Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, makes fun of the “busy man” for whom busyness is a way of avoiding an honest self-reckoning. […] Writing or reading an essay isn’t the only way to stop and ask yourself who you really are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way.
The essay in dark times
The end of the end of the earth, essays, Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
If an essay is something essayed—something hazarded, not definitive, not authoritative; something ventured on the basis of the author’s personal experience and subjectivity—we might seem to be living in an essayistic golden age. Which party you went to on Friday night, how you were treated by a flight attendant, what your take on the political outrage of the day is: the presumption of social media is that even the tiniest subjective micronarrative is worthy not only of private notation, as in a diary, but of sharing with other people. The U.S. president now operates on this presumption. Traditionally hard-news reporting, in places like The New York Times, has softened up to allow the I, with its voice and opinions and impressions, to take the front-page spotlight, and book reviewers feel less and less constrained to discuss books with any kind of objectivity. It didn’t use to matter if Raskolnikov and Lily Bart were likable, but the question of “likability,” with its implicit privileging of the reviewer’s personal feelings, is now a key element of critical judgment. And literary fiction itself is looking more and more like essay. Some of the most influential novels of recent years, by Rachel Cusk and Karl Ove Knausgaard, take the method of self-conscious first-person testimony to a new level. Their more extreme admirers will tell you that imagination and invention are outmoded contrivances; that to inhabit the subjectivity of a character unlike the author is an act of appropriation, even colonialism; that the only authentic and politically defensible mode of narrative is autobiography.
Meanwhile the personal essay itself—the formal apparatus of honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas, as developed by Montaigne and advanced by Emerson and Woolf and Baldwin—is in eclipse. Most large-circulation American magazines have all but ceased to publish pure essays. The form persists mainly in smaller publications that collectively have fewer readers than Margaret Atwood has Twitter followers. Should we be mourning the essay’s extinction? Or should we be celebrating its conquest of the larger culture?
* * *
A personal and subjective micronarrative: The few lessons I’ve learned about writing essays all came from my editor at The New Yorker, Henry Finder. I first went to Henry, in 1994, as a would-be journalist in pressing need of money. Largely through dumb luck, I produced a publishable article about the U.S. Postal Service, and then, through native incompetence, I wrote an unpublishable piece about the Sierra Club. This was the point at which Henry suggested that I might have some aptitude as an essayist. I heard him to be saying, “since you’re obviously a crap journalist,” and denied that I had any such aptitude. I’d been raised with a Midwestern horror of yakking too much about myself, and I had an additional prejudice, derived from certain wrongheaded ideas about novel-writing, against the stating of things that could more rewardingly be depicted. But I still needed money, so I kept calling Henry for book-review assignments. On one of these calls, he asked me if I had any interest in the tobacco industry—the subject of a major new history by Richard Kluger. I quickly said: “Cigarettes are the last thing in the world I want to think about.” To this, Henry even more quickly replied: “Therefore you must write about them.”
This was my first lesson from Henry, and it remains the most important one. After smoking throughout my twenties, I’d succeeded in quitting for two years in my early thirties. But when I was assigned the post-office piece, and became terrified of picking up the phone and introducing myself as a New Yorker journalist, I’d taken up the habit again. In the years since then, I’d managed to think of myself as a nonsmoker, or at least as a person so firmly resolved to quit again that I might as well already have been a nonsmoker, even as I continued to smoke. My state of mind was like a quantum wave function in which I could be totally a smoker but also totally not a smoker, so long as I never took measure of myself. And it was instantly clear to me that writing about cigarettes would force me to take my measure. This is what essays do.
There was also the problem of my mother, whose father had died of lung cancer, and who was militantly anti-tobacco. I’d concealed my habit from her for more than fifteen years. One reason I needed to preserve my indeterminacy as a smoker/nonsmoker was that I didn’t enjoy lying to her. As soon as I could succeed in quitting again, permanently, the wave function would collapse and I would be, one hundred percent, the nonsmoker I’d always represented myself to be—but only if I didn’t first come out, in print, as a smoker.
Henry had been a twentysomething wunderkind when Tina Brown hired him at The New Yorker. He had a distinctive tight-chested manner of speaking, a kind of hyperarticulate mumble, like prose acutely well edited but barely legible. I was awed by his intelligence and his erudition and had quickly come to live in fear of disappointing him. His passionate emphasis in “Therefore you must write about them”—he was the only speaker I knew who could get away with the stressed initial “Therefore” and the imperative “must”—allowed me to hope that I’d registered in his consciousness in some small way.
And so I went to work on the essay, every day combusting half a dozen low-tar cigarettes in front of a box fan in my living-room window, and handed in the only thing I ever wrote for Henry that didn’t need his editing. I don’t remember how my mother got her hands on the essay or how she conveyed to me her deep sense of betrayal, whether by letter or in a phone call, but I do remember that she then didn’t communicate with me for six weeks—by a wide margin, the longest she ever went silent on me. It was exactly as I’d feared. But when she got over it and began sending me letters again, I felt seen by her, seen for what I was, in a way I’d never felt before. It wasn’t just that my “real” self had been concealed from her; it was as if there hadn’t really been a self to see.
Kierkegaard, in Either/Or, makes fun of the “busy man” for whom busyness is a way of avoiding an honest self-reckoning. You might wake up in the night and realize that you’re lonely in your marriage, or that you need to think about what your level of consumption is doing to the planet, but the next day you have a million little things to do, and the day after that you have another million things. As long as there’s no end of little things, you never have to stop and confront the bigger questions. Writing or reading an essay isn’t the only way to stop and ask yourself who you really are and what your life might mean, but it is one good way. And if you consider how laughably unbusy Kierkegaard’s Copenhagen was, compared with our own age, those subjective tweets and hasty blog posts don’t seem so essayistic. They seem more like a means of avoiding what a real essay might force on us. We spend our days reading, on screens, stuff we’d never bother reading in a printed book, and bitch about how busy we are.
I quit cigarettes for the second time in 1997. And then, in 2002, for the final time. And then, in 2003, for the last and final time—unless you count the smokeless nicotine that’s coursing through my bloodstream as I write this. Attempting to write an honest essay doesn’t alter the multiplicity of my selves; I’m still simultaneously a reptile-brained addict, a worrier about my health, an eternal teenager, a self-medicating depressive. What changes, if I take the time to stop and measure, is that my multi-selved identity acquires substance.
* * *
One of the mysteries of literature is that personal substance, as perceived by both the writer and the reader, is situated outside the body of either of them, on some kind of page. How can I feel realer to myself in a thing I’m writing than I do inside my body? How can I feel closer to another person when I’m reading her words than I do when I’m sitting next to her? The answer, in part, is that both writing and reading demand full attentiveness. But it surely also has to do with the kind of ordering that is possible only on the page.
Here I might mention two other lessons I learned from Henry Finder. One was Every essay, even a think piece, tells a story. The other was There are only two ways to organize material: “Like goes with like” and “This followed that.” These precepts may seem self-evident, but any grader of high-school or college essays can tell you that they aren’t. To me it was especially not evident that a think piece should follow the rules of drama. And yet: Doesn’t a good argument begin by positing some difficult problem? And doesn’t it then propose an escape from the problem through some bold proposition, and set up obstacles in the form of objections and counterarguments, and finally, through a series of reversals, take us to an unforeseen but satisfying conclusion?
If you accept Henry’s premise that a successful prose piece consists of material arranged in the form of a story, and if you share my own conviction that our identities consist of the stories we tell about ourselves, it makes sense that we should get a strong hit of personal substance from the labor of writing and the pleasure of reading. When I’m alone in the woods or having dinner with a friend, I’m overwhelmed by the quantity of random sensory data coming at me. The act of writing subtracts almost everything, leaving only the alphabet and punctuation marks, and progresses toward nonrandomness. Sometimes, in ordering the elements of a familiar story, you discover that it doesn’t mean what you thought it did. Sometimes, especially with an argument (“This follows from that”), a completely new narrative is called for. The discipline of fashioning a compelling story can crystallize thoughts and feelings you only dimly knew you had in you.
If you’re looking at a mass of material that doesn’t seem to lend itself to storytelling, Henry would say your only other option is to sort it into categories, grouping similar elements together: Like goes with like. This is, at a minimum, a tidy way to write. But patterns also have a way of turning into stories. To make sense of Donald Trump’s victory in an election he was widely expected to lose, it’s tempting to construct a this-followed-that story: Hillary Clinton was careless with her emails, the Justice Department chose not to prosecute her, then Anthony Weiner’s emails came to light, then James Comey reported to Congress that Clinton might still be in trouble, and then Trump won the election. But it may actually be more fruitful to group like with like: Trump’s victory was like the Brexit vote and like the resurgent anti-immigrant nationalism in Europe. Clinton’s imperiously sloppy handling of her emails was like her poorly messaged campaign and like her decision not to campaign harder in Michigan and Pennsylvania.
* * *
I was in Ghana on Election Day, birdwatching with my brother and two friends. James Comey’s report to Congress had unsettled the campaign before I left for Africa, but Nate Silver’s authoritative polling website, FiveThirtyEight, was still giving Trump just a thirty percent chance of winning. Having cast an early ballot for Clinton, I’d arrived in Accra feeling only moderately anxious about the election and congratulating myself on my decision to spend the final week of the campaign not checking FiveThirtyEight ten times a day.
I was indulging a different sort of compulsion in Ghana. To my shame, I am what people in the world of birding call a lister. It’s not that I don’t love birds for their own sake. I go birding to experience their beauty and diversity, learn more about their behavior and the ecosystems they belong to, and take long, attentive walks in new places. But I also keep way too many lists. I count not only the bird species I’ve seen worldwide but the ones I’ve seen in every country and every U.S. state I’ve birded in, also at various smaller sites, including my back yard, and in every calendar year since 2003. I can rationalize my compulsive counting as an extra little game I play within the context of my passion. But I really am compulsive. This makes me morally inferior to birders who bird exclusively for the joy of it.
It happened that by going to Ghana I’d given myself a chance to break my previous year-list record of 1,286 species. I was already over 800 for 2016, and I knew, from my online research, that trips similar to ours had produced nearly 500 species, only a handful of which are also common in America. If I could see 460 unique year species in Africa, and then use my seven-hour layover in London to pick up twenty easy European birds at a park near Heathrow, 2016 would be my best year ever.
We were seeing great stuff in Ghana, spectacular turacos and bee-eaters found only in West Africa. But the country’s few remaining forests are under intense hunting and logging pressure, and our walks in them were more sweltering than productive. By the evening of Election Day, we’d already missed our only shot at several of my target species. Very early the next morning, when polls were still open on the West Coast of the States, I turned on my phone for the pleasure of confirming that Clinton was winning the election. What I found instead were stricken texts from my friends in California, with pictures of them staring at a TV and looking morose, my girlfriend curled up on a sofa in a fetal position. The Times headline of the moment was “Trump Takes North Carolina, Building Momentum; Clinton’s Path to Victory Narrow.”
There was nothing to be done but go birding. On a road in the Nsuta Forest, dodging timber trucks whose momentum I associated with Trump’s, and yet clinging to the idea that Clinton still had a path to victory, I saw Black Dwarf Hornbills, an African Cuckoo-Hawk, and a Melancholy Woodpecker.1 It was a sweaty but satisfactory morning that ended, when we re-emerged into network coverage, with the news that the “short-fingered vulgarian” (Spy magazine’s memorable epithet) was my country’s new president. This was the moment when I saw what my mind had been doing with Nate Silver’s figure of thirty percent for Trump’s odds. Somehow I’d taken the figure to mean that the world might be, worst-case, thirty percent shittier after Election Day. What the number actually represented, of course, was a thirty percent chance of the world’s being one hundred percent shittier.
As we traveled up into drier, emptier northern Ghana, we intersected with some birds I’d long dreamed of seeing: Egyptian Plovers, Carmine Bee-eaters, and a male Standard-winged Nightjar, whose outrageous wing streamers gave it the look of a nighthawk being closely pursued by two bats. But we were falling ever farther behind the year-bird pace I needed to maintain. It occurred to me, belatedly, that the trip lists I’d seen online had included species that were only heard, not seen, while I needed to see a bird to count it. Those lists had raised my hopes the way Nate Silver had. Now every target species I missed increased the pressure to see all of the remaining targets, even the wildly unlikely ones, if I wanted to break my record. It was only a stupid year list, ultimately meaningless even to me, but I was haunted by the headline from the morning after Election Day. Instead of 275 electoral votes, I needed 460 species, and my path to victory was becoming very narrow. Finally, four days before the end of the trip, in the spillway of a dam near the Burkina Faso border, where I’d hoped to get half a dozen new grassland birds and saw zero, I had to accept the reality of loss. I was suddenly aware that I should have been at home, trying to console my girlfriend about the election, exercising the one benefit of being a depressive pessimist, which is the propensity to laugh in dark times.
* * *
How had the short-fingered vulgarian reached the White House? When Hillary Clinton started speaking in public again, she lent credence to a like-goes-with-like account of her character by advancing a this-followed-that narrative. Never mind that she’d mishandled her emails and uttered the phrase “basket of deplorables.” Never mind that voters might have had legitimate grievances with the liberal elite she represented; might have failed to appreciate the rationality of free trade, open borders, and factory automation when the overall gains in global wealth came at middle-class expense; might have resented the federal imposition of liberal urban values on conservative rural communities. According to Clinton, her loss was the fault of James Comey—maybe also of the Russians.
Admittedly, I had my own neat narrative account. When I came home from Africa to Santa Cruz, my progressive friends were still struggling to understand how Trump could have won. I remembered a public event I’d once done with the optimistic social-media specialist Clay Shirky, who’d recounted to the audience how “shocked” professional New York restaurant critics had been when Zagat, a crowdsourced reviewing service, had named Union Square Cafe the best restaurant in town. Shirky’s point was that professional critics aren’t as smart as they think they are; that, in fact, in the age of Big Data, critics are no longer even necessary. At the event, ignoring the fact that Union Square Cafe was my favorite New York restaurant (the crowd was right!), I’d sourly wondered if Shirky believed that critics were also stupid to consider Alice Munro a better writer than James Patterson. But now Trump’s victory, too, had vindicated Shirky’s mockery of pundits. Social media had allowed Trump to bypass the critical establishment, and just enough members of the crowd, in key swing states, had found his low comedy and his incendiary speech “better” than Clinton’s nuanced arguments and her mastery of policy. This follows from that: without Twitter and Facebook, no Trump.
After the election, Mark Zuckerberg did briefly seem to take responsibility, sort of, for having created the platform of choice for fake news about Clinton, and to suggest that Facebook could become more active in filtering the news. (Good luck with that.) Twitter, for its part, kept its head down. As Trump’s tweeting continued unabated, what could Twitter possibly say? That it was making the world a better place?
In December, my favorite Santa Cruz radio station, KPIG, began running a fake ad offering counseling services to addicts of Trump-hating tweets and Facebook posts. The following month, a week before Trump’s inauguration, the PEN American Center organized events around the country to reject the assault on free speech that it claimed Trump represented. Although his administration’s travel restrictions did later make it harder for writers from Muslim countries to have their voices heard in the United States, the one bad thing that could not be said of Trump, in January, was that he had in any way curtailed free speech. His lying, bullying tweets were free speech on steroids. PEN itself, just a few years earlier, had given a free-speech award to Twitter, for its self-publicized role in the Arab Spring. The actual result of the Arab Spring had been a retrenchment of autocracy, and Twitter had since revealed itself, in Trump’s hands, to be a platform made to order for autocracy, but the ironies didn’t end there. During the same week in January, progressive American bookstores and authors proposed a boycott of Simon & Schuster for the crime of intending to publish one book by the dismal right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. The angriest of the bookstores talked of refusing to stock all titles from S&S, including, presumably, the books of Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN. The talk didn’t end until S&S voided its contract with Yiannopoulos.
Trump and his alt-right supporters take pleasure in pushing the buttons of the politically correct, but it only works because the buttons are there to be pushed—students and activists claiming the right to not hear things that upset them, and to shout down ideas that offend them. Intolerance particularly flourishes online, where measured speech is punished by not getting clicked on, invisible Facebook and Google algorithms steer you toward content you agree with, and nonconforming voices stay silent for fear of being flamed or trolled or unfriended. The result is a silo in which, whatever side you’re on, you feel absolutely right to hate what you hate. And here is another way in which the essay differs from superficially similar kinds of subjective speech. The essay’s roots are in literature, and literature at its best—the work of Alice Munro, for example—invites you to ask whether you might be somewhat wrong, maybe even entirely wrong, and to imagine why someone else might hate you.
* * *
Three years ago, I was in a state of rage about climate change. The Republican Party was continuing to lie about the absence of a scientific consensus on climate—Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection had gone so far as to forbid its employees to write the words climate change, after Florida’s governor, a Republican, insisted that it wasn’t a “true fact”—but I wasn’t much less angry at the left. I’d read a new book by Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, in which she assured the reader that, although “time is tight,” we still have ten years to radically remake the global economy and prevent global temperatures from rising by more than two degrees Celsius by the end of the century. Klein’s optimism was touching, but it, too, was a kind of denialism. Even before the election of Donald Trump, there was no evidence to suggest that humanity is capable—politically, psychologically, ethically, economically—of slashing carbon emissions quickly and deeply enough to change everything. Even the European Union, which had taken the early lead on climate, and was fond of lecturing other regions on their irresponsibility, needed only a recession in 2009 to shift its focus to economic growth. Barring a worldwide revolt against free-market capitalism in the next ten years—the scenario that Klein contended could still save us—the most likely rise in temperature this century is on the order of six degrees. We’ll be lucky to avoid a two-degree rise before the year 2030.
In a polity ever more starkly divided, the truth about global warming was even less convenient to the left than to the right. The right’s denials were odious lies, but at least they were consistent with a certain cold-eyed political realism. The left, having excoriated the right for its intellectual dishonesty and turned climate denialism into a political rallying cry, was now in an impossible position. It had to keep insisting on the truth of climate science while persisting in the fiction that collective world action could stave off the worst of it: that universal acceptance of the facts, which really might have changed everything in 1995, could still change everything. Otherwise, what difference did it make if the Republicans quibbled with the science?
Because my sympathies were with the left—reducing carbon emissions is vastly better than doing nothing; every half degree helps—I also held it to a higher standard. Denying the dark reality, pretending that the Paris Accord could avert catastrophe, was understandable as a tactic to keep people motivated to reduce emissions; to keep hope alive. As a strategy, though, it did more harm than good. It ceded the ethical high ground, insulted the intelligence of unpersuaded voters (“Really? We still have ten years?”), and precluded frank discussion of how the global community should prepare for drastic changes, and how nations like Bangladesh should be compensated for what nations like the United States have done to them.
Dishonesty also skewed priorities. In the past twenty years, the environmental movement had become captive to a single issue. Partly out of genuine alarm, partly also because foregrounding human problems was politically less risky—less elitist—than talking about nature, the big environmental NGOs had all invested their political capital in fighting climate change, a problem with a human face. The NGO that particularly enraged me, as a bird lover, was the National Audubon Society, once an uncompromising defender of birds, now a lethargic institution with a very large PR department. In September 2014, with much fanfare, that PR department had announced to the world that climate change was the number-one threat to the birds of North America. The announcement was both narrowly dishonest, because its wording didn’t square with the conclusions of Audubon’s own scientists, and broadly dishonest, because not one single bird death could be directly attributed to human carbon emissions. In 2014, the most serious threats to American birds were habitat loss and outdoor cats. By invoking the buzzword of climate change, Audubon got a lot of attention in the liberal media; another point had been scored against the science-denying right. But it was not at all clear how this helped birds. The only practical effect of Audubon’s announcement, it seemed to me, was to discourage people from addressing the real threats to nature in the present.
* * *
I was so angry that I decided that I’d better write an essay. I began with a jeremiad against the National Audubon Society, broadened it into a scornful denunciation of the environmental movement generally, and then started waking up in the night in a panic of remorse and doubt. For the writer, an essay is a mirror, and I didn’t like what I was seeing in this one. Why was I excoriating fellow liberals when the denialists were so much worse? The prospect of climate change was every bit as sickening to me as to the groups I was attacking. With every additional degree of global warming, further hundreds of millions of people around the world would suffer. Wasn’t it worth an all-out effort to achieve a reduction of even half of one degree? Wasn’t it obscene to be talking about birds when children in Bangladesh were threatened? Yes, the premise of my essay was that we have an ethical responsibility to other species as well as to our own. But what if that premise was false? And, even if it was true, did I really care personally about biodiversity? Or was I just a privileged white guy who liked to go birding? And not even a pure-hearted birder—a lister!
After three nights of doubting my character and motives, I called Henry Finder and told him I couldn’t write the piece. I’d done plenty of ranting about climate to my friends and to like-minded conservationists, but it was like a lot of the ranting that happens online, where you’re protected by the impromptu nature of the writing and by the known friendliness of your audience. Trying to write a finished thing, an essay, had made me aware of the sloppiness of my thinking. It had also enormously increased the risk of shame, because the writing wasn’t casual, and because it was going out to an audience of probably hostile strangers. Following Henry’s admonition (“Therefore”), I’d come to think of the essayist as a firefighter, whose job, while everyone else is fleeing the flames of shame, is to run straight into them. But I had a lot more to fear now than my mother’s disapproval.
My essay might have stayed abandoned if I hadn’t already clicked a button on Audubon’s website, affirming that, yes, I wanted to join it in fighting climate change. I’d only done this to gather rhetorical ammunition to use against Audubon, but a deluge of direct-mail solicitations had followed from that click. I got at least eight of them in six weeks, all of them asking me to give money, along with a similar deluge in my email in-box. A few days after speaking to Henry, I opened one of the emails and found myself looking at a picture of myself—luckily a flattering image, taken in 2010 for Vogue magazine, which had dressed me up better than I dress myself and posed me in a field with my binoculars, like a birder. The headline of the email was something like “Join Author Jonathan Franzen in Supporting Audubon.” It was true that, a few years earlier, in an interview with Audubon magazine, I’d politely praised the organization, or at least its magazine. But no one had asked for my permission to use my name and image for solicitation. I wasn’t sure the email was even legal.
A more benign impetus to return to the essay came from Henry. As far as I know, Henry couldn’t care less about birds, but he seemed to see something in my argument that our preoccupation with future catastrophes discourages us from tackling solvable environmental problems in the here and now. In an email to me, he gently suggested that I lose the tone of prophetic scorn. “This piece will be more persuasive,” he wrote in another, “if, ironically, it’s more ambivalent, less polemical. You’re not whaling on folks who want us to pay attention to climate change and emission reductions. But you’re attentive to the costs. To what the discourse pushes to the margins.” Email by email, revision by revision, Henry nudged me toward framing the essay not as a denunciation but as a question: How do we find meaning in our actions when the world seems to be coming to an end? Much of the final draft was devoted to a pair of well-conceived regional conservation projects, in Peru and Costa Rica, where the world really is being made a better place, not just for wild plants and wild animals but for the Peruvians and Costa Ricans who live there. Work on these projects is personally meaningful, and the benefits are immediate and tangible.
In writing about the two projects, I hoped that one or two of the big charitable foundations, the ones spending tens of millions of dollars on biodiesel development or on wind farms in Eritrea, might read the piece and consider investing in work that produces tangible results. What I got instead was a missile attack from the liberal silo. I’m not on social media, but my friends reported that I was being called all sorts of names, including “birdbrain” and “climate-change denier.” Tweet-size snippets of my essay, retweeted out of context, made it sound as if I’d proposed that we abandon the effort to reduce carbon emissions, which was the position of the Republican Party, which, by the polarizing logic of online discourse, made me a climate-change denier. In fact, I’m such a climate-science accepter that I don’t even bother having hope for the ice caps. All I’d denied was that a right-minded international elite, meeting in nice hotels around the world, could stop them from melting. This was my crime against orthodoxy. Climate now has such a lock on the liberal imagination that any attempt to change the conversation—even trying to change it to the epic extinction event that human beings are already creating without the help of climate change—amounts to an offense against religion.
I did have sympathy for the climate-change professionals who denounced the essay. They’d been working for decades to raise the alarm in America, and they finally had President Obama on board with them; they had the Paris Accord. It was an inopportune time to point out that drastic global warming is already a done deal, and that it seems unlikely that humanity is going to leave any carbon in the ground, given that, even now, not one country in the world has pledged to do it. I also understood the fury of the alternative-energy industry, which is a business like any other. If you allow that renewable-energy projects are only a moderating tactic, unable to reverse the damage that past carbon emissions will continue to do for centuries, it opens the door to other questions about the business. Like, did we really need quite so many windmills? Did they have to be placed in ecologically sensitive areas? And the solar farms in the Mojave Desert—wouldn’t it make more sense to cover the city of Los Angeles with solar panels and spare the open space? Weren’t we sort of destroying the natural world in order to save it? I believe it was an industry blogger who called me a birdbrain.
As for Audubon, the fund-raising email should have warned me about the character of its management. But I was still surprised by its response to the essay, which was to attack, ad hominem, the person whose name and image it had blithely appropriated two months earlier. My essay had, yes, given Audubon some tough love. I wanted it to cut out the nonsense, stop talking about fifty years from now, and be more aggressive in defending the birds that both it and I love. But apparently all Audubon could see was a threat to its membership numbers and its fund-raising efforts, and so it had to negate me as a person. I’m told the president of Audubon fired off four different salvos at me personally. This is what presidents do now.
And it worked. Without even reading those salvos—simply from knowing that other people were reading them—I felt ashamed. I felt the way I’d felt in eighth grade, shunned by the crowd and called names that shouldn’t have hurt but did. I wished I’d listened to my panics in the night and kept my opinions to myself. In a state of some anguish, I called up Henry and dumped all my shame and regret on him. He replied, in his barely legible way, that the online response was only weather. “With public opinion,” he said, “there’s weather, and then there’s climate. You’re trying to change the climate, and that takes time.”
It didn’t matter if I believed this or not. It was enough to feel that one person, Henry, didn’t hate me. I consoled myself with the thought that, although climate is too vast and chaotic for any individual to alter it, the individual can still find meaning in trying to make a difference to one afflicted village, one victim of global injustice. Or to one bird, or one reader. After the online flames had died down, I started hearing privately from conservation workers who shared my frustrations but couldn’t afford to express them. I didn’t hear from many people, but there didn’t have to be many. My feeling in each case was the same: The person I wrote the essay for is you.
* * *
But now, two and a half years later, as ice shelves crumble and the Twitter president pulls out of the Paris Accord, I’m not so sure. Now I can admit to myself that I didn’t write the essay just to hearten a few conservationists and deflect some charitable dollars to better causes. I really did want to change the climate. I still do. I share, with the very people my essay criticized, the recognition that global warming is the issue of our time, perhaps the biggest issue in all of human history. Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse. I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming. My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely, and my only faith is that facing it honestly, however painful this may be, is better than denying it.
If I were writing the essay today, I might say all this. The mirror of the essay, as it was published, reflected an angry bird-loving misfit who thinks he’s smarter than the crowd. That character may be me, but it’s not the whole me, and a better essay would have reflected that. In a better essay, I might still have given Audubon the rebuke it deserved, but I would have found my way to more sympathy for the other people I was angry at: for the climate activists, who for twenty years had watched their path to victory narrow sickeningly, as carbon emissions mounted and the necessary emissions-reduction targets grew ever more unrealistic, and for the alternative-energy workers who had families to feed and were trying to see beyond petroleum, and for the environmental NGOs that thought they’d finally found an issue that could wake the world up, and for the leftists who, as neoliberalism and its technologies reduced the electorate to individual consumers, saw climate change as the last strong argument for collectivism. I would especially have tried to remember all the people who need more hope in their lives than a depressive pessimist does, the people for whom the prospect of a hot, calamity-filled future is unbearably sad and frightening, and who can be forgiven for not wanting to think about it. I would have kept revising.
Copyright © 2018 by Jonathan Franzen