Dr. Glenn McLaren


Where climate change is concerned, human imagination is a double-edged-sword. The seemingly controllable technological industrial utopia we imagined and built, has created the dystopian future of climate change. But creating new future paths will require further feats of human imagination.

I was watching a current affairs panel show on our public broadcaster recently and the celebrated author, Jonathan Franzen was mentioned. The panel were asked what they thought of his article published in The New Yorker on the 8th of September, titled, What If We Stopped Pretending? The article was presented as his view that we should stop deluding ourselves that we can stop climate change and accept that we are all doomed, so we should just accept our fate rather than fight it. As one, the panel of four attacked Franzen for being irresponsible, unscientific and too pessimistic.

I decided that I should read it for myself. What I found was an article that was well written, well informed, imaginative, refreshingly honest and surprisingly, quite optimistic. It is a reasonable and sensible article which cuts through much of the delusional, over-optimistic, business-as-usual rhetoric we are subjected to. Rather than being pessimistic, Franzen seems to be arguing that if we face our future reality more honestly than we have been and admit our failures, we can actually be more effective in how we address climate change.

However, as well as finding Franzen’s article, I was linked to a large collection of articles strongly critical of him, in the same way that the television panel were. One article I found critical of Franzen, on the Vox website, was by Sigal Samuel, titled, The controversy over Jonathan Franzen’s climate change opinions, explained. As well as her own criticisms, Samuel gives a summary of what the main objections to Franzen’s article are.

The first complaint is that Franzen gets the science wrong and being a novelist and not a climate scientist, is not qualified to comment. I argue on the contrary, that being a novelist is a positive. Think about the title of the article; What If We Stopped Pretending?  In the spirit of the novelist, Franzen asks us to imagine what might happen if we stopped deluding ourselves that we can prevent a runaway greenhouse effect. His quoting of Kafka at the beginning of the article, an author who used his imagination to reveal to us the alienation and existential anxiety generated by modern bureaucracies, should give away his intention. This is what good novelists do. They create alternative fictional scenarios of reality that act to fire our imaginations and provide a means of comparison.

This  also reveals where science and its facts are limited. It could be argued that fiction writers throughout history, such as Kafka and Franzen, reveal more to us about the truths of the human condition than science can. The suggestion that novelists are not qualified to comment on climate change amounts to crude scientism, the view that the scientific method is the only legitimate means for establishing the truth. Over the years we have been inundated with facts about climate change from science with relatively little effect on our behaviour. Perhaps good storytellers should be regarded as just as important as data gatherers.

Regarding the science, climate scientists objected to Franzen making two degrees warming the final threshold, (which he did not). This seems odd as for years now we have been warned by climate scientists and the IPCC, that we cannot allow the world to get above two degrees or we risk catastrophic cascading effects. Now it seems, according to Samuel, that climate scientists have become so pessimistic themselves that they are prepared to relax this threshold and allow small increments above two degrees as our standard. Whether or not two degrees means the end, this really is a disastrous move which is likely to be exploited by climate change deniers and lead to an acceptance that two degrees is OK.

The second complaint is that Franzen gets the politics wrong. While Franzen quite rightly describes those on the right as evil in their attitude to climate change, he is also critical of the left and ‘The Green New Deal’ being proposed by some left Democrats in the US. What he is aiming at here, I believe, is the infantile idea that we can avert a climate disaster and have our cake and eat it too. In this view, many on the left are revealed as closet neoliberals in seeing climate change as an opportunity for creating exciting new jobs and faster economic growth, the economic ideology which helped create the problem. Franzen takes the more sober view that averting the worst of climate change will require massive cuts in production and consumption levels to reduce the rate of entropy and so we will all have to accept some sacrifice of material prosperity for the good of the whole.

Using his novelist’s imagination to play out multiple scenarios of the future, Franzen is unable to imagine one in which most humans willingly make such sacrifices, or governments encourage such sacrifices, without major global political unrest. Here is where he is accused of getting the psychology wrong in believing that humanity shows little evidence that it can radically alter this nature. Franzen also believes that too great a focus on climate change both turns people off and takes our focus away from other problems, such as inequality, which, if addressed, could also lead to better climate outcomes. Samuel uses the examples of exceptional environmental warriors to show that we can change and we can focus on more than one thing at a time, seemingly contradicting Franzen’s position.

From my own observations, however, as an Australian, I am continually shocked by how few people are taking climate change seriously and how many of them are unwilling to sacrifice any of their present comforts for the future of life on the planet. In our last election, we voted climate change deniers and environmental vandals back into power. Even other academics I encounter prefer not to discuss climate change and act as though it is business-as-usual. So I think that Franzen is right in his assessment of human nature, but not because this is essential to what we are, but because this is how we have been shaped by our consumer capitalist culture. A change in culture is needed, therefore, to change our current nature.

The last criticism of Franzen is perhaps the most bizarre under the circumstances. This is the view that he is not qualified to write on climate change because, not only is he not a scientist, but he is a wealthy, privileged, white male. This criticism addresses problems that authors from oppressed minorities have with the publication policies of The New Yorker magazine. While we can focus on more than one problem at a time and this is a valid argument, (as a philosopher I also have a tough time getting published or recognized) in the face of an apocalypse, is this our priority? We should be arguing for a greater diversity of voices while also respecting Franzen’s, focusing on the substance of his arguments. Also, there seems to be the strange suggestion from those arguing this, that those from oppressed minorities, or subcultures most vulnerable to effects of climate change, if given the chance, would have written more optimistic articles.

The importance of diversity, recognition and inclusiveness, however, are central to Franzen’s arguments, despite his race and privilege. He quite rightly makes the point that in the face of the global challenges we will experience as environmental deterioration accelerates, we will need more democracy, not less and we will need more tolerance, not less. He is arguing against the spiralling down towards tyranny that we are already seeing in the world. Franzen believes that more inclusiveness and tolerance will be better generated by more realistic assessments of our future rather than delusions. Remaining in our delusions and continually denying our reality, leaves us vulnerable to sudden shocks and crises such as the nightmare, unimaginable for some, of a war of all against all for scarce resources.

Samuel and others argue that Franzen’s article is just comprised of strawmen. But this seems to misunderstand the important role of the novelist. Rather than simply prescribing the future, Franzen asks us to imagine a future reality in which we will not avert climate catastrophe and work through the implications of that reality. This is something that as a philosopher, I do all of the time. It is the process of imaginative modelling of possible scenarios. The fact that so many criticized Franzen for being irresponsible, unscientific and too pessimistic, reveals perhaps one of our major problems in addressing climate change;  lack of imagination.

Image credit: Marco Verch via flickr

About The Author

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Glenn McLaren teaches philosophy at Swinburne University. Melbourne, Australia. Prior to becoming a philosopher he spent most of his working life as a fitness trainer. His main interest, therefore is in health, both of humans and the biosphere. As a process philosopher, he has a particular interest in transforming philosophy to make it more relevant to addressing our current and future global crises.