Jonathan Franzen: the Twitcher Who Came in from the Cold

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.

Isn’t it?

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.


  1. HUNTER (05 Nov 17 at 10:43 pm)
    But is he? Or is he only that? If we’re not willing to engage with people like Franzen who has shown himself capable of seeing through the climatist delusion in his own narrow field, what’s the point of our action?
    I can’t judge him because I haven’t read any of his novels. If I was in England I’d be down to the library tomorrow, and I might end up as scathing as you. An awful lot of intellectuals are self absorbed shallow twits. It’s what the media demand of them. I’ll try to find an email account where I can alert him to my analysis. I don’t see what else we can do, one deluded intellectual at a time.


    I had a look at Fanzen’s work at
    Here’s the paragraph and a half I read before barfing on my keyboard:

    “From her first day in the neighborhood, she was helplessly conspicuous. Tall, ponytailed, absurdly young, pushing a stroller past stripped cars and broken beer bottles and barfed-upon old snow, she might have been carrying all the hours of her day in the string bags that hung from her stroller. Behind her you could see the baby-encumbered preparations for a morning of baby-encumbered errands; ahead of her, an afternoon of public radio, “The Silver Palate Cookbook,” cloth diapers, drywall compound, and latex paint, and then “Goodnight Moon,” then Zinfandel. She was already fully the thing that was just starting to happen to the rest of the street.
    In the earliest years, when you could still drive a Volvo 240 without feeling self-conscious, the collective task in Ramsey Hill was to relearn certain life skills that your own parents had fled to the suburbs specifically to unlearn, like how to interest the local cops in actually doing their job…”

    What a pathetic cowardly self absorbed shallow twit. But a pathetic cowardly self absorbed shallow twit who has been to university and done a course on Finnegan’s Wake and is going to flaunt it to a million New Yorker readers who have also done a course on Finnegan’s Wake.

    Because interesting the local cops in actually doing their job has been the job of a certain po-faced protestant middle class since at least Dickens. And perhaps Franzen knows, and is criticising, in a half-hearted, Joycean way. But why should we care? Franzen is part of the problem, not the solution, as is clear from every adjective. Tomorrow I’ll read the thing to the end.

    So far I’m confirmed in my opinion that climate bollocks is a comforter for a certain social class educated above its intellectual capacities. I’m talking about Emma Thompson, Jonathan Franzen, but also Sir Paul Nurse and Brian Cox.


  3. Late at night I sometimes question whether my climate scepticism is bollocks and a comforter for my social class that has been educated well above its intellectual capacity. We all are fallible.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. The problem with these conflicted intellectuals is, despite the fact that they are prone to lapses of wholesale, lock, stock and barrel belief, their fragile psyches correspondingly vulnerable to gobbets of rational insight, they are still scientifically illiterate; hence the core belief remains essentially unaltered.


  5. Jaime.
    I wish you would desist from describing my late night phobias. First Geoff, now you.

    Being scientifically literate confirms core beliefs whether fore or against climate alarm. I like think it is discernment and judgement that makes the difference. But that’s a much more slippery beast.


  6. Alan Kendall

    Late at night I sometimes question whether my climate scepticism is bollocks

    So do I. But if any one of the thousands of media intellectuals who regularly express their opinion on climate questions have ever questioned themselves about their belief in the infallibility of The Science, they’ve never let on. Which is a big part of the difference between us and them.

    If it was down to scientific illiteracy, how come that Brian Cox, Sir Paul Nurse and Ben Goldacre are in there with the Emma Thompsons and the Leonardo di Caprios? It’s not more complicated than running your finger along a line on a graph and seeing where it leads, which doesn’t require great scientific knowledge.
    When Elon Musk says he’s going to make 5000 cars and he only makes 200, investors sell. They may not be mathematical geniuses but they’re rational human beings. When James Hansen says temperatures will rise 2° and they hardly rise at all, his critics are banned from the BBC. This is a different kind of illiteracy.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. ALAN KENDALL (06 Nov 17 at 8:30 am)

    I like think it is discernment and judgement that makes the difference.

    A good formulation. I was trying to think of a way of defining it which doesn’t sound too Pharisaic, or snotty. I came up with ‘clarity of reasoning.’ It’s certainly not a matter of IQ or detailed knowledge.

    I suspect the real difference is at the level of personal psychology. Despite being very bright, Nigel Lawson made a bit of a cock up of being Chancellor of the Exchequer, probably because the British economy is a coupled non-linear chaotic system. He was probably relieved to hit on climate science as something more manageable.

    When I wake up in the middle of the night and contemplate my life, a coupled non-linear chaotic cock up is the first thing that comes to mind. Then I console myself with the thought that at least I’m not a total idiot like Sir Paul Nurse.


  8. I think one of the things that irritates me most about Franzen is the sense of self-pity that oozes from everything he writes, as if he takes personal responsibility for all the problems of the world. He tries to ingratiate himself with all the various victimhood groupings and ends up being shunned and attacked. His only response is a kind of helpless “look what happened to me!” pose, rather reminiscent of those great comedians Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon. The problem is that I don’t think Franzen is playing for laughs. He is genuinely bewildered by why his attempts at empathy ring false. He invariably seems to be trying too hard to be liked and appreciated for what a hard-working would-be oppressed Lesbian baby-rearer he would like to be. Sadly it comes over as being patronising. A selection of his pieces for the Guardian and the mass of articles in that paper that centre on him – the guilt-ridden white anglo-saxon male de nos jours- bring it out clearly. For example, just take this:

    Franzen said he was in his late 40s at the time with a thriving career and a good relationship but he felt angry with the younger generation. “Oh, it was insane, the idea that Kathy [his partner] and I were going to adopt an Iraqi war orphan. The whole idea lasted maybe six weeks.” He added: “One of the things that had put me in mind of adoption was a sense of alienation from the younger generation. They seemed politically not the way they should be as young people. I thought people were supposed to be idealistic and angry. And they seemed kind of cynical and not very angry. At least not in any way that was accessible to me.”


    It’s like Woody Allen without the humour.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. ‘We’ll be lucky to avoid a two degree rise before the year 2030.’

    Only if you believe climate models that have failed miserably to even predict the present. If so then you’re indulging in fantasy.


  10. Ok, so simply listing Fanzen’s attributes is less than constructive.
    Fanzen is a fellow human and apparently shares in human concerns afterall.
    And yes, full length thoughtful essays do recall a pre-post normal age when thoughtful, rational arguments with citations and persuasion could actually shape the direction of a public duscussion and individual’s views.


  11. Geoff, Brian Cox may know heaps about particle physics but he appears to know less than your average well-informed sceptic about the scientific arguments for and against attributing most or all of the global rise in temperature since 1950 to anthropogenic GHG emissions. Likewise, Paul Nurse is trained in the bio-sciences, but appears to be unwilling or unable to really look into atmospheric physics and climate science in detail and judge AGW on the availability of empirical evidence (or lack of). I put this down to arrogance, over-reliance upon consensus, professional cowardice and basic intellectual laziness, with probably a large dose of political bias thrown in for good measure.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Alan, being scientifically literate in any discipline will, by definition, never confirm core beliefs, because belief isn’t what the acquisition of scientific knowledge is about. Science isn’t, as popularly portrayed, about the quest for truth; it is merely the humble quest for increasing certainty in a very uncertain world. We like to know, as much as possible, why things happen and to have the limited ability to predict what will happen. Climate scientists will tell you this is their modus operandum in a nutshell, but they neglect to inform us of the dearth of empirical evidence upon which their ‘informed’ projections are based, and they have failed miserably to legitimately quantify the certainty [i.e. the uncertainty] inherent within their projections.


  13. Sorry to say Jaime that I don’t actually agree with you about science and scientists not having core beliefs. Of course they do. If we didn’t we wouldn’t be able to function. Most of our core beliefs have stood the test of time and have resisted being falsified. They are the science to be found in textbooks. Of course good scientists hold out the possibility that some science, considered firm, might be proven suspect by new evidence or argument. However, for most established science this is uncommon, and most textbooks only need updating, not revising. Climate science, on the other hand, seems to be aberrant, although its adherents deny this and tend to become upset when accused of it.


  14. Alan, yes, there is a large body of generally accepted science which has stood the test of time and experimental validation. Few of us – scientists included – are scientifically literate enough to accept this entire body of knowledge as valid based upon our personal understanding of the science involved but we accept it is ‘true’ because we presume that it has been tried and tested according to the scientific method. As a society, this body of knowledge constitutes our core belief in science. Climate science and a fair amount of biomedical science, still fairly new and not rigorously tested, doesn’t qualify for inclusion in this body of accepted science, even though climate scientists and ‘environmentalists’ would like us to believe that it does. So anybody who ‘believes’ in it – be they scientist or layperson – as they would believe in say, DNA, quantum mechanics, the bacterial cause of infectious disease, gravitational mechanics etc, is being conned, or allowing themselves to be conned. If they became scientifically literate in climate science – enough to appreciate the lack of real scientific evidence for the theory of ‘dangerous’ man-made global warming, enough to appreciate the science competing against this theory – they would either become more certain or less certain that there is cause for alarm. But I would not judge their core beliefs to have changed because they had no business having core beliefs in such rickety science in the first place! Of course, they may think otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I look forward to being able to bet against a temperature rise of 2F by the year 2030. Though I fear that it will be up to my heirs to collect.


  16. Jaime we seem to agree almost down to the last full stop. The only addition I would make is that when the science is new and uncertain it’s at its most exciting. I remember being an undergraduate when plate tectonics was being unveiled. It was greeted with shaken heads by my more elderly professors and lecturers. It was then a topic to be debated, not one to be learned.


  17. Yes Alan, emerging science should be exciting and should attract the brightest and most ‘hungry’ of graduates into research. That’s the tragedy of climate science. It has stifled innovation and genuine enquiry, censored dissenting voices in academia, discouraged novel enquiry and attracted many politically motivated and ideologically-driven young graduates to do generously funded ‘research’ who are, to be kind, not the brightest sparks in the firmament.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. That was a cool discussion between Alan and Jaime but I’d like to go back to Alan’s

    I like [to] think it is discernment and judgement that makes the difference.

    and Geoff:

    A good formulation. I was trying to think of a way of defining it which doesn’t sound too Pharisaic, or snotty. I came up with ‘clarity of reasoning.’ It’s certainly not a matter of IQ or detailed knowledge.

    I’d argue the key thing is moral clarity. In the early days of climate blogs many testified that the way Gavin Schmidt and the Team closed down debate and Steve McIntyre opened it up, answering questions honestly and admitting mistakes, was decisive in making up their minds. Pre-blogosphere the same issues were evident from the moment Al Gore tried to assert certainty at a Washington lunch in 1988 in the presence of someone who knew Richard Lindzen. Bad move.

    I know it may sound Pharisaic, or snotty, or both, but I think it’s unavoidable. Alarmists continually appeal to a phony moral high ground. We have to convince people otherwise. This fits Alan’s “discernment and judgement” like a glove.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I suspect that many children are still formed by early reading experiences. The ideas expressed within children’s books tends either to stay with you or get furiously rejected. So perhaps the key is not novelists such as Franzen, who try to appeal to Guardian victim-thinkers and seem “right on”, but JKRowling and Philip Pullman. I had an unnerving experience 2 weeks ago, while lying on the floor of the Norrington room in Blackwells, Oxford, browsing the books on the history of Alpinism. A long line of people aged from 70 to about 10, but mostly teenagers, clutching copies of the latest Pullman hardback so that they could be signed by someone who seemed to me to be an elderly lady. Does Pullman whatever their undoubtedly inclusive gender have to say about global warming? Is it as vacuous and infantile as his ventures into theology? But however vacuous it may seem to me, if it impresses a generation, Geoff ‘s longed-for révolution might happen


  20. thanks for flagging this up Geoff
    did like this bit from his essay? –
    “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.”

    wonder who he regards as – “climate-change professionals” that want “to leave any carbon in the ground”

    well meaning guy (diamond even), needs to get out a bit


  21. having read to the end, he confuses me –

    “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 emissions-reduction 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 people for whom the prospect of a hot, calamity-filled future is unbearably sad and frightening”

    are these people in any country he can name & give realistic stats?”


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