Chapter 16
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Franzen the Environmentalist

Amanda Little talks with Jonathan Franzen

December 8, 2010 Nashville-based science writer Amanda Little has made a career of writing about environmental issues—as a regular contributor to Grist and as the author of Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells—A Ride to Our Renewable Future—but she recently scooped book reviewers all over the country by engaging Jonathan Franzen, this year’s most celebrated novelist, in an interview about the little-recognized environmental themes in Freedom. A sample bit of dialog:

Little: There’s an episode of South Park in which Prius drivers are emitting “toxic levels of smug.” Do you think that the environmental movement is failing to reach people because it gives off too much of an air of judgment?

Franzen: It’s certainly a danger. There’s a moment at the very end of Freedom where Walter, instead of attacking his neighbors for letting their cats roam, suddenly takes the new approach of getting a biologist to lead nature walks for his neighborhood. It’s a huge breakthrough for him, to actually show the neighbors what’s in the woods. He’s saying, essentially, “I don’t hate you. I don’t hate your cats. I just love these woods and the birds in them, aren’t they beautiful? Might you think twice about your behavior in the light of that?”

As long as nature remains an abstraction, or some kind of moral whipping post, people aren’t going to connect their actions to the effects they have on nature. If environmentalism is trapped in a we’re-doing-good-you’re-doing-bad dichotomy, it misses the chance to be effective, to actually change people by making them care about something instead of react against something. Real change occurs when people begin to positively care.

Read the full interview here. Read a review of Amanda Little’s book here.

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