(Reuters/Joaquin Sarmiento)

Jonathan Franzen's global-warming nihilism: Saving the climate might mean destroying everything else

Franzen feels "bullied" by climate change's dominance over all other environmental issues


Lindsay Abrams
March 30, 2015 10:18PM (UTC)

A new football stadium rises in downtown Minneapolis, its glass facade a death trap for the thousands of birds anticipated to collide with it each year.

The National Audubon Society, meanwhile, puts out a blockbuster report finding that the looming specter of climate change threatens nearly half of North America's native bird species. And a Minnesota "blogger on bird-related subjects," who you'd think just sits around waiting for billion-dollar construction projects to fight, instead argues that when compared to that far greater threat, a few thousand birds sacrificed in the name of aesthetics is "nothing."

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Jonathan Franzen, writing in the New Yorker "as someone who cares more about birds than the next man," is frustrated with the way conservation is increasingly playing second banana to climate change:

I’m still susceptible to this sort of puritanism. Rarely do I board an airplane or drive to the grocery store without considering my carbon footprint and feeling guilty about it. But when I started watching birds, and worrying about their welfare, I became attracted to a countervailing strain of Christianity, inspired by St. Francis of Assisi’s example of loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us. I gave my support to the focussed work of the American Bird Conservancy and local Audubon societies. Even the most ominously degraded landscape could make me happy if it had birds in it.

And so I came to feel miserably conflicted about climate change. I accepted its supremacy as the environmental issue of our time, but I felt bullied by its dominance. Not only did it make every grocery-store run a guilt trip; it made me feel selfish for caring more about birds in the present than about people in the future. What were the eagles and the condors killed by wind turbines compared with the impact of rising sea levels on poor nations? What were the endemic cloud-forest birds of the Andes compared with the atmospheric benefits of Andean hydroelectric projects?

It's an argument of scale, or, in keeping with the theological theme that runs through Franzen's essay, a meditation on accepting the things you can't change while having the courage to fight for those you can. And the wisdom to know the difference, in Franzen's view, is borne of the acknowledgement that the climate has already changed, while that a planet "saved" at the expense of sacrificing everything else is a victory hardly worth aspiring to.

Franzen takes that idea and perhaps runs too far with it: “We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming," he writes. "Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.”

But "as long as mitigating climate change trumps all other environmental concerns," his argument continues, "no landscape on earth is safe.”

His is a false choice, I'd argue, although I very much understand where he's coming from. I feel the dissonance, too, of writing about international efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions and the plight of some besieged species or habitat -- sometimes in the same day -- and I've struggled with the question of where to position myself when, for example, a large-scale solar plant starts incinerating birds mid-flight.

Still, Franzen is at once overly optimistic about adaptation -- elsewhere, he argues that climate change is no existential threat, but "just the same old story writ larger" -- and a bit too dismissive of mitigation: the climate struggle, he essentially argues, is a lost cause. Few would argue with his assertion that conservation work carries more immediate results and, to the individual who undertakes it, can be more rewarding. But most would agree that it's also too soon to stop trying to reduce our contribution to the problem.

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More compelling, then, is Franzen's argument that talking about conservation and climate in the same breath may no longer be a useful endeavor. "It’s not that we shouldn’t care whether global temperatures rise two degrees or four this century, or whether the oceans rise twenty inches or twenty feet; the differences matter immensely," he writes. "Nor should we fault any promising effort, by foundations or N.G.O.s or governments, to mitigate global warming or adapt to it. The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority. Does it make any practical or moral sense, when the lives and the livelihoods of millions of people are at risk, to care about a few thousand warblers colliding with a stadium?”

Franzen, of course, feels strongly that it does. The National Audobon Society does too, and calls Franzen's narrative "flawed."  In a comment to Salon, Audubon CEO David Yarnold wrote: “Here’s what we do every day: We work to save birds and the places they need. We’re leading the fight to make the Vikings stadium safer for birds. We helped pass California’s law requiring non-lead ammunition for hunting. We’re fighting to restore the Gulf Coast and keep the Arctic safe for America’s birds. Climate change makes all those actions more urgent. And our studies show that all those actions by themselves aren’t enough."

But it could be worth asking whether it's time to start looking at the climate and conservation movements as two different entities. After all, the former has always struggled to receive attention, and will always be the provence of those who, like Franzen, prioritize preserving the wellbeing of non-human animals and the beauty of nature. The climate debate, on the other hand, is one that touches all humans, and has become large enough to potentially sway presidential elections.

One upside of divorcing the two would be that it might alleviate the perceived conflict between present threats and our imperiled future. After all, there should room enough in this world to care about both.

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Lindsay Abrams

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adaptation And Mitigation Birds Climate Change Conservation Jonathan Franzen National Audobon Society

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