Reality Check

Readers, activists, and conservationists from around the web respond to Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay.

As any conservationist knows, working to make a difference in the face of climate change is a battle that takes courage, passion, and patience. Good news is sparse, progress is slow, and yet the Earth is changing faster than ever.

This week, an article by Jonathan Franzen in the New Yorker shamed conservationists for being seduced by the “tragicomedy of climate activism.” After dismissing the issue as a “ready-made meme,” Franzen argued that caring about climate change in the future prohibits people from taking smart conservation actions now. 

“Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” Franzen asks. Readers, journalists, and activists alike answered with a resounding “no.” (Read Audubon's takes here and here.)

Here are some of the strongest responses:

The Corrections: Jonathan Franzen's Deeply Irresponsible Climate Change Article,” by Joe Romm, Climate Progress

Romm, founding editor of Climate Progress, crafted a blistering, incredulous response that disrupts Franzen’s flawed rhetoric: 

“In his next piece, Franzen will argue the Surgeon General’s dire science-based prophecy that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health could lead smokers to indifference toward obeying traffic lights because, like, why bother?”

“It’s dismaying to see Franzen whine that climate action requires we ‘blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines,’” Romm continues. “It’s climate inaction that will blight every landscape. And yes, Franzen brings up the hoary complaint about wind turbines killing birds. What about the vastly larger number of birds that are killed by fossil fuels?”

Jonathan Franzen: climate campaigns killing the birds?” by Karl Mathiesen, The Guardian

Mathiesen’s piece reflects the concerns of several other bird conservationists. “I mean he’s talking nonsense,” Mark Avery, former conservation director of the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, tells Mathiesen. “All the evidence suggests that climate change will be very harmful to birds.”

Mathiesen also contends that Franzen is flirting with climate change denialism by denying the usefulness of scientific modeling. 

Jonathan Franzen’s global-warming nihilism: Saving the climate might mean destroying everything else,” by Lindsay Abrams, Salon

Abrams parries the idea that the battle to stop climate change is hopeless. 

“Still, Franzen is at once overly optimistic about adaptation—elsewhere, he argues that climate change is no existential threat, but ‘just the same old story writ larger’—and a bit too dismissive of mitigation: The climate struggle, he essentially argues, is a lost cause. Few would argue with his assertion that conservation work carries more immediate results and, to the individual who undertakes it, can be more rewarding. But most would agree that it’s also too soon to stop trying to reduce our contribution to the problem.”

Jonathan Franzen is confused about climate change, but then, lots of people are,” by David Roberts, Grist

Roberts briefly acknowledges the misguided nature of Franzen’s essay, and then dives into a larger point: Climate change is a complex concept that is difficult to understand. As a result, he argues, many people have a Climate Thing—“that one tidbit of info or argument that they read somewhere, or heard somewhere, the thing that somehow resonated with their own concerns and beliefs. It’s the thing they latched onto, the thing they know about climate, like the proverbial blind people surrounding the elephant. They build on it and it becomes their Climate Thing.” These so-named “Climate Things” make it tough for people to get on board with climate action (Franzen’s Climate Thing, it seems, is birds). 

Roberts continues:

“People naturally need some sort of entrée, some way in, some angle that reduces the brain-frying complexity and ambiguity to manageable proportions. They will adopt whatever Climate Thing reaches them first or most powerfully, whatever latches on and helps ease the cognitive strain, whatever speaks to their experience.

That will often yield a frustrating kind of tunnel vision, as evidenced in Franzen’s essay. But it’s too easy for climate hawks to slot such people into the enemy camp and meet them with derision and mockery. Lots of them just haven’t heard a better, more resonant story yet!”

We agree that better storytelling is essential to helping people understand climate change and find the motivation to act. That’s why we devoted an entire issue of Audubon to birds and climate change

Everybody Needs a Climate Thing,” by David Roberts, Grist

A few days after publishing his original piece, Roberts wrote a follow-up that reconsiders what a Climate Thing ought to be. He walks readers through a careful, logical progression to realize that surfacing each person’s Climate Thing might help more than it hurts. Climate change is complex and unwieldy, so finding the small way climate change touches your own life could make climate change relatable and understandable. Uncovering people’s Climate Things might yield enough passion to energize the movement against climate change, Roberts argues. 

Roberts writes:

“Climate is everything, which means everyone touches only a tiny piece of it. Let people care about their birds or their pipelines or their mountains or their tech startups or their research clusters or their permaculture farms. Everybody needs a Climate Thing, a close-by proxy through which they can express their climate concern in a way that has local effects and tangible rewards. It is these proxies, these rich anchors in our lived experience of nature and culture, that inspire us. The important thing is that we’re all moving our pieces in the right direction.”

We Are Still Arguing About Jonathan Franzen,” by Michelle Nijhuis, The Last Word On Nothing

Environmental writer (and occasional Audubon contributor) Michelle Nijhuis engages in a conversation with High Country News contributing editor Judith Lewis Mernit. The two are on opposite sides, but manage to steer their conversation into a productive discussion. It’s refreshing to get past the outrage (though there’s some of that) and realize that the silver lining of this debacle may be greater interest in solving tough environmental problems.

As Lewis Mernit writes:

“Franzen is spot on when he says that the climate problem has seduced people into thinking there’s a technological solution to our environmental woes. We want that big silver bullet that allows us to continue living just as we do, only without the consequences. I think that’s why some people give short shrift to small-scale local conservation projects that are indeed, as you point out about Franzen’s Costan Rican and Peruvian examples, climate-mitigation projects. Because what local conservation project is not? Every effort to protect your local habitat, to enhance its carbon-absorbing potential, to live more sustainably on what you can produce—be it energy or food—closer to home helps lower carbon atmospheric carbon. Even if I go out to pull trash out of the Los Angeles River, or help reseed endemic plants in the mountains lost to off-season fires, those are climate mitigation projects. And that’s Frazen’s point, and what I like best about his controversial essay: ’Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats,’ he writes, ’can avert the complete denaturing of the world.’”

If this is the sort of conversation the article has incited, dare we say the ends may have justified the means?

Climate Hopelessness is a Work of Fiction,” by Dan Klotz, National Geographic

The main problem with Franzen’s piece, Klotz argues, is Franzen’s pessimism. This pessimism is pervasive even when unwarranted: “Even the despair that Franzen espouses and his central theme—that climate change will end life as we know it so we may as well enjoy the party for as long as it lasts—runs contrary to the stories he tells in the second half of his opus,” Klotz writes. 

He continues:

“Ultimately, Franzen’s pessimism needs to be tossed aside and disregarded. The steps needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change’s impacts present a very stark picture and require an ‘all hands on deck’ type of solution. But failure to act is a disservice to our children, who will inherit the planet from us. We need to ignore the fiction writers, buck up, and tackle the task at hand. In many ways, this is the American frontier narrative retold for the modern era. It is what we do best, and there never has been a better time for it than now.”

Jonathan Franzen Is Peddling Climate-Change Deniers’ Favorite Myths,” Rebecca Leber, The New Republic

The headline pretty much says it all—Leber compares some of Franzen’s claims with those of climate change denialists and finds them remarkably similar.

She writes:

“Franzen isn’t a denier; he accepts climate change science. He just doesn’t necessarily think too-little, too-late advocacy should be a priority, considering the scale of the problem. Even so, his various arguments vaguely resemble what you often hear from politicians (many of whom don’t accept the science) as reasons for doing nothing.  

Senator Marco Rubio and former Senator Rick Santroum have argued that even if they accepted the science, humans won’t make much of an impact either way by taking action now. ‘I don’t agree with the notion that...there are actions we can take today that would actually have an impact on what’s happening in our climate,’ Rubio said. ‘Even folks who accept all of the science by the alarmists on the other side, recognize that everything that’s being considered by the United States will have—well, not almost, will have zero impact on it given what’s going on in the rest of the world,’ Santorum said.”

Is Jonathan Franzen Really Asking Us to Shrug Off the Destruction of Our World?” by Robert Manne, The Guardian

Manne states upfront that he finds Franzen’s logic to be flawed—but he also notes the importance of listening to this perspective (he quotes Ezra Pound’s point: “Artists are the antennae of the race”). As he winds through Franzen’s points, he delicately deconstructs them:

“Franzen’s logic is flawed. No one would abandon the fight against racism on the ground that the problem could not be solved by individual acts of kindness to African Americans. But the logic is also revealing. Embedded in the hyper-individualist liberal consumer society, it apparently has not occurred to Franzen that commitment to the struggle against the climate change catastrophe is not about private lifestyle choices but collective political activity, or that rather than arguing that we have no alternative to abandoning hope, an author with his kind of public authority might lend his voice to the cause to which individuals like Al Gore, James Hansen, Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein have devoted their lives.”

Cimate Hawk Response to Franzen Misses the Big Picture,” by Shaun Gonzalez, Mojave Desert Blog

Gonzalez takes a broader angle on the climate change vs. conservation debate—he argues that while climate change is important, it is just part of the broader need to reassess how humans interact with the environment. “The ongoing discussion among those concerned about climate change and conservation exposes a fault line in the environmental community that some climate pundits have created with their refusal to recognize that climate change is part of a broader sustainability deficit,” he writes. 

Gonzalez notes that he doesn’t agree with Franzen’s angle, but that some of the responses have been equally incorrect:

“Roberts, Romm, and some other climate hawks preach to environmentalists as if climate change is some new problem that we do not understand, and accuse environmentalists of being myopically focused on birds or other wildlife.  They completely miss the point that it is often environmentalists that see the big picture—climate change is not the problem, but a piece of a much bigger problem—our unsustainable, and often selfish expectations of what this planet can and should provide to humans. We dig up and burn oil and coal with the same feverish and blind ambition that we drain wetlands for subdivisions and office parks, dam rivers for energy and recreation, and bulldoze woodlands for strip malls and highways.  Replacing fossil fuel energy with renewable energy is a necessary upgrade to our way of life, but it is ultimately just a temporary patch for what is actually an outdated operating system that will continue to undermine the vibrance of our planet long after the last coal power plant is shut down.”

Orthodoxy in the Climate Movement: Franzen and His Deniers,” by Chris Clarke, Coyote Crossing

Clarke acknowledges some of the flaws of Franzen’s piece—his lack of disclosure of his relationship to the ABC, for example—but also acknowledges that Franzen’s piece hits on some concerns about conservation prioritization that Clarke has faced for years. “The overwhelming sense of my reaction as I read the essay was this: Finally,” he writes. “Finally, someone prominent is saying this.”

He continues:

“Franzen’s main contention is that the overwhelming focus of most of the mainstream environmental movement on climate change has come at a steep cost: a shifting of that focus  away from biological diversity issues.

Those of you who have been reading my work for a while won’t be surprised at my being pleased at this idea’s hitting the pages of the New Yorker. For a while, the climate change movement has seemed from my perch here in the desert southwest to have abandoned any concern for biological diversity. Those who bring up concerns that renewable energy development might actually harm wildlife or their habitat have been scoffed at, accused of being climate change deniers or (to cite an example from 2011 that my Network colleague Madhu still ribs me about on occasion) useful idiots.”

Clarke has years of experience in the field to back up his argument, and his piece detailing these experiences is worth a read.

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