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Jonathan Franzen’s writing is a joy as he argues it’s too late to save the world

It's the end of the world as we know it, and we're all doomed, Jonathan Franzen writes in “The End of the End of the Earth,” but we have to act responsibly.

It's the end of the world as we know it, and we're all doomed, Jonathan Franzen writes in “The End of the End of the Earth,” but we have to act responsibly. | Getty Images

One subject comes up frequently in “The End of the End of the Earth: Essays” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26), Jonathan Franzen’s latest collection of essays: how to live responsibly in the face of our all but certain extinction as a species.

“Every one of us is now in the position of the indigenous Americans when the Europeans arrived with guns and smallpox: our world is poised to change vastly, unpredictably, and mostly for the worse,” Franzen writes. “I don’t have any hope that we can stop the change from coming. My only hope is that we can accept the reality in time to prepare for it humanely.”

If you’re late to the Franzen game or know him only through one of the controversies that have dogged him online — He snubbed Oprah! Dissed Edith Wharton! Disrespected the Audubon Society! — this book is a good place to catch up with the acclaimed novelist (“The Corrections,” ”Freedom”) whose graceful, trenchant essays are a joy to read even when the subject is terrifying.

“The End of the End of the Earth” collects 16 essays and speeches written mostly in the past five years. Half are about birds, birdwatching and climate change, subjects he cares about as deeply as literature and writing.

“If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world,” Franzen writes in “Why Birds Matter,” a lyrical essay that persuasively argues that bird populations “indicate the health of … our ethical values.”

The rest touch on a variety of subjects, including photography, technology and pre-gentrified Manhattan. One piece, published two days after 9/11, shows the limits of deadline journalism because, like virtually everyone else in America, Franzen thought things would never be the same.

“In the space of two hours, we left behind a happy era of Game Boy economics and trophy houses,” Franzen says.

Well, not exactly. The trophy houses in 2018 are even bigger.

In the final essay, Franzen slyly offers advice for readers who, like him, worry about finding a moral and ethical way to live in the late Anthropocene. After noting the human tendency to take the short view, he observes that 30,000 paper cups are discared every minute in America, even as rain forests are leveled to supply the world with pulp.

“Your life is complicated enough already without dragging a reusable cup around with you all day,” Franzen says.

Sure, but reading that sentence, you know that’s exactly what you should do.