The Guardian has one of its long read essays entitled “Is it too late to save the world? Jonathan Franzen on one year of Trump’s America” in which Jonathan Franzen “reflects on the role of the writer in times of crisis.”
Franzen’s essay weaves together half a dozen different themes; the election of Trump; essay writing in the age of the tweet; his guilty feelings about birdwatching; the Audubon Society and its concentration on tackling climate change instead of protecting birds; and his own reflections on climate change.
As a prizewinning author, Franzen is just the sort of person that intelligent people turn to in an age of puerile media hype and fake news, and a long thoughtful essay is just what we need in the age of the tweet and the petition signed by hundreds of media personalities.
But Franzen’s essay is very long, and even picking out the good bits would have made this essay three times longer than I want. The first two thirds is about how he was birdwatching in Ghana during the election. There’s blind hatred of Trump of course, but also criticism of Clinton and the trend towards censorship on the left, plus some good points about essay writing and the role of the intellectual:
… 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?
The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best … invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.
And on the personalisation of news:
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 front-page spotlight, and book reviewers feel less and less constrained to discuss books with any kind of objectivity.
But it’s on the subject of birdwatching that he is most passionate, most sympathetic, and most peculiar. Here he is on the Audubon Society, the US equivalent of the British Royal Society for the Protection of Birds:
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 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..
Wow! He’s one of us!! But then..
… 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?
So he wrote a different essay:
Trying to write … 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… 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.
Email by email, revision by revision, Henry [his editor] 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.
… 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.
Poor Jonathan. He tried to emphasise the positive, show how poor countries might make life better for their citizens, and he got labelled a denier, a heretic. But did that make him doubt his faith? Of course not. It redoubled his attachment to the climate orthodoxy:
Barring a worldwide revolt against free-market capitalism in the next 10 years … the most likely rise in temperature this century is on the order of six degrees. We’ll be lucky to avoid a two degree rise before the year 2030.
He’s probably talking Fahrenheit, but even so, a 1.1°C rise in the next 13 years means a fivefold increase over the highest decadal increase ever recorded. Is that likely? We’re talking primary school mental arithmetic here, not climate science.
Franzen’s essay typifies something about our narcissistic society. It’s all about him. Even his birdwatching, a passion that makes him seem quite human and likeable, is less about the birds that he loves watching than about his guilt feelings about being the wrong sort of birdwatcher. (No guilt about flying to Ghana via Heathrow – but frankly, isn’t the fussing about air miles irrelevant, whether it’s mentioned by sceptics or by climate wallies? If you’re rich you”ve got a big footprint. End of story.)
What’s interesting from our point of view is his clearheaded opposition to climate hysteria when it affects something he knows and cares about (protection of birds) compared to his wilful blindness on every other subject. He knows that the Audubon Society are lying bastards cynically exploiting climate hysteria for financial gain, but he still believes that Bangladesh is disappearing due to American greed, and that we’re all going to die from 6° warming. Where’s the “… good argument … positing some difficult problem …. proposing an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and setting up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion”? Where’s the reasoned argument that “invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you”?
I don’t hate Franzen. I even find him sympathetic, since he at least admits the possibility of being wrong. We’ve met his type before, and have sometimes reduced his type to silence on blog threads, suggesting that, even if we haven’t convinced them, we’ve embarrassed them into shutting up on the subject of climate bollocks.
But winning the argument one intellectual at a time is not an option. It would take thousands of years, and we’d be far into the next ice age by then.