“In Defence of Jonathan Franzen”
What I’d like to know first is who came up with the title and who wrote the standfirst. Maybe it was Jonathan himself. But from experience, those jobs normally go to a sub-editor. Did she or he know what they were doing?
Then, again, Jonathan Franzen has form in this area. The climate change area. And a few others that have earned him both criticism and detractors over the years.
I confess that I have never read a Franzen novel. I have, however, been exposed to the Franzenian contrarian through his contributions to The New Yorker. It was one of these recent articles that triggered off a big, online backlash. One that I imagine even Jonathan himself wasn’t expecting.
Global warming is a subject many people, from writers to politicians, avoid. Not our Jonathan, though. He has weighed in on it occasionally and his opinions, while contentious (at least some of them), are worth listening to and analysing.
Franzen’s argument focused on the big vs small. As in big subjects, like environmental destruction versus small issues like breakdown of local communities and money-driven gentrification. There’s nothing wrong about lobbying for and supporting worldwide causes like climate change and he’s clear about that. There is, however, something unwholesome about not investing the same energy on local projects.
Here Jonathan raises a point that I, too, raised with a couple of Extinction Rebellion volunteers when I went down to Trafalgar Square recently. How do you deal with the human concept of present and future? One of the challenges we, climate-conscious citizens, face is that the impending destruction of our planet will not happen overnight but in a few decades hence. Surely, there will be more wildfires, floods, landslides and human-made catastrophes along the way, but we will do what humans have been done since the beginning of time: adapt. Therefore, the picture painted by XR and similar groups remains abstract to many. By contrast, the closure of a local community centre is more immediate, visual and personal.
The key theme is Jonathan Franzen’s article is the finite nature of our existence and what to do while we’re still here, on planet Earth. To me this brings in a few elements: awareness of who we are as humans, the impact we have on our environment and our relationship not only to other human beings but also to ourselves.
I don’t think I need to explain at length the fact that there’s a selfish streak that runs through us all. Regardless of where we are born or what gender we are, we have the capacity to behave selfishly. Therefore, it goes without saying that when we become fully aware of who we are, we tend sometimes to focus more on areas that benefit us, while conveniently forgetting others. One of the immediate effects of this attitude is that our environment, for instance, might not get the same attention as our professional life. This imbalance usually results in a conflict between environment-caring people and those who seem not to care or just do not care at all.
But what if some of the people in the second group are directing their time and energy towards equally important, society-improving projects and ideas?
Here lies the crux of Franzen’s argument. And I can certainly identify myself with it.
For more than seven years I was a member of a local community group. After we received some money from Big Local to help us change our neighbourhood for the better, we, residents, came up with a series of programmes. These ranged from gardening to employment workshops. Seven years down the line, I can see the fruits of our voluntary work.
Since last year I have given up my free time to support a charity whose aim is to cut down food waste. Every time I hoist a Felix Project bag onto my back, I feel I am doing something useful. Every time I take unwanted food from cafes and restaurants to a community centre or school, I feel I am caring for our environment. I just don’t happen to be in Trafalgar Square in a tent with hundreds of protesters around me.
Some of the online commenters charged Franzen with having and promoting a pessimistic view of climate change. I disagree. For instance, somewhere in his article, Jonathan writes: “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities.”
I’d say that instead of pessimism this is a healthy dose of realism. Look at the Brexit-caused mess we are going through in the UK right now. One that has given us a racist, misogynistic, homophobic and xenophobic Prime Minister no one voted for and who panders to those who think the Great in Great Britain refers to this country’s supposed importance and place in the world (with the old colonial undertones thrown in) instead of the geographical meaning of “Great”, i.e., Britain is the largest island of the British Isles. Our functioning democracy, legal system and communities are in peril. Faced with this kind of immediate threat, Extinction Rebellion’s demands, welcomed as they are, are not the only pressing issues.
This is the dilemma that confronts us. By us, I mean those who believe in human rights, social justice, equality, a fair society, a dogma-free education system that seeks to develop the individual as a whole. And yes, an environment-friendly mindset that places our planet at the top of our priorities.
Photo of Jonathan Franzen taken from The Guardian website. All other images taken by the author.