Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Sloppy, but Interesting
distributed 5/1/15 - ©2015

A friend wrote to me last week, alerting me to a recent New Yorker article: "This will give you a sore neck, from nodding, then shaking your head, then nodding, then . . . ."

That was a much more charitable comment than many have made about the controversial piece Carbon Capture by novelist and essayist Jonathan Franzen. The article is subtitled "Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?"

Audubon, which is maligned in the article, speaks of the writing as "an act of extreme intellectual dishonesty." Climate expert Joe Romm calls it "one of the most bird-brained and hypocritical climate articles ever." A commentary on Daily Kos says that "books could be dedicated to debunking the illogic and misguided nature" within Franzen's piece -- and it proceeds to describe some of those errors.

This one, obviously, was not up to the New Yorker's high standards. The turmoil generated by its publication, though, suggests that Franzen touched on some significant questions. I think of a comment that one academic made about Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol -- "She's interesting, even when she's wrong." So Carbon Capture is interesting, and has stimulated lively conversation, even when Franzen is way off base.

The article is frustrating, but I found two of his points worth some reflection.

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Franzen reminds us of the need to build resilience into biotic communities as a part of adaptation to climate change.

Not every species will manage to adapt. But the larger and healthier and more diverse our bird populations are, the greater the chances that many species will survive, even thrive. To prevent extinctions in the future, it's not enough to curb our carbon emissions. We also have to keep a whole lot of wild birds alive right now. We need to combat the extinctions that are threatened in the present, work to reduce the many hazards that are decimating North American bird populations, and invest in large-scale, intelligently conceived conservation efforts, particularly those designed to allow for climate change.

I agree that there is some danger of climate activism narrowing to a fixation on carbon emissions. However, I see that problem more in the realm of public policy than in the environmental movement that Franzen attacks. As I noted last week, international negotiations set targets only for reduced emissions, and don't consider the need to leave fossil fuels in the ground, let alone offer any metrics for a healthy and thriving biosphere.

If CO2 levels are the only measure for climate action -- and if care is not given to preserving habitats now -- then we will be headed toward a world that is diminished and destabilized. Our work to care for God's creation has to involve much more than new technologies for clean energy.

Seven years ago, I went out on a limb with an assertion similar to Franzen's. "I'm concerned that we're paying too much attention to global warming." Like him, I worried that the crisis of declining biodiversity -- which many experts rate as a more profound threat than climate change -- might get lost if climate action is undertaken too narrowly.

But in 2008, I wasn't just trying to find a balance between two important issues. "I'm concerned that our attention on global warming -- without a comparable attention to other aspects of Earth's deep distress -- may not take us into the sort of transformation that we so urgently need." I named the climate crisis as a symptom of deeper problems in our values, and in the foundations of our economic system. "I'm concerned that we will seek only technological solutions to a problem of pollution, and that we won't look at the moral, spiritual and ethical problems of our consumer society. "

So, yes, I have some sympathy for the point Franzen is trying to make about addressing the climate crisis broadly. But I join with many commentators in wishing that he'd made that point more carefully.

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The either/or style of Carbon Capture has a lot of binary choices, and little subtlety. Franzen delves into sound-bite theology with a pair of Christian options. New England Puritanism is "haunted by the feeling that simply to be human is to be guilty." The countervailing strain of religious thought is "inspired by St. Francis of Assisi's example of loving what's concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us."

Timothy King, blogging for Sojourners, breaks down the simplistic polarity.

What I don't think Franzen fully reconciled is that the Christian life, and the life of the environmentalist, is lived in tension between that New England-inspired Puritanism and the way of St. Francis. Yes, we are born into a world in which our daily existence does not mean we treat Creation (human and non-human) as the gift that it is. This is part of what means to carry 'original sin.' But we are called to respond to that reality through living out the edict to 'love our neighbors as ourselves' through the specific practice of being disciples of Christ.

Many years ago, a Lutheran bishop wrote about the need to "dance in the tension" between conflicting theologies and worldviews. There can be truth in both sides, and we find creative life when accept that we don't need to pick one or the other.

As we face the reality of Earth's distress, faithful and helpful ministry will include lots of both/and thinking. We need to deal with sin and grace, grief and gratitude, broad global trends and the particularity of place, humanity as both a member of Earth community and as uniquely powerful.

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Carbon Capture has stirred up a lot of conversation. It is a muddled and sloppy piece of writing, but Jonathan Franzen has touched on some important topics that need to be debated as we seek to care for creation in this time of climate crisis.

To move into a livable future, the coming years will have to bring great transformations of technology, economics, culture and philosophy. Franzen has at least surfaced some of those conversations in a lively and public way.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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