"More than machinery, we need humanity."
One morning, as Jonathan Franzen was waking from (what were perhaps) anxious dreams about what climate change would mean for the future, he discovered that (on the Internet) he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. At least, that is how climate activists, climate scientists, and climate reporters were seeing him. And, what’s more, they were all eager to squash him for an article he had written for The New Yorker titled “What if we stopped pretending?”
Of course, the great humor of the entire Franzen debacle is that his article was a wonderful gift to the climate community. Not because of the article’s merits (it had few of those), but precisely for its many flaws. Though, it should be noted, Franzen almost certainly did not intend for things to play out the way they did.
Before going any further it is important to note the following: Franzen’s article is problematic. To make sure there is no confusion, let’s say that again, Franzen’s article is problematic. And to make it clear at the outset: the intent here is not to defend or endorse Franzen’s views. Almost immediately after Franzen’s piece was published it led to a deluge of angry responses in the form of Twitter threads and lengthy takedowns on numerous websites. On Earther his piece was filed under “dumbasses,” on Grist he was denounced as a “climate coward,” every leftist publication eagerly ripped Franzen to shreds, and he was widely denounced as a “doomer.”
Given the level of invective directed at Franzen’s article you could easily be forgiven for thinking that Franzen had advocated for stringent population control, that he had written a love letter to the Unabomber, that he had ended his piece by screaming “read Desert!”, that he had endorsed a hedonistic apathy, that he had endorsed Trump for reelection, or that he had penned the most despairing “doomerist” text ever written. But, without wanting to defend his article, it’s worth recognizing that his piece did none of those things.
All of which is to say, before you read any more of this, you should go read Franzen’s article. And if you spent the last several days reading takedown after takedown, you might want to re-read Franzen’s piece. Not because it’s a good article (it isn’t), but because it’s worth seeing the entirety of the article, as opposed to just seeing the bits and pieces that have been pulled out for particular criticism.
There are many problems with Franzen’s article. Most notably, Franzen writes with a level of certainty about impending doom that simply isn’t supported by the science. Furthermore, he has a tendency to invoke problematic pseudo-scientific concepts like “human nature,” which are certain to only further infuriate those who care about science. The piece is further bogged down by a disconcerting apolitical strain that lacks any transformative political vision and places no real interest in the possibilities of mass movements or mass politics. While Franzen is a celebrated novelist, the clunky writing in the article creates further problems such as when he follows up a section talking about climate modeling by talking about how he does his own modeling (by which he basically just means thinking). And Franzen especially opens himself up to angry reprisals by actively insulting climate activists. Therefore, it’s really no surprise that Franzen’s article was attacked.
And yet it’s also worth noting that some of the attacks on Franzen’s piece seem to misrepresent the overall thrust of his argument. Most importantly: Franzen isn’t telling people that they should do nothing, he repeatedly advocates action (on lots of different scales), and he emphasizes that while these steps won’t completely halt climate change they’ll still result in positive outcomes. Franzen argues that we should cut emissions, that we should direct funds towards things like “disaster preparedness” and “reparations to inundated countries,” that we should think about what we can do for our local communities, and that we should recognize that there are many types of actions people should be pursuing. Yes, Franzen sees an inevitable catastrophe on the horizon (which is questionable), but he doesn’t say “do nothing” he says “here are many things you should do.” In the face of recognizing that there is no perfect solution he still states that “half measures are better than no measures.” (that’s an actual quote). Franzen handles the scientific information poorly, he unwisely insults climate activists, he frames the cataclysm as inevitable – but the piece is still an earnest attempt to tell his readers that even in the face of certain catastrophe it is still worth taking action.
There are lots of problems with Franzen’s article – but to say that he’s saying “do nothing” isn’t accurate, to say that he’s suggesting people shouldn’t try to prevent things from getting worse isn’t accurate, and it’s odd to suggest that this is some sort of hopeless screed when he starts by noting that what is needed is hope. Yes, Franzen doesn’t have the best handle on the science (and he’s hardly alone in this regard), but Franzen has been attacked for criticizing the IPCC, when all he did was point to research by Naomi Oreskes, Michael Oppenheimer, and Dale Jamieson in which they state “we find that scientists tend to underestimate the severity of threats and the rapidity with which they might unfold” (that quote comes from the Scientific American article, not from Franzen). It doesn’t make you a “dumbass” to look at the current political situation in many countries and worry that it might be tough to get serious climate legislation passed. Similarly, it doesn’t make you a “climate coward” to note that in the face of the calamities that are already unfolding real consideration needs to be given as to whether to devote funds to disaster preparedness or to high-speed rail (though it’s certainly easier to avoid the consideration by simply saying “do both). Though there’s lots of hope being directed towards the Green New Deal these days, there isn’t anything fundamentally “dumbass” or “cowardly” about recognizing that what eventually emerges and gets signed into law under that heading might be insufficient to the crisis at hand. And if expressing the belief that a new kind of hope is needed for these perilous times, while emphasizing that a whole range of actions are necessary to deal with climate change, makes you a “doomer” – than a lot more people deserve to be hit with that epithet.
Given the certainty with which Franzen declares the battle against climate change “unwinnable,” it is no surprise that Franzen has been painted with the climate community’s new term of ignominy: “doomer.” But, given the actual contents of Franzen’s article, and the frequency in that piece with which he emphasizes that there is still a moral and practical reason to act, what Franzen presents is at best “diet doomism.” In other words, it isn’t the real thing. If you really want to be cruel to Franzen, the harshest thing you can probably say about his argument isn’t that it’s “doom and gloom” – but that it’s boring and unoriginal. That notorious doom-monger Pope Francis did a much better job of mixing premonitions of ecological catastrophe with a call for hope in grim times in his 2015 Encyclical on Climate Change. The anthropologist Anna Lowenhaput Tsing provided a much deeper rumination on the meaning of living through collapsing capitalism in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World. Furthermore, Franzen’s fellow novelist Amitav Ghosh pondered the difficult role of artists in response to climate change in his fantastic (though at times extremely bleak) The Great Derangement. And this isn’t even to consider the work of those who can accurately be described as doomsayers. To be clear, there genuinely are people right now (though, admittedly, very few) arguing that people need to abandon civilization and flee to the hinterlands to watch from the woods as the cities flood – but Franzen isn’t one of them. It’s frustrating to see a publication with a high level of cultural clout, like The New Yorker, publishing a piece like the one by Franzen, but Jonathan Franzen is not John Zerzan, and we should not pretend that he is.
Granted it is precisely because Franzen is such a half-hearted doomist that his piece was such a gift to the climate movement.
Jonathan Franzen is a middle-aged white guy, and he owes most of his cultural cachet to a novel that came out several years ago. Also, he has somewhere between zero and no credibility in the climate movement. He isn’t known as a serious climate thinker or activist, he doesn’t have a long history as someone trying to draw attention to the issue, and it doesn’t seem like most climate activists are particularly fans of his fiction. Prior to the article at the center of this current furor, Franzen’s only real dalliance with the climate movement was another piece in the New Yorker (about birds) for which he was also roundly mocked. All of which is to say that Franzen is a man with quite a lot of privilege, and he hasn’t exactly used his privilege to uplift the voices of those with less privilege. Franzen almost seems like a caricature of a smarmy intellectual, and his article ends with him talking about a worthwhile project but couching his praise of the project by emphasizing that he is (of course) already a supporter of it. Franzen is such an easy target for the ire of those in the climate movement, because there isn’t much the movement has to lose from attacking him.
With “What if we stopped pretending?” the climate movement was handed the perfect piece to eviscerate. It had a flimsy handle on the science. It featured no vision of transformative politics. It attacked the activists who have been fighting tirelessly against climate change. It calls the struggle “unwinnable.” And it’s by a wealthy, middle-aged, white guy who isn’t even part of the climate movement. What the article therefore does is provide an excellent opportunity for climate scientists, climate activists, and climate journalists to state clearly that Franzen is wrong on the science. What’s more the article opens the cultural space for these groups to put forth a different (more political, more utopian) vision of the future. In contrast to the disdain that Franzen directs at climate activists, his article invites these groups (and those covering them) to retort by once again pointing to all of the important work being done by activists. It can certainly be annoying to have to keep making the same points over and over again, but the climate movement needs opportunities to remind people that all is not lost, and there are few opportunities that are better for doing this than getting to write a cheerily indignant takedown of a novelist.
Every day, there are climate communicators struggling to explain the finer details of the science, and when a problem riddled piece like Franzen’s appears in a major publication like The New Yorker, it pushes these climate communicators to the forefront. Since Franzen’s piece came out, numerous publications have given prime placement to takedowns of Franzen’s piece (takedowns that have often carefully explained the flaws in his scientific reasoning). It’s doubtful that many of those publications would have felt the need to run such articles were it not for Franzen’s piece.
Movements need villains. And movements need victories.
With his article Franzen took on the mantle of villain (whether he meant to or not), and his shoddily constructed argument provided the climate movement with an easy battle to win.
And frankly, the climate movement needs some wins.
About a week before Franzen’s article, CNN held a marathon series of town halls with the top ten candidates vying to be the Democratic nominee for President – and many of those candidates demonstrated that they are not taking the threat of climate change nearly seriously enough. Hurricane Dorian devastated the Bahamas, and those fleeing the destruction have been met with racist hostility by the Trump administration. The UN Human Rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, has warned that climate change represents a massive threat to human rights. Grist called Franzen a “climate coward,” but a week before that publication had noted that “retreating from rising seas isn’t a win or a defeat – it’s reality.” Earther filed Franzen’s piece to “dumbasses,” but a week before that the publication had observed that “Europe is warming even faster than climate models predicted.” A new report prepared by the Global Commission on Adaptation warns (in the words of The Guardian) that “the world’s readiness for the inevitable effects of climate crisis is ‘gravely insufficient’, according to a report from global leaders.” A leaked draft of the IPCC’s Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate warns (in the words of Sandra Cordon) that “the world’s vast oceans, glacial ice sheets and northern permafrost are poised to unleash disaster.” And this list could, tragically, go on.
Within the climate movement it is common, especially of late, to see discussions of grief, of pessimism, of anger, of love, and of a need to redefine hope in these dark times. There is also a real desire for some good news to temper the deluge of the bad, and when there isn’t much good news on hand, it’s easy to delight in eviscerating a crummy article.
There is a lot of, understandable, hostility towards “doomer” arguments at the moment, but Franzen’s piece demonstrates the usefulness of those arguments: they give climate communicators an opportunity to punch back. Thus, Franzen’s half-hearted diet doomerism, makes him not only an easy villain, but an easy villain to defeat. It seems almost certain that more people have read the angry denunciations of Franzen’s piece than have really bothered to read Franzen’s piece in its entirety – and if those people came away from reading the takedowns with a better sense of the science, than overall it seems like Franzen’s piece has been a net positive (for everyone but Franzen).
Franzen began his piece in The New Yorker by invoking Kafka, and thus let us conclude this piece with some thoughts on Kafka from the philosopher Gunther Anders:
“From great warnings we should be able to learn, and they should help us to teach others.”
The warning that Franzen penned for The New Yorker was not “great” in terms of quality, but it attempted to be great in terms of scale. Nevertheless, as the wave of takedowns demonstrated, there is much to be learned from Franzen’s mistakes, and those mistakes can be seized on as an opportunity to teach others.
And that’s not a bad thing.