Bird’s Eye View: Jonathan Franzen Looks Down on Climate Activism

By Edward CarverFebruary 8, 2019

Bird’s Eye View: Jonathan Franzen Looks Down on Climate Activism

The End of the End of the Earth by Jonathan Franzen

JONATHAN FRANZEN OUTRAGED many environmentalists by arguing, in a 2015 issue of The New Yorker, that the obsession over climate change was pushing other ecological concerns to the side. What about all the birds we are killing off right now, he asked. The response was swift.

Science writer Dan Fagin tweeted, “Not buying Franzen’s argument that biodiversity and climate are in a zero-sum competition for attention. Just no.” Climate expert Joe Romm, in a response titled “The Corrections,” called the piece “one of the most bird-brained and hypocritical climate articles ever.” The Audubon Society, which Franzen criticized for its toothless approach to bird conservation, titled its response “Friends Like These: ‘Bird Lover’ Jonathan Franzen commits an act of extreme intellectual dishonesty.”

In November, when the essay was republished as part of Franzen’s latest essay collection, The End of the End of the Earth, the attack continued. “If you sit down to write about climate change and end up concentrating your fire on the Audubon Society, you’ve lost the plot,” Bill McKibben, one of the world’s leading climate activists, wrote in The New York Times. “It’s unseemly to take digs at those who are trying to actually do something about the problem.”

For McKibben and Franzen to be at odds seems bizarre. Both emerged onto the literary scene from elite universities in the early 1980s and later became passionate about the natural world; they share more or less orthodox environmentalist views. And while their styles vary, one could imagine them being complementary: McKibben sledgehammering the fossil-fuel industry, Franzen working in the newly formed cracks. As a young writer at The New Yorker, McKibben was fluent in the amusing, ironically detached prose required for "The Talk of the Town" section, but he ended up leaving to join a cause. Franzen, on the other hand, has never been a joiner and remains, to some extent, attached to his ironic detachment.

In The End’s title essay, in which he goes on a luxury cruise in Antarctica and thinks ill of his fellow passengers, he has a revelation: “I wondered if, all my life, in my refusal to be a joiner, I’d missed out on some essential human thing.” The essay, though partly about penguins, comes to focus on his uncle Walt, who lived a seemingly ordinary life back in the United States. Walt was a “joiner” and loyal friend who developed an intimate bond with Franzen’s mother, his own sister-in-law, late in her life: “[E]ach was an optimistic lover of life, long married to a rigid and depressive Franzen.” The essay helps us understand why Franzen has made such a conscious effort to overcome his rigid and depressive inheritance.

Franzen likes to challenge leftist pieties, and he seems to push himself to be more of a regular guy and less of an ideologue. In recent interviews, he’s talked about the shows he watches on network TV. He also seems to be grappling with how to care about something as important as the natural world — and as a writer, make his readers care — without getting self-righteous about it.

Of course, he’s not the first writer to struggle with this. His old friend and rival David Foster Wallace also had a well-known tendency to moralize, or worry about moralizing, especially toward the end of his life. In “Consider the Lobster,” a famously subversive 2004 piece for Gourmet, Wallace indicates to readers that he sat down beside the World’s Largest Lobster Cooker and had one for himself. This makes his main argument — that our treatment of lobsters and other animals is, at best, unsavory — go down smoother. When he asks the pointed question at the heart of the piece, “Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?,” he immediately starts to second-guess himself: “Is the previous question irksomely PC or sentimental? What does ‘all right’ even mean in this context?” He ends up arguing that we should respect a lobster’s preference not to be boiled alive, and yet he can’t bear the way his argument will be perceived: he tells us that he’s not trying to write a “PETA-like screed,” that he finds many animal rights activists fanatical and self-righteous. [1]

Franzen has found the lobster approach useful in his own writing. When he goes to the Mediterranean to document illegal bird-hunting, in a previously collected essay, he eats a songbird delicacy called ambelopoulia — a species threatened by over-hunting, as he explains in the piece — in secret in the back room of a Cyprian restaurant. This shows that he’s not a fanatic or a Puritan, and it gives his story a delicious tension, the same kind Wallace was able to create.

Both writers would of course be quick to point out that their essays are not about declaring right from wrong. Franzen’s self-consciousness [2] is not as obvious as Wallace’s, but he also likes to question his own arguments, looping back to show the reader that he’s capable of holding two opposing thoughts in his head at the same time, lest he be considered overly earnest or naïve, or just found to be wrong. [3] Never has this been more evident than in The End. The opening essay, originally published in the Guardian, is in part a reflection on “Save What You Love,” the controversial climate essay that, as mentioned, appears later in the book.

Franzen acknowledges his tortured writing process, how uneasy he was about criticizing the climate movement, and how dejected he felt about the response to the 2015 essay; he admits that if he could do it over, he would have “kept revising.” This willingness to show some vulnerability is refreshing, but he does not back down from his central argument. In the climate essay, he writes, “The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority.” In the essay about the climate essay, he tries to reframe it as more philosophical inquiry than public policy argument. He says that the real question he was asking was, “How do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end?”

Some people might object to this question’s faux profundity — Franzen does like to wax philosophical, and he even name-drops Semiotext(e) and Derrida in this collection — but I’m more concerned with his answer, which isn’t so much profound as profoundly tunnel-visioned.


An end-of-days narrative is common to Franzen’s work, which often conveys the sense that people would be better off accepting the world’s problems than trying to fix them. Though he’s considered a social novelist and a political writer, his fiction reveals him to be dubious of social and political projects, as Jon Baskin of The Point has showed. When his characters go out into the world looking to do some good, they come home humbled. In Freedom, Walter believes that “[a]ll the real things, the authentic things, the honest things are dying off.” He’s “greener than Greenpeace,” but his well-meaning work on behalf of the environment proves useless against capitalist pressures. He fails to create a reserve for the Cerulean Warbler when the project’s benefactor, a mining magnate, turns out not to care about the bird; he turns cynical and, under the influence of sleeping pills, gives a loopy leftist rant that goes viral on YouTube. He ends up retreating to a remote lake house, where he protects the birds in his yard from neighborhood cats. This seems to be what Franzen would have us all do.

In his most recent novel, Purity, Franzen renders activism pathological. Pip, a young woman with low self-esteem, “wanted to do good, if only for lack of better ambitions.” Her roommate, Dreyfuss, joined the Occupy movement because his life was a mess: he had no money, and he’d just left a mental institution, where he’d been involuntarily committed. There are lots of utopian discussions at their house, but they never lead to a coherent alternative to capitalism, which shows Pip that “the world was as obstinately unfixable as her life was.”

Franzen has reason to be wary of activists, and not just because of their intransigence. Saving the world, or obsessing over living ethically, can be narcissistic in so much as it doesn’t require you to give up any sense of self. On the other hand, loving another human being — the flawed person right in front of you — requires you to get down into the muck and discover ugly, selfish sides of your personality that you never wanted to acknowledge. Franzen talked about this in his Kenyon commencement speech, in 2011 (six years after Wallace spoke there). But these reservations about do-gooders quickly degenerate into cynicism and pessimism. Whereas someone like McKibben finds meaning in the fight for climate justice — essentially, a campaign for a new economic system — Franzen seems to find this too idealistic. In The End, he makes fun of his younger self for daring to have similar aspirations: “Under the spell of my elite college education, I envisioned overthrowing the capitalist political economy in the near future, through the application of literary theory.”

Yet Franzen retains an earnest side. In “Invisible Losses,” Franzen delves into the sad world of seabirds, whose global populations have fallen by about 70 percent in recent decades. He travels to uninhabited islands, where many seabirds breed, to see why they aren’t reproducing. The main reason is the large number of invasive species such as cats, rice, and mice — animals that seabirds never evolved to defend against — that have arrived on ships and can now help themselves to eggs and hatchlings. He also travels to South Africa and New Zealand to figure out how some conservation victories came about. He introduces us to the South African captain of a deep-sea fishing trawler that’s trying to keep albatrosses from getting caught in his nets, and to a Maori-descended family that has dedicated its time, and huge amounts of its property, to save the Magenta Petrel, a bird so rare that, as of 50 years ago, no one was sure it still existed. These stories give us glimmers of hope. But the problem for seabirds, as Franzen explains, is that their lives on the open seas are effectively invisible to human beings, and it’s hard to get anyone to care about the plight of birds they never see. Franzen’s laid-back reporting is so good that by the end of The End I was searching Google for guidebooks on birds in my area.

Elsewhere, however, he reneges on this writerly duty to dramatize the unseen. He argues that environmentalists are too Puritan and rigid in their thinking, but it is Franzen who seems to lack imagination in “Save What You Love,” as he obsesses over the fact that climate change actions produce no tangible or visible results. “I already know that we can’t prevent global warming by changing our light bulbs,” he writes. “I still want to do something.” This reveals a very narrow conception of what something is.

He travels to Peru and Costa Rica to champion the work of a couple of American conservation groups, contrasting their projects to climate mitigation work. “The meaning of climate-related actions, because they produce no discernible result, is necessarily eschatological; they refer to a Judgment Day we’re hoping to postpone.” This argument doesn’t hold up: emissions from coal power plants and airplanes are discernible, and people such as McKibben that take action to subtract would-be emissions are doing something, even if it’s not as sexy as working in the Amazon. Wouldn’t a writer with real imagination find a way to show us how important climate actions are, to bring them to life, no matter how boring or abstract they might seem?

Instead of looking closer at climate projects, Franzen travels to two protected areas in South America. It’s here that he tells us how to find meaning in apocalyptic times: help something you love, something right in front of you. But conservation success in remote settings is not always easy to measure — rendering his argument about “discernible results” even less persuasive — and an outsider like Franzen, coming in for a friendly tour, is not well placed to undertake a thorough assessment. Though he’s quick to criticize the Audubon Society for its “very large PR department,” he turns off his critical faculties when writing about the projects in Peru and Costa Rica; these sections of “Save What You Love” read like fundraising brochures. He lionizes an American biologist in Costa Rica, comparing him to a character out of a Conrad novel, and never so much as acknowledges the ethical issues that arise when conservationists work with — or, let’s face it, try to re-educate (or even relocate) — people in low-income countries, who often have a different set of values and priorities.

Instead of imagination, Franzen opts for resignation. “I’m such a climate-science accepter that I don’t even bother having hope for the ice caps,” he writes. He’s right that some climate change is inevitable, that it’s too late to stop. But with collective effort we can make it a lot less bad. We won’t have the world we started with, but it was hardly pristine to begin with. Those who’ll likely suffer most from the ice caps melting, et cetera, will be people that don’t have Franzen’s advantages in life. He of course knows this, acknowledges it, tells us he’s conscious of it, and feels guilty about it, but he argues that “love is a better motivator than guilt.” [4] For Franzen, real change will only come about when people learn to appreciate nature. Even if they become more conscious consumers of carbon, they’ll remain “alienated” and “denatured.” In the same vein, he says that nature is “receding,” whatever that means.

His views are based an old-school environmentalism that divorces people from nature. He goes so far as to imply that we are like carcinogens. “The Earth as we now know it resembles a patient with bad cancer,” he writes in The End. (Similarly, Walter’s rant in Freedom ends with him screaming, “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!”) Most scholars now argue that, conceptually, it makes more sense to group human beings with the ecosystems they rely on. All of human creation, for better or worse, is part of nature. But Franzen is still treating civilization as a disease [5] and arguing that our problems are caused by our distance from nature: to save the world, he implies, people need to become nature lovers. This is Franzen at his most Puritan. He’s so focused on what’s in people’s hearts — on their nature-loving bona fides — that he largely ignores the systems that perpetuate climate injustice. Loving nature, as Franzen and so many others claim to, is sort of like saying you are not racist or have lots of black friends. It does little to fix a problem like structurally racist housing policy. And even if Franzen is right about the need to focus on small-scale conservation, he’s wrong that people need to become nature lovers like him. Social psychologists will tell you that as peoples’ patterns change, their attitudes follow. Though it might seem counterintuitive, this is how it often works: you change your behavior, and then your mentality changes to match it. So Franzen’s obsession with attitudes and motivations makes little sense. We don’t need to become bird watchers.

In truth, for all Franzen’s interest in the individual, he’s not much interested in behavior change. In fact, much of his work disparages the idea that people can change. This doesn’t mean it lacks merit. His novels and essays, when not overladen with irony, project a sort of Eastern philosophy that might help us, as individuals, to accept our limitations, to face the world as it is, to find beauty amid the destruction. But he overreaches by trying to broaden this into a political theory or a basis for public policy. He acknowledges, in The End, that he hoped that big charitable foundations would read his climate essay in The New Yorker and reallocate funds from climate projects to conservation work that has tangible results. So far, apparently, none have. Here’s hoping they don’t.


Edward Carver is a journalist based in London.


[1] Wallace’s well-known “This is Water” speech was even more conflicted. He plied Kenyon’s graduating seniors with advice on how to live well, then assured them that that wasn’t what he was doing: “Again, please don’t think that I’m giving you moral advice, or that I’m saying you’re supposed to think this way.”

[2] Franzen sheepishly admits that he is what birders call a “lister.” This means he records and counts species, and goes to places like Jamaica with the aim to see all 28 endemic bird species in just a few days. (Spoiler alert: 26 of 28, with two near misses.) Several essays in The End involve such a race against the clock, which, because he has a mind for narrative, Franzen manages to make the reader care about. Ever conscious of being judged, he jokes that listing makes him “morally inferior to birders who bird exclusively for the joy of it.”

[3] For example, in “The Way of the Puffin,” a 2008 essay in which he ends up playing golf in China, he writes that he has a set of clubs and plays once a year or so, but dislikes the sport. “Golf eats land, drinks water, displaces wildlife, fosters sprawl,” he writes, seemingly ready to go into do-gooder mode. But then he tries to distance himself from any moralizing: what he hates most about the sport, he explains, is how bad he is at it. Likewise, he tells of a series of articles The New York Times has just published about environmental destruction in China, only to joke that he has been too busy watching TV to read them. Franzen’s self-deprecation sometimes feels canned, but he can be funny, as when he carries golf clubs onto a commuter light rail: “If you want to feel radiantly white, male, and leisured, you can hardly do better than to trouble an ethnically diverse crowd of working people to step around your golf bags during morning rush hour.”

[4] Franzen added this platitude about guilt into the book version of "Save What You Love," whose title, itself a bit platitudinous, is also new. In The New Yorker, the piece was called "Carbon Capture."

[5] See Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor if looking for further reasons to dislike Franzen’s cancer metaphor.

LARB Contributor

Edward Carver is a writer based in Maine.


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