Saturday, September 14, 2019

Dear Jonathan Franzen, Giving Up is a Position of Privilege

This week will have guest bloggers from my Sociology Senior Seminar on Public Sociology.

            While falling down the rabbit hole of Twitter the other day, a Tweet popped up that caught my eye. “I would vote for this as the worst piece on climate change yet published this decade-” Alex Steffen begins, “flawed in both concept and execution, morally cowardly, and lavishly self-indulgent.” With gorgeous words such as those, I felt personally compelled to take a peek at the New Yorker article attached, and it continued to compel/frustrate me so much after reading it to the point of having to making this post. Mr. Jonathan Franzen, a famous (or rather infamous) essayist and novelist known for taking extreme positions on topics he feels compelled to discuss, as well as a self-declared “non-scientist” has spurred many to challenge his opinions due to his vocal take that keeping the world from succumbing substantially to climate change, and the hope contained within that, should be at this point considered fictitious. While Franzen does take on the issue of hope and its use in certain dialogues around climate change in a way that I believe is beneficial – that is, only using hope as an anchor for stopping climate change (because at this point the climate will change, we cannot reverse this nor fully prevent it)– he fails to come around to the reality that the main use of hope, amongst those like Greta Thunberg and supporters of the Green New Deal, is to prevent pure, unfettered disaster. It inspires and motivates individuals to take action, to be concerned for future generations, and to not become disengaged and let the world go to complete and utter shit, trading concern for others for interior decoration ideas for their underground bunkers. Not only that, but only a select few get to even have that privilege of abandoning active hope and even thinking said thoughts. Jonathan Franzen is clearly part of that.

Franzen is seemingly dropping the torch because he can; unlike many others he does not feel the immediate life-threatening effects of climate change such as climate displacement, inadequate access to food, public health issues, among many others. An award-winning author can afford to relocate, continue to maintain good health, and stray as far away as possible from any type of environmental bad – that is until disastrous, worldwide benchmarks are hit – which of course is guaranteed if we follow in Franzen’s do little or nothing footsteps. But this “climate apocalypse” is already happening for oppressed individuals trapped under combinations of income, citizenship, race, etc. To say that we should go ahead and stop pretending like we can enact any sort of monumental change is ignorant. No, we cannot prevent all of the major realities of climate change, such as temperature increase, infrastructure damage, or rising sea levels- but we can help those already being put in life and death situations to find significant amounts of relief, big and small, all while advocating and pressuring our government to decrease the severity of results with adequate top-down processes. There is a duty to be had among those with more say in the political realm and freer from certain bounds of climate injustice. Privileged folk such as Franzen are ignoring this, and with essays like these, seem to aim at and conjure up those who are on the fence about what to do (and are quite comfortable with their status in life), to abandon hope, abandon that drive to make lives better for others, and just accept that what whatever happens will happen.

   A lot of discourse around climate change stems from this internal reflection of how to feel – should we continue to hold onto hope and actively push for major reform, or prepare for the absolute worse and abandon all notions that any sort of reform will prevent a “climate apocalypse”? I think it’s appalling to give in to the latter, and I will do what I can to call out those who think it’s okay to quit. I believe, much like Eve Andrews, that “giving up is a bullshit move”, and rather unnatural. There’s still time to lessen the blow. There’s still time to make immediate improvements both big and small for those that need it most. Doing otherwise is simply a move driven by privilege, and should be judged and critiqued as such, as we continue the dialogue around our role in the climate movement. 

Salem Menze

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