Human Journey

Climate Hopelessness is a Work of Fiction

Redwoods in Yosemite (credit: Dan Klotz)

Fiction writer Jonathan Franzen’s latest essay for The New Yorker on the hopelessness of climate change opens with a complaint about new football stadium being built for the Minnesota Vikings. The stadium will be built with glass walls that pose a lethal hazard to the thousands of birds flying through the area. But instead of focusing his ire on the governments of Minneapolis and Minnesota, which is sinking $498 million of public money into the development, Franzen blames the National Audubon society for its focus on climate change.

Franzen spends a good part of the essay complaining about the inconvenience of climate change, the guilt he feels in grocery shopping, and the puritanical “belief system” of environmentalists. The intensity of his writing about the environment is understandable. He lives part of the year in California, which is in the midst of a horrific drought and is thus the current poster child for the consequences of ecological disregard.

Environmental problems loom large in the state right now. Forget about the question of watering the implausibly lush lawns in desert oases. Agriculture operations in California’s central valley have drained so much groundwater—to compensate for a lack of rainfall—that the ground has sunk by as much as a foot a year in some places.

At the same time that Franzen’s essay ran, veteran journalist Jeff Tollefson, writing for the science-based periodical Nature, tells the story of successful efforts to slow deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The contrast between the two narratives couldn’t be more striking. Franzen erroneously blames the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest on “poor families displaced from more fecund regions” while Tollefson correctly pins the blame on timber and industrial agriculture—beef and soy operations for the most part. Franzen opines that climate change is hopeless, while Tollefson writes how Brazil showed the world that nations can reduce carbon emissions and still achieve economic growth.

Even the despair that Franzen espouses and his central theme—that climate change will end life as we know it so we may as well enjoy the party for as long as it lasts—runs contrary to the stories he tells in the second half of his opus. Franzen visits with dedicated environmentalists who are successfully conserving parcels of rainforest in Peru and Costa Rica, and recounts their achievements.  One problem is, many more success stories like this are needed. And yet, if only writers like Franzen focused on these positives rather than the negatives, more people can be inspired; more can be achieved.

Franzen’s pessimism reminded me of the late Michael Crichton, an earlier spokesperson of the climate change denial cause. Crichton was embraced as a scientific authority even though he wrote pop-culture science fiction. He too wrote about puritanical environmentalists, compared climate science to eugenics and devoted an entire novel on the extremes of ecoterrorists.

With climate change such a pernicious threat and lasting progress so elusive, it is easy to join Franzen in despair. Tollefson points out, for example, that the progress made in Brazil is precarious and can easily unravel. But then again, the forest conservation successes in Brazil might soon be matched in Indonesia, where deforestation is driven in large part by the palm oil sector.

Thanks to activist campaigns and consumer pressure, recent corporate pledges of sustainability—both at the United Nations and in corporate boardrooms—are reshaping the palm oil industry in Indonesia.  The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil recently kicked out more than a dozen members and suspended more than 60 others for shoddy reporting on their operations. Efforts to acknowledge and respect the land rights of indigenous communities—who sustain the forests they live in—are slowly gaining traction. Change is afoot, even though the hurdles loom large.

Ultimately, Franzen’s pessimism needs to be tossed aside and disregarded. The steps needed to mitigate and adapt to climate change’s impacts present a very stark picture and require an “all hands on deck” type of solution. But failure to act is a disservice to our children, who will inherit the planet from us. We need to ignore the fiction writers, buck up, and tackle the task at hand. In many ways, this is the American frontier narrative retold for the modern era. It is what we do best, and there never has been a better time for it than now.


Dan Klotz is a veteran writer and advocate on conservation efforts and the health and sustainability of our food systems. Dan's career has spanned a wide range of policy issues, including protecting sharks around the world, securing the land rights of indigenous communities, addressing the sustainability and research needs of agriculture both domestically and internationally, advocating for smoke-free workplaces, cleaning up toxic waste sites, and preserving wild areas on land and in the ocean.
  • Nate

    Comparing Franzen to Crichton is unfair. Nowhere does Franzen deny anthropogenic climate change. Nowhere does he say that the effects of which will not be significant and severe.

    He’s saying that even if we stop burning fossil fuels today, we’re going to have to deal with some of the worst effects of climate change, so maybe we should prioritize things like biodiversity and conservation so that we give other organisms a shot to make it through, too.

    To use a Titanic analogy, Franzen is wondering why you are all still talking about missing the iceberg when ship is taking on water and sinking fast.

  • lescaret

    Yet another commentary on Franzen’s New Yorker piece that misrepresents Franzen’s message. Franzen does not deny climate change! Instead, he suggests that not every person and every environmental organization need abandon their core causes and devout every penny and ounce of energy to countering climate change. He suggests that paying attention to immediate and in-process environmental problems, such as threats to the planet’s bird life, remains important and must not be abandoned. Further, he explores precisely those things that the writer of this piece, Dan Klotz, suggests need more attention, namely localized environmental activism that succeeds. Finally, Klotz suggests that we should “…ignore fiction writers, buck up, and tackle the task at hand.” Or, in other words, read only those writers and activists that tell you what you already believe. Bad advice.

  • If Franzen is an activist, then I’m a petrochemical lobbyist. Comparing him to Chrichton was appropriate. Both labeled environmentalists passionate about climate change as extremists, and ignored the facts to make their points.

    While Franzen understands climate change to be real, his pessimistic approach tries to shoot down any possible way of dealing with the crisis. Thinking globally and acting locally does not include throwing up your hands and saying “why bother?”

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