The Courage of Hopelessness: Jonathan Franzen and Lost Causes

Jonathan Franzen's controversial essay 'What if We Stopped Pretending?' may just offer a key to navigating climate change...

H. Jordan
16th November 2021
Jonathan Franzen (image credit Wikimedia Common)

January 21st saw the release of Jonathan Franzen’s What if We Stopped Pretending?
I maintain that Franzen, straight white male and non-climate scientist that he is, nonetheless creates here an opening essential to facing our changing climate. 

The short text, barely clocking in at eighty pages, gives voice to a stark thesis: our mode of schematizing (figuring) the climate crisis— and thus the collective ethos determined by a model of how to resolve such —is fundamentally misguided.  

Given the various conditions (the radical policy changes globally and unequivocally necessary, the liminal margin-for-error, and such commitments having to measure against a swathe of petty concerns) which Franzen crams under the term ‘human nature’, more accurately expressed as “the constraints of human psychology and political reality”, we appear on course to breach the two-degree bound. 
 
Despite the bleakness of this claim’s content, Franzen nonetheless sees acknowledging such as a liberation— not in the sense of license (that is, complacent nihilism: we’re screwed either way, live it up while you can), but rather as liberation from an ethos bound by a terminal point.  

‘Face the probability of crossing the point of no return’ is the above as maxim. 
The quasi-eschatology of the terminal point renders a certain form of response intelligible, and arguably at one point realistic, but the moment has come whereby we must start to project ourselves across such a boundary. 

Franzen offers a glimpse of such a landscape: 
 
If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth— massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you're all but guaranteed to witness it.  

Such a vision may beget a variety of responses: paralysis; the aforementioned nihilistic-hedonism; and, perhaps worst of all, an attempt to track down the alchemical feat of transmuting this wretched scenario itself into some vaguely defined ‘opportunity’. 
The essential element of Franzen’s thought here is the suspension of such options through, in Slavoj Žižek’s words, passing through the “zero point of hopelessness”— despite Franzen falling back on the language of ‘hope’ to describe what occurs afterwards.  

Here an ethos of prevention is replaced by that of mitigation, reparation, and robust socio-political organization— though such likewise produces one of the text’s most obvious flaws: the semantic-bloating of ‘climate action’, to the point where Franzen will claim that “any movement toward a more just and civil society can now be considered a meaningful climate action”.  
It’s worth highlighting that the reduction of carbon emissions still has its place in this expanded sense of ‘climate action’, and, though the emphasis on it is necessarily diluted by such a framing, it is still held to issue a strong ethical claim upon us. 

Franzen’s text is of value, warts-and-all, precisely insofar as it contributes to a progressive articulation of a latent stimmung (a mood, an atmosphere) from which a new, more adequate collective ethos may emerge. And it is likely that soon this will be more necessary than ever before. 

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AUTHOR: H. Jordan
Second Year Philosophy student with an interest in aesthetics, politics, ethics and their intersections.

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