The New Yorker has published an impressively loopy rant from award-winning novelist Jonathan Franzen, who believes the battle against climate catastrophe is already lost. “What If We Stopped Pretending?” is infuriating his fellow travelers on the left. Yet Franzen cannot quite escape the mindset he believes has led to the End of The World As We Know It.
Setting up his thesis, Franzen rehearses the usual disaster of biblical proportions, omitting only the parts about human sacrifice, and dogs and cats living together. He then claims: “If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.”
Franzen allows that it’s fine for the left to hope to mitigate the inevitable global meltdown, but argues that “it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning.” For example, he supports a local homeless garden project because industrial agriculture and global trade may break down, with homeless people outnumbering people with homes.
Unsurprisingly, environmentalists, journalists, and other leftists are aghast at Franzen’s defeatism. Kate Aronoff, a senior fellow at Data for Progress, tweeted that “Jonathan Franzen is a navel-gazing pessimist with a basically inaccurate understanding of the climate crisis and an asinine theory of change.”
Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaplan tweeted: “Easy to say for someone who is white, affluent, privileged, protected – and revealing of how blinkered Franzen’s view of the world is. Look at the Bahamas right now. What is that except the climate catastrophe, already well underway?”
Incidentally, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the World Meteorological Organization, and the U.S. National Climate Assessment are not convinced of an anthropogenic influence on hurricane precipitation. But Kaplan also echoed a common theme: “Framing our response to change as a choice between mitigation and adaptation is misguided. And not a single person who actually spends time thinking about the problem sees it that way.”
Of course, Franzen has even less love for the right. In explaining his despair, Franzen writes that for meaningful change to occur,
[O]verwhelming numbers of human beings, including millions of government-hating Americans, need to accept high taxes and severe curtailment of their familiar life styles without revolting. They must accept the reality of climate change and have faith in the extreme measures taken to combat it. They can’t dismiss news they dislike as fake. They have to set aside nationalism and class and racial resentments. They have to make sacrifices for distant threatened nations and distant future generations. They have to be permanently terrified by hotter summers and more frequent natural disasters, rather than just getting used to them. Every day, instead of thinking about breakfast, they have to think about death.
Call me a pessimist or call me a humanist, but I don’t see human nature fundamentally changing anytime soon.
This invective may outrage people on the right, but at its core, Franzen’s argument is not only humanist, but also conservative. The belief that human nature does not change overnight—and that government should account for this—is one of the chief differences between conservatives and progressives.
Obviously, Franzen is not a political conservative. But successful novelists usually must grasp human nature. True works of art endure because we recognize the people in them.
Moreover, the recent evidence is on Franzen’s side. This year, in a “climate change election,” Australians re-elected the conservative coalition that argued green plans would cost their country 167,000 jobs and 264 billion Australian dollars. In France, President Emmanuel Macron still faces protests originally sparked by his government’s tax hikes on carbon and fuel. Similar plans have met protests and political defeats in Belgium, Tunisia, Algeria, and Canada.
American journalists thought 2016 was going to be a climate change election; it wasn’t. The 2018 midterms were good for Democrats, but much less so for climate change warriors. Arizona voted down an initiative that would have required state electric utilities to acquire 50 percent of electricity from renewable resources by 2030. Colorado rejected an anti-fracking initiative. Washington State defeated an initiative to establish the nation’s first carbon tax.
More Americans tell pollsters that climate change is a major threat, but the shift is driven overwhelmingly by Democrats. The issue has perhaps the widest partisan gap in American politics. Most telling, 70 percent say they would vote against a $10 monthly fee tacked on to their electricity bill to combat climate change. This is the measure of our willingness to sacrifice on behalf of this advocacy campaign.
Franzen could have used his novelist’s understanding of human nature to urge his friends on the left to pursue policies taking account of the widespread opposition to their agenda. He might have advocated for a vast expansion of zero-emissions nuclear power, given the instability of solar and wind power. He could have suggested that fracking, which has contributed significantly to America’s recent decline in carbon emissions, makes sense as a transitional measure. He might even have advocated for federal spending on research into innovative decarbonizing technologies.
Instead, in the thrall of his own apocalyptic vision, Franzen argues the coming dystopia means that “any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action.” Having dismissed the Green New Deal—a gargantuan boondoggle that includes government-run health insurance and a universal basic income—as an ineffectual exercise in denial from the left, he asserts that climate chaos will so destabilize governments and societies that fair elections, wealth inequality, racial and sexual equality, hate speech on social media, immigration, and confiscating assault weapons all count as climate issues.
Franzen reveals himself unable to resist the left’s totalitarian mindset. He offers a darker version of the same old argument that some existential threat requires far more intrusive government than Americans will accept unless they are “permanently terrified.”
But what the left should fear is that their climate alarmism will push those less obsessed than Franzen to conclude apathy and adaptation is preferable to mitigation, while rejecting the idea that every issue is a climate issue. Human nature is a tougher foe than carbon emissions.