Fiction writer Jonathan Franzen’s latest essay for The New Yorker on the hopelessness of climate change opens with a complaint about new football stadium being built for the Minnesota Vikings. The stadium will be built with glass walls that pose a lethal hazard to the thousands of birds flying through the area. But instead of focusing his ire on the governments of Minneapolis and Minnesota, which is sinking $498 million of public money into the development, Franzen blames the National Audubon society for its focus on climate change.
Franzen spends a good part of the essay complaining about the inconvenience of climate change, the guilt he feels in grocery shopping, and the puritanical “belief system” of environmentalists. The intensity of his writing about the environment is understandable. He lives part of the year in California, which is in the midst of a horrific drought and is thus the current poster child for the consequences of ecological disregard.
Environmental problems loom large in the state right now. Forget about the question of watering the implausibly lush lawns in desert oases. Agriculture operations in California’s central valley have drained so much groundwater—to compensate for a lack of rainfall—that the ground has sunk by as much as a foot a year in some places.
At the same time that Franzen’s essay ran, veteran journalist Jeff Tollefson, writing for the science-based periodical Nature, tells the story of successful efforts to slow deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The contrast between the two narratives couldn’t be more striking. Franzen erroneously blames the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest on “poor families displaced from more fecund regions” while Tollefson correctly pins the blame on timber and industrial agriculture—beef and soy operations for the most part. Franzen opines that climate change is hopeless, while Tollefson writes how Brazil showed the world that nations can reduce carbon emissions and still achieve economic growth.
Even the despair that Franzen espouses and his central theme—that climate change will end life as we know it so we may as well enjoy the party for as long as it lasts—runs contrary to the stories he tells in the second half of his opus. Franzen visits with dedicated environmentalists who are successfully conserving parcels of rainforest in Peru and Costa Rica, and recounts their achievements. One problem is, many more success stories like this are needed. And yet, if only writers like Franzen focused on these positives rather than the negatives, more people can be inspired; more can be achieved.
Franzen’s pessimism reminded me of the late Michael Crichton, an earlier spokesperson of the climate change denial cause. Crichton was embraced as a scientific authority even though he wrote pop-culture science fiction. He too wrote about puritanical environmentalists, compared climate science to eugenics and devoted an entire novel on the extremes of ecoterrorists.
With climate change such a pernicious threat and lasting progress so elusive, it is easy to join Franzen in despair. Tollefson points out, for example, that the progress made in Brazil is precarious and can easily unravel. But then again, the forest conservation successes in Brazil might soon be matched in Indonesia, where deforestation is driven in large part by the palm oil sector.
Thanks to activist campaigns and consumer pressure, recent corporate pledges of sustainability—both at the United Nations and in corporate boardrooms—are reshaping the palm oil industry in Indonesia. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil recently kicked out more than a dozen members and suspended more than 60 others for shoddy reporting on their operations. Efforts to acknowledge and respect the land rights of indigenous communities—who sustain the forests they live in—are slowly gaining traction. Change is afoot, even though the hurdles loom large.
Ultimately, Franzen’s pessimism needs to be tossed aside and disregarded. The steps needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change’s impacts present a very stark picture and require an “all hands on deck” type of solution. But failure to act is a disservice to our children, who will inherit the planet from us. We need to ignore the fiction writers, buck up, and tackle the task at hand. In many ways, this is the American frontier narrative retold for the modern era. It is what we do best, and there never has been a better time for it than now.