Jonathan Franzen, noted author of depressing literary fiction, has taken to the pages of The New Yorker to lament that no one cares about saving birds any more because all anyone cares about is climate change, and anyway, maybe we should just let humanity burn from climate change and save the birds because birds aren’t big jerks like people.

The essay is … not good. Just qua essay, really not good. I can’t imagine The New Yorker publishing it under any other byline. It is odd to read in the pages of that august magazine, for instance, criticism of a peer-reviewed study the author admits he has not seen but has judged “from the Web site’s graphics.”

More to the point, the essay pivots on several misconceptions: that climate mitigation is in fundamental tension with conservation and biodiversity; that aggressive deployment of renewable energy would be “disfiguring” to the earth; that continuation of current energy trends would be palliative and sympathetic to ecosystems. To see the essay beat about the head and shoulders with facts, read Joe Romm, Karl Mathiesen, and Adam Siegel.

Despite the many valid criticisms, I find myself nursing some small ember of sympathy for Franzen. His essay reminds me of lots of conversations I’ve had over the years. I’ll be talking with someone — a smart, well-read person — and when they find out I write about climate change, they’ll kind of hesitate, and I’ll prod, and they’ll tell me their Climate Thing.

Most people haven’t taken the time to get familiar with all the ins and outs of climate change. It’s an incredibly complex and politically charged subject with all sorts of contradictory and fragmentary information bouncing around various info-channels. It takes some dedication and a thick skin to get a well-rounded understanding of it and most people have no particular incentive to do so.

So lots of 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.

A Climate Thing is not always wrong, though it frequently is. Just as often, it’s a kind of distortion, a lens that magnifies one aspect of the issue at the expense of all others. For some people it’s nuclear power. For some people it’s about models, how there was no warming when the models said there would be. For some people it’s Al Gore, or solar power, or consumerism, or population, or “I heard that we’re basically fucked no matter what,” which I’ve heard more times than I can count.

For Franzen it’s birds. His experience of climate change, in his social circles and intellectual orbit, is that it seems to be eclipsing bird-habitat conservation in the minds of environmentalists. And that bugs him.

So that’s his Climate Thing. And as with most people’s Climate Thing, it’s a little eccentric and a little myopic. Take one step back and you see that birds are far more threatened by the combination of fossil fuels and climate change than they are by any other threat, including cats and wind turbines combined. Times a thousand. (If Franzen truly thinks “North America’s avifauna may well become more diverse” if global average temperatures rise 4 or 5 degrees, he needs to sit and have a long talk with, oh, a New Yorker fact checker. Or read that report he claims he couldn’t find.)

Take another step back and you see that the phenomenon of environmentalists prioritizing climate change over bird habitat is very, very low on the list of threats to the world’s birds. Yes, there are instances when habitats and clean-energy infrastructure come into tension, and there will probably be more as the world gets serious about climate. But habitats and dirty-energy infrastructure are always in tension (there is no habitat that benefits from coal pollution).

Ultimately, every green-minded person wants to save bird habitats and mitigate climate change. The big problem is that people who care about climate change and people who love birds are both vastly outnumbered by people who don’t give a shit about either. The differences in approach among and between climate hawks and conservationists pale in significance relative to their small absolute numbers and limited political power. It is people who care about neither habitats nor climate change who are doing the vast majority of the damage.

But … and here’s where I have a germ of sympathy … there’s a reason people — even lots and lots of greens — have a Climate Thing. It’s not some defect or species of ignorance. The fact is, Franzen is right when he says that climate change is “imponderable,” though he’s wrong that it is “usefully” so. He’s right that “the problem can be framed in many different ways—a crisis in global governance, a market failure, a technological challenge, a matter of social justice, and so on—each of which argues for a different expensive solution.” Those are all Climate Things, different ways for the blind people to describe the elephant. Each has its committed constituencies. Each has an element of truth.

Climate change is just too big to grasp all at once. It is like Kant’s thing-in-itself — we cannot access it directly. We can only grasp it by way of metaphors and narratives that give it some linkage, some anchor, in our own lived experience and values. The timelines, the causal chains, the systems dynamics involved, they are not suited to our cognitive and affective machinery. We bounce off. This is the one paragraph in Franzen’s piece that had me nodding:

Shouldn’t our responsibility to other people, both living and not yet born, compel us to take radical action on climate change? The problem here is that it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike. 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. I may abstractly fault myself for emitting way more than the global per-capita average. But if I calculate the average annual quota required to limit global warming to two degrees this century I find that simply maintaining a typical American single-family home exceeds it in two weeks. 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.

For good or ill, this probably captures a lot of people’s thinking. Climate is so unfathomably large and diffuse, and our actions — individually, even as countries — so local and parochial in comparison. It’s difficult to live with that gap.

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!

By all means, deride and mock those who deserve it — and Franzen’s ignorance, with a megaphone as loud as he has, deserves the disapprobation it’s gotten.

But people need more than a team to join. They need a story to tell themselves, a way of fitting climate change into their world. Knocking down bad stories will be ineffective unless there are more, better stories available. So let’s be better storytellers.


Read the next post: Everybody needs a Climate Thing