Jonathan Franzen's latest ebook is a slim digital volume, just 66 pages, collecting together an essay on climate change that first appeared in the New Yorker magazine, an interview he gave to a German publication in the same year and an observational foreword that binds the whole piece together.
For an author whose natural range tends to settle somewhere north of 500 pages of beautifully crafted fiction – his sixth, highly anticipated novel, Crossroads, is due later this year and promises to be another discursive, immersive classic – you could easily write off What If We Stopped Pretending as a non-fiction amuse bouche to turn your nose up at while you impatiently wait for the main course to arrive. Especially so, when the material involved is reissued work.
Fans of the author will tell you, however, that his non-fiction volumes – old, new or reissued – are just as compelling as his novels. And so it is with this release, too.
Franzen being Franzen means that What If We Stopped Pretending is an exquisitely rendered discussion on one of the most difficult conversations of our age.
The author has previously angered both sides of the climate debate and been accused of being either too forceful or too weak. What emerges here is an accidental polemic and one that's worth re-evaluating, especially because our world has changed so dramatically in the past 12 months.
He believes that the world is too far down the track to avoid a climate change catastrophe. It is a case of when, not if, the whole system collapses in on itself. The goal has been clear for decades, the evidence to support it is indisputable but, he writes, we have made no progress towards reaching it.
He paints a bleak portrait of collective failure to solve the puzzle, imagining any future reckoning as a sequence of “severe crises … things will get very bad, but maybe not too soon, and maybe not for everyone. Maybe not to me”.
This is where the work begins to intersect with our lives today.
It is a little over a year since the Covid-19 crisis began to rain down on us. The first cases were identified in the UAE at the end of January 2020. By the end of February, schools across the country were cancelling trips. By March 8, schools were closed. Within days, the World Health Organisation had declared a pandemic. Within a week, the UAE's borders were closed. And so it went on, locally, nationally, regionally and internationally.
The crisis, which we all may have initially imagined as a short, sharp shock, punctuated by short-term stay-at-home orders, movement permits and night-time street sterilisation campaigns, became a long and intricate fight – a sequence of severe crises, which were delivered unevenly and in complicated waves.
Most of us have endured some form of pain during the pandemic – of separation, loss, complication or even infection – but we have also been made more profoundly aware of how the actions of the individual and the community can truly make a difference. Governments may introduce and revise guidelines for containing the spread of the virus, but ultimately action is most effectively driven by each one of us acting responsibly and in the interests of the wider community in which we live.
The distribution of vaccines in the UAE shows the power of what can be achieved by working together. By midweek, the National Emergency Crisis and Disasters Management Authority recorded that more than 3.5 million vaccine doses had been administered in the country.
Health official Dr Farida Al Hosani said this week that "we are seeing good progress on a daily basis". The reasons for that progress are many, including the liberal use of public awareness campaigns, the establishment of vaccine distribution centres in accessible places, the ease of registration to receive the vaccine and so on. But ultimately for the drive to be as successful as it has been to date, it also requires each individual to understand that they have a role to play by taking the jab.
Returning to Franzen, the climate change crisis requires collective action as well, but it also needs each individual to make the right choices about how they lead their lives and to understand how even small changes to their lifestyles can still make a difference. Each of us, he says, has an ethical choice to make. “If collective action resulted in just one fewer devastating hurricane … it would be a goal worth pursuing,” he adds.
The pandemic has also made it clear that generational crises are not abstract concepts but visceral realities. It has spurred some multilateral movement to combat coronavirus and given us a greater sense of the vast amount of effort, resource and capital that is required to turn the tide. We cannot just rebuild, we must regenerate. We cannot return to normal or even the so-called new normal. The challenges are too urgent and too complex to snap back into an approximation of the old order.
Earlier this week, John Kerry, who is the Biden administration's climate change envoy, held talks with Dr Sultan Al Jaber, his UAE counterpart. Mr Kerry said the US was prepared to re-energise the battle to protect the environment and spoke about making up for "lost years with humility and ambition". That is precisely the prescription that it required to bring about a better, less calamitous future.
Nick March is an assistant editor-in-chief at The National
More on Jonathan Franzen ...