In 2015, the celebrated criminal-defense lawyer Ron Kuby regaled New York Post readers with stories of the shifty scams pulled by prospective jurors to dodge their civic duty. The newspaper highlighted one story involving an aspiring novelist who was slated to serve on a jury examining a claim for compensation owed as a result of emotional distress from police violence. “The prospective juror, working on his first novel, explained that he did not accept the idea of ‘causation’ for emotional damages,” Kuby recalled. “He explained, at some length, the nature of emotional life and its relationship to internal and external factors.” That would-be Edith Wharton, Kuby added, was Jonathan Franzen.
Maybe you shouldn’t believe everything you read in the newspaper, especially if the paper is the New York Post. The story might be apocryphal, with Kuby conflating Franzen’s name with some other writer’s. Still, this is a tale that rings with poetic truth.
Solipsism is a vice in a citizen but can be a virtue in a novelist. It’s the job of the fiction writer to dive deeply into the oceans of selfhood, to discover and describe the strange flora and fauna found in the murky depths of the human personality. But this absorption in the inner life is in tension with the public demands of political engagement.
In his capacity as an essayist, Franzen has given ample evidence of the risks and rewards of bringing a novelist’s sensibility to public life, with two essays in The New Yorker decrying what he sees as the danger of large-scale efforts to combat climate change. The first essay, published in 2015, argued that the conservationist goal of preserving wildlife was being sacrificed by an excessive focus on climate change.
Franzen, as avid a birder as Vladimir Nabokov was a lepidopterist, was angered by how groups like the Audubon Society were making climate politics a priority. “I came to feel miserably conflicted about climate change,” Franzen notes. “I accepted its supremacy as the environmental issue of our time, but I felt bullied by its dominance.” Franzen’s skills as a novelist shine through in his use of his ornithophilic obsessions as the lens through which he sees climate change, creating an easy-to-sympathize-with self-portrait of a nature lover searching for mental equanimity in an era where all that he loves is under relentless assault. “Even the most ominously degraded landscape could make me happy if it had birds in it,” he wrote in 2015.
In an article posted by The New Yorker on Sunday, Franzen goes further, claiming that it’s already too late for an “all-out war on climate change.” Franzen specifically targets the Green New Deal, which he characterizes as a form of progressive “denial” because it offers a false hope. The novelist even likens the Green New Deal to Republican claims that climate change is a hoax.
Franzen’s reasoning rests on two premises: (1) that anything more than a two-degree Celsius increase in global average temperature would be catastrophic, and (2) that the two-degree limit can’t be maintained given “human nature” and “political reality.”
“In the long run, it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot two degrees; once the point of no return is passed, the world will become self-transforming,” Franzen asserts. This is not just wrong. It’s wildly irresponsible. In fact, it makes a huge difference if the earth warms by three degrees or five degrees or 10 degrees. The fate of billions of lives—the very prospect of human survival—hinges on how high humanity allows the global thermometer to go.
As Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaplan tweeted, climate change “is not a bomb that’s gonna go off in 2030 if we don’t cut emissions. It’s an ongoing process (that is already well underway) and every day we don’t take action to mitigate it, it gets worse. Yes, a global avg temperature rise of 1.5 degrees will be better and safer for humanity than one of 2 degrees. But a 2 degree world is still better than a 3 degree world, which is better than 4 or 5 or 8. Cutting emissions isn’t EVER ‘pointless.’”
Franzen would reject criticism that he’s making a conservative argument. After all, even as he lambasts the Green New Deal, he does offer support for a wide array of policies he thinks will mitigate climate change, such as “instituting humane immigration policy, advocating for racial and gender equality, promoting respect for laws and their enforcement, supporting a free and independent press, ridding the country of assault weapons.” These are all, Franzen argues, “meaningful climate action.”
Yet as commendable as all these policies are, they also stretch the idea of “meaningful climate action” until it becomes nothing more than doing good. The upshot is the same: Franzen is eager to work toward making a warming world a more humane place—but is reluctant to support the specific set of policies that will slow down and stop warming.
To be sure, he occasionally throws in a proviso saying that efforts to stop warming are commendable. But these statements contradict the main thrust of his argument, which is really a restatement of Voltaire’s position in Candide: Don’t try to save the world but tend to your own garden. But Voltaire lived in a preindustrial world, where habits of consumption and technological use didn’t have clear multigenerational consequences.
Despite the novelist’s left-liberal politics, the argument Franzen makes from “human nature” is an inherently conservative one, since it assumes that societies can never make large-scale changes as a result of political pressure. Before the rise of abolitionism in the 18th century, there were many who would argue that slavery was an essential part of human nature, so inextricably linked to the global economy that it could never be eradicated.
If you argue that “human nature” makes catastrophic climate change inevitable, then you are asserting that environmentalism is at war with nature (since “human nature” is nothing if not a product of nature). This is a very strange and contradictory claim.
Franzen’s special skills as a novelist again come in handy when he describes the psychology of denial, but even here his arguments falter. He argues that accepting that an environmental apocalypse is inevitable is no hindrance to still wanting to do what we can to mitigate it. But this goes against his own 2015 observation that awareness of the scale of the climate problem blunts the ability of most people to want to take robust action. “The scale of greenhouse-gas emissions is so vast, the mechanisms by which these emissions affect the climate so nonlinear, and the effects so widely dispersed in time and space that no specific instance of harm could ever be traced back to my 0.0000001-per-cent contribution to emissions,” Franzen noted in 2015. “Absent any indication of direct harm, what makes intuitive moral sense is to live the life I was given, be a good citizen, be kind to the people near me, and conserve as well as I reasonably can.”
But what Franzen calls political realism are just the standard set of conservative tropes analyzed by Albert O. Hirschman in his classic The Rhetoric of Reaction. In that book, Hirschman showed that conservative opposition to reform usually relies on three familiar rhetorical moves: perversity, futility, and jeopardy.
Franzen’s claim that climate mitigation won’t work rests on a claim of futility and perversity (and his worries that environmentalists will hurt birds is an argument from jeopardy). Franzen says climate mitigation would require every major carbon-producing nation to join in and to execute its policies perfectly: “The actions taken by these countries must also be the right ones. Vast sums of government money must be spent without wasting it and without lining the wrong pockets.”
There’s no reason to think this is true. After all, the Green New Deal models itself after the large-scale social spending of the Great Depression and World War II. During that period, there was plenty of money wasted and pockets lined. But the main aims (pulling America out of the Depression and defeating the Axis powers) were achieved. Franzen is upholding a goal of perfection to make the case against any ambitious action. Since perfection is impossible, any big plan must fail. But climate mitigation can avert the worst disasters without every policy’s being perfectly executed.
“All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable,” Franzen argues. As against the big ambitions of the Green New Deal, he suggests we focus on fighting smaller battles. “It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes.” Again, this is a puzzling claim, since it’s hard to imagine how these wild places or endangered species will survive the type of climate change that Franzen is resigned to.
Franzen’s two climate essays are filled with false dichotomies. Contra Franzen, we don’t have to choose between mitigation and adaptation—or between protecting wildlife and fighting climate change. The simple truth is that most of Franzen’s beloved birds are not going to survive in a world he is resigned to as inevitable, where breaking the two-degree limit gives way to a permanent rise in temperature.
Ultimately, Franzen’s essays suffer from a disastrous failure of imagination. In his most celebrated novel, The Corrections, a character named Chip Lambert contrasts his delectable girlfriend with the real-life Marxist theorist Fredric Jameson. “Fred Jameson didn’t have Julia’s artful tongue,” Lambert reflects, as he decides to sell his Jameson books to finance a Yuppie shopping spree with Julia.
Lambert should’ve held on to his Jameson. Because the literary critic crafted a sentence that sits in judgment of Franzen himself. “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism,” Jameson wrote in The Seeds of Time (1994). That has certainly been true until recently. But with the rise of a democratic socialist movement in America advocating a Green New Deal, it’s now possible to imagine a path away from both capitalism and global ecological collapse.
Franzen is unwilling—or unable—to make that leap. As a fiction writer, Franzen is a master of the bourgeois mimetic novel, the trompe-l’œil narrative that seems more real than reality itself. But perhaps trapped by his own skill at copying reality, Franzen balks at imagining the very different world we need to create if we’re to survive as a species.
Franzen’s climate essays eloquently demonstrate that the source of resistance to climate action is not just the money-grubbing libertarianism of Charles Koch but also a much more respectable and valuable intellectual tradition: Emersonian and Thoreauvian individualism. Franzen is steeped in that tradition, sharing its faith in the primacy of individual action working through local democracy. (This is also, via E.B. White, a very New Yorker tradition). Like the 19th-century transcendentalists, Franzen remains a bone-deep Protestant even after his loss of faith, someone for whom individual salvation is key. The self is his ultimate horizon, and nature valuable to the extent it brings bliss to him: “Even the most ominously degraded landscape could make me happy if it had birds in it.” Alas for Franzen, climate is a global problem, not susceptible to individual ministrations. To solve climate change, Franzen—along with the rest of us—has to leave the self behind.