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