4 corrections for Jonathan Franzen and other climate cowards
Being a climate advice columnist at this particular point in climate history is very, very strange. For the past few years, I’ve been trying to direct those who are lost when it comes to climate change with the best information and greatest compassion possible. That’s it — very simple in concept. Climate change is baffling and terrifying and a fundamentally human issue, because it’s about the destruction of life as we know it.
It’s also very easy to ignore if you want to (and if you are in a particular position of privilege). Or at least it was until seemingly about a year ago when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that seemed to get the proper amount of media attention. And suddenly, a new narrative arose: It’s Already Too Late, Let’s Hit The Panic Button And Head To The Bunkers.
This narrative, which is neither compassionate nor well-informed, most recently appeared in a Jonathan Franzen essay in The New Yorker. It was an exercise in navel-gazing so intense that Franzen may have bored all the way through his own abdomen with his eyeballs. It’s not the first time the famous writer has waved off the concept of climate hope. His current argument goes something like this: The Green New Deal is a fool’s errand, the IPCC estimates are no more than conservative guesses, and it’s time to invest everything in dugouts and Soylent rations.
Franzen’s argument is slightly more elaborate than that, but he’s far from alone in encouraging the masses to succumb to existential terror rather than believe there’s still ample, meaningful action to be taken to avert an utter crisis. The gravity of questions in my inbox has escalated from “What’s the best way to recycle my jeans?” to “Should I end my own life to resolve climate change?” I attribute the latter, which is a heartbreaking message to receive, to that insidious narrative.
If I can tell you anything, it’s that there is so much to be done in between those extremes. I tried to summarize it very plainly below using a few of my recent columns.
From a pure survival instinct perspective, it makes zero sense to just accept defeat.
As I argue in this column, giving up is kind of a bullshit move. Just ask George Lucas!
Have you ever seen the first Star Wars movie? The one that was released in 1977, with Carrie Fisher (may she rest) and Mark Hamill. There’s a scene where Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Chewbacca are all stuck in what is effectively a wet, fetid garbage-disposal pit. (It’s very gross.) Then this furry, giant snake grabs Luke by the leg and tries to pull him under. (Now it’s very scary and gross.) And then, all of a sudden, the walls of the wet garbage pit start to close in, and it becomes terrifyingly clear to all involved that they are about to be trash compacted.
This is climate change, in January 2019. We’re all at risk of being trash compacted.
So you are essentially asking: Exactly how much force do I have to apply with my own body to push the walls of the garbage compactor away?
If I told you, “These walls are closing in for sure, and if you push on them there’s a chance they’ll stop; but if you do nothing, you are guaranteed to get smushed,” is there any chance you’d decide to just sit there, resigned and motionless, and be smushed because you couldn’t figure out exactly how hard you needed to push?
Similarly, climate change is happening. It can happen in a very destructive way or it can happen in a less destructive way. Those are the options. If you and everyone else in the world does nothing, climate change will be very destructive.
Always choose vengeance over guilt!
At the end of his essay, Franzen suggests picking smaller, “winnable” battles rather than giving in to the climate despair he sets up with 80 percent of the rest of the article. I say, rather than feel sad or guilty about the small degree of control we have over the planet’s trajectory, why not get mad? To me, that means taking on both big and small climate battles.
Regardless, “guilt” is probably the wrong thing to feel, because guilt is frequently something that gets pushed down and ignored because it feels bad. A better thing to feel is enthusiasm for change — which can, admittedly, be a hard thing to summon when the change in question means doing things that are slightly less comfortable or convenient.
An easier motivation, at least in my experience, is “vengeance.” Maybe you could also call it “justice,” if you’re feeling generous. Doesn’t it make you angry that 100 companies in the world are responsible for 71 percent of emissions? Doesn’t it feel unfair that investors are clearing dividends from companies like ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron, which have been among the biggest emitters since 1988? Isn’t it infuriating that they’re endlessly protected by our more craven government officials? Don’t you kind of want to … show them how you really feel?
Don’t run away.
A question we get quite a bit via Grist’s Ask Umbra inbox: Where should I go if I want to escape climate change? The short answer is, you can’t.
If you recognize that climate change is a huge, terrifying problem, and you have the means to at least try to escape it — why wouldn’t you devote those means to trying to fix it instead, especially if you know it’s impossible to escape? By “fix it,” I mean try to make the place you live, where you’ve made your home, where you have some sense of ownership and responsibility — and oh, let’s call it investment — more resilient to climate change. Maybe agitate for more storm-resistant infrastructure, mass transit, green spaces.
Because the future isn’t for sure, but running away from the problem ensures that it will be.
There is so much more to be done before resorting to the most extreme options!!!
Franzen’s conclusion to the “hopeless” climate conundrum is to go small — clutch onto your favorite bird or whatever as everything else burns. But others have used the enormity of the climate crisis to argue we should go to the other extreme, say lashing out against outsiders, promoting population control or even mass murder. Here’s what I say to that:
So now that we know people lash out at those who have less power than they do when faced with our planet’s existential crisis, what can we do about it? To start, try to emphasize that climate catastrophe is not yet a done deal. As I’ve argued before, why jump immediately to dealing with climate change by getting rid of humans when there are still so many other options? It makes no sense. It’s like cutting off your hand because you broke your wrist.
You don’t have to listen to me. You don’t have to listen to anyone. But please don’t trust those who simply tell you to give up.
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