What If We Started Telling the Truth?

Jonathan Franzen caused a stir last month. Not with a new bestseller (he is the author of The Corrections and Freedom – I strongly recommend the latter), but with a considered piece for The New Yorker entitled “What If We Stopped Pretending” and subtitled “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we have to admit that we can’t prevent it.” Yes we can, says Obama (although he turned out to be wrong in the short run). No we can’t, says Franzen, and we had better start admitting it. The New Yorker was besieged with letters – but back to that later.

What is of real interest here is what Franzen has to say about us old folks and how lucky we are: “If you’re younger that sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth – massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.” So we old folk won’t see the worst of it. We are… lucky. And I would posit that perhaps we are lucky in two ways – we may die before the worst of it and we were young when the world was… less broken. We were young when children roamed neighborhoods and woodlands freely, when traffic was minimal, when shorelines weren’t dwarfed by McMansions and farms were places where there really were animals out in the fields. We have endured the grief of a world faded and transformed, but we did – at least – know that earlier world. We can try to tell our children and grandchildren about that world, but as I have discussed elsewhere (“Teach Your Children Well?”), this is difficult. We can take them to places where trees and open skies still exist, but these are now “special places” and not the world most of us live in. And, of course, we carry some of the guilt for our part in the brokenness of the world.

We also came out of a world that recognized threats and did something about them. Our parents had mobilized to meet the Depression and then World War II; our generation had marched to stop war in Vietnam and to ameliorate the oppression of our own people – minorities, women – at home. Did we operate out of hope? Surely. But it was hope tempered by fear of the reality brought to us by the nightly news. And, in the case of climate change, hope is not getting us very far and slowly melting glaciers are not often making it into the frenetic news cycle. And, perhaps, we have no right to hope as long as we do nothing.

If the old are lucky, it would seem that they have the least to lose in the current battle. Yet, as I write, 81-year-old Jane Fonda has just been arrested on the Capitol steps protesting this country’s inaction on climate change. We do care. We remember the world we had as children. We may be lucky enough not to survive to see the worst devastation, but we also have the grief and guilt of knowing the extent of what has been lost.

In the torrent of letters that The New Yorker got about Franzen’s article, his attitude was called “complacent” and “hopeless,” and he was accused of being “pathetic” and committing “moral surrender.” Others just argued about his facts and/or put their hope in technology and better allocation of resources. I, myself, am rather sick of the technology defense. It was largely technology that got us into this mess, wasn’t it? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results,” says the genuine genius of our time. The minority that defends Franzen calls his essay “a welcome discussion of reality, and asks: “Wouldn’t we all feel better if we acknowledged the fact and acted accordingly?” I see both sides, and if Franzen makes some people mad enough to do something (think Congress), I guess that’s good. But I’m mostly with Franzen; I come down on the side of facing the truth. Even discounting global warming (and I say this knowing that it cannot be discounted), we have done terrible things to this planet, to our home, just in the lifetimes of those of us “lucky” enough to be over sixty. This must be acknowledged and it should be atoned for. But not by the telling of fairy tales.

The story for this week is “Luck,” a tale of two strangers and an eavesdropper about the attitudes we carry with us. It is about who feels lucky and who feels unfortunate; it asks who is lucky and who is unfortunate. It is not about how we make those judgments – that is material for another story.

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