A writer at the top of his game con­sid­ers the cli­mate cri­sis, what we can do and what keeps him from de­spair

The Guardian - Review - - Book Of The Week - Sarah Crown

How is it pos­si­ble to live with de­spair? If, in the wake of last month’s hor­ri­fy­ing UN re­port on global warm­ing, you’ve been ask­ing your­self this ques­tion, take some so­lace (or at least sol­i­dar­ity) from the knowl­edge that you’re not alone. Jonathan Franzen has been grap­pling with it for years, and as the fi­nal-count­down ti­tle of his new vol­ume of es­says sug­gests, his de­spair at the state of the planet and our ab­so­lute in­abil­ity (“po­lit­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal, eth­i­cal, eco­nomic”) to save it is, if any­thing, deep­en­ing. “I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from com­ing,” he says bluntly at the con­clu­sion of his open­ing es­say, and noth­ing in the fol­low­ing pages sug­gests he is any­where close to chang­ing his mind.

But by re­fus­ing to hope for the im­pos­si­ble, Franzen, im­prob­a­bly, man­ages to pro­duce a vol­ume that feels, if not hope­ful, then at least not hope­less. There’s noth­ing he can do – there’s prob­a­bly noth­ing any of us can do – to avert or even al­le­vi­ate the com­ing catas­tro­phe. But for now, he’s here and he’s alive, and over the course of th­ese es­says he of­fers us a se­ries of par­tial, ten­ta­tive an­swers to the ques­tion he poses him­self at the be­gin­ning: “How do we find mean­ing in our ac­tions when the world seems to be com­ing to an end?”

This is not a col­lec­tion that wastes time at­tempt­ing to per­suade us of the re­al­ity of the cli­mate cri­sis; frankly, we’re way past that. “Dras­tic plan­e­tary over­heat­ing,” Franzen as­sures us, “is a done deal” – and by the way, we need to re­vise sig­nif­i­cantly up­ward our def­i­ni­tion of what “dras­tic” means. The no­tional two-de­gree fig­ure widely cited by politi­cians as the up­per limit of what we, and the planet, could pos­si­bly ac­com­mo­date is a line we’re on course to gal­lop past in just a few years’ time. By 2100, we may well be look­ing at a five or six-de­gree tem­per­a­ture rise, and even then there’s a pos­si­bil­ity we’re be­ing low­balled. “The sci­en­tist who con­fi­dently pre­dicts a five-de­gree warm­ing by the end of the cen­tury,” Franzen sug­gests, to­wards the end of the col­lec­tion, “might tell you in pri­vate, over beers, by Jonathan Franzen, 4th Es­tate, £16.99 that she re­ally ex­pects it to be nine.” It’s a body blow mo­ment in a book that de­clines to pull its punches, and Franzen ac­knowl­edges that many of his read­ers might be “for­given for not want­ing to think about it”. But over the course of th­ese es­says, he suc­ceeds in demon­strat­ing that res­ig­na­tion brings with it a cu­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual free­dom. His ac­knowl­edg­ment that the macro prob­lem is be­yond him al­lows him to start think­ing more cre­atively about mi­cro so­lu­tions: what can be achieved here, now, to­day.

Viewed through the other end of the te­le­scope, Franzen’s ac­cep­tance of the com­ing cri­sis could be seen as an ab­ne­ga­tion of re­spon­si­bil­ity: res­ig­na­tion in terms of ac­tion, rather than com­pre­hen­sion; a left­lib­eral ver­sion of the US pres­i­dent’s fatu­ous claim that the cli­mate will “change back”. It’s an ac­cu­sa­tion to which Franzen is acutely sen­si­tive, not least be­cause it has been lev­elled at him be­fore. In the col­lec­tion’s open­ing piece, “The Es­say in Dark Times”, what be­gins as a fas­ci­nat­ing con­sid­er­a­tion of the role of the es­say at a mo­ment of ob­jec­tive peril evolves, via a cir­cuitous route that takes in quit­ting smok­ing, bird­watch­ing in Ghana and Trump’s elec­tion, into a crit­i­cal reread­ing of an­other es­say (“Save What You Love”, also col­lected here) that he wrote for the New Yorker, some two-and-a-half years ear­lier. That one was trig­gered by his fury at the ac­tions of the Na­tional Audubon So­ci­ety, the US’s fore­most or­gan­i­sa­tion for bird con­ser­va­tion.

Franzen’s pas­sion for bird­watch­ing is al­most as well known as his nov­els, so to say the Audubon So­ci­ety was an un­likely tar­get is an un­der­state­ment. But it was pre­cisely “as a bird-lover” that it at­tracted his ire. In 2014, the So­ci­ety had, “with much fan­fare”, thrown all its re­sources into the cli­mate change fight, declar­ing that global warm­ing was “the num­ber-one threat to the birds of North Amer­ica”. There’s no ques­tion that cli­mate change poses an ex­is­ten­tial threat in the medium-term, how­ever, “in 2014, the most se­ri­ous threats to Amer­i­can birds were habi­tat loss and out­door cats”. In Franzen’s view, the so­ci­ety’s po­si­tion was both “nar­rowly dis­hon­est” and po­ten­tially harm­ful, in that it might dis­cour­age peo­ple “from tack­ling solv­able en­vi­ron­men­tal prob­lems in the here and now”. He said as much in his es­say, was duly de­nounced as a “cli­mate-change de­nier”, and re­treated in a mix­ture of shame and re­gret on the one hand, and in­jured self-jus­ti­fi­ca­tion on the other. The irony, of course, was that he wasn’t at­tempt­ing to deny cli­mate change at all: “In fact, I’m such a cli­mate­science ac­cepter that I don’t even bother hav­ing hope for the ice caps.” Rather, he was deny­ing that our cur­rent piece­meal, un­se­ri­ous at­tempts to mit­i­gate it will have any con­se­quen­tial ef­fect, and ar­gu­ing that there­fore we might bet­ter Jonathan Franzen

Ten­ta­tive an­swers

The End of the End of the Earth

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