hope for climate action or climate solutions: In 2015, he wrote that the climate fight is probably lost anyway, so environmentalists might as well follow his lead as a bird lover and focus on saving a few winged species.
“Franzen got roasted pretty hard for this take, but not hard enough,” she wrote, given what she describes as the novelist’s “‘Fact-Free Climate Manifesto Part Two’. No birds this time, but also no science either. Hooray!” While declaring herself a climate pessimist, Atkin says there’s a difference between acknowledging the odds and giving up the fight.
“You shouldn’t need the guarantee of success to fight for what you know to be right, especially when that fight will determine whether millions of people live or die,” she writes. “Franzen’s prescription to simply ‘rethink what it means to have hope’ seems like a real convenient way out of accepting our moral responsibility to future generations. The hardest thing in the world is to have courage—to work toward a goal despite pain, or grief, or really crappy odds. But that’s what solving the climate crisis will require.”
Pessimism itself isn’t the problem, “because we’re not going to find the resolve to mobilize if we’re all falsely hoping that everyone is going to be OK,” she concludes. But “we’re also not going to find the resolve to mobilize if we falsely believe we’re all hopelessly doomed. Because we’re not hopelessly doomed. It’s objectively not true.”
Marvel goes through the certainties and uncertainties that science can offer on the realities of climate change, including the feedback loops and “unknown unknowns” that can push the climate crisis beyond control. And she acknowledges that “there are times when the certainty of inevitability seems comforting. Fighting is exhausting; fighting when victory seems uncertain or unlikely even more so. It’s tempting to retreat to a special place—a cozy nook, a mountaintop, a summer garden—wait for the apocalypse to run its course, and hope it will be gentle.,” she writes.
But Andrews comes back with four pieces of advice, drawn from some of her greatest hits in past columns: “it makes zero sense to just accept defeat” when your survival is at stake, getting angry (and active) is more effective than feeling guilty, trying to run away is a mistake, and “there is so much more to be done before resorting to the most extreme options”.
And Atkin scorches Franzen’s contention that climate apocalypse must be inevitable because, as a non-scientist, he models the future by running “various future scenarios” through…his own brain. That’s “proof enough that his pessimism might be questionable,” she writes, citing a Twitter thread from climate advocate Genevieve Gunther that spotlights three small problems with his thread: “it distorts the science, it’s completely apolitical,” and “it contradicts itself: is the apocalypse coming, or should we all start local farmers’ markets?”
“It is rational pessimism to believe that 2.0°C of warming is coming no matter what we do. But it is irrational pessimism to say, as Franzen does, that once we hit 2.0°C of warming, human civilization is screwed forever, game over, goodbye,” Atkin concludes. “As long as we exist, we have the power to stop emitting carbon dioxide. The sooner we stop, the fewer human casualties will be lost in the war. Whether we stop at 2.0°, 3.0°, 6.0°, or when there are no humans left to emit carbon, is entirely up to us. But the latter scenario is the only one in which we lose.”
“I’m a climate pessimist because I think we’ll see casualties,” Atkin adds. “Technically, we already have. But I also know that the war’s still winnable. And not just because my brain models told me so.”
Although I agree with the ‘scientists’ quoted that Franzens prescription for giving up is not a morally appropriate reaction, I think he is more right than his critics in his science and personal ‘modeling’ – there is a Hothouse Earth earth systems science case that we could be even now past a threshold to a place where the climate war is unwinnable.
Just like the reaction to Wallace-Wells two years ago I’m guessing that Franzens insight is not going away and will be part of the learning happening over the next couple of weeks. I’d expect support for his insight from commentators just as David Roberts backed Wallace-Wells cause Franzen does have a very relevant point if you believe that we really need to ratchet up ambition systemically (before its too late),
Thanks, Bill. Yes, of _course_ we need to ratchet up before it’s too late! But Franzen’s fiction is that it’s already too late to get anything big done, so we might as well settle for small things. If we allowed him and others to persuade the rest of us to sit back and let that become a self-fulfilling prophecy, all really would be lost. So this part of the story, at least, is simple — simpler than most aspects of the climate crisis. We just have to absolutely, consistently refuse to fall for it.
This is probably a good place to mention that I’ll be giving a TEDx talk October 10 at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on exactly this topic. My basic argument is that (per the IPCC) the last box to check is political will, but political will depends on public demand, and we have 30 years of poor results to show that just lecturing our friends and neighbours, family and colleagues about climate impacts and nightmare scenarios isn’t motivating enough people to the quick enough response we need. So without tipping too much of the storyline…the talk lays out some of what I’ve been hearing and learning over the last couple of years about a different way to reach outside the climate bubble and connect with a far wider community of interest. Tickets are on sale, for anyone who happens to be in town with some open time that evening, and I’m hoping the video afterwards will help spread this line of thinking farther and wider.
You don’t need rational pessimism to believe that 2 degrees C warming is coming no matter what we do. You just have to read the relevant article in today’s Energy Mix to learn that some of the planet’s hot spots are already “above the temperature agreed by scientists and politicians as the maximum allowable to prevent a disastrous climate crisis.” And while I’m sure Franzen is off on a lot of his points, the language most of these scientists use to refute him does not exactly inspire confidence either. “War”? Who are waging this “war” against? What would it mean to “win”? And “solving” the climate crisis? What “solution” is there other than removing massive amounts of carbon from the atmosphere by means yet to be discovered at a scale yet to be imagined? Actually, to my ear, anyway, Franzed doesn’t sound all that different from, say, Dahr Jamal, author of “The End of Ice,” who has been reporting from the front lines of climate change for years now, interviewing scientists in the field, and who has written:
“In the U.S., hopes spring eternal that the Green New Deal, or one of the candidates for the 2020 election, or geo-engineering might save us. Yet none of these take into account that we are already off the cliff. Every single one of them is an attempt to try to fix something that is unfixable. Because that’s what we do. What else can we do? Except that we can’t do that. Only after fully taking in the gravity of our crisis and the impending collapse of civilization are my eyes cleared of any delusion, or any fantasy of hope.
As Czech dissident, writer, and statesman Václav Havel has said, ‘Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.’”
Murray, that Havel snip is one of my favourites — I’ve been carrying the full quote around in my wallet for 15 or 20 years, and we’ve been through a lot together.
And/but…there’s still lots of modelling and evidence to show that we can get this done, without defaulting to science fiction options like extreme geoengineering. It’s getting to be a long shot, longer for every day that politicians procrastinate and fossils greenwash, and it’ll take massive public will to drive the political ambition the IPCC identifies as the last box to check. But while you’ll find the dire news on _The Mix_ — like the amazing Emily Atkin and others we quoted in our story, we aren’t here to candy-coat reality — the pathways to stabilization are still out there and doable. It’s heartbreaking, infuriating, crazy-making every single day that we’re past the point where we have any hope of solving this without leaving anyone behind…but we can and must still fight like hell for the rest. – Mitchell
I agree, Mitchell. We can and we muct. Sure would be nice if we already knew how but it looks like we’re going to have to figure that one out as we go along. Hopefully, before we hit three degrees. The modeling and evidence may show that we can get this done, but we clearly don’t know how. “Massive public will” to my mind equates with massive public disruption of business as usual. For which there a few models on display at the moment. In the Western Anglophone realm there’s Extinction Rebellion which seems like it’s just gearing up. In France there’s the gilets jaunes. I just read a fascinating article on them in a recent Harper’s’ they’ve won more concessions from Macron than any other protest movement out there I know of has from their respective governments. And then there’s the protests in Hong Kong, up against the intransigence of the Chinese Communist Party and refusing to give up. Now what it would take for that kind of sustained protest demanding an immediate and just transition off of fossil fuels, that’s the question. At least let’s stop treating that as some kind of add on, as in “we have all the answers we jist need the political will.” I think I’m starting to repeat myself, but if you don’t have “politicla will” you don’t have anywhere near all the answers.
Thanks, Murray. Riddle me this: I’m not at all talking down the protests that are going on — they’re obviously absolutely essential, and incredibly inspiring. But unless we think the movement as it now stands is bringing us enough critical mass to win, how do we get the next tier of support? Might that involve starting out from the issues and priorities people woke up with this morning, learning together with them how those interests tie in with climate impacts or solutions, and working with them to drive toward whatever they’re already trying to get done in a way that treats the resulting carbon emissions as the “co-benefit”, rather than the other way around? It’s an idea I’ve been learning about and testing for a while now, and while I would still put it at the level of a hypothesis — which means it’s allowed to be wrong, as long as we understand why and can turn it around into something better — it often seems to be a gateway to the kind of conversations we need to have, with the breadth and reach we need to achieve.
It might. Can you flesh this out a bit, though? Just who is it that does all this? An organized entity? Individuals? Something in between? And who are the people they’re learning and working together with? Any examples of this playing out in real life? And if all this is to be a gateway to conversations, essential though they may be, how does this process get us to that critical mass you mentioned? I’m not saying it won’t. I’m genuinely asking how.
All excellent questions, and that’s a longer answer. I _promise_ I’ll come back in more detail as soon as I can!
Murray, I’m sorry to take so long to come back to this, and I hope it isn’t too late to reopen the conversation. It’s been an exceptionally busy month…
When I’m not producing The Mix, a large part of my work is in content and marketing, where a rule of thumb is that people in different audience groups will respond to different information and messages for different reasons at different times. So to deliver an effective message that changes attitudes and behaviours, it helps to start out where people are at.
In the climate community, my sense is that we’ve done a good job of mobilizing people who are already angry, scared, or even just reliably curious about the climate crisis. We may be getting close enough to the point where that combined audience is enough to produce sufficient public demand to shift policy and drive the pace and depth of change we need. If or when that happens, everything else I’m about to say here becomes redundant, and therefore a dangerous waste of scarce time and resources. But my strong instinct is that we’re not there yet — and your more recent analysis of the federal election results bears that out.
Until we think we do have the numbers to win, I’ve become more convinced in the last year that we need to hold to what we know — that we’re on a very tight deadline to hit a very ambitious decarbonization target — but that, crazy as it sounds, the quickest way to move in that direction with people who aren’t already in the conversation is to slow down slightly, and start from what already concerns or interests them, rather than the crisis that quite rightly preoccupies us. So, for example, if I meet a climate denier who donates 90 minutes of unpaid commuting time each way, each day on the drive to and from work, I’ll focus on the commute rather than their climate denial for two reasons: secondarily because I know the climate denial argument is a set-up for endless discussion, not something we’re likely to win; but primarily because hating their daily commute is where we’ll find common ground, and reducing their tailpipe emissions will make a small, incremental contribution on climate, whether they believe that matters or not.
That kind of individual, incremental change won’t get us the carbon reductions we need in the time available. But part of the hypothesis — and it’s still no more than that — is that if people can see that climate solutions are sensible and actually make their lives better, it’ll be harder for the Jason Kenneys of the world to make climate action look evil. Once the basic direction we’re going is detoxified, more people will make a personal commitment that will then translate into an expectation on politicians and institutions to take action at the bigger-picture levels where we need to happen.
It certainly isn’t the only solution we need. It stands alongside all the other tools in the toolbox, from protests to lawsuits to carbon prices fossil fuel subsidy curtailments to methane controls to cleantech investment and more. But if a different approach to “unusual suspects” can help build public demand for the political will we need, I think it’s worth pursuing. (And back to this notion of a hypothesis — I’ve been testing this line of thought in conversations and presentations, and it seems to land well wherever it goes. But even if most or all of what I’m suggesting here turns out to be wrong, but still generates a discussion that produces something better, the initial bad idea will have done its job. And should get it done soon, because time’s a-wastin’.)