The Audacity of Hopelessness
Jonathan Franzen and the fraught politics of resignation
“When the world is running down,
You make the best of what’s still around.”
— The Police
We live in interesting times. That’s not proverbial. Climate change, far right extremism, neighboring countries on the verge of nuclear confrontation. For the collector of causes, there’s an embarrassment of riches, local and global, but a comforting theme tends to run through media coverage of the world’s problems. That theme is hope.
Enter Jonathan Franzen, here with more corrections.
The New Yorker recently published an article by Franzen, “Great American Author” and public punching bag, in which he made what was, to this reader, a modest proposal: that we may very well be past the environmental tipping point. He did not offer any particularly new climate science in the piece, but he did suggest that many climate scientists are reluctant to be completely forthright with regard to our chances of mitigating, let alone “reversing” environmental collapse. “New research, described last month in Scientific American, demonstrates that climate scientists, far from exaggerating the threat of climate change, have underestimated its pace and severity,” Franzen writes.
Many people were, to put it mildly, not having it. Franzen has long been a divisive public figure, in part because of his vaguely condescending persona — in part also, it must be said, because of the accolades he has, in the eyes of many, been undeservedly granted. To quote another quite popular white male author, Franzen is an “imperfect vessel,” and, as such, he might be doing more harm than good by opining about such contentious issues as the climate. When issued from his pen, goes this theory, the substance of any argument stands a good chance of ad hominem attack.
So what was the substance of Franzen’s argument? Basically, that we’re setting ourselves up for a significant moral failing by not seeing our predicament for what it is: hopeless. He’s saying that our assumption that we’ll be saved might make it more likely, not less, that we’ll become apathetic. He’s saying that this thinking leads us to abdicate our duties as citizens, as neighbors and lovers and friends.