The long view

On US elec­tion day 2016 Jonathan Franzen was bird­watch­ing in Ghana con­fi­dent of a Clin­ton vic­tory. One year on, with Trump in­tent on pulling out of the Paris ac­cord and lib­eral Amer­i­cans strug­gling to come to terms with the new re­al­ity, he re­flects on the

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If an es­say is some­thing es­sayed – some­thing haz­arded, not de­fin­i­tive, not au­thor­i­ta­tive; some­thing ven­tured on the ba­sis of the au­thor’s per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence and sub­jec­tiv­ity – we might seem to be liv­ing in an es­say­is­tic golden age. Which party you went to on Fri­day night, how you were treated by a flight at­ten­dant, what your take on the politi­cal out­rage of the day is: the pre­sump­tion of so­cial me­dia is that even the tini­est sub­jec­tive mi­cro-nar­ra­tive is wor­thy not only of pri­vate no­ta­tion, as in a di­ary, but of shar­ing with other peo­ple. The US president now op­er­ates on this pre­sump­tion. Tra­di­tion­ally hard news re­port­ing, in places like the New York Times, has soft­ened up to al­low the I, with its voice and opin­ions and im­pres­sions, to take the front­page spot­light, and book re­view­ers feel less and less con­strained to dis­cuss books with any kind of ob­jec­tiv­ity. It didn’t use to mat­ter if Raskol­nikov and Lily Bart were lik­able, but the ques­tion of “lik­a­bil­ity,” with its im­plicit priv­i­leg­ing of the reviewer’s per­sonal feel­ings, is now a key el­e­ment of crit­i­cal judg­ment. Lit­er­ary fic­tion it­self is look­ing more and more like es­say.

Some of the most in­flu­en­tial nov­els of re­cent years, by Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knaus­gaard, take the method of self-con­scious first-per­son tes­ti­mony to a new level. Their more ex­treme ad­mir­ers will tell you that imag­i­na­tion and in­ven­tion are out­moded con­trivances; that to in­habit the sub­jec­tiv­ity of a char­ac­ter un­like the au­thor is an act of ap­pro­pri­a­tion, even colo­nial­ism; that the only au­then­tic and po­lit­i­cally defensible mode of nar­ra­tive is au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

Mean­while the per­sonal es­say it­self – the for­mal ap­pa­ra­tus of hon­est self-ex­am­i­na­tion and sus­tained en­gage­ment with ideas, as de­vel­oped by Mon­taigne and ad­vanced by Emer­son and Woolf and Bald­win – is in eclipse. Most large-cir­cu­la­tion Amer­i­can mag­a­zines have all but ceased to pub­lish pure es­says. The form per­sists mainly in smaller pub­li­ca­tions that col­lec­tively have fewer read­ers than Mar­garet At­wood has Twit­ter fol­low­ers. Should we be mourn­ing the es­say’s ex­tinc­tion? Or should we be cel­e­brat­ing its con­quest of the larger cul­ture?

A per­sonal and sub­jec­tive mi­cro-nar­ra­tive: the few lessons I’ve learned about writ­ing es­says all came from my editor at the New Yorker, Henry Fin­der. I first went to Henry, in 1994, as a would-be jour­nal­ist in press­ing need of money. Largely through dumb luck, I pro­duced a pub­lish­able ar­ti­cle about the US Postal Ser­vice, and then, through na­tive in­com­pe­tence, I wrote an un­pub­lish­able piece about the Sierra Club. This was the point at which Henry sug­gested that I might have some ap­ti­tude as an es­say­ist. I heard him to be say­ing, “since you’re ob­vi­ously a crap jour­nal­ist”, and de­nied that I had any such ap­ti­tude. I’d been raised with a mid­west­ern hor­ror of yakking too much about my­self, and I had an ad­di­tional prej­u­dice, de­rived from cer­tain wrong­headed ideas about novel-writ­ing, against the stat­ing of things that could more re­ward­ingly be de­picted. But I still needed money, so I kept call­ing Henry for book-re­view as­sign­ments. On one of our calls, he asked me if I had any in­ter­est in the to­bacco in­dus­try – the sub­ject of a ma­jor new his­tory by Richard Kluger. I quickly said: “Cig­a­rettes are the last thing in the world I want to think about.” To this, Henry even more quickly replied: “There­fore you must write about them.”

This was my first les­son from Henry, and it re­mains the most im­por­tant one. Af­ter smok­ing through­out my 20s, I’d suc­ceeded in quit­ting for two years in my early 30s. But when I was as­signed the post-of­fice piece, and be­came ter­ri­fied of pick­ing up the phone and in­tro­duc­ing my­self as a New Yorker jour­nal­ist, I’d taken up the habit again. In the years since then, I’d man­aged to think of my­self as a non­smoker, or at least as a per­son so firmly re­solved to quit again that I might as well al­ready have been a non­smoker, even as I con­tin­ued to smoke. My state of mind was like a quan­tum wave func­tion in which I could be to­tally a smoker but also to­tally not a smoker, so long as I never took mea­sure of my­self. And it was in­stantly clear to me that writ­ing about cig­a­rettes would force me to take my mea­sure. This is what es­says do.

There was also the prob­lem of my mother, whose fa­ther had died of lung cancer, and who was mil­i­tantly an­ti­to­bacco. I’d con­cealed my habit from her for more than 15 years. One rea­son I needed to pre­serve my in­de­ter­mi­nacy as a smoker/non­smoker was that I didn’t en­joy ly­ing to her. As soon as I could suc­ceed in quit­ting again, per­ma­nently, the wave func­tion would col­lapse and I would be, one hun­dred per cent, the non­smoker I’d al­ways rep­re­sented my­self to be – but only if I didn’t first come out, in print, as a smoker.

Henry had been a twen­tysome­thing wun­derkind when Tina Brown hired him at the New Yorker. He had a dis­tinc­tive tight-chested man­ner of speak­ing, a kind of hy­per­ar­tic­u­late mum­ble, like prose acutely well edited but barely leg­i­ble. I was awed by his in­tel­li­gence and his eru­di­tion and had quickly come to live in fear of dis­ap­point­ing him. Henry’s pas­sion­ate em­pha­sis in “There­fore you must write about them” – he was the only speaker I knew who could get away with the stressed ini­tial “There­fore” and the im­per­a­tive “must” – al­lowed me to hope that I’d reg­is­tered in his con­scious­ness in some small way.

And so I went to work on the es­say, every day com­bust­ing half a dozen low-tar cig­a­rettes in front of a box fan in my liv­ing-room win­dow, and handed in the only thing I ever wrote for Henry that didn’t need his edit­ing. I don’t re­mem­ber how my mother got her hands on the es­say or how she con­veyed to me her deep sense of be­trayal, whether by let­ter or in a phone call, but I do re­mem­ber that she then didn’t com­mu­ni­cate with me for six weeks – by a wide mar­gin, the long­est she ever went silent on me. It was ex­actly as I’d feared. But when she got over it and be­gan send­ing me let­ters again, I felt seen by her, seen for what I was, in a way I’d never felt be­fore. It wasn’t just that my “real” self had been con­cealed from her; it was as if there hadn’t re­ally been a self to see.

Kierkegaard, in Ei­ther/Or, makes fun of the “busy man” for whom busy­ness is a way of avoid­ing an hon­est sel­f­reck­on­ing. You might wake up in the night and re­alise that you’re lonely in your mar­riage, or that you need to think about what your level of con­sump­tion is do­ing to the planet, but the next day you have a mil­lion lit­tle things to do, and the day af­ter that you have another mil­lion things. As long as there’s no end of lit­tle things, you never have to stop and con­front the big­ger ques­tions. Writ­ing or read­ing an es­say isn’t the only way to stop and ask your­self who you re­ally are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way. And if you con­sider how laugh­ably un­busy Kierkegaard’s Copen­hagen was, com­pared with our own age, those sub­jec­tive tweets and hasty blog posts don’t seem so es­say­is­tic. They seem more like a means of avoid­ing what a real es­say might force on us. We spend our days read­ing, on screens, stuff we’d never bother read­ing in a printed book, and bitch about how busy we are.

I quit cig­a­rettes for the sec­ond time in 1997. And then, in 2002, for the fi­nal time. And then, in 2003, for the last and fi­nal time – un­less you count the smoke­less nico­tine that’s cours­ing through my blood­stream as I write this. At­tempt­ing to write an hon­est es­say doesn’t al­ter the mul­ti­plic­ity of my selves; I’m still si­mul­ta­ne­ously a reptile-brained ad­dict, a wor­rier about my health, an eter­nal teenager, a self-med­i­cat­ing de­pres­sive. What changes, if I take the time to stop and mea­sure, is that my multi-selved iden­tity ac­quires sub­stance.

One of the mys­ter­ies of lit­er­a­ture is that per­sonal sub­stance, as per­ceived by both the writer and the reader, is sit­u­ated out­side the body of ei­ther of them, on some kind of page. How can I feel realer to my­self in a thing I’m writ­ing than I do in­side my body? How can I feel closer to another per­son when I’m read­ing her words than I do when I’m sit­ting next to her? The an­swer, in part, is that both writ­ing and read­ing de­mand full at­ten­tive­ness. But it surely also has to do with the kind of or­der­ing that is pos­si­ble only on the page.

Here I might men­tion two other lessons I learned from Henry Fin­der. One was Every es­say, even a think piece, tells a story. The other was There are only two ways to or­gan­ise ma­te­rial: “Like goes with like” and “This fol­lowed that.” Th­ese pre­cepts may seem self-ev­i­dent, but any grader of high-school or col­lege es­says can tell you that they aren’t. To me it was es­pe­cially not ev­i­dent that a think piece should fol­low the rules of drama. And yet: doesn’t a good ar­gu­ment be­gin by posit­ing some dif­fi­cult prob­lem? And doesn’t it then pro­pose an es­cape from the prob­lem through some bold propo­si­tion, and set up ob­sta­cles in the form of ob­jec­tions and coun­ter­ar­gu­ments, and fi­nally, through a se­ries of re­ver­sals, take us to an un­fore­seen but sat­is­fy­ing con­clu­sion?

If you ac­cept Henry’s premise that a suc­cess­ful prose piece con­sists of ma­te­rial ar­ranged in the form of a story, and if you share my own con­vic­tion that our iden­ti­ties con­sist of the sto­ries we tell about our­selves, it makes sense that we should get a strong hit of per­sonal sub­stance from the labour of writ­ing and the plea­sure of read­ing. When I’m alone in the woods or hav­ing din­ner with a friend, I’m over­whelmed by the quan­tity of ran­dom sen­sory data com­ing at me. The act of writ­ing sub­tracts al­most ev­ery­thing, leav­ing only the al­pha­bet and punc­tu­a­tion marks, and pro­gresses to­ward non-ran­dom­ness. Some­times, in or­der­ing the el­e­ments of a fa­mil­iar story, you dis­cover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Some­times, es­pe­cially with an ar­gu­ment (“This fol­lows from that”), a com­pletely new nar­ra­tive is called for. The dis­ci­pline of fash­ion­ing a com­pelling story can crys­tallise thoughts and feel­ings you only dimly knew you had in you.

If you’re look­ing at a mass of ma­te­rial that doesn’t seem to lend it­self to sto­ry­telling, Henry would say your only other op­tion is to sort it into cat­e­gories, group­ing sim­i­lar el­e­ments to­gether: Like goes with like. This is, at a min­i­mum, a tidy way to write. But pat­terns also have a way of turn­ing into sto­ries. To make sense of Don­ald Trump’s vic­tory in an elec­tion he was widely ex­pected to lose, it’s tempt­ing to con­struct a this-fol­lowed-that story: Hil­lary Clin­ton was care­less with her emails, the Jus­tice depart­ment chose not to pros­e­cute her, then An­thony Weiner’s emails came to light, then James Comey re­ported to Congress that Clin­ton might still be in trou­ble, and then Trump won the elec­tion. But it may ac­tu­ally be more fruit­ful to group like with like: Trump’s vic­tory was like the Brexit vote and like the resur- gent anti-im­mi­grant na­tion­al­ism in Europe. Clin­ton’s im­pe­ri­ously sloppy han­dling of her emails was like her poorly mes­saged cam­paign and like her de­ci­sion not to cam­paign harder in Michi­gan and Penn­syl­va­nia.

I was in Ghana on elec­tion day, bird­watch­ing with my brother and two friends. James Comey’s re­port to Congress had un­set­tled the cam­paign be­fore I left for Africa, but Nate Sil­ver’s au­thor­i­ta­tive polling web­site, Fivethir­tyeight, was still giv­ing Trump just a 30% chance of win­ning. Hav­ing cast an early bal­lot for Clin­ton, I’d ar­rived in Ac­cra feel­ing only mod­er­ately anx­ious about the elec­tion and con­grat­u­lat­ing my­self on my de­ci­sion to spend the fi­nal week of the cam­paign not check­ing Fivethir­tyeight 10 times a day.

I was in­dulging a dif­fer­ent sort of com­pul­sion in Ghana. To my shame, I am what peo­ple in the world of bird­ing call a lister. It’s not that I don’t love birds for their own sake. I go bird­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence their beauty and di­ver­sity, learn more about their be­hav­iour and the ecosys­tems they be­long to, and take long, at­ten­tive walks in new places. But I also keep way too many lists. I count not only the bird species I’ve seen world­wide but the ones I’ve seen in every coun­try and every US state I’ve birded in, also at var­i­ous smaller sites, in­clud­ing my back yard, and in every cal­en­dar year since 2003. I can ra­tio­nalise my com­pul­sive count­ing as an ex­tra lit­tle game I play within the con­text of my passion. But I re­ally am com­pul­sive. This makes me morally in­fe­rior to bird­ers who bird ex­clu­sively for the joy of it.

It hap­pened that by go­ing to Ghana I’d given my­self a chance to break my pre­vi­ous year-list record of 1,286 species. I was al­ready over 800 for 2016, and I knew, from my on­line re­search, that trips sim­i­lar to ours had pro­duced nearly 500 species, only a hand­ful of which are also com­mon in Amer­ica. If I could see 460 unique year species in Africa, and then use my seven-hour lay­over in Lon­don to pick up 20 easy Euro­pean birds at a park near Heathrow, 2016 would be my best year ever.

We were see­ing great stuff in Ghana, spec­tac­u­lar tu­ra­cos

I was sud­denly aware that I should have been at home, try­ing to con­sole my girl­friend about the elec­tion, ex­er­cis­ing the one ben­e­fit of be­ing a de­pres­sive pes­simist – the propen­sity to laugh in dark times

and bee-eaters found only in west Africa. But the coun­try’s few re­main­ing forests are un­der in­tense hunt­ing and log­ging pres­sure, and our walks in them were more swel­ter­ing than pro­duc­tive. By the evening of elec­tion day, we’d al­ready missed our only shot at sev­eral of my tar­get species. Very early the next morn­ing, when polls were still open on the west coast of the States, I turned on my phone for the plea­sure of con­firm­ing that Clin­ton was win­ning the elec­tion. What I found in­stead were stricken texts from my friends in Cal­i­for­nia, with pic­tures of them star­ing at a TV and look­ing mo­rose, my girl­friend curled up on a sofa in a fe­tal po­si­tion. The Times head­line of the mo­ment was “Trump Takes North Carolina, Build­ing Mo­men­tum; Clin­ton’s Path to Vic­tory Nar­row.”

There was noth­ing to be done but go bird­ing. On a road in the Nsuta for­est, dodg­ing tim­ber trucks whose mo­men­tum I as­so­ci­ated with Trump’s, and yet cling­ing to the idea that Clin­ton still had a path to vic­tory, I saw Black Dwarf Horn­bills, an African Cuckoo-Hawk and a Melan­choly Wood­pecker. It was a sweaty but sat­is­fac­tory morn­ing that ended, when we re-emerged into net­work cover­age, with the news that the “short-fin­gered vul­gar­ian” (Spy mag­a­zine’s mem­o­rable ep­i­thet) was my coun­try’s new president. This was the mo­ment when I saw what my mind had been do­ing with Nate Sil­ver’s fig­ure of 30% for Trump’s odds. Some­how I’d taken the fig­ure to mean that the world might be, worst case, 30% shit­tier af­ter elec­tion day.

What the num­ber ac­tu­ally rep­re­sented, of course, was a 30% chance of the world’s be­ing 100% shit­tier.

As we trav­elled up into drier, emp­tier north­ern Ghana, we in­ter­sected with some birds I’d long dreamed of see­ing: Egyp­tian Plovers, Carmine Bee-eaters and a male Stan­dard­winged Night­jar, whose out­ra­geous wing stream­ers gave it the look of a nighthawk be­ing closely pur­sued by two bats. But we were fall­ing ever fur­ther be­hind the year-bird pace I needed to main­tain. It oc­curred to me, be­lat­edly, that the trip lists I’d seen on­line had in­cluded species that were only heard, not seen, while I needed to see a bird to count it. Those lists had raised my hopes the way Nate Sil­ver had. Now every tar­get species I missed in­creased the pres­sure to see all of the re­main­ing tar­gets, even the wildly un­likely ones, if I wanted to break my record. It was only a stupid year list, ul­ti­mately mean­ing­less even to me, but I was haunted by the head­line from the morn­ing af­ter elec­tion day. In­stead of 275 elec­toral votes, I needed 460 species, and my path to vic­tory was be­com­ing very nar­row. Fi­nally, four days be­fore the end of the trip, in the spill­way of a dam near the Burk­ina Faso bor­der, where I’d hoped to get half a dozen new grass­land birds and saw zero, I had to ac­cept the re­al­ity of loss. I was sud­denly aware that I should have been at home, try­ing to con­sole my girl­friend about the elec­tion, ex­er­cis­ing the one ben­e­fit of be­ing a de­pres­sive pes­simist, which is the propen­sity to laugh in dark times.

How had the short-fin­gered vul­gar­ian reached the White House? When Hil­lary Clin­ton started speak­ing in pub­lic again, she lent cre­dence to a like-goes-with-like ac­count of her char­ac­ter by ad­vanc­ing a this-fol­lowed-that nar­ra­tive. Never mind that she’d mis­han­dled her emails and ut­tered the phrase “basket of de­plorables”. Never mind that vot­ers might have had le­git­i­mate griev­ances with the lib­eral elite she rep­re­sented; might have failed to ap­pre­ci­ate the ra­tio­nal­ity of free trade, open borders, and fac­tory au­to­ma­tion when the over­all gains in global wealth came at mid­dle-class ex­pense; might have re­sented the fed­eral im­po­si­tion of lib­eral ur­ban val­ues on con­ser­va­tive ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Clin­ton, her loss was the fault of James Comey – maybe also of the Rus­sians.

Ad­mit­tedly, I had my own neat nar­ra­tive ac­count. When I came home from Africa to Santa Cruz, my pro­gres­sive friends were still strug­gling to un­der­stand how Trump could have won. I re­mem­bered a pub­lic event I’d once done with the op­ti­mistic so­cial-me­dia spe­cial­ist Clay Shirky, who’d re­counted to the au­di­ence how “shocked” pro­fes­sional New York res­tau­rant crit­ics had been when Za­gat, a crowd­sourced re­view­ing ser­vice, had named Union Square Café the best res­tau­rant in town. Shirky’s point was that pro­fes­sional crit­ics aren’t as smart as they think they are; that, in fact, in the age of Big Data, crit­ics are no longer even nec­es­sary. At the event, ig­nor­ing the fact that Union Square Café was my favourite New York res­tau­rant (the crowd was right!), I’d sourly won­dered if Shirky be­lieved that crit­ics were also stupid to con­sider Alice Munro a bet­ter writer than James Pat­ter­son. But now Trump’s vic­tory, too, had vin­di­cated Shirky’s mock­ery of pun­dits. So­cial me­dia had al­lowed Trump to by­pass the crit­i­cal es­tab­lish­ment, and just enough mem­bers of the crowd, in key swing states, had found his low com­edy and his in­cen­di­ary speech “bet­ter” than Clin­ton’s nu­anced ar­gu­ments and her mas­tery of pol­icy. This fol­lows from that: with­out Twit­ter and Face­book, no Trump.

Af­ter the elec­tion, Mark Zucker­berg did briefly seem to take re­spon­si­bil­ity, sort of, for hav­ing cre­ated the plat­form of choice for fake news about Clin­ton, and to sug­gest that Face­book could be­come more ac­tive in fil­ter­ing the news. (Good luck with that.) Twit­ter, for its part, kept its head down. As Trump’s tweet­ing con­tin­ued un­abated, what could Twit­ter pos­si­bly say? That it was mak­ing the world a bet­ter place?

In De­cem­ber, my favourite Santa Cruz ra­dio sta­tion, KPIG, be­gan run­ning a fake ad of­fer­ing coun­selling ser­vices to ad­dicts of Trump-hat­ing tweets and Face­book posts. The fol­low­ing month, a week be­fore Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, the PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter or­gan­ised events around the coun­try to re­ject the as­sault on free speech that it claimed Trump rep­re­sented. Al­though his ad­min­is­tra­tion’s travel re­stric­tions did later make it harder for writ­ers from Mus­lim coun­tries to have their voices heard in the United States, the one bad thing that could not be said of Trump, in Jan­uary, was that he had in any way cur­tailed free speech. His ly­ing, bul­ly­ing

tweets were free speech on steroids. PEN it­self, just a few years ear­lier, had given a free-speech award to Twit­ter, for its self-pub­li­cised role in the Arab spring. The ac­tual re­sult of the Arab spring had been a re­trench­ment of au­toc­racy, and Twit­ter had since re­vealed it­self, in Trump’s hands, to be a plat­form made to or­der for au­toc­racy, but the ironies didn’t end there. Dur­ing the same week in Jan­uary, pro­gres­sive Amer­i­can book­stores and au­thors pro­posed a boy­cott of Si­mon & Schus­ter for the crime of in­tend­ing to pub­lish one book by the dis­mal right-wing provo­ca­teur Milo Yiannopou­los. The an­gri­est of the book­stores talked of re­fus­ing to stock all ti­tles from S&S, in­clud­ing, pre­sum­ably, the books of An­drew Solomon, the president of PEN. The talk didn’t end un­til S&S voided its con­tract with Yiannopou­los.

Trump and his alt-right sup­port­ers take plea­sure in push­ing the but­tons of the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect, but it only works be­cause the but­tons are there to be pushed – stu­dents and ac­tivists claim­ing the right to not hear things that up­set them, and to shout down ideas that of­fend them. In­tol­er­ance par­tic­u­larly flour­ishes on­line, where mea­sured speech is pun­ished by not get­ting clicked on, in­vis­i­ble Face­book and Google al­go­rithms steer you to­wards con­tent you agree with, and non­con­form­ing voices stay silent for fear of be­ing flamed or trolled or un­friended. The re­sult is a silo in which, what­ever side you’re on, you feel ab­so­lutely right to hate what you hate. And here is another way in which the es­say dif­fers from su­per­fi­cially sim­i­lar kinds of sub­jec­tive speech. The es­say’s roots are in lit­er­a­ture, and lit­er­a­ture at its best – the work of Alice Munro, for ex­am­ple – in­vites you to ask whether you might be some­what wrong, maybe even en­tirely wrong, and to imag­ine why some­one else might hate you.

Three years ago, I was in a state of rage about cli­mate change. The Repub­li­can party was con­tin­u­ing to lie about the ab­sence of a sci­en­tific con­sen­sus on cli­mate – Florida’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion had gone so far as to for­bid its em­ploy­ees to write the words “cli­mate change”, af­ter Florida’s gov­er­nor, a Repub­li­can, in­sisted that it wasn’t a “true fact” – but I wasn’t much less an­gry at the left. I’d read a new book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Ev­ery­thing , in which she as­sured the reader that, al­though “time is tight”, we still have 10 years to rad­i­cally re­make the global econ­omy and pre­vent global tem­per­a­tures from ris­ing by more than two de­grees Cel­sius by the end of the cen­tury. Klein wasn’t the only left­ist say­ing we still had 10 years. In fact, en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists had been say­ing the ex­act same thing in 2005.

They’d also been say­ing it in 1995: We still have 10 years. By 2015, though, it ought to have been clear that hu­man­ity is in­ca­pable in every way – po­lit­i­cally, psy­cho­log­i­cally, eth­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally – of re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions quickly enough to change ev­ery­thing. Even the Euro­pean Union, which had taken the early lead on cli­mate, and was fond of lec­tur­ing other re­gions on their ir­re­spon­si­bil­ity, needed only a re­ces­sion in 2009 to shift its fo­cus to eco­nomic growth. Bar­ring a world­wide re­volt against free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism in the next 10 years – the sce­nario that Klein con­tended could still save us – the most likely rise in tem­per­a­ture this cen­tury is on the or­der of six de­grees. We’ll be lucky to avoid a twode­gree rise be­fore the year 2030.

In a polity ever more starkly di­vided, the truth about global warm­ing was even less con­ve­nient to the left than to the right. The right’s de­nials were odi­ous lies, but at least they were con­sis­tent with a cer­tain cold-eyed politi­cal re­al­ism. The left, hav­ing ex­co­ri­ated the right for its in­tel­lec­tual dis­hon­esty and turned cli­mate de­nial­ism into a politi­cal ral­ly­ing cry, was now in an im­pos­si­ble po­si­tion. It had to keep in­sist­ing on the truth of cli­mate sci­ence while per­sist­ing in the fic­tion that col­lec­tive world ac­tion could stave off the worst of it: that universal ac­cep­tance of the facts, which re­ally might have changed ev­ery­thing in 1995, could still change ev­ery­thing. Oth­er­wise, what dif­fer­ence did it make if the Repub­li­cans quib­bled with the sci­ence?

Be­cause my sym­pa­thies were with the left – re­duc­ing car­bon emis­sions is vastly bet­ter than do­ing noth­ing; every half-de­gree helps – I also held it to a higher stan­dard. Deny­ing the dark re­al­ity, pre­tend­ing that the Paris ac­cord could avert catas­tro­phe, was un­der­stand­able as a tac­tic to keep peo­ple mo­ti­vated to re­duce emis­sions; to keep hope alive. As a strat­egy, though, it did more harm than good. It ceded the eth­i­cal high ground, in­sulted the in­tel­li­gence of un­per­suaded vot­ers (“Re­ally? We still have 10 years?”), and pre­cluded frank dis­cus­sion of how the global com­mu­nity should pre­pare for dras­tic changes, and how na­tions like Bangladesh should be com­pen­sated for what na­tions like the United States have done to them.

Dis­hon­esty also skewed pri­or­i­ties. In the past 20 years, the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment had be­come cap­tive to a sin­gle is­sue. Partly out of gen­uine alarm, partly also be­cause fore­ground­ing hu­man prob­lems was po­lit­i­cally less risky – less elit­ist – than talk­ing about na­ture, the big en­vi­ron­men­tal NGOs had all in­vested their politi­cal cap­i­tal in fight­ing cli­mate change, a prob­lem with a hu­man face. The NGO that par­tic­u­larly en­raged me, as a bird lover, was the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety, once an un­com­pro­mis­ing de­fender of birds, now a lethar­gic in­sti­tu­tion with a very large PR depart­ment. In Septem­ber 2014, with much fan­fare, that PR depart­ment had an­nounced to the world that cli­mate change was the num­ber-one threat to the birds of North Amer­ica. The an­nounce­ment was both nar­rowly dis­hon­est, be­cause its word­ing didn’t square with the con­clu­sions of Audubon’s own sci­en­tists, and broadly dis­hon­est, be­cause not one sin­gle bird death could be di­rectly at­trib­uted to hu­man car­bon emis­sions. In 2014, the most se­ri­ous threat to Amer­i­can birds was habi­tat loss, fol­lowed by out­door cats, col­li­sions with build­ings, and pes­ti­cides. By in­vok­ing the buzz­word of cli­mate change, Audubon got a lot of at­ten­tion in the lib­eral me­dia; another point had been scored against the sci­ence-deny­ing right. But it was not at all clear how this

The truth about global warm­ing was even less con­ve­nient to the left than to the right

helped birds. The only prac­ti­cal ef­fect of Audubon’s an­nounce­ment, it seemed to me, was to dis­cour­age peo­ple from ad­dress­ing the real threats to birds in the present.

I was so an­gry that I de­cided that I’d bet­ter write an es­say. I be­gan with a jeremiad against the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety, broad­ened it into a scorn­ful de­nun­ci­a­tion of the en­vi­ron­men­tal move­ment gen­er­ally, and then started wak­ing up in the night in a panic of re­morse and doubt. For the writer, an es­say is a mir­ror, and I didn’t like what I was see­ing in this one. Why was I ex­co­ri­at­ing fel­low lib­er­als when the de­nial­ists were so much worse? The prospect of cli­mate change was every bit as sick­en­ing to me as to the groups I was at­tack­ing. With every ad­di­tional de­gree of global warm­ing, fur­ther hun­dreds of mil­lions of peo­ple around the world would suf­fer. Wasn’t it worth an all-out ef­fort to achieve a re­duc­tion of even half of one de­gree? Wasn’t it ob­scene to be talk­ing about birds when chil­dren in Bangladesh were threat­ened? Yes, the premise of my es­say was that we have an eth­i­cal re­spon­si­bil­ity to other species as well as to our own. But what if that premise was false? And, even if it was true, did I re­ally care per­son­ally about bio­di­ver­sity? Or was I just a priv­i­leged white guy who liked to go bird­ing? And not even a pure­hearted birder – a lister!

Af­ter three nights of doubt­ing my char­ac­ter and mo­tives, I called Henry Fin­der and told him I couldn’t write the piece. I’d done plenty of rant­ing about cli­mate to my friends and to like­minded con­ser­va­tion­ists, but it was like a lot of the rant­ing that hap­pens on­line, where you’re pro­tected by the im­promptu na­ture of the writ­ing and by the known friend­li­ness of your au­di­ence. Try­ing to write a fin­ished thing, an es­say, had made me aware of the slop­pi­ness of my think­ing. It had also enor­mously in­creased the risk of shame, be­cause the writ­ing wasn’t ca­sual, and be­cause it was go­ing out to an au­di­ence of prob­a­bly hos­tile strangers. Fol­low­ing Henry’s ad­mo­ni­tion (“There­fore”), I’d come to think of the es­say­ist as a fire­fighter, whose job, while ev­ery­one else is flee­ing the flames of shame, is to run straight into them. But I had a lot more to fear now than my mother’s dis­ap­proval.

My es­say might have stayed aban­doned if I hadn’t al­ready clicked a but­ton on Audubon’s web­site, af­firm­ing that, yes, I wanted to join it in fight­ing cli­mate change. I’d only done this to gather rhetor­i­cal am­mu­ni­tion to use against

Audubon, but a del­uge of di­rect-mail so­lic­i­ta­tions had fol­lowed from that click. I got at least eight of them in six weeks, all of them ask­ing me to give money, along with a sim­i­lar del­uge in my email in­box. A few days af­ter speak­ing to Henry, I opened one of the emails and found my­self look­ing at a pic­ture of my­self – luck­ily a flat­ter­ing im­age, taken in 2010 for Vogue mag­a­zine, which had dressed me up bet­ter than I dress my­self and posed me in a field with my binoc­u­lars, like a birder. The head­line of the email was some­thing like “Join Au­thor Jonathan Franzen in Sup­port­ing Audubon”. It was true that, a few years ear­lier, in an in­ter­view with Audubon mag­a­zine, I’d po­litely praised the or­gan­i­sa­tion, or at least its mag­a­zine. But no one had asked for my per­mis­sion to use my name and im­age for so­lic­i­ta­tion. I wasn’t sure the email was even le­gal.

A more be­nign im­pe­tus to re­turn to the es­say came from Henry. As far as I know, Henry couldn’t care less about birds, but he seemed to see some­thing in my ar­gu­ment that our pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with fu­ture catas­tro­phes dis­cour­ages us from tack­ling solv­able en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems in the here and now. In an email to me, he gen­tly sug­gested that I lose the tone of prophetic scorn. “This piece will be more per­sua­sive,” he wrote in another, “if, iron­i­cally, it’s more am­biva­lent, less polem­i­cal. You’re not whal­ing on folks who want us to pay at­ten­tion to cli­mate change and emis­sion re­duc­tions. But you’re at­ten­tive to the costs. To what the dis­course pushes to the mar­gins.” Email by email, re­vi­sion by re­vi­sion, Henry nudged me to­ward fram­ing the es­say not as a de­nun­ci­a­tion but as a ques­tion: how do we find mean­ing in our ac­tions when the world seems to be com­ing to an end? Much of the fi­nal draft was de­voted to a pair of well-con­ceived re­gional con­ser­va­tion pro­jects, in Peru and Costa Rica, where the world re­ally is be­ing made a bet­ter place, not just for wild plants and wild an­i­mals but for the Peru­vians and Costa Ri­cans who live there. Work on th­ese pro­jects is per­son­ally mean­ing­ful, and the ben­e­fits are im­me­di­ate and tan­gi­ble.

In writ­ing about the two pro­jects, I hoped that one or two of the big char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tions, the ones spend­ing tens of mil­lions of dol­lars on biodiesel devel­op­ment or on wind farms in Eritrea, might read the piece and con­sider in­vest­ing in work that pro­duces tan­gi­ble re­sults. What I got in­stead was a mis­sile at­tack from the lib­eral silo. I’m not on so­cial me­dia, but my friends re­ported that I was be­ing called all sorts of names, in­clud­ing “bird­brain” and “cli­mate-change de­nier”. Tweet-sized snip­pets of my es­say, retweeted out of con­text, made it sound as if I’d pro­posed that we aban­don the ef­fort to re­duce car­bon emis­sions, which was the po­si­tion of the Repub­li­can party, which, by the po­lar­is­ing logic of on­line dis­course, made me a cli­mate-change de­nier. In fact, I’m such a cli­mate-sci­ence ac­cepter that I don’t even bother hav­ing hope for the ice caps. All I’d de­nied was that a right-minded in­ter­na­tional elite, meet­ing in nice ho­tels around the world, could stop them from melt­ing. This was my crime against ortho­doxy. Cli­mate now has such a lock on the lib­eral imag­i­na­tion that any at­tempt to change the con­ver­sa­tion – even try­ing to change it to the epic ex­tinc­tion event that hu­man be­ings are al­ready creat­ing with­out the help of cli­mate change – amounts to an of­fence against re­li­gion.

I did have sym­pa­thy for the cli­mate-change pro­fes­sion­als who de­nounced the es­say. They’d been work­ing for decades to raise the alarm in Amer­ica, and they fi­nally had President Obama on board with them; they had the Paris ac­cord. It was an in­op­por­tune time to point out that dras­tic global warm­ing is al­ready a done deal, and that it seems un­likely that hu­man­ity is go­ing to leave any car­bon in the ground, given that, even now, not one coun­try in the world has pledged to do it.

I also un­der­stood the fury of the al­ter­na­tive-en­ergy in­dus­try, which is a busi­ness like any other. If you al­low that re­new­able en­ergy pro­jects are only a mod­er­at­ing tac­tic, un­able to re­verse the dam­age that past car­bon emis­sions will con­tinue to do for cen­turies, it opens the door to other ques­tions about the busi­ness. Like, did we re­ally need quite so many wind­mills? Did they have to be placed in eco­log­i­cally sen­si­tive ar­eas? And the so­lar farms in the Mo­jave desert – wouldn’t it make more sense to cover the city of Los An­ge­les with so­lar pan­els and spare the open space? Weren’t we sort of de­stroy­ing the nat­u­ral world in or­der to save it? I be­lieve it was an in­dus­try blog­ger who called me a bird­brain.

As for Audubon, the fundrais­ing email should have warned me about the char­ac­ter of its man­age­ment. But I was still sur­prised by its re­sponse to the es­say, which was to at­tack, ad hominem, the per­son whose name and im­age it had blithely ap­pro­pri­ated two months ear­lier. My es­say had, yes, given Audubon some tough love. I wanted it to cut out the non­sense, stop talk­ing about 50 years from now, and be more ag­gres­sive in de­fend­ing the birds that both it and I love.

But ap­par­ently all Audubon could see was a threat to its mem­ber­ship num­bers and its fundrais­ing ef­forts, and so it had to negate me as a per­son. I’m told the president of Audubon fired off four dif­fer­ent salvos at me per­son­ally. This is what pres­i­dents do now.

And it worked. With­out even read­ing those salvos – sim­ply from know­ing that other peo­ple were read­ing them – I felt ashamed. I felt the way I’d felt in eighth grade, shunned by the crowd and called names that shouldn’t have hurt but did. I wished I’d lis­tened to my pan­ics in the night and kept my opin­ions to my­self. In a state of some an­guish, I called up Henry and dumped all my shame and re­gret on him. He replied, in his barely leg­i­ble way, that the on­line re­sponse was only weather. “With pub­lic opin­ion,” he said, “there’s weather, and then there’s cli­mate. You’re try­ing to change the cli­mate, and that takes time.”

It didn’t mat­ter if I be­lieved this or not. It was enough to feel that one per­son, Henry, didn’t hate me. I con­soled my­self with the thought that, al­though cli­mate is too vast and chaotic for any in­di­vid­ual to al­ter it, the in­di­vid­ual can still find mean­ing in try­ing to make a dif­fer­ence to one af­flicted vil­lage, one vic­tim of global in­jus­tice. Or to one bird, or one reader. Af­ter the on­line flames had died down, I started hear­ing pri­vately from con­ser­va­tion work­ers who shared my frus­tra­tions but couldn’t af­ford to ex­press them. I didn’t hear from many peo­ple, but there didn’t have to be many. My feel­ing in each case was the same: the per­son I wrote the es­say for is you.

But now, two and a half years later, as the ice shelves crum­ble and the Twit­ter president pulls out of the Paris ac­cord, I’m not so sure. Now I can ad­mit to my­self that I didn’t write the es­say just to hearten a few con­ser­va­tion­ists and de­flect some char­i­ta­ble dol­lars to bet­ter causes. I re­ally did want to change the cli­mate. I still do. I share, with the very peo­ple my es­say crit­i­cised, the recog­ni­tion that global warm­ing is the is­sue of our time, per­haps the big­gest is­sue in all of hu­man his­tory. Every one of us is now in the po­si­tion of the indige­nous Amer­i­cans when the Euro­peans ar­rived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, un­pre­dictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from com­ing. My only hope is that we can ac­cept the re­al­ity in time to pre­pare for it hu­manely, and my only faith is that fac­ing it hon­estly, how­ever painful this may be, is bet­ter than deny­ing it.

If I were writ­ing the es­say today, I might say all this. The mir­ror of the es­say, as it was pub­lished, re­flected an an­gry bird-loving mis­fit who thinks he’s smarter than the crowd. That char­ac­ter may be me, but it’s not the whole me, and a bet­ter es­say would have re­flected that. In a bet­ter es­say, I might still have given Audubon the re­buke it de­served, but I would have found my way to more sym­pa­thy for the other peo­ple I was an­gry at: for the cli­mate ac­tivists, who for 20 years had watched their path to vic­tory nar­row sick­en­ingly, as car­bon emis­sions mounted and the nec­es­sary emis­sion­sre­duc­tion tar­gets grew ever more un­re­al­is­tic, and for the al­ter­na­tive en­ergy work­ers who had fam­i­lies to feed and were try­ing to see be­yond petroleum, and for the en­vi­ron­men­tal NGOs that thought they’d fi­nally found an is­sue that could wake the world up, and for the leftists who, as ne­olib­er­al­ism and its tech­nolo­gies re­duced the elec­torate to in­di­vid­ual con­sumers, saw cli­mate change as the last strong ar­gu­ment for col­lec­tivism. I would es­pe­cially have tried to re­mem­ber all the peo­ple who need more hope in their lives than a de­pres­sive pes­simist does, the peo­ple for whom the prospect of a hot, calamity-filled fu­ture is un­bear­ably sad and fright­en­ing, and who can be for­given for not want­ing to think about it. I would have kept re­vis­ing.

The 2010 im­age of Jonathan Franzen taken for Vogue, which ‘dressed me up bet­ter than I dress my­self’

Don­ald Trump gives his ac­cep­tance speech dur­ing his elec­tion night rally in Novem­ber 2016 in New York

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