In his New Yorker article “What If We Stopped Pretending the Apocalypse Can be Stopped,” Jonathan Franzen argues that it does us little good to hang our hope for the future on some wildly optimistic scenario for which there is little evidence of achieving before climate change becomes a self-sustaining phenomenon pushing past a tipping point into a new normal. As the subtitle to Franzen’s article says: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it”.
Cheery stuff. Many disagree with his brand of what some describe as “irrational pessimism”. Critical points taken, but maybe Franzen is on to something. There may have been a time when the message to “roll up our sleeves” to “save the planet” made sense. That day, says Franzen, is long gone:
“Although this message was probably still true in 1988, Franzen writes, “when the science became fully clear, we’ve emitted as much atmospheric carbon in the past thirty years as we did in the previous two centuries of industrialization. The facts have changed, but somehow the message stays the same.”
Holding onto a delusion, even a hopeful one, is counterproductive.
Pity, ye, with no hope
The trick is deciphering hope from delusion. Doing that, suggests Franzen, comes from realizing that every action is a climate action. Franzen doesn’t suggest we throw up our hands and do nothing. Let’s eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die doesn’t cut it if we wish to continue the struggle for moral agency.
We don’t give up on the improbable optimistic scenario of containing global warming to a 2 degree Celsius rise in average temperatures, or achieving net zero emissions by mid century. These achievements are still possible, but should spare resources for a more likely outcome.
Ethics guides us to embrace the moral standing of people living in distant places and future times. But it is this time and this place in which we make out ethical stand. Flying less (or not at all), eating less meat, pushing back against consumer culture are all part of this. But if we do these things in the vain belief that we’re going to “stop global warming,” we operate at an arguably delusional level. Our ethics are based on an untenable, even hubristic, foundation of false optimism. We fool ourselves and do a disservice to the future generations we claim to hold in moral standing by our actions.
Climate change will not be stopped by any particular action or individual. So then why not party like it’s 1999? That’s certainly a choice. We’ll have to explain it to our children and grandchildren.
Franzen argues that hope comes one day at a time; in the here and now. Our best chance of positive influence on any future scenario is to embrace our moment, clear-eyed, with compassion and gratitude,
Things will most likely get much worse, climactically speaking. But they don’t have to get as bad as they might if we just sit on our ass. If we don’t succumb to the “hate machines” fueled by technology and our natural human cognitive predilections. If we protect our best institutions, reign in the erosion of democracy, curb our excesses, and seek instead the “better angels of our nature,” we can still make things better than they would be without it. And yes, we do what we can to drastically curb emissions.
Doing that, we may bequeath on inhabitants of a different time and place our own resilience. Maybe we can avoid the worst of climate disruption. Maybe all we can do is buy the future a little more time. Either way, as Franzen argues, we must stop fooling ourselves and accept that a new, much more challenging world is coming.
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