Thursday 17 October 2019

Thoughts in Progress

What I’d like to know first is who came up with the title and who wrote the standfirst. Maybe it was Jonathan himself. But from experience, those jobs normally go to a sub-editor. Did she or he know what they were doing?
Then, again, Jonathan Franzen has form in this area. The climate change area. And a few others that have earned him both criticism and detractors over the years.
I confess that I have never read a Franzen novel. I have, however, been exposed to the Franzenian contrarian through his contributions to The New Yorker. It was one of these recent articles that triggered off a big, online backlash. One that I imagine even Jonathan himself wasn’t expecting.
Global warming is a subject many people, from writers to politicians, avoid. Not our Jonathan, though. He has weighed in on it occasionally and his opinions, while contentious (at least some of them), are worth listening to and analysing.
Franzen’s argument focused on the big vs small. As in big subjects, like environmental destruction versus small issues like breakdown of local communities and money-driven gentrification. There’s nothing wrong about lobbying for and supporting worldwide causes like climate change and he’s clear about that. There is, however, something unwholesome about not investing the same energy on local projects.
Here Jonathan raises a point that I, too, raised with a couple of Extinction Rebellion volunteers when I went down to Trafalgar Square recently. How do you deal with the human concept of present and future? One of the challenges we, climate-conscious citizens, face is that the impending destruction of our planet will not happen overnight but in a few decades hence. Surely, there will be more wildfires, floods, landslides and human-made catastrophes along the way, but we will do what humans have been done since the beginning of time: adapt. Therefore, the picture painted by XR and similar groups remains abstract to many. By contrast, the closure of a local community centre is more immediate, visual and personal.
The key theme is Jonathan Franzen’s article is the finite nature of our existence and what to do while we’re still here, on planet Earth. To me this brings in a few elements: awareness of who we are as humans, the impact we have on our environment and our relationship not only to other human beings but also to ourselves.
I don’t think I need to explain at length the fact that there’s a selfish streak that runs through us all. Regardless of where we are born or what gender we are, we have the capacity to behave selfishly. Therefore, it goes without saying that when we become fully aware of who we are, we tend sometimes to focus more on areas that benefit us, while conveniently forgetting others. One of the immediate effects of this attitude is that our environment, for instance, might not get the same attention as our professional life. This imbalance usually results in a conflict between environment-caring people and those who seem not to care or just do not care at all.
But what if some of the people in the second group are directing their time and energy towards equally important, society-improving projects and ideas?
Here lies the crux of Franzen’s argument. And I can certainly identify myself with it.
For more than seven years I was a member of a local community group. After we received some money from Big Local to help us change our neighbourhood for the better, we, residents, came up with a series of programmes. These ranged from gardening to employment workshops. Seven years down the line, I can see the fruits of our voluntary work.
Since last year I have given up my free time to support a charity whose aim is to cut down food waste. Every time I hoist a Felix Project bag onto my back, I feel I am doing something useful. Every time I take unwanted food from cafes and restaurants to a community centre or school, I feel I am caring for our environment. I just don’t happen to be in Trafalgar Square in a tent with hundreds of protesters around me.
Some of the online commenters charged Franzen with having and promoting a pessimistic view of climate change. I disagree. For instance, somewhere in his article, Jonathan writes: “All-out war on climate change made sense only as long as it was winnable. Once you accept that we’ve lost it, other kinds of action take on greater meaning. Preparing for fires and floods and refugees is a directly pertinent example. But the impending catastrophe heightens the urgency of almost any world-improving action. In times of increasing chaos, people seek protection in tribalism and armed force, rather than in the rule of law, and our best defense against this kind of dystopia is to maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities.

I’d say that instead of pessimism this is a healthy dose of realism. Look at the Brexit-caused mess we are going through in the UK right now. One that has given us a racist, misogynistic, homophobic and xenophobic Prime Minister no one voted for and who panders to those who think the Great in Great Britain refers to this country’s supposed importance and place in the world (with the old colonial undertones thrown in) instead of the geographical meaning of “Great”, i.e., Britain is the largest island of the British Isles. Our functioning democracy, legal system and communities are in peril. Faced with this kind of immediate threat, Extinction Rebellion’s demands, welcomed as they are, are not the only pressing issues.

This is the dilemma that confronts us. By us, I mean those who believe in human rights, social justice, equality, a fair society, a dogma-free education system that seeks to develop the individual as a whole. And yes, an environment-friendly mindset that places our planet at the top of our priorities.
© 2019

Photo of Jonathan Franzen taken from The Guardian website. All other images taken by the author.


  1. 'maintain functioning democracies, functioning legal systems, functioning communities.' Sadly I think in many parts of the world part of the problem is that democracies, legal systems and communites aren't functioning. We need them, but can they be repaired, or do they need to be rebuilt? And do we have time?

  2. While it sounds like an insult, your post makes motherhood statements and there is nothing wrong with stating the obvious. You are also right in that humans will adapt. Well, what we will do is react. We are quite good at reacting, just not preventing.

  3. I've been following J. Morris Hicks ( ) for quite some time and will admit that the whole notion of where our planet is headed can be dauntingly overwhelming and depressing. Still.... I try and do as many things as I can, telling myself that every little bit helps. We just switched to solar power for our home, so I feel good about that.

  4. This was an interesting read. Thank you.

    I have spent a lot of time recently on this issue, I have gone to the various marches, health permitting, here, Fridays for Future and a local XR group (small).

    I have also done the MOOC (free online course) by Prof. Michael Mann on Climate Change ( - this was tough going as maths and physics are Double Dutch to me but it was worth it and I highly recommend it.

    I am at a point where I have lost all patience debating whether climate change is something one ought to "believe in" or not. I am also running out of patience with discussions about priorities or what is appropriate action and what is not.
    All action is necessary, all debates are necessary - provided they are not a waste of time, i.e. when we discuss style and format and intention and whatevever instead of the issue at hand. We are excellent in waffling and hiding behind arguments when it comes to facing realities, aren't we. I find XR very convincing, I find Greta Thunberg's and all the other students' in Europe, Africa, Asia, America, the antipodean world words and actions convincing and inspiring - not just to protest but to become active and involved.

    I am a newly minted grandmother, a few weeks ago, my daughter cried in my arms, asking me whether bringing a child into the world was her worst mistake. We spent a difficult night comforting each other, reading facts (science) and acknowledging that we are facing painful realities but we also found this quote by Joanna Macy (

    "The most remarkable feature of this historical moment is not that we are on the way to destroying our world–we’ve actually been on the way quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millenia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves, and to each other."

    I could go on . . .

  5. It is good to do what you can.

  6. I belong to and am fairly active in both the Sierra Club and the National Rifle Association. People who are on the fringes of both make my head spin. People who are absolutely convinced they and only they know what is best for everyone send me running for the door. Unless and until people in these groups and groups like them are willing to compromise their positions, there never will be real solutions to either environmental or firearms issues.

    A provocative, well-written post, CiL ....

  7. First: I love that Lion (of course).
    I agree. "We" always have adapted.
    But we also do care. Endless minutes recycling those darn plastic/glass bottles the automats turn and turn forever before taking them. Paper, plastic, organic, batteries, electrical stuff and finnally: rubbish.
    Whilst some countries just throw everything in one bin. Or here, just in the bush beside the sidewalk....

    I want to work in the city I live in, yet was forced to drive 38km one way to work for 16 years!

    We do have food waste trucks, but it is forbitten to "steal" thrown away, still OK food from bins from supermarkets.

    Oh, yes, "your" Brexit"... it is chaos. I´m sorry but that man looks like... oh, I don´t want to insult another species...

    A big YES to your last words here! Great post - and we´ll adapt, as always.

  8. perhaps slow, unglamorous work with the communities do not get much headlines.
    as usual, an excellent post.

  9. You always give us a lot to ponder. Being able to do something to make a difference helps not only those around us but us to have a better view of our world. When we only focus on the big issues, I suspect we soon burn out or become discouraged.

  10. I agree wholeheartedly with this Franzen quote. I often wonder though how many of us will be left to adapt. That will take awhile, it's coming if not already here to some degree, but I see it happening in small ways. Sometimes I feel embarrassed to say that I am glad I won't be here for the worst of it, but very sad for future generations and what adapting will look like for them.

  11. People are short sighted and greedy. Those who can deal with the problem don't want to start either because it is too daunting or they make money off the current landscape, and those who really are trying, sadly, it's like throwing a raindrop on a forest fire.

  12. Good read but Iam not sure I understand all of it.Bt w much is happening in England right now and I am curious where the way will go for you..Any way it is good to see you back blogging again.I think of you as the beautiful Cuban dancer and world concern man
    Wish you a happy weekend sunday with friends and loved ones
    Greetings Anita

  13. Looking at the big picture and considering the massive problems facing our planet can be overwhelming, kind of like looking at a Mt. Everest-sized mountain of food and trying to figure out how to eat it all in a single meal. We can't. Not all at once, but we take one little bite at a time... and take one little step at a time. As individuals, we may not be able to do it all... but every single effort we make to help matters, and it all adds up. And yes, we will adapt. There is no other alternative.

  14. I guess I am guilty of closing my mind to all that is happening to our planet...not because I don't care - far from it...but because I am scared, no, terrified of what we are doing to it. I'm just aware that if we fail to change our actions soon...then there will be no future, for anyone.
    It is such a huge issue...and on a scale so daunting...that I suppose all we, as individuals, can do is try our best to avoid adding to the problem.
    I do believe that too many people are making huge amounts of money out of the misappropriation of the world's resources...and until they are stopped, little is going to change!🙁
    It is heartbreaking...

  15. I felt that the point of Extinction Rebellion is that it was people doing what they could, what they had it in them to do and what they wanted to do, to improve our earth and our prospects. Your food waste work is certainly part of that movement. Taking a step back I reckon that humans are a type of ape, so will act like the type of apes we are, come what may. I suppose one of our characteristics is that we are constantly looking around and trying to shape what we find around us to benefit ourselves, for a huge variety of reasons: good, bad, subtle or stupid etc. etc. No other living creatures act like this and I reckon it's what has led us to our present situation. Mind you this isn't the kind of thing to start rambling on about in a comments box, so I will shut up now except to say that I do sometimes wonder if biologists should be the ones directing us towards possible solutions :)

  16. good for you on the food waste, we do our small part in our home.

  17. Excellent article. We need to act on both levels i think. I support XR to a large degree, their hearts are in the right place but some of their actions seem oddly misdirected (eg the recent protest on the London Underground that prevented people from getting to work in an environmentally friendly way so they maybe then instead got into a car or a taxi to get to work). Their best protests are the specific ones (we won't go away until this museum cuts its links with fossil fuels) and they have done a huge amount to raise awareness. We all do different things though, and as you say it all counts. Your food waste project sounds brilliant.

    1. The Underground action was absolutely crazy. When you get a lot of grassroots input then daft behavior can be a problem and I don't know if anyone is thinking of how to address it .

  18. I meant to say earlier...I love your profile picture!!😊😊

  19. Hi ACIL - I know our climate and our earth is changing ... mainly down to us ... so we all just need to pay attention to what we can do - and you're right we can't immediately change what is happening ... but we all need to set standards of leadership for ourselves, our family, our locality - wonderful what you're doing with food waste. Somehow I hope we, all peoples, can rise above our leaders and help our world repair ... we are selfish though. We need to think and take note as you do ... cheers Hilary

  20. I love how you are taking action locally rather than giving way to despair. I agree with Franzen's point on democracy. American democratic institutions are struggling to contain the damage of Trump's cruel and authoritarian policies. There are global consequence as he forces the USA out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Functioning democracy is the only way to stop or at least mitigate the damage, and locally we can all do more to support people at risk and our environment when government short changes them. Local action speaks louder than vitriolic polemic. Thank you!

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