Thoughts on “What If We Stopped Pretending” by Jonathan Franzen

What if it were already too late to avoid the climate collapse?

What if we stopped pretending that curbing global warming to 1.5° or 2° was still within reach?

What would that do to our motivation to further cut down emissions?

Jonathan Franzen’s essay challenged me last month. Luckily, I had a community of people to read this with me. What a unique, well-chosen pick for the first meeting of a new climate book club – a hotly contested essay that prompted harsh backlash from the climate science and the climate activism community. The essay was first published in 2019 in the New York Times, and subsequently put out in book form with an author interview in the annex. There were many, many things I need to address and a lot I take issue with, yet somehow reading this provocative piece honed my understanding of how targeted demoralization works and how it is used as a means of undermining progress and efforts to solve the climate crisis. And I guess, in a way, that this is what made it worth reading it.

If you’re not going to continue reading, let me just say this: It is not too late, yet. There is a (theoretical) chance that we can still set things right with us and our climate – if we act now. And I don’t mean by waiting and doing nothing until some super fancy technology comes along and saves the day. Geo-engineering poses far too many risks for further damage to ecosystems we have only begun to understand1. I also don’t refer to solutions that confine us to the role of consumers by targeting individual behavior. I’m talking about political and social change, about community and collective local and global action. But more on that later.

First, I have to get the personal issues I have with the essay off my chest. At first, I was wondering whether it was just me, maybe something in his tone was lost on me, ever the ESL speaker. He sounded disappointed, frustrated, but also condescending in a way that was off-putting. It was too much of the old ‘I’ve seen so many things, you’re too young and idealistic to understand, and I don’t really care because I’m not going to live long enough to witness sh*t really hitting the fan’. To top it off, his classist thinking shows in some of the things he says, and that just didn’t sit right with me. As it turns out, the German translation left other readers with the same feeling.

Let’s start with what I consider the most damaging, discouraging, and simply incorrect statement:

By 2015, however, it was clear to me that collective action had failed and would continue to fail.

J. Franzen, What If We Stopped Pretending

This statement disregards everything that has happened since 2015 – no Fridays for Future or Sunrise Movement, no Greta Thunberg, no global climate strikes. Even worse in my opinion is that he dismisses the potential for social change through collective action in general. In fact, we’ve seen quite the opposite in the past couple of weeks – the successful constitutional appeal for an amendment of the Law on Climate Protection here in Germany2, a Dutch court ordering an oil company, Royal Dutch Shell, to comply with the Paris Agreement and cut emissions by 45% by the year 20303, all thanks to the relentlessness and insistence of climate activists. History knows many examples of peaceful, nonviolent protests and movements that were successful. Often cited in this context is the 3.5% rule, which says that when a threshold of 3.5% of the population becomes actively involved in a peaceful social movement, it is very likely to succeed and impossible for government to ignore4. On a local level, collective action can be even more effective and started with small acts, from public park clean-ups to building a community garden or initiating a local education program. Collective activism did not fail, and there is hope that it will continue to successfully initiate change.

In order to understand my criticism of the next statement, you need to know that Jonathan Franzen is an environmental conservationist and avid bird-watcher, and that he has a knack of pitting climate change against environmental conservation. Even worse: while pointing at the climate co-benefits of environmental action, his performance as the devil’s advocate in the climate discourse only deepens the rift between the two instead of building bridges:

Public discourse is dominated by a single problem, climate, which has no solution (at best, it can be somewhat mitigated), while there are equally pressing environmental problems that could actually be solved.

J. Franzen, What If We Stopped Pretending

First, climate solutions can be more complex or need a global approach, but they’re not unsolvable per se. More specifically, there are solutions for climate change as well as for environmental problems. They’re interconnected in a lot of ways too, sometimes there are co-benefits between measures that protect the environment and (local) climate (i.e. saving wetlands, forests, grasslands protects biodiversity and enhances local climate conditions), and in some rare cases there could be adverse effects (i.e. cleaner air means less aerosols that reflect solar radiation, which could in the future lead to higher temperatures5). Finally, climate and environmental problems both have their root in a disregard of planetary boundaries by humans, who are competing to exploit a scarce resource. Over-simplified (I know that Franzen would not approve): If we stop doing that, a large chunk of problems might just disappear.

I recognized another argumentative pattern that is often used when corporations and government realize they do not want to change anything in their own behavior. It’s the suggestion to start with individual behavior (eat less meat, fly less, buy an eco-friendly car, consume sustainable products, but please don’t stop buying things) and what Franzen calls ‘low-tech conservation actions’. Yes, rethinking your eating, mobility and consumption habits helps start the conversation and is better for your health. However, this argument relegates individuals to consumers instead of becoming active members of a community or a movement pressing for larger, systemic change. Additionally, it is not as effective as large-scale changes in industry. Period. There is no comparison in emission levels between industrial emissions and individual private household emissions to begin with.

If there is anything that I can give him credit for, it’s the notion that he probably meant well. Even if it’s coming from a dark place, he meant to inspire hope:

Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

J. Franzen, What If We Stopped Pretending

The overarching theme of the essay is him pleading climate activists to acknowledge that their efforts are very likely to fail (his opinion). He seems to care about encouraging people to take climate action as much as anyone in the movement, but for the opposite reason. By his logic, as far as I was able to make sense of it, climate change is too complex to solve anyway, which renders every solution – in the eye of the public – implausible. And this lack of credibility would make people turn away and do nothing at all. Failure is built-in, and if we would work under this assumption and be honest about it, more could be done and more would be done to mitigate the effects of the inevitable. And this is where Jonathan Franzen’s and I do not see eye to eye, regardless of his claims that it was too late anyway: What motivates people to act, and where one can find hope?

Climate change is complex and scary, and yes, if climate activists would believe that fighting it was an easy task, they probably wouldn’t be protesting so fiercely. It is true that in some part of the global movement oversimplification plays a role, but we simply don’t have the luxury of time to explain the details of climate science to everyone. The research is widely accessible and indisputable, though contested by climate deniers, but the reality is that on a geophysical level, we have known for the past three decades how global warming works and what its principal drivers are. What’s new is that we see more frequent and more dramatic realizations of the effects it has on planetary health. This shows us that it is time to act now, not time to wait until everyone has knowledge in the equivalent of a PhD in climate science.

A Message Of Hope

Apart from all the negativity and misanthropy I was still able to take away a message of hope: It is too late already to save every niche of the ecosystem, because species extinction is already happening. Human health and well-being is affected by climate change, and the odds are that it’s going to get worse, not better. Yet, the important message here is not to loose hope, ironically – the hope that you can still make a difference in your own neighborhood, on a local level, which will hopefully incite change at system level. This is really the only part Franzen and I can agree on. Jonathan Franzen’s opinion notwithstanding, pressing for policy changes is something we still have to continue doing.

Now, as someone working at the intersections of urban health and climate, I invite you to pay closer attention to what is happening in your street, in your neighborhood, and start imagining what you would rather like to see, smell, taste, hear, and feel when you step out of your house. Join a local initiative, or start your own, to make that vision a reality. Find a community that is strong enough to talk about doubts and the internalized climate pessimism that every climate advocate shamefully harbors within. Those are the people you need to be with, either for reading What If We Stopped Pretending by Jonathan Franzen, or for taking climate action in your realm of influence.

Sources:

  • 1 Eric Holthaus (2020), The Future Earth, Harper Collins
  • 2 Tagesschau.de, 4/29/2021. “Klimaschutzgesetz in Teilen verfassungswidrig”. (retrieved 5/27/2021, 22:00)
  • 3 Daniel Boffey, 5/26/2021. “Court orders Royal Dutch Shell to cut carbon emissions by 45% by 2030”. The Guardian (retrieved 5/27/2021, 22:00)
  • 4 David Robson, 5/13/2019. “The ‘3.5% rule’: How a small minority can change the world”. BBC Future
  • 5 Eric Holthaus (2020), The Future Earth, Harper Collins.

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