What can you say about a publication, the venerable “New Yorker,” that has brought us writers the likes of Rachel Carson, Bill McKibben and Betsy Kolbert? Easy: They’ve got their environmental worldview very nicely in order. But nobody’s perfect, so the editors responsible for accepting a recent essay, questionable (to be kind) in its logic and facts, by the novelist Jonathan Franzen, are to be forgiven.
There was, in fact, another reasonably bone-headed essay on the environmental movement from another distinguished writer, Nicholas Lemann, a couple of years ago that elicited responses from some worthy environmental leaders in whose company I found myself when the magazine printed my letter alongside theirs.
This time around I didn’t make the cut, but a number of distinguished folks wrote to decry Franzen’s piece, including the actress and National Audubon Society board member Jane Alexander, and the very eminent conservation biologist Thomas Lovejoy. They were joined in separate critiques from two of the top thinkers in the field: David Roberts and Joe Romm. Here, to join the chorus, is the letter I wrote:
Jonathan Franzen (“Carbon Capture,” April 6, 2015) not only paints a false picture of the global battles to combat the climate crisis being somehow in conflict with local and regional conservation efforts, he substantially disproves his own thesis in the course of his reporting.
First of all, though, it would be good to correct a few of his several misapprehensions. Environmentalists are decidedly not, as he maintains the spiritual descendents of New England Puritanism are, “haunted by the feeling that simply to be human is to be guilty.” Environmentalists – the ones I’ve known and worked with for 30 years – are motivated by a love of nature, a passion to protect the public health and advance social justice, and joy in the many and diverse victories we’ve fostered through action. We are not, as Franzen asserts, garment-rending doomsayers. As to Silent Spring, Rachel Carson’s revolutionary cri de cœur, it thoroughly documented the many pernicious public health dangers from the rampant pesticide use of the post-War period. Its “moral center” very much concerned all life, not just wildlife, as Franzen asserts. He also mistakenly equates the banning of DDT with the advent of the Endangered Species Act. DDT was banned in the US the year before the Endangered Species Act came into being. He says that hydroelectric dams, solar panels and wind farms “blight” the landscape and are, in any event, only of minimal value in reducing greenhouse gases. Modern renewables like these supplied 10% of final energy consumption in the world in 2012 and the trend toward more across all our energy systems is accelerating, in every region of the world. The International Energy Agency recently announced that carbon dioxide emissions had for the first time, absent an economic downturn, not increased from one year to the next from 2013 to 2014. The IEA noted “…that efforts to mitigate climate change may be having a more pronounced effect on emissions than had previously been thought.”
His biggest false statement, however, is that “global warming can’t be undone.” It most certainly can be and, in many respects, that is exactly what is happening. His examples of reforestation in Peru and Costa Rica belie his contention. One of the most important historical drivers of climate change has been deforestation and other land-use changes. The visionary scientists and activists whose activities he lauds are proving that you can fight climate change and win.
The environmental movement has never been driven by a one-size-fits-all approach. We have long recognized, over decades, that seeing the big picture is critical, but so is mobilizing action at the grassroots, regional, national and international levels using all the tools at our disposal: science, technology, economics, politics, law, media, and the promotion of fundamental social goals. Franzen shows us exactly how effective these individual actions are but misses seeing how they fit into the big picture.