In a recent New Yorker essay, “What If We Stopped Pretending?” (September 8, 2019), Jonathan Franzen tells us to get real about the global climate emergency. “Hoping that catastrophe is preventable,” he says, just leaves us “enraged at the world’s inaction”. Far better to “accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.” With these words, Franzen plunges a red-hot poker into an open wound in the climate action community. But, instead of dwelling on the scorch many people have felt, I draw wisdom from the medical arts. Wounds can be cauterized by fire.
First, the wound. Those who deny that there’s even such a thing as a threat to our climate have steered our national debate to a crippling deadlock. The U.S. continues to pump out the largest per capita share of the world’s greenhouse gases, and continues to have enough global power to influence many other countries. We are in a position – in the position – to make a decisive, world-changing, planetary difference. Yet, we still have no national policy to deal with the most profound existential threat imaginable: the end of the habitable earth. That is our wound.
Franzen’s response is to accept our impending doom. His essay reads like the monologue of a fictional character whose role in the story is to offer a sharp, but incomplete, outlook on the situation. Like such characters, emotions embody a limited perspective, not an all-things-considered judgment. This can serve a useful purpose, however. If we are in denial about something, an emotional outburst from our friend can jar us into realization. If there are any Pollyanna’s out there, they should listen.
Most of us already realize there is reason to despair. But, we reject Franzen’s call to abandon hope. Why? Despair is not just a feeling of hopelessness. It arises from a judgment that something we care deeply about has been ruined. When we’re devoted to something, we necessarily feel despair when it suffers defeat. That’s an essential part of what it means to care. But, that’s also why despair pushes us to act, to start over, to make things better.
So, when we care, we might also despair. But, it’s equally true that we will hope. We all hope that good things happen to the people and things we love, honor, and admire. To say we should abandon hope, implies we should stop caring. Given the values Franzen promotes elsewhere in his essay, he can’t mean that. He must be attacking only a superficial type of hope, the type associated with a lack of real concern or a casual disregard of the facts. This kind of hope is a pretense, which would explain the title of his essay.
Franzen suggests that accepting our doom need not prevent us from doing the right thing for the environment now. This is no ethics for weaklings! Perhaps what he means to say is that neither hope nor despair really matter in the end. What matters is what matters. In The Plague, Albert Camus tells the story of a town beset by a deadly pestilence. In some ways, it’s a good fable for the climate crisis. The characters are faced with the same range of choices in how they react to the unstoppable march of death through their community: despair, hope, apathy, faith, heroism. The main character, Dr. Rieux, rejects all of these. The only response he considers absolutely clear and honest is “to do your job as it should be done.”
Some of Franzen’s expressions align him with Dr. Rieux and other existentialist heroes, who create meaning and value by their choices and commitments, in spite of objective reality’s stubborn refusal to validate them. If we can resist the soothing allure of hope, Franzen says, “other kinds of action take on a greater meaning.” But, he himself cannot resist the same temptation in the other direction. Franzen wants to be a prophet of doom. The result is a confusing disconnect between his eschatology and his ethics – his fiery prediction of the future and his pro-environmental commitments now. If we treat his prophecy as merely an expression of despair, there’s no contradiction. If we accept it as truth, however, then anything goes. We know what big oil would do with the conclusion that climate disaster is unavoidable. Maybe, if we’re lucky, they would help fund sea walls and air conditioners.
Franzen seems to think that reason and intelligence support his doomsday prediction. It’s hard to apply statistical reasoning to issues that require social and political change. An extended period of failure can certainly make us feel that there’s a low probability for success. But, feelings are not probabilities. The incomplete dataset Franzen uses to model the possible outcomes does not support his conclusion. Some factors that will determine the outcome are still taking shape: the effects of the changing weather, the power of social protest, the tectonic shift in the world of investment and finance, and, above all – what has impressed me the most as a reporter on energy and the environment – the millions of professionals in nearly every field who are working on low carbon alternatives for every corner of our lives, and innovating at a staggering pace.
So, while Franzen is right to emphasize the obstacles we face, such as the rise of nationalism and the increasing global demand for energy, he’s wrong to conclude that there’s a strong probability we will fail to prevent the destruction of the holocene ecosystems that sustain life as we know it. No one – no government, no community, no scientist or economist, no psychologist or social theorist – has ever been in this situation before. Statistics cannot help us see the future in this case.
There is one other way in which intelligence is not on Franzen’s side. Intelligence is not the same thing as the value-neutral skill of reasoning or calculation. Intelligence wants to get things right, both in the theoretical realm and in practical life. Intelligent people are not just clever. They have the ability to figure out what’s actually good and how to achieve it. If the human race fails to prevent climate disaster, we will have proven that we lack intelligence. If part of the reason we fail is because we accepted its inevitability, we will have proven ourselves utterly stupid.