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What Is to Be Done?

by John Phipps

The End of the End of the Earth

Jonathan Franzen, Macmillan USA, 2018

The Climate Report

Melville House Press, 2019

I don’t get what the whole big thing is about hating Jonathan Franzen. I’m not sure why, at some point in about 2009, Franzen’s name became the accepted synecdoche for unreflective white male vanity. Or why Franzen himself became the go-to punching bag of literary twitter. Or why a liking for Franzen’s writing became something you didn’t profess so much as admit to, often after several drinks and even then only with close friends and after some form of lengthy caveat.

For this reviewer, Franzen is mostly notable for his habit of once every five or six years producing a novel which this reviewer reads without pause in a state of rapt, breathless attention, laughing, crying, having his life changed etc. The novel normally features characters who are selfish, confused and who often do the wrong thing, but who may also, we glean, be redeemed by the complicated love they feel for other people in the world, and this reviewer normally finishes the novel with a sense of joyful loss and moral clarity, which he is able to sustain for about five minutes before he goes back to being selfish and confused and doing the wrong thing, hoping in the few moments that he is not hurting the people he loves and/or eating large helpings of cheesy snacks, that he might somehow be redeemed by the complicated love he feels for certain other human beings. If this reviewer were feeling cynical he would suggest that the main reason everyone seems to hate Jonathan Franzen so much is because he is dizzyingly successful, freakishly so for a realist novelist writing in an era of declining book sales. If this reviewer were feeling mean he would suggest that these people should stop focusing on hating Franzen and get back to writing their own, less good novels. But since this reviewer is neither mean nor cynical, he will simply say that he is confused about the whole thing.

The good news for those who were already predisposed to hatred, Franzenwise, is that he has finally written something for which you might justifiably be able to hate him. The End of The End of The Earth is a collection of essays, most of which Franzen has published in various magazines over the last few years. You may have already heard of or read some of them, probably because some of these pieces have already provoked the roiling post-Franzen twitter-row that has by now become so predictable that you could set your watch to it. If you still wear a watch, that is. I don’t know about you, but I tell the time using a small, black machine whose chief function is to make me feel angry and ashamed, and without which I simply will not leave the house.

I’ll get on to why one might hate Franzen, and whether or not that’s wise, in just a minute. First I’ll have to talk about birding. Franzen is a keen birder. In fact he’s more than that, he’s an obsessive, a disciple, a worshipper of feathered things. Seven of the sixteen essays in The End of the End of the Earth, Franzen’s new collection of essays, are at least partially taken up with the question of birds and these essays together make up 142 of the volume’s 230 pages. In Jamaica, in Albania, in Egypt, East Africa and Antarctica, we find Franzen in situ, with his birding notebook tucked in his pocket and his binoculars dangling from a string.

Luckily, Franzen excels at transmitting the ecstasy that a bird encounter brings him. In Jamaica, he finds ‘a single Asian ornamental tree, a pomme d’amour, that was exploding in hot pink flower and dripping with hummingbirds.’ In Tanzania he glimpses a pair of Hunter’s Cistiolas – ‘the drabbest of little beige birds’ – carolling on a branch together, ‘perched shoulder to shoulder on an acacia twig, facing in opposite directions, and singing a contrapuntal duet, their beaks open wide. Two melodies and one couple, singing of their coupledom.’ He sees male King Penguins ‘tottering after an undecided female’, who stop their pursuit ‘to see which of them was the more impressive craner of its neck, or to whap at each other ineffectually with its flippers.’ Is it even necessary to point out the skill, the deftness, the absolute on-the-moneyness of this writing? Maybe I’ll just requote my favourite: ‘dripping with hummingbirds.’ Bottled lightning.

The most unforgettable encounter is with an Emperor Penguin, a member of the species that ‘may be the world’s greatest birds.’ It occurs on an Antarctic cruise, in the miniature masterpiece ‘The End of the End of the Earth’, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and for which this collection is named. From the ship’s observation deck, Franzen spots an Emperor Penguin and the tour company, who know which side their bread is buttered on, promptly herd the passengers into zodiacs and onto the ice meet it. Franzen arrives to find a crowd of them, standing and kneeling, photographing the four-foot bird. In his own words:

Here was an image so indelible that no camera was needed to capture it: the Emperor Penguin appeared to be holding a press conference. While a cluster of Adélies came up from behind it, observing like support staff, the Emperor faced the press corps in a posture of calm dignity. After a while, it gave its neck a leisurely stretch. Demonstrating its masterly balance and flexibility, and yet without seeming to show off, it scratched behind its ear with one foot while standing fully erect on the other. And then, as if to underline how comfortable it felt with us, it fell asleep.

We all know that Antarctica is melting. What surprises Franzen is how much is still there. Black, spiny mountains stand not covered with snow, but buried in it, all the way up to their peaks. Under a grey sky, the seawater goes an inscrutable, deep-space black. And amidst the jet sea, the grey and the white of the sky, is the jolting blue fluorescence of the ice itself:

No matter the shade of it – the bluish tinge of the growlers bobbing in our wake, the intensely deep blue of the arched and chambered floating ice castles, the Styrofoamish powder blue of calving glaciers – I couldn’t make my eyes believe that they were seeing a colour from nature. Again and again, I nearly laughed in disbelief.

Intercut with the events of the cruise is something entirely different: the story of his aunt and uncle’s marriage. Their story, which Franzen says his uncle asked him many times to tell publicly, appears to have been – must have been – the material he used to craft the plot of his fourth novel, Freedom – only the real events turn out to be even more devastating.

Franzen has always used the events of his life as the engine of his art, and there are several short biographical pieces that he leaves quietly unresolved. This non finito technique doesn’t help the only dud in the collection, ‘Manhattan 1981’, an account of a youthful summer Franzen spent in New York. But the essay recounting Franzen’s friendship with the writer William T. Vollman is an altogether stranger thing. The friendship lives for a while, then fizzles, then dies. That’s it. This is simple writing, about not much. It’s based on real events, but crucially it feels real, ‘relatable’, if you must, a short hunk of narrative that captures the finality and the sadness and the oh-well-there-it- is-ness of real life.

In fact, most of these essays end up being about real people. For Franzen, birdwatching is always people watching. Chainsaws buzz out of sight in unprotected forests that harbour rare endemic species. An Albanian hunter reacts joyfully to birds in unprotected parkland and ends up selling his gun. In ‘Why Birds Matter’, the author makes the point outright. Birds do nothing useful for the economy, ‘they want to eat blueberries’. Rather:

What bird populations do usefully indicate the health of is our ethical values. One reason that wild birds matter – ought to matter – is that they are our last, best connection to a natural world that is otherwise receding. They’re the most vivid and widespread representatives of the earth as it was before people arrived on it.

‘To consign birds to oblivion’, says Franzen, ‘is to forget what we’re the children of.’ Oblivion is where birds are headed. The State of the World’s Birds, a global report issued every five years, reported in 2018 that forty percent of the world’s bird populations are in decline, some at catastrophic rates. The main reasons for the plummeting population numbers are agriculture, logging, invasive species and hunting. Of these four, agriculture represents by far and away the greatest threat, affecting nearly 80% of the 1500- odd species that currently face extinction. So when in 2016 the National Audubon Society – the larger, American equivalent of the RSPB – released a statement calling climate change the biggest threat to the nation’s birds, you can imagine that this got on the nerves of a certain bird-loving novelist.

Franzen wrote an article laying out his position: climate change is a ‘done deal’, probably to the tune of about six degrees Celsius. We should, do everything we can to stave off the worst. But don’t pretend that the way to protect birds is buying a Prius, when actually it’s belling domestic cats, regulating big agriculture, preserving wildforest and wetland habitats and – whisper it – limiting the use of windfarms in migratory paths. Franzen suggested that the predominance of the climate conversation in environmental discourse was preventing the discussion of practical, on-the- ground responses to soluble problems. This is the meat of Franzen’s argument in ‘Save What You Love’, which originally appeared in The New Yorker, and which you may have heard of because it soon found its way onto the twitter feeds and into the dinner conversations of people very much like yourselves right across the liberal western world. If you still have conversations, that is. I don’t know about you, but I spend my evenings staring silently into a rectangular abyss of blue light, wondering if just a few more minutes will give me whatever it is I think I’m looking for.

This is the reason that you, reader, if you’re inclined to, might justifiably hate Jonathan Franzen. Can it be right, this reviewer asked himself, to care about a few dumb birds when the world is about to go down in flames? Of course, this reviewer hadn’t read the essay, he’d just seen tweeted excerpts. If he’d read the essay he would have found Franzen asking the same question: ‘Does it make any practical or moral sense, when the lives and livelihoods of millions of people are at risk, to care about a few thousand warblers colliding with a stadium?’

There’s scope for debate here. But let’s be clear that the debate between the bird-focused, cat- belling conservationist and the warming-averse environmentalist is not about climate change. Both sides agree that we face catastrophic warming. In fact, the conservationist Franzen stresses that climate scientists are required by judiciousness to pick a lowball estimate. The professor who publicly predicts four degrees warming will tell you over dinner to prepare for at least six. This would be a debate about debate – about whether all that we may and must discuss should bend towards the ultimate goal of limiting emissions. And if you believe that it should, then you should hate Franzen, hate him with the hot, billious fury that any individual trying to produce discursive hegemony feels when they see someone breaking from the party line. But since his argument is that environmental discourse has become a single-issue conversation, in which individuals are punished for breaking the party line by non-coordinated group shaming, you’d only be proving his point.

There was scant mention of birds in the U.S. government’s Fourth National Climate Assessment, which was hush-released by the Trump administration on Black Friday, and an abridged version of which is now – extraordinarily – being issued in book form as The Climate Report. Reading it, I realised that I had been thinking about climate change wrong my entire life. Naively, I had always imagined that global warming meant we were all going to die.

In fact, we are already dying. We have been for some time. Those warming figures – two degrees, four degrees, six degrees – are not measured from now (those official measurements are always given in Celsius, by the way, unless otherwise stated). They’re degrees of warming measured against the pre-industrial global mean. We are already fifty years in, and the rate of warming is only increasing (as are carbon emissions).

This, then, is the United States at a single degree of warming. Heatwave season now lasts more than three times as long, and with higher average temperatures than in the 1940s. In the early 1980s, around a million acres of land were burned in US wildfires; by 2017 that figure had risen to ten million, a 1000% increase. The 2017 Atlantic Hurricane Season caused $250 billion of damage, enough, if you fancy, to pay for Trump’s border wall twelve times over, with enough change to buy a few FTSE 100 companies. In the West and the South, water shortages are on the rise. From 2011- 2017 California experienced a staggering six-year drought, the worst in over a millennium. Average annual snowfall has declined, nationwide, by thirty percent. Sea level has risen half a foot. Every one of these changes has accelerated towards the present day and those graphs are only getting steeper and steeper. Welcome, to an exponential America.

It’s in this context that you should understand the idea that we may well be about to experience six degrees of global warming and try to hold two thoughts in your head simultaneously. The first is that the world you die in will be vastly, immeasurably different to the one in which you were born. The second is that a single degree of warming will be, for someone, somewhere, a matter of life and death.

One of the things that makes global warming so difficult to think about is that it affects different places in different ways. I’ll take a single resource, water, as an example. With regards to water, there are two basic outcomes. There will either be too much of it, or there will too little of it. Both outcomes will prove disastrous.

Let’s look at ‘too much water’ first. In the North Eastern United States, storm intensity, coastal erosion and precipitation will increase, and this will happen at the very moment that large swathes of water-management infrastructure come to the end of their viability. In the low-lying bayous and metropoles of the South East, high- tide flooding will become a regular occurrence. Miami, which has a population of 6.5 million, and lies just over a meter above sea level, is already struggling to keep up. Extreme downpours and more intense hurricanes will cause flooding, burst levees, break dykes. Low-lying freshwater reserves and ecosystems will swiftly and permanently become contaminated with salt water, which for the wildlife that depend on them, will be almost completely deadly.

The same dangers – seawater intrusion and increased extreme rainfall – will affect the U.S. Caribbean, but will be quicker to decimate economies that depend largely on marine activity and tourism. The Caribbean marine ecosystem, meanwhile, is already having its foundation stripped away by mass coral bleaching. There’s a cruel little kicker for citizens in the US Caribbean and US Pacific, in the form of their disenfranchised status. If you live in Guam or Puerto Rico or the US Virgin Islands, despite being a US citizen, you cannot vote in a presidential election.

As for ‘too little water’, it’s simpler to understand, but harder to believe. In the developed West, in the world’s richest country – in California, the world’s sixth largest economy, there will not be enough water.

These effects can pile on top of each other in the same region. In the agricultural Midwest, any large-scale crop failures due to waterlogging would have a knock-on effect on not just the U.S. economy, but the entire global food supply. Moreover, in both the Midwest, and in the Northern Great Plains – also a major part of world agriculture – drought years could be followed by years of heavy rainfall, making it impossible to prepare by, for instance, changing farming practices or genetically modifying crops. In either/or regions like this, the best you can do is wait and see which way the weather screws you.

Another thing that makes climate change difficult to comprehend is that it affects everything. The frequency and severity of asthma and hay fever will increase as air quality decreases. Mosquitos carrying viruses like Zika and West Nile will expand their geographical range as the climate warms. One does not think of Climate Change as an economic issue, but by the end of the century annual losses in some industries will reach hundreds of billion dollars: ‘more’ the authors of the report point out, ‘than the current gross domestic product (GDP) of many U.S. States’. Due to either too much water or too much sun, over 2 billion labour hours will be lost each year, amounting to a staggering $160 billion in lost wages. That’s a hell of a lot of border walls.

These small effects will interact and magnify in different ways, some of which we cannot possibly predict. The authors of The Climate Report call this ‘cascading effects among and within complex systems.’ An example: wildfires cause not only massive habitat loss and property damage, they also cause more landslides, blocking vital transportation links for emergency and support services. In years with worse-than average wildfires, lung-disease rates soar across the whole of North and South America. Another: decreased winter snowpack in mountainous areas means less meltwater, and less river water altogether. This isn’t just a problem for, say, every plant, animal and human that depends in some way on that river. It also means that the power stations using that water as a coolant will operate at diminished or null capacity, causing power cuts and shortages for nearby cities – for schools and hospitals. Everything ends up being connected to everything else.

It’s also very hard to say that climate change was the direct cause of any individual’s death. Wildfires and hurricanes, though they are worsening, have been a part of people’s lives for centuries. It’s the same with South American lung cancer deaths, children swept into storm drains, elderly people who die of exposure in the Arizona summer – none of these tragedies appears to have been caused by global warming. But it has played a part in all of them. This summer the Mendocino Complex Fire ravaged four hundred thousand acres of Northern California forest. (A complex fire, or fire complex, occurs when there are multiple fires within the same general area). Matthew Burchett, a Battalion Fire Chief from Draper, Utah, travelled eight hundred miles with several other firemen to join the efforts to fight it. He died doing so. He was fighting the largest individual fire, contained within what was by far the largest fire complex, ever to be recorded in California. But on his gravestone, it will not say ‘killed by fossil fuel emissions.’

The difficulty comes, at least partially I think, from that word ‘environment’. You think you know what it means. You think that it means charismatic megafauna and outstanding natural beauty, snow-leopards and snow-capped peaks. But if you strip away all those associations, you arrive at the term’s most basic, abstract meaning, which is where and how and whether or not you live. Most of us assume that ‘environmental causes’ are just one subset within the broader category of ‘politics’. I suspect that we will see this relationship at least partially reverse in our lifetime. In a world caught between the flood and the fire, political events will increasingly be shaped by the impact of the changing world, and anyone who believes that the state has an obligation to care for its citizens will judge the governments of the future by how they react.

By then history will already have judged and condemned the governments of the past, who have known about this threat for thirty years. The Climate Report is an abridged version of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which is the latest in a series of governmental reports that began in 2000. These reports were commissioned by a US governmental body, the U.S. Global Change Research Program, whose foundation was proposed in 1989. Its express purpose was ‘to assist the Nation and the world to understand, assess, predict, and respond to human-induced and natural processes of climate change.’ The bill passed the Senate 100-0 and was signed into law by a Republican president. Thirty years passed. Nothing was done. Here’s something I learnt from The Climate Report: for all its Republican leanings, the U.S. military accepts completely the reality of man-made climate change and is adapting, fast. All of the aerial photos in the report were taken by military pilots. I strongly suspect that by the year 2040, Exxon Mobil and Shell will be selling wind farms.

I do not believe that changes in individual actions will provide us with a solution to the problems we face. Nor will it be through gimmicky, non- significant changes. By the way, the plastic straw thing is a complete boondoggle. It’s not that you shouldn’t use fewer plastic straws, be my guest – just know as you do so that less than 2% of the plastic in the world’s oceans comes from Europe and America combined. As for the vegetarianism thing – beyond a vague suspicion that this is just the animal rights people dressed up in different clothes – it will certainly help and I recommend it. But if you really want to reduce your carbon footprint, you should fly less.

What’s needed is supranational action on an unprecedented scale. But the political realities of this are so distant, it’s not even possible to imagine what could wake the governments of the world’s major powers from their stupor. The UN Climate Conferences come and go, and no agreement is reached. At the time of writing we are, as a species, sleepwalking into the path of a combine harvester.

This leaves us with two choices, both bad. The first is paper straws, meat-free Mondays, Veggie Prets and KeepCups, which by the way, with their round, moulded plastic and bright colours, look like adult Sippy Cups. Slightly against my instincts, I suggest that we persevere with this kind of dogooderism, in the hope that it will somehow make some small difference, and because it signals to the world at large that we are invested in humanity’s future. The second is to force the hands of the powerful. It’s easy to forget, whilst obsessively following U.S. news, that in Britain there does exist a broad-ish consensus that climate change is real, man-made and requires governmental attention. It’s also sad to reflect that the moment we achieved this level of climatic education was also more or less the moment we pissed our international bargaining power away, most likely for good. As citizens, our best hope is to write letters, lobby local governments to make achievable changes, attend marches – and pray for a miracle.

Even if the miracle comes, it is too late for the coral, for the glaciers, for thousands of species. We are going to lose so much that can’t be accounted for by the usual metrics: the non-necessary things that make life actually worth living, make it glorious. It’s expected that there will be no Arctic Sea ice in September by the year 2050. I’ve never visited the Arctic – I probably never will – but the mere fact of its existence makes me happy. A vast and marbled swirl of wind-carved white desert is perched at the top of our globe, growing and shrinking with the seaons, a little smaller with every year that passes.

Perhaps there will be consolations. You could take a retirement cruise to the North Pole and look out over flat, boundless blue ocean. A few hunks of ice bobbing here and there in the water. I'm sure the sunsets will be spectacular. When I was writing this essay, I often thought of the closing lines of WH Auden's 'The More Loving One':

Were all stars to disappear or die I should learn to look at an empty sky

And feel its total dark sublime,

Though this might take a little time.

Art by Abigail Hodges

JOHN PHIPPS reads for an MSt in Early Modern English at New College. He’s only in literary journalism for the money.


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