This essay by Jonathan Franzen is a particularly good essay, if you mean by that an attempt to think one’s way through a matter by writing about it. And as Alan Jacobs points out in How to Think, those who engage in thinking take the very real risk of losing friends and alienating people. Franzen’s essay is about publishing an earlier essay he wrote a few years back where he took thoughtful exception to the common wisdom of his circle regarding climate change, resulting in huge amounts of blowback. His reflections here about the whys and wherefores of that earlier episode fit together nicely with many of the observations Jacobs makes in his book.
It’s the nature of Franzen’s heresy that resonated with me most, serving as a good example of why I’ve opted to no longer spend time thinking about political issues. Franzen’s point is a moderate one, and almost unquestionably correct: “our preoccupation with future catastrophes discourages us from tackling solvable environmental problems in the here and now.” His editor, Henry Finder, helped him reshape the initial version to make it more persuasive:
In an email to me, [Henry] gently suggested that I lose the tone of prophetic scorn. “This piece will be more persuasive,” he wrote in another, “if, ironically, it’s more ambivalent, less polemical. You’re not whaling on folks who want us to pay attention to climate change and emission reductions. But you’re attentive to the costs. To what the discourse pushes to the margins.”
Email by email, revision by revision, Henry nudged me toward framing the essay not as a denunciation but as a question: how do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end? Much of the final draft was devoted to a pair of well-conceived regional conservation projects, in Peru and Costa Rica, where the world really is being made a better place, not just for wild plants and wild animals but for the Peruvians and Costa Ricans who live there. Work on these projects is personally meaningful, and the benefits are immediate and tangible.
So, a moderate proposal to his crowd: let’s consider the possibility that our obsession with climate change is sucking up all the oxygen in the room, suffocating efforts to confront more tractable but less sexy problems.
It didn’t end well.
In writing about the two projects, I hoped that one or two of the big charitable foundations, the ones spending tens of millions of dollars on biodiesel development or on wind farms in Eritrea, might read the piece and consider investing in work that produces tangible results. What I got instead was a missile attack from the liberal silo.
I’m not on social media, but my friends reported that I was being called all sorts of names, including “birdbrain” and “climate-change denier”. Tweet-sized snippets of my essay, retweeted out of context, made it sound as if I’d proposed that we abandon the effort to reduce carbon emissions, which was the position of the Republican party, which, by the polarising logic of online discourse, made me a climate-change denier. In fact, I’m such a climate-science accepter that I don’t even bother having hope for the ice caps. All I’d denied was that a right-minded international elite, meeting in nice hotels around the world, could stop them from melting.
This was my crime against orthodoxy. Climate now has such a lock on the liberal imagination that any attempt to change the conversation – even trying to change it to the epic extinction event that human beings are already creating without the help of climate change – amounts to an offence against religion.
I note that where Franzen says “change the conversation” he is speaking idiomatically. There is no actual conversation taking place, at most we have what Rebecca West called “intersecting monologues.” And this is why I have no interest in the politics of the day. To even begin to have a fruitful interaction on a political topic, I think the participants need to be both skilled at what John Keats called negative capability (“capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason”) and devoted to staying there as long as it took to gain real understanding, even if only partial, even if it never comes at all.
While reading Franzen’s essay I found I needed strong applications of negative capability, since his political sentiments run much different than mine and much of his language was pushing my buttons—but at the same time I recognized that much of my initial reaction was visceral and I needed to tamp it down in order to hear what Franzen was saying. So I did, and I learned some things, both about climate change and the limits of my own knowledge of the topic. If there were a group of people commited to taking the same approach, I’d gladly join together with them to consider the political issues of the day. But that’s not how public “discourse” works anymore, if it ever did.