Jonathan Franzen’s Birdbrain Climate Pessimism

Jonathan Franzen’s Birdbrain Climate Pessimism

Jonathan Franzen’s Birdbrain Climate Pessimism

In his latest collection of nonfiction, The End of the End of the Earth, Franzen puts forth a baffling, avian-centric manifesto on the climate crisis. 


To hear Jonathan Franzen tell it, humans may as well be put in hospice care—the world is just about over, anyway. “Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox,” he writes with trademark sensitivity in the opening essay (a defense of essays, naturally) of his third collection of nonfiction, The End of the End of the Earth. “Our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming. My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely.”

These are, to be fair to Franzen, hopeless times. California is on fire and over a hundred are missing after Paradise (a town name that would not be out of place in Franzen’s increasingly Dickensian fiction) was incinerated earlier this month; just breathing the air in Sacramento was akin to smoking more than half a pack of cigarettes. The president, whose administration has been gutting environmental regulations, suggested that the state do a better job of raking its forests. The United Nations, meanwhile, released a report in October stating that we have just over a decade to stop catastrophic global warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius—which almost certainly will not happen.

Looking everywhere, there is a case for climate pessimism (and pessimism more broadly). In theory, this should mean that this is, to borrow from the language of marketing, a moment of synergy for Franzen and his new book of essays, which largely tackles environmental themes. The overall sense of misery has never been higher—a good time for America’s dourest literary man! But alas, The End of the End of the Earth is condescending, infuriating, and woefully out of step with the moment, environmental and otherwise.

The problem isn’t really with Franzen’s sense of doom, or with his subject matter. Indeed, the current shape of politics and the environment is ripe for such a pointedly critical collection. Still, he manages to get so much wrong, repeatedly alienating the reader in the process. For Franzen, climate change is both too great and too small of an issue for humans to tackle. On the one hand, it’s an apocalyptic abstraction, the scale of which cannot be comprehended by mortals. On the other, it’s an opportunity for shakedowns by environmental groups who use the fear it generates to shill.

“Climate change is seductive to organizations that want to be taken seriously,” he writes in the collection’s centerpiece essay, “Save What You Love”—a retitled and somewhat retooled version of his controversial 2015 New Yorker National Audubon Society takedown, “Carbon Capture.” The Audubon Society can’t do anything to stop climate change, and yet they focus on it nonetheless. And by adopting climate change as a rallying cry, groups like Audubon take both the path of least resistance and the path of greatest profitability: Scare people, take their money, all the while avoid having to make hard choices.

Climate fixation, Franzen argues throughout the collection, encourages environmental organizations and concerned citizens to fiddle—selling false hope about collective action—while habitats burn. Instead of conserving ecosystems and species, these groups are coming together to push for drastic changes to our carbon footprints that won’t make a difference anyways. Which means that we should stop bothering about emissions and just save what we care about, which in Franzen’s case, of course, is birds.

“Besides being a ready-made meme, [climate change] is usefully imponderable,” he opines, and “while peer-reviewed scientific estimates put the annual American death toll of birds from collisions and from outdoor cats at more than three billion, no individual bird death can be definitively attributed to climate change, still less to any climate action that an ordinary citizen did or didn’t take.”

The latter isn’t the case, but Franzen nevertheless builds an overarching argument on its shaky foundation: Instead of focusing on saving birds, the Audubon Society expends resources pimping climate change, which it can’t do anything about. This is especially galling, because the pesky climate, he thinks, has distracted from the ongoing bird genocide. His jeremiad against the Audubon Society basically makes the case that, by uniting to advocate for climate change, environmental groups are failing at their core mission, which isn’t to save the earth for humans, but to save it for nonhuman plants and animals (and, especially, birds).

There is something, it must be said, very dispiriting about surviving climate change at the cost of biodiversity. Even Franzen’s distaste for humans has its place. But where Franzen goes wrong is his Manichaean framework: The choice between saving humanity (via natural-energy sources) and saving nature (via conservation) is not as stark as he presents it. At its best, it’s an argument about privileging local and nonhuman concerns over global, human ones. And making the case for certain kinds of advocacy while never letting the reader forget that we’re all doomed anyway is a difficult tightrope to walk.

While there is more tension than some would like to admit between conservation and fighting climate change, it is hardly the zero-sum battle that Franzen makes it out to be. His skepticism is unearned, given that many environmental groups, including the Audubon Society, have shown themselves at being adept at both fighting climate change and pushing conservation in recent years. He believes that if you want to save birds or flowers or whatever your favorite nature thing is, you have to act now because time’s nearly up. Franzen’s not wrong about that! But he is not only wrong, but dangerously so, when he suggests that climate-mitigation advocacy is a distraction from that work.

Part of the difficulty here may come from Franzen’s all-encompassing bird obsession. His arguments about conservation strike interesting thematic notes, but at the end of the day, it’s clear that the guy just wants to save the birds. That’s a noble mission, of course, but it doesn’t often make for the most resonant or convincing nonfiction writing. It can also be limiting.

While the essays in The End of the End of the Earth cover a variety of topics, from the question of “likability” in fiction to the purpose of the essay as a form, a vast number involve birds, birding trips, and the relationship between birds and humans. Though Franzen’s book is only 230 pages long, the word “bird,” in some form, appears 426 times. Franzen lights up when describing chance encounters with rare and not-so-rare birds: He connects with them in a way he struggles to connect with people.

Since birdlife so animates the passions of these essays, Franzen drips with disdain when talking about climate solutions that endanger what he loves. Wind energy, for example, is crucial to fighting climate change, but wind turbines also kill a lot of birds. (It’s a concern shared by, of all people, President Trump, who has described the areas surrounding windmills as “killing fields” for birds.) But the bird-killing potential of clean energy means that embracing it as a means for survival is akin to a rigorous chemotherapy regimen. “The Earth as we know it resembles a patient with bad cancer,” Franzen writes. “We can choose to treat it with disfiguring aggression, damming every river and blighting every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can adopt a course of treatment that permits a higher quality of life.” Once again, though, Franzen conflates, arguing that our future rests upon a singular choice—between humans (by building wind turbines and dams) and nature (by not doing these things). Obviously these are decisions that need to be made deliberately and rapidly, but it is not as grim, simplistic, or absolute as Franzen presents it here.

Franzen sees humanity, by and large, as a net negative, a blight upon an otherwise beautiful planet. Moreover, he is suspicious not just of the kind of human mastery over the environment he writes about, but of humanity more broadly—his skepticism runs through the collection and only dissipates in the titular essay’s moving final lines, in which the author notes that maybe, after all this, the world wouldn’t be worth a damn without humanity.

But, traveling the world, looking at birds, Franzen spends most of the book cynically relating stories of humans’ capricious self-interest. As he sees it, birds just don’t fit into the scheme of capitalism and are therefore pointless to his fellow man: “Value, in the late Anthropocene, has come almost exclusively to mean economic value, utility to human beings,” he observes at one point. True as at that may be, it’s a point with implications he refuses to explore past the “sad fact” that his beloved birds “will never pull their weight in the human economy.” Although Franzen is accurate about the effect of humans on the planet, his morose brushstrokes are too broad and his criticisms are too undercut by the fact that they’re all too rooted in the peevish lived experience of Jonathan Franzen.

Still, if there’s a thread that runs through the collection—which also includes an essay about his friendship with the novelist William Vollmann as well as shorter fare, like the recently savagedTen Rules for the Novelist”—it’s an interest in a larger sense of decline, one that extends from the environment to society and beyond. Though, his cultural prognoses are just as silly as his environmental ones. One of his novel-writing rules—“It’s doubtful that anyone with an Internet connection at his workplace is writing good fiction”—essentially concludes that worthwhile novels are only made possible by… being Jonathan Franzen.

Franzen’s other punching bag is technology, especially the Internet and social-media platforms, which he believes is chipping away at older, more resonant values, namely the kind of human connection one can only get from both in-person interaction and the reading of fiction and essays. “Maybe the erosion of humane values is a price that most people are willing to pay for the ‘costless’ convenience of Google, the comforts of Facebook, and the reliable company of iPhones,” he muses toward the end of an essay about Sherry Turkle, the author of Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other. The End of the End of the Earth’s opening essay, meanwhile, is simultaneously a defense against the criticism he received from his Audubon Society takedown (which he describes as “a missile attack from the liberal silo,” in one of many Bill Maher–ish turns in the essay) and a defense of the essay itself against incursions from social media. But as with his other environmental writing, an intriguing premise—that all of this technological progress obscures a larger decline—is too often lost in grumpy solipsism. (Many of Franzen’s essays, it’s worth noting, are burdened by the exact kind of navel-gazing and oversharing he accuses social media of popularizing.)

Decline is an appealing theme these days. And, in the big picture, I suppose Franzen is right. Everything is going to shit, all the time. Yet it’s one thing to have a big theme, whether it be freedom or purity or societal failure, and it’s another to get the details right. Franzen’s nonfiction writing, particularly on the environment, is so myopically fixated on what he cares about (birds) that any thematic value is wrung out. What you’re left with are a series of cranky and defensive dispatches that fundamentally misunderstand the most important issues of our time.

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