We Are Still Arguing About Jonathan Franzen



Since Jonathan Franzen’s essay “Carbon Capture” went live on the New Yorker’s website last week, environmentalists and the journalists who write about them haven’t been able to stop bickering about it. Whether Franzen was wrong-headed or visionary, dumb or prophetic, he clearly touched a nerve when he asked, “Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” Here, Michelle and guest poster Judith Lewis Mernit, who typically agree about everything from Shakespeare to the unifying power of Benedict Cumberbatch, dive into the fray—on opposite sides. Pray their friendship endures.

Michelle: So Judith, what do we agree on here?

Judith: I think we agree that the topic of climate is overwhelming, oppressive, depressing, and that it makes us feel powerless. All those numbers! All that science! The scale of industrial energy production, the methane rising from Arctic permafrost that’s no longer so perma—it just makes you feel like all is lost, and, well, like Alvy Singer in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, whom Franzen invokes, “The universe is expanding. Why should I do my homework?”

Maybe we aren’t powerless—and I would argue that we’re not—but we believe we are, which is what matters.

Michelle: Yes. I think we can also agree that Jonathan Franzen is a terrific writer who loves to annoy people. And that in this essay he’s deliberately writing not as a climate-change expert but as someone who simply “cares more about birds than the next man.” That naive stance is problematic—his fame means he’ll be read as an expert regardless—but I think he’s attempting to do something valuable: to show how civilians, so to speak, are affected by all the dire climate-change news delivered by scientists and environmentalists and journalists like you and me.

Judith: Right, and that’s how I read it initially. I thought “Oh good! Here’s someone who can get the word out to all the smart people, and he’s saying something I’ve been waiting for someone to say for almost a decade.” He gets right at it in his opening: He criticizes the National Audubon Society for its study of global warming’s impact on North American birds, using it as an example of how environmental groups frame the climate problem so that it dwarfs all other concerns. I wasn’t expecting people to react with the horror that they did. I was surprised when I saw people hammering Franzen on Twitter. I felt like saying, “Hey, this is a voice from the wilderness, guys. If you care about bringing the public on board in the climate fight, listen up.”

Michelle: I was one of those people who reacted with horror to Franzen’s piece—not necessarily to his overall argument, but to the evidence he uses to support it. I wrote the feature story for Audubon that accompanied the release of the study he criticizes, so I happen to know something about it. (I should say that my only connection with Audubon is as an occasional freelance contributor to the magazine.)

In my story I pointed out, as Franzen does, that models of the effects of climate change are always full of uncertainties. But the Audubon study is as solid as they come: It was carried out by experienced researchers, subjected to peer review, and based on hundreds of thousands of standardized observations made by experienced birdwatchers over the past hundred years. (Franzen dismisses these citizen scientists with scare quotes, but they’re awfully similar to the amateur Costa Rican naturalists he praises later in the article.) The study’s predictions of the future “climate envelopes” of North American bird species are, if anything, conservative.

More to the point, I talked to a lot of local and regional conservationists for my story, people both inside and outside Audubon, and none of them are using the study’s results to justify short-term sacrifices of habitats or species. Just the opposite, really: They say the study is making their habitat-protection efforts more effective by identifying “strongholds” that are important to birds today and will still be important—maybe even more important—a century from now. So the study appears to be resolving conflicts between short-term and long-term habitat protection, not creating them.

Judith: I have no trouble believing that Franzen blithely manipulated his cursory reading of the Audubon report to make his point—he’s a fiction writer, not a journalist. I wish he hadn’t said things like “North America’s avifauna may well become more diverse” in response to climate change. As a non-scientist like Franzen, I have no way of evaluating such a statement, but it strikes me as fatuous on its face.

But neither Franzen’s carelessness nor those local and regional conservationists’ admirable goals neuter Franzen’s central thesis, which is that the environmental movement’s single-minded focus on climate change has taken the focus off local land restoration and biodiversity concerns. Critics—Joe Romm on ThinkProgress, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Dan Fagin, you—have responded in various ways that no biodiversity-versus-climate-hawk split exists. And that’s just fundamentally, manifestly not true. Among conservationists in the southwestern deserts and California, that split is an open wound.

Franzen might have been more persuasive if, instead of an offhand quote from a fellow bird-lover whose remarks he evidently misconstrued, he opened with an insight from someone with actual influence in the world of environmental nonprofits—someone like Carl Zichella, for instance, now an energy expert with the Natural Resources Defense Council, formerly of the national Sierra Club. Back in 2009, when BrightSource Energy was planning to build a 4,000-acre solar plant on sensitive tortoise habitat in the Mojave Desert, near the California-Nevada border, two desert conservationists, Laura Cunningham and Kevin Emmerich, posted on their website photographs of wildflowers where BrightSource planned to break ground. Zichella saw the post, “Last Spring at Ivanpah,” and emailed Cunningham and Emmerich. “Beautiful photos,” he wrote. “A quick Q: with scientists saying a one-degree increase in temperature could lead to a 20 percent decline in species in the desert southwest, how many springs like this year’s do you think the desert has left?”

His point: With global warming bearing down upon us, don’t imagine you can dither about preserving wildflowers. We don’t have time to wring our hands about habitat loss. Our only hope is to pave the Mojave, and the Colorado Desert beside it, with as many solar farms as the land can bear.

The Ivanpah plant went ahead in 2010. Its construction ripped up centuries-old plants and high-quality tortoise habitat. Then, after it went online in the summer of 2014, it started killing birds. Ivanpah is a “power tower”-type concentrating solar thermal collector; it uses a vast field of mirrors to focus the sun’s energy on a high tower filled with fluid. Those fields of mirrors have an unfortunate tendency to lure birds into their heat field and fry them.

That phenomenon was not unanticipated. It had been observed in test plants built in the late 1980s. Journalist Chris Clarke has covered the bird issue vigorously since 2012. Why didn’t anyone care about it? Why did it take so long to flag it? Why doesn’t it mean we should shut Ivanpah down?

Michelle: Ivanpah is a much, much better example of a biodiversity-versus-climate-hawk conflict than anything Franzen cites. In the case of the Audubon report, he perceives a conflict that just isn’t there. Later in the article—sorry, I’m not quite done complaining about his evidence—he profiles two conservation efforts in Latin America, and praises both for their attention to local circumstances. He contrasts what he calls their “novelistic” approach with what he sees as monolithic, mammoth-scale “climatism.” But the projects he so lyrically describes are, in fact, not just good short-term conservation efforts but very reasonable climate mitigation and adaptation projects. Franzen talks to a community leader in Peru who’s participating in one of the projects: “He held forth movingly on the effects of climate change he’d seen in his lifetime … Nevertheless, he was committed to the forest.” Well, it makes perfect sense that he’s committed to the forest! Protecting it and the resources it provides is probably the best thing he can do for his community, both now and as the climate continues to change.

I’ve been to vast solar farms in China, and I’m surrounded by industrial wind where I live in Washington State. I’ve also spent a bunch of time around coal-fired power plants, both in China and the U.S., and in Appalachian towns screwed over by mountaintop-removal coal mining. I think there is a place for utility-scale renewables in the world’s response to climate change. But I don’t by any means think we face a simple choice between Big Solar (or Big Wind, or Big Biomass) and Big Coal. There’s a place for distributed energy. There’s a place for thoughtful forest-protection projects like the one Franzen visits in Peru. There’s a very significant place for demand reduction. I’d argue that there’s also a place for advanced coal. When Franzen, describing the vision of “climatism,” says, “We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming,” he doesn’t quote anybody. I’ve never heard anyone, from any quarter, defend that kind of vision.

I agree with you that some environmentalists, in their rush to promote clean energy, have been too accepting of the real damage done by some big renewable-energy projects. And I think we can blame that selective blindness, at least in part, on the climate movement’s deadline mentality. But I doubt that even Carl Zichella wants to pave the planet with PV panels.

Judith: Not the whole planet, no. Only the places with high solar resources, even if they sometimes include sensitive habitat. He’s not alone. The first time I saw Ivanpah’s towers in person, in September of 2012, I took a picture of them from a cafe in Nipton, California, where I used to like to hang out and watch the sun set over the Clark Mountains in the Mojave National Preserve. Three big towers now blight that view. I put the picture up on Twitter, and asked “Worth it?” The resounding consensus, from at least two of my handful of followers back then, was “yes.” One of those yes votes came from David Roberts at Grist, whom I’ve long idolized as an environmental thinker and writer. I wanted so badly to convince him! So I sent back a thought experiment: “Would you answer yes if five square miles of redwood forest had been cut down for a solar plant?”

“Yup,” Roberts tweeted back. I was shocked.

So do you still think that’s a fringe sentiment? I don’t.

It’s also in the name of cutting carbon emissions that some environmentalists have equivocated on, or even whole-hog supported, nuclear power. Stewart Brand, who wrote the 2005 article in Technology Review that helped set up the “enviros for nuclear” movement back then, told me once that nuclear power at its worst was still comparatively benign because its effects were “local and contained,” while climate is global. I remember accepting that once as reasonable. I don’t now.

Franzen is spot on when he says that the climate problem has seduced people into thinking there’s a technological solution to our environmental woes. We want that big silver bullet that allows us to continue living just as we do, only without the consequences. I think that’s why some people give short shrift to small-scale local conservation projects that are indeed, as you point out about Franzen’s Costan Rican and Peruvian examples, climate-mitigation projects. Because what local conservation project is not? Every effort to protect your local habitat, to enhance its carbon-absorbing potential, to live more sustainably on what you can produce—be it energy or food—closer to home helps lower atmospheric carbon. Even if I go out to pull trash out of the Los Angeles River, or help reseed endemic plants in the mountains lost to off-season fires, those are climate mitigation projects. And that’s Franzen’s point, and what I like best about his controversial essay: “Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats,” he writes, “can avert the complete denaturing of the world.”

Michelle: I think that gets us to something that you and I—and Franzen—can all agree on. Dan Fagin’s tweet, the one you alluded to, was “Not buying Franzen’s argument that biodiversity and climate are in a zero-sum competition for attention. Just no.” I agree with you that there are cases, like Ivanpah, where biodiversity and emissions reduction are set against one another. I hear what you’re saying about the national-level framing of those fights taking energy and enthusiasm away from local conservationists—I haven’t seen that up close, as you have, and I’m going to start paying more attention to it. But what I, and I think Dan, meant by that tweet is that an either-or competition between biodiversity and emissions reduction is neither necessary nor inevitable, at least not on a global scale.

For one thing, while I think there’s a place for big renewables in our energy mix, as I said earlier, they’re certainly not the answer to the climate problem. They have a lot of the same inefficiencies and foster economic inequality in many of the same ways that the existing grid does. Last month, I spoke with Harish Hande, the founder of the sustainable-energy company SELCO India. Distributed energy makes more sense in India for many reasons, he told me, but most communities don’t have the capital to invest in distributed systems, and they don’t have the social structures needed to collect regular payments from users. So the national solar initiative now underway in India is mostly a boost for utility-scale solar—and for all its attendant problems.

To me, that looks like a huge opportunity for environmentalists: removing some of the social and financial barriers to distributed energy in the developing world could reduce emissions, avoid the various impacts of industrial solar, and benefit humans to boot. I think you and I and Franzen would all like to see environmentalists spend more time looking for and championing those kinds of intersections.

Judith: Exactly. Here in the U.S., those big solar farms are only necessary because of a utility business model that rewards big capital projects. And Ivanpah, which burns quite a bit of natural gas, runs less efficiently than expected and covered a natural carbon sink with shiny reflective objects, is making about as much difference to the climate as I did when I drove a biodiesel car for a few years, which is to say, the difference can be quantified in some small number that is nonzero, but too small for human brains to grasp. Solar does much better work for the planet on rooftops. But utilities can’t make money on it, so they invest in infrastructure and charge their customers for a return on their investments.

That’s not to say I’m completely opposed to large-scale renewable energy projects. I visited a photovoltaic project in Nevada, on the Moapa River Reservation, that really felt like a community-improvement project. It’s a huge economic benefit to the Moapa Band of Paiutes, who have suffered in the shadow of a coal plant for 40 years. The Moapa project is also a clear solar-for-coal swap: The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is aggressively moving off dirty coal-fired electricity imported from plants out of state, and solar from Moapa will help them complete that transition.

Michelle: The other thing I think we and Franzen agree on is that the climate movement’s focus on a specific emissions-reduction target has been somewhat counterproductive. I get the strategic thinking behind 350.org—a number gives the movement something to rally around—but as I mentioned, it’s fostered a deadline mentality that’s led some environmentalists to give up too much in the name of clean energy. And we’re now way past 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere—as of today, we’re at 402. It’s understandable that people like Franzen, people who care about conservation and worry about climate change but aren’t involved in the minutiae of climate issues, feel that the climate movement has failed. Within the 350.org frame, it has failed. Why should we do our homework, indeed?

But there’s a big difference, as Franzen himself points out, between a two degree and four degree rise in average global temperatures. There’s a big difference, in terms of environmental destruction and future human suffering, between 402 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and 500. In our post-350 world, it’s easy to think that efforts to reduce emissions no longer matter, but they do matter. They all matter, small and large, perhaps even more than they used to. Franzen quotes philosopher Dale Jamieson: “It is always the last chance to make some particular difference.” I can agree with that.

Judith: Me too. I think we can also agree that any strategy to reduce the carbon load on the atmosphere has to include protecting our few remaining wild places, which means we think carefully before shredding intact ecosystems to build any kind of energy plant. It means we listen to the people on the ground conserving those ecosystems, and not dismiss them as NIMBYs. And it means we actively encourage people to care about the ecosystems close to where they live, and applaud them for wanting those places preserved.

Huey Johnson, who was California Gov. Jerry Brown’s resource secretary during his first time, has begun a project called Defense of Place that encourages people to identify natural landscapes that matter to them, and gives them the tools to go about saving them. That kind of work makes people feel they have the influence and resources again to care about nature, and that’s crucial in a time when the U.S. Congress is looking at selling off our public lands. Maybe Franzen ought to call Johnson and focus his argument on some kind of constructive domestic restoration work, instead of writing more stories that piss people off.

Then again, clumsy as his research for “Carbon Capture” may have been, he provoked a pretty awesome discussion, and one that I’ve long been desperate to have.

Michelle: Glad to have had it with you. Now can we adjourn for a low-carbon beer?

Judith: Oh great, now I have to think about the carbon emissions of my beer, too? Thanks a lot, Michelle. Lucky for all of us, I’m about to consume a bottle of Sierra Nevada Brewing Company’s “Beer Camp” hoppy lager. When I checked this afternoon, Sierra Nevada’s Chico facility was running almost exclusively on solar and combustion-free hydrogen fuel cells. Not as poetic, perhaps, as a Costa Rican forest restoration, but the people at that brewery are engaged in climate mitigation all the same. Let’s please just not get into how much water they use.

Top photo by Flickr user Real Distan. Creative Commons.

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12 thoughts on “We Are Still Arguing About Jonathan Franzen

  1. I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ve been bothered, too, by the lack of substantive discussion of what we have to give up. We Californians will probably have to give up golf in the desert. But what else will go to make way for giant alternative energy projects? It’s obvious that there are going to be times when we have to give up parts of the planet for “the greater good.”

    I think the harder part is that sometimes people are willing to give up too much (habitats, species, beautiful places) and sometimes they are not willing to give up enough. We are never going to know the right answer in every situation. Hearts will break.

  2. Kudos to both of you for an excellent, nuanced discussion.

    To expand a bit on the deserts issue: It isn’t just Ivanpah that has demonstrated the deep divide between the climate and biodiversity camps in the Southwest. In my own work since 2008 or so I’ve reported on probably four dozen distinct renewables-oriented projects, from small geothermal to solar and wind to transmission lines. Every single one of those topics has prompted criticism, in comments or social media or (occasionally threatening) emails, along the lines of “stop paying attention to this because climate change.”

    It hasn’t mattered how destructive the project has been, or how feasible the less destructive alternatives have been. A short piece I wrote in 2008 about the Sunrise Powerlink renewable energy transmission line’s then-planned route through wilderness sections of California’s largest state park prompted comments from climate activists along the lines of “the Threatened Peninsular bighorn sheep has to take one for the team.” A plan to put thousands of noisy, inefficient parabolic mirror Stirling engines in a wild section of the Yuha desert prompted similar comments about the flat-tailed horned lizard and the burrowing owls. My stories about the North Sky River wind facility in the Mojave Desert, which has already killed at least one protected golden eagle, and other wind installations adjoining California condor habitat in the west Mojave, prompted comments that the damn birds needed to learn how to go around. I have actually had people styling themselves “climate hawks” respond to my stories on wind installations and bird mortality by telling me actual hawks weren’t important.

    Those climate activists who completely disregard the importance of biodiversity are almost certainly a slim minority. (Even Joe Romm, after a friend and I challenged him on his use of the word “deserts” to mean “completely worthless and barren landscapes,” decided in 2009 or so that he’d stop using the word “desertification” to mean “trashing the landscape” out of respect for the surprising biodiversity of intact, healthy desert wildlands. )

    But though the “pave the whole desert crowd” may be a slim percentage of climate activists as a whole, they are the ones who speak regularly, who react to information about habitat losses from renewable energy development by calling that habitat “worthless.” It’s because of that particular crowd that I have to write periodic reminders on KCET of just why it’s important to make sure renewable energy developers obey existing environmental laws.

    One of the justifiable complaints climate hawks have made about Franzen’s New Yorker piece is its “all or nothing” tack. I’ve seen some climate folks complain that Franzen assumes we can’t both address climate change and protect biodiversity. For all the flaws in Franzen’s article, that may be his biggest contribution in writing the thing, because for the last seven years or so that’s precisely what we biodiversity folks been hearing from many of our opposite numbers in the climate movement: that we *can’t* work on both, and that biodiversity has to lose.

    If Franzen has prompted people to abandon that line of argument, even out of defensiveness, then that’s a great service.

  3. “American avifauna may well become more diverse” – this idea stems from the fact that there are more species in tropical latitudes than in temperate – the well known “latitudinal gradient in species diversity.” So with climate change driving species ranges northward, it is quite conceivable that a place like the U.S. will gain more species than it loses.

    “the Audubon report is as solid as they come” – are you sure this is true? It has still not been published in any scientific journal, right? and in fact has been rejected by one or more, meaning that its peer review status is somewhat less than rock solid.

    Perhaps Franzen was better keyed into these points than your average non-bird-watching journalist, and perhaps this is both the reason why he felt inclined to single out Audubon (however clumsily) AND the reason why he has been so readily dismissed by other writers and commenters.

  4. I’m glad there’s some discussion of Franzen’s piece from people who obviously read and considered it closely. Audubon’s weird smear campaign and the subsequent twitter blow-up seemed more intended to appeal to anti-Franzen sentiments in literary circles than to their birder and conservationist members.

    I’d like to echo Hugh’s points about the climate report. Franzen’s example of Bald Eagle was a good one. The species has proven to be remarkably resilient, and may well see increases in a warming world, particularly one with more “green” dam projects and more reservoirs. The same could be said for species like American White Pelican (Audubon claims a 92% decline in habitat, but they’re currently exploding) as well as as Least Grebe, a wide-ranging neotropic species that will likely increase in the United States as it has been for several years. Audubon’s images don’t seem to consider any populations of birds south of the Mexican border, which immediately struck every birder I’ve talked to about it as an enormous oversight.

  5. Thanks for all the great comments. Hugh, I double-checked with Audubon on the peer review, and the study’s central methods have been peer-reviewed and accepted by both Ecological Applications and the Journal of Biogeography. The citations are:

    Schuetz et al., Making Spatial Prioritizations Robust to Climate Change Uncertainties: A Case Study with North American Birds, Ecological Applications, 2015: http://www.esajournals.org/doi/abs/10.1890/14-1903.1

    Distler et al., Stacked Species Distribution Models and Macroecological Models Provide Congruent Projections of Avian Species Richness Under Climate Change, Journal of Biogeography, 2015 (no link, but Audubon says a PDF is available on request)

  6. Thanks for this cogent discussion. As one who first marched to ban the bomb back in the late 50s, this reminds me of the anti-nuke movement.
    Climate change or no it all comes down to our health, the health of all living things on the planet. We were moving away from fossil fuels long before climate change became a discussion in the public eye. Conservation is not an event but a
    process as is global warming and we are always seeking water, air, and land free from poisonous elements for
    the environment. Birds are our canaries in the mine.

    An e

  7. Interesting discussion. Personally I wish there were more in-depth discussions around the large scale “eco-friendly” energy projects that keep springing up. From an energy output standpoint my understanding is that there is virtually nothing save nuclear that can match fossil fuels. But we keep thinking that if we build enough windmills or connect enough solar panels we can somehow replicate the country’s carbon-based power plant output. That isn’t any more sustainable than our current structure, and leaves an enormous footprint on the land. We need to look small. Put a solar panel on every roof in the desert, not acres of them massed together. Put a windmill in each backyard in the Plains, not cover miles of Indiana corn fields with thousands of them. That could benefit both humans AND the animals.

  8. Michelle, FYI 350.org, and indeed the identification of the 350 quantity itself, post-date by several years CO2 having actually reached that level. Jim Hansen came up with the number at Bill McKibben’s request. It was Jim’s best guess at a level that could be reached and maintained without endangering the ice sheets. In retrospect, probably no more than 320 is the correct figure, noting that the plug has already been pulled on much of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, very probably the Greenland Ice Sheet, and quite possible a major piece of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. In any case, it was a missed deadline at the start.

    But don’t be distracted by the ice sheets. It’s the circulation changes that are gong to bite hard in the relative short term and, as with the ice sheets, climate model projections are lagging indicators of the extent and pace of change.

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