We Need More Imagination in the Face of Climate Catastrophe

By Joe Lowndes (September 12, 2019)

It’s really interesting how this Franzen essay has either been affirmed as a kind of honest reckoning, or vilified as a kind of a privileged defeatism, by so many people I know and respect politically.

I don’t love the piece, but I think Franzen is getting at something productively uncomfortable by arguing that the belief that we can avoid an unutterably brutal future is an anxious wish, one that might prevent us from really acknowledging what is before us.

Against some of the eco-modernist insistence that we can preserve our current way of life, he asks, essentially: what tools do we need – culturally, ethically, politically – to live in an inescapably altered future?

But his answers are entirely inadequate to the radical questions he raises. A more civil society? Better law enforcement? Defense of “democracy?”

Here he betrays his own anxious wish for a lost world of bourgeois liberalism, as if the system he wants to defend bears no responsibility to ecological collapse we will face, and that so many are already facing. He knows that we cannot go back, but he stops short of helping us imagine how to go forward, beyond a kind of micro-politics of community self-care.

It seems increasingly clear that – while doing all we can now to stay the worst outcomes of climate catastrophe – we will be eventually be forced to choose between authoritarian and violent forms of resource-hoarding and rule; or new (or perhaps very old) forms of mutual aid, care, and collective self-organization.

Franzen is right to ask us to move past our frozen state of melancholia, to be alive to the horror of collapse as a way to make living meaningful. But perhaps ironically for a novelist, his imagination fails us.

joe lowndes

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