man sitting with head in hands

Please Don’t Shut up Mr Franzen – breaking the taboo on our climate tragedy

The New Yorker missed out on publishing one of the biggest stories of the year in 2017, when their neighbourhood competitor, the New York Magazine, published David Wallace-Wells’ article on whether the world would become too hot for humans. Not to be outdone, they published a piece on a similar topic two years later, by the author Jonathan Franzen. He goes a bit further than Wallace-Wells by asking readers to reflect on what we might start considering if it might be too late to avert the disruption of our civilisation due to climate chaos. In doing that, he was breaking a taboo in mainstream culture, and the environmental field, that we do not talk about it being too late to avert a breakdown in the way of life of people living in the richer world. I broke that taboo last year in my own field of corporate sustainability and academia, with the publication of Deep Adaptation. It is why I found the Franzen article interesting – and the reaction to it much more so.

I read Franzen’s piece and didn’t find fault in it. One could wish for more clarity on how he concludes that we won’t keep climate change below a level that will disrupt or break down our civilisation. His main argument is that human nature and socio-political systems won’t change instantly and completely to significantly curb temperature rise. I agree. Having lived on every continent of the world (expect Antarctica), I have seen how rapidly societies have been joining the consumer industrial way of life. But I also recognise current disasters around the world as a sign that massive disruption is already under way, and that there is so much extreme weather now predetermined due to the lag and momentum of warming that even instantaneous and complete decarbonisation would not prevent massive further disruption. In July 2019 I compiled a Compendium of published research on climate change and related impacts to explain how I arrive at this view. I did that because I don’t believe that we should be asking anyone to simply believe us on such a life-changing and world-changing issue. Not many people have the privilege of time and training to do their own reading and analysis: but whoever one is, with an internet connection it is now possible to read some of the evidence for oneself.

One might ask Franzen for more ideas for implications of his view that it is too late to stop massive disruption. He focuses on a local project as his source of meaning, applauding how it combines social and environmental concerns in a practical way. That is one response. But I offered the Deep Adaptation framework as a means for people to explore all possible implications at a personal and collective level. That could be local action, or it might be political, or both and everything in between. I appreciate that Franzen mentions that any act coming from love is important as we face a terrible and unprecedented predicament.

photo of man sitting on ground
Photo by Nafis Abman on

I have been sent a range of articles that criticise his New Yorker opinion piece, or the man himself. As I don’t enjoy righteous outrage, these made for rather unpleasant reading. Rather than focusing on the individuals complaining about Franzen, I will summarise some of the types of arguments they used, as they are important to avoid in future if more of us are to engage in generative dialogue about our predicament – in order to reduce harm, save what we can, learn from the situation, and find joy in the process.

Some have implied Franzen said we should stop trying to cut emissions or drawdown carbon. Yet he said the opposite. I can relate with him on that, as I have also been misrepresented in a similar way. I wonder whether this misrepresentation might be because certain commentators are frightened of their own potential emotional pain, and a quick form of emotional defence is righteous indignation towards another person. It kills the pain faster than allowing oneself to consider the arguments for longer or attempting a nuanced unpacking of them. Perhaps the negative reaction arises also because some people do not understand how people can seek to act positively for others or nature, without knowing that it will be successful. That many people do things because they believe or know them to be right, rather than because they will achieve a particular goal, is a wonderful thing.

Franzen did not say that every additional further bit of human-induced global warming does not matter. Instead, he asked for discussions about relative priorities between attempts to slow climate change versus attempts to prepare for its impacts. He noted the importance of finding actions that both reduce carbon and help us with the consequences of the disruptions that are already beginning.

This is a sensible invitation to discussion, given that 20 times more money is being spent on reducing emissions than building resilience to the effects of extreme weather, according to the new Global Commission on Adaptation. It can be a humanitarian impulse to invite a discussion of priorities, given how the rich world’s neglect of adaptation will put millions of people in danger. Moreover, if societies collapse, so efforts at cutting carbon emissions may collapse with them.

On these two points, it was surprising to see how serious commentators were misquoting or misrepresenting him on these points. Rather than criticise such commentators individually, I prefer to quote what Franzen said on emissions and the potential for runaway climate change:

“In the long run, it probably makes no difference how badly we overshoot two degrees; once the point of no return is passed, the world will become self-transforming. In the shorter term, however, half measures are better than no measures. Halfway cutting our emissions would make the immediate effects of warming somewhat less severe, and it would somewhat postpone the point of no return. The most terrifying thing about climate change is the speed at which it’s advancing, the almost monthly shattering of temperature records. If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane, just a few extra years of relative stability, it would be a goal worth pursuing.

In fact, it would be worth pursuing even if it had no effect at all…”

Many critics made the unfounded assertion that to say that it is too late to stop disastrous climate change means that people who hear that will stop engaging to create change. There are many holes in that view. First, that every listener matters the same as another for societal change. Most theories of social change (and common sense) indicate that certain people can lead change. The Extinction Rebellion movement is based on the idea of mobilising around 3 percent of a population. If a shocking message helps mobilise 3 percent to act through non-violent direct action, then that has significant implications for political and thus societal change. Second, some psychologists have found that if climate change is felt or experienced as a current problem, rather than a future one, then it leads to more action. Then there is the evidence of the last 30 years, where an incremental, cautious, optimistic, individualist and apolitical environmentalism has achieved nothing in terms of the trajectory of global carbon emissions or biodiversity loss. Last week the Finance Director of Extinction Rebellion was arrested at his home. Legal help for him was sourced by a coordinator in XR. Both quit their day jobs last year after reading my Deep Adaptation paper, which outlined my view that we face inevitable near-term societal collapse due to extreme weather affecting our national and international agricultural systems (and potentially our financial systems ahead of that). There are so many other stories of people changing their lives because its too late to keep pretending, and instead to live one’s truth today, whatever the consequences. That might be a bit disconcerting for career environmentalists and climate scientists, who always assumed they are the more smart, brave and ethical people in society.

Another limitation of some of his critics is that they did not specify what they mean by “doom.” By doom, do they mean for capitalism? For law and order? Or civilisation? Or billions of people? Or the entire human race? The commentators I read didn’t say. If a particular range of possibility seems threatening to one’s existing stories of world and self, then it may not be easy to look at those possibilities with an open mind to see what the alternatives might be.

The Deep Adaptation framework is inviting people to explore actions that will help soften the break-up of our normal way of life. It doesn’t require us to believe any one particular scenario of doom will come to pass. Personally, I think the industrial consumer society will break apart either everywhere or almost everywhere. I think many millions more people will die because of disruption caused by climate change, but don’t know how many – and I worry for the future existence of our species but do not feel able to make credible predictions on that.

Another problem with Franzen’s critics is that many write about a universal omnipotent WE who can choose to act and change everything. They say: WE need to change totally everywhere while WE still have the choice. The problem is there is no collective WE that has such power or choice. Instead, there are billions of people who need to give up an industrial consumer way of life and billions of people who must give up aspiring to live such a life, while existing within a monetary system that requires continual expansion of economic activity to maintain itself. This rather peculiar recourse to a universal omnipotent imaginary WE by scientists and international bureaucrats was a particularly interesting topic in my interview with senior climate scientist Dr Wolfgang Knorr, who is now helping to reveal how his profession has been misleading itself and the public over the past years.

Another criticism was the “ad hominem” attack, playing the person not the argument. Thus, we read how we should ignore Franzen as he is one of a type – those rich old white men who selfishly abandon the climate fight. Indeed, Franzen is an older white man. Yet there are many female researchers and educators who consider it now likely we cannot avert disruption due to climate chaos. These include Carolyn Baker, Deb Ozarko, Joanna Macy, Barbara Cecil and even the woman most responsible for this year’s climate awakening, Gail Bradbrook (listen to her speeches or my Q&A with her to hear that). To dismiss them on grounds of gender or age would be unacceptable. All of these women, and old white guy Franzen, seem to be responding to climate change creatively and earnestly, rather than abandoning the challenge.

The vitriol in some of the criticism of Franzen is an indicator of how deeply rooted the denial of our predicament is within some people who work on the environment. As I have written before in responses to those who say “we must stay positive,” it is difficult to discuss this topic with someone if their identity structure includes a sense that their self-worth depends on a self-image as a person with agency to make a better future. Psychologists in the Climate Psychology Alliance told me that there is little benefit of public discussion with people who pick a fight on these issues. So, it is probably sensible for Jonathan Franzen not to reply to his critics. So please don’t “Shut Up Mr Franzen,” but if you focus on developing your own ideas with sensitivity, I know many people will welcome that. Soon you will be joined by many. Because people in various sectors and professions will begin to share the evidence they have for how climate change is threatening our systems – particularly our fragile international food supply chains. As such evidence emerges, so it will be important to explore loving ways of responding to our predicament, and thoughtful voices like your own will be useful.

There will continue to be anger, blame and hatred – including some directed at people who feel it important to invite more work on adaptation to climate change. People will become scared, including those of us who choose to read and write about this topic. Top climate scientist Professor David King recently expressed his own fear. In this context, the more that we can invite ourselves into open-minded and open-hearted discussion of our feelings and thoughts as we face the predicament, the better. It is why in the new Deep Adaptation Forum, we have focused on methods for holding discussions in-person or online. In addition, this view informs the way we support the moderators of the Positive Deep Adaptation Facebook group and the initiators of local Deep Adaptation groups.

In time we will not need to discuss the arguments made against Franzen, as time itself will be the best educator. But for now, expanding the space for discussion of preparing for and transcending societal collapse will help, and needs voices like Franzens’s to do so.

Some further links:

I write about ‘collapse denial’ within the environmental professions in my original Deep Adaptation Paper, with some suggestions of psychological, professional and institutional reasons for it.

I write about the various arguments used by critics who want to silence conversations on this topic, in my blog on Barriers to Dialogue.

I write more about environmentalists who demand positivity, and how that is counter-productive, here and here.

In my Deep Adaptation Q&As I talk with psychologist Adrian Tait and writer Deb Ozarko about these issues.

I write about the matter of vision and hope after one accepts the likelihood of societal collapse, here.

10 thoughts on “Please Don’t Shut up Mr Franzen – breaking the taboo on our climate tragedy”

  1. Perhaps in a campaign, one has to respond to negative challenges lest they become dominant and overwhelm the virtue of the campaign message. But nobody is going to win this campaign and precious resources of time, intelligence and space could better be employed in reaching people who yearn for some way of integrating this knowledge and its impact. I just experienced a profound and inspiring encounter with such a group of seekers and activists at a retreat using Buddhist teachings to support the challenge of dealing with this difficult material. It created a process that provided the resiliency necessary to endure the struggle and transform despair into courage. As Joanna Macy says, it is not knowledge that makes the difference, but a spiritual engagement that creates reconnection with nature and each other.

    1. Dear Camilo,
      Was this retreat experience you refer to Insight Dialogue?
      If so, I too have found it a powerful practice because it combines 1. Cultivation of meditative qualities with 2. Wisdom teachings from the Buddha through 3. Relational practice. This form of interpersonal meditation practice has helped me navigate my emotional turbulence in response to suffering in this world and reconnect with love, compassion, equanimity, even joy! From practicing Insight Dialogue with others, I have found a tender courage blooming within, with which I’ve been able to face the reality of climate destabilization and begin addressing the questions of “How do I want to show up in this world now and in the future? How can I become more resilient to be of benefit to myself and others in this unfolding, changing world?”

      1. Dear Danica, you can find a review of the retreat on my FB page. I’m not sure what exactly insight dialog is, but I would say that although not specifically designated as such, it fulfilled the qualities you mention. It was led by David Loy, author of Ecodharma and he used the contents of that book as his material for the talks. I found blooming courage within also, more fierce than tender, however. It really helped me to consolidate and stabilize my recovery from an episode of depression a couple of weeks up to the retreat. I started to recover when I shared my feelings with a group I organized, the Buddhist Climate Practice/Action Group. We must have some close support in this work, spiritual guidance and keep as close to Nature as possible. I strongly recommend a book to you which has crystallized these experiences, Savage Grace: Resilience in the Dark Night of the Globe by Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker. It is for me an answer to the questions and recommendations raised in Deep Adaptation, the territory that Jem offers the map of.

  2. I just want to comment on one aspect of this, as ever, lucid and careful unpacking of the issues. You perhaps are slightly critical in your comment on Franzen’s focus on one local project, and it feels like you think that perhaps your framework is more useful? I’d suggest that this is a not uncommon difference between ‘arts’ and ‘science’ approaches. In the repetoire of the arts is staying with a singular lived experience as a reference point, as opposed to attempting to extrapolate generalities. It’s not that there is anything wrong with either, but it might be said that the staying with the individual experience, and valuing that, is one of the strengths of the arts.
    It is interesting that later on you recognise the problem in those who criticise Franzen with the all encompassing ‘we’. Obviously this isn’t a simple binary, but Franzen’s focus on what he can speak to from personal experience (what ‘personal experience’ is is the subject of a much bigger discussion) is key, as is your own moment of realisation, in connecting with people (as is perhpas your own narrative of personal realisation?).

  3. Yes! Thank you for this! I found his article deeply moving, scary and affirming what I believe to be a fundamental two-part approach to Making Change: 1) actions to achieve significant, measurable reductions in carbon emissions, and 2) strategies to connect /work with others in respectful, positive and productive ways, including allowing for fear, grief and sorrow. The (often inaccurate or just plain thoughtless) push back generated by his article is puzzling indeed.

  4. Your comment about those among that would act regardless of the hope for a desired outcome is important. There are those who will choose to live how their conscience dictates they must, even if it cannot change the future. It could be thought of as a moral compulsion; the need to harmonize one’s actions with what one believes is right, as the dissonance of doing otherwise would be intolerable. It brings to mind Ursula Le Guin: ““The truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing but does only and wholly what he must do.”

    I too appreciate that Mr Franzen had joined the small but growing chorus of voices that chose to speak plainly about our predicament. To many NGOs, media outlets and scientists have downplayed the awful truth in fear of turning off, turning away or discouraging their audiences – “handling” the public the way one does an alcoholic, afraid to trigger even more destructive behaviour. The silence, lack of urgency, lack of honesty have all played their part in where we are today. At the very least, we must all agree : this approach has failed. Radical honesty comes late, but it can still have a beneficial impact on millions of lives.

  5. The biggest criticism I encountered in my circle of virtual acquaintance was that Franzen failed to acknowledge your work on Deep Adaptation, presenting his thoughts as original and special. Given the number of critical responses you imply that you’ve read, I’m sure that you’ve encountered this critique as well. That you don’t mention it is either personally magnanimous or a recognition that this issue is far too important for matters of attribution to dominate the discussion.

    1. I’ve seen opinions about climate change and denial and hopelessness very similar to Jem’s but predating him by several years. I don’t think Jem has any special ownership of the subject and I don’t think there’s much ‘original’ to say on it. He just presented it at the right time and in the right way to spark a movement.

      1. Exactly. I was aware of Jem B’s ideas before I read Franzen’s piece, but did not for a second consider an intellectual debt upon reading Franzen. They are two sides of the same coin. Franzen took a lot of flak. Let’s support him, not attack him.

  6. […] Please Don’t Shut up Mr Franzen – breaking the taboo on our climate tragedy By Jem Bendell,, 16 September 2019 The New Yorker missed out on publishing one of the biggest stories of the year in 2017, when their neighbourhood competitor, the New York Magazine, published David Wallace-Wells’ article on whether the world would become too hot for humans. Not to be outdone, they published a piece on a similar topic two years later, by the author Jonathan Franzen. He goes a bit further than Wallace-Wells by asking readers to reflect on what we might start considering if it might be too late to avert the disruption of our civilisation due to climate chaos. In doing that, he was breaking a taboo in mainstream culture, and the environmental field, that we do not talk about it being too late to avert a breakdown in the way of life of people living in the richer world. I broke that taboo last year in my own field of corporate sustainability and academia, with the publication of Deep Adaptation. It is why I found the Franzen article interesting – and the reaction to it much more so. […]

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