Jonathan Franzen talks about his love of birds
You cover a number of environmental issues in your works: mountaintop mining, overpopulation, and songbird population declines. Why do you choose to weave those into your narratives? I specifically don’t want to be in a position where I’m trying to raise a reader’s awareness of a problem because that seems to me a condescending relationship to be in with a reader of fiction.
What about in nonfiction? Not in an essay, because in an essay there again I think it’s important to level with the reader and to not preach. One thing that kills my interest in an essay quickly is a feeling that the writer thinks he has some greater wisdom about something than I do, but with nonfiction, it’s fair game. It’s still a very challenging problem how not to just make it just another story of eco-woe. As a reader I have a very short attention span for depressing stories, so care has to be taken to tell a human story, not just to lambast the reader with more depressing news about what we’re doing to the environment. But yes, certainly, I would not have written about the troubles that European migrants have in the Mediterranean had I not wanted to raise awareness. But frankly another attraction of including some environmental themes in the fiction is that these are terribly intractable problems that we’re all implicated in.
What do you think are some of the most significant environmental issues of today? Well, obviously, many of our troubles are driven by the large world population—more than seven billion now—and the demand for resources would be much less if the population were smaller, but that’s a political and human problem, not an environmental problem. I would say, on the water, the decimation of fisheries, just the vacuuming of protein out of the water using all of these new technologies. And on land it’s habitat loss, particularly habitat fragmentation. There is, as Walter Berglund in Freedom notes, enough open unused land in the United States to guarantee healthy populations of all of the plant and animal species we all have and we want to preserve. But the disturbance to the habitat and the fragmentation to the habitat is resulting in deep trouble for a lot of those species. But all this leads right up to global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. I hesitate to say that is the most important environmental challenge facing us because I’m afraid I think the cat’s already out of the bag on that one. The cow is out of the barn. It’s not going to happen. We’re not going to significantly reduce the amount, voluntarily reduce the amount of carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere. It will not happen. We might slow the rate of increase. So I’m loath to name as a top priority or to identify as the central problem something that is not really amenable to a solution.
You’d rather focus on things you can change. We really can manage land better. We can concentrate energy extraction in a more rational way that leaves room for wildlife, and we can manage the oceans better. There are things that can be done, even at the international level. Pressure can be brought to bear. So I’ll stick with those two.
A version of this article, titled “Flying High” ran in the March-April 2013 issue.