The Essay Jonathan Franzen Should Have Written

by Lorna Salzman (May 2015)


The whole American birding community, which numbers in the millions if you count backyard bird feeder watchers, has its collective knickers in a twist over a recent New Yorker essay by novelist Jonathan Franzen, a recent acolyte to birding and simultaneously a critic of the movement to curb climate change. 

Franzen explicitly takes two positions on these issues. The first is that there is nothing humans can do to curb climate change anyway and that their pretense of turning to renewable energy will only destroy more birds and their habitat by defacing the landscape with solar arrays and wind turbine farms. The second is that only a wholesale embrace by humanity of birds and other wild creatures has a chance of preserving the earth in any reasonably stable and congenial form. His argument is poorly supported, whether one agrees or not, but he does not stop there. He insinuates - subtly so as to avoid being tarred as a climate denier - that the environmental movement and its climate subgroup have not persuaded anyone (or rather, Franzen personally) that their fears of climate Armageddon have scientific substantiation.

All of this is a tall order to tackle and most critics have quite authoritatively rebutted his claims, which in the end are really just opinions, to which he is entitled of course. But Franzen has missed the boat by a wide margin, not least because he has not schooled himself on what climate change will mean for birds and other creatures. He skims over this smoothly by suggesting that other species, including birds, will adapt to climate change or move northward. What he fails to understand is that changes in global and regional temperature are only one part of the climate change threat.

As we have already witnessed, drought, floods, wildfires, desertification, depletion of freshwater sources, sea level rise, rising sea temperatures’ impact on shellfish and marine life, and inundation of coastal estuaries and wetlands will take a huge toll on all forms of life. He might consider the albatross, some species of which nest on tiny Pacific islands which will disappear in the near future like those islands inhabited by humans. He might consider shorebirds and water birds which depend on coastal wetlands, barrier islands and beaches for breeding and importantly for migration feeding and resting twice a year. The coast and its estuaries also provide breeding and shelter for millions of gulls, ducks and geese, and hunting grounds for Bald Eagles, osprey, owls and migrating raptors.

But the biggest void in Franzen’s thinking is that regarding biodiversity. Indeed, had he started with the premise that the loss of biodiversity is arguably a greater threat than climate change, he might have mustered a lot of support, mine included. The question that needs to be answered before any argument begins is this: Threat to whom? And then: On what time scale? 

No one disputes the fact that human settlements and infrastructure are in the sea level rise line of fire. In NYC, utilities, subways, sewage lines and communications have already been taken down by Hurricane Sandy and other severe storms. People have lost their homes. Businesses lost equipment and were shut down for long periods. Some subway stations were flooded and closed for over a year. Sewage treatment plants overflowed as did storm drains and combined sewage overflow pipes. As a result discussions are now being held about how to implement “resiliency” and protect the low-lying parts of the city and its infrastructure from future flooding (which is guaranteed by sea level rise, not just hurricanes and storms). The threat of climate change to the economy of not just New York City but the whole region and to trade and communications is very real. In this scenario, the threat is to humans and their creations and structures. It is not an ecological threat but a very real economic one, and one that governments and businesses take seriously enough to start planning for the worst scenario. It is the economic and financial services provided by municipalities and businesses to businesses and citizens that are threatened. The notion floated by Franzen that we should throw up our hands and instead save birds is not disingenuous but downright social suicide. And it is a threat whose price can actually be calculated.

But the other threat, which Franzen never introduces, is not to human structures but to the integrity and functions of natural systems, that is, to “nature’s services.” This is not a new threat of course; it is one that biologists and environmentalists have been warning us about for decades. It is a threat whose price cannot be calculated. The complexity of biotic relationships in nature is one that is still being analyzed. But in the very real sense of the word nature is priceless. There is no way that ecosystem services, evolved over billions of years to reach a state of relative equilibrium (at least for the species involved), can be realistically appraised or priced. Ask a fruit orchard owner what the loss of pollinating bees would cost him. Ask every grower in the world what the loss of bees, bats, birds and animals, all pollinators, would mean for agriculture. Ask what an insect blight would mean for the boreal forests of the world. Ask scientists what it would mean to lose the consumers of plant wastes and detritus. Ask soil scientists what would happen if bacteria, ants, earthworms and fungi starting disappearing in large numbers. Ask what the loss of filter feeders and tidal wetlands would mean to fish and shellfish nurseries and to the purity of estuaries. 

There are no monetary figures big enough to calculate these losses not only for us today but for future generations who have or had every expectation of inheriting an earth that provides these services. Seen in this light, there is no question that the loss of biodiversity is a far greater threat to life on earth than climate change. And of course the loss of ecosystem services translates into economic terms too, at least for those economists who still think they can put a price on them. But any price is arbitrary and merely reflects current values and costs, which are not objective but purely human-contrived. I doubt that Bjorn Lomborg would put the high price on the loss of a species, even a lowly one such as an ant, that I would put on it if I were forced to do so.

In fact I heartily agree with Franzen’s entreaty to the world to embrace the preservation of birds and natural areas and wilderness. I fervently believe that this would necessitate major changes in human values and activities as well as in societal ethics and objectives. I believe that this would in fact be more conducive to the preservation of biodiversity than any other effort. I also believe that this would enhance human welfare as well as that of nonhuman species and would constitute a huge spiritual and philosophical change in all of humanity. In fact, I have long taken this position: that nature comes first and that all human endeavors must conform to the “laws of nature,” especially to the evolutionary imperative of preserving the genetic heritage of all living things. Those who believe human needs come first are the capitalists and the social justice movements … the right and the left.

But while Franzen does not believe that humans want to or can combat climate change, I do not believe that his exhortation to drop everything and save birds will work, nor will his plea for a singular devotion to nature be heeded. Human alienation from nature is long standing. Not withstanding academic studies, scientific research, religious sermons, New Age chanting, educational programs, journals, nature walks, bird clubs, museums and a sophisticated network of regulatory statutes and agencies at all levels of government, the depressing fact is that the public in general is at the same primitive stage as it was prior to Earth Day in 1970. Curbing climate change has no better chance of succeeding than preserving nature … because it directly impairs the economy. The preservation of nature not only does not make a profit; it costs people money. People do not want to pay for anything that doesn’t directly benefit them. People do not want to support anything that they don’t understand and which holds no interest for them. Nature holds interest for very few people, not enough to form a constituency capable of bringing about social and political change. Distractions like war, social justice, racism, sexism, the economy, terrorism and foreign policy all conspire to divert attention away from very small, sometimes invisible, sometimes repellent, forms of life. Telling people that the web of life depends on pollinators, or on biodiversity, is regarded as an opinion, not a statement of fact.

Indeed, I suspect many environmentalists and conservationists secretly agree with this fatalistic analysis though not to the point of abandoning hope or action (as Franzen urges with regard to climate action). But if Franzen really believes that it is possible to save the earth through individual commitment to the preservation of nature, he isn’t giving us a clue as to how this should be done. He doesn’t even mention the word “biodiversity.” He addresses birds. I love birds. I’ve birded in fifteen countries of the world since the mid 1960s, when I first saw a Snowy Egret on the wetlands near my summer home on Long Island and thought it was an escape from Disney World. I’ve been in the misty cloud forests of South America, the chilling paramo of the Andes, the karoo of South Africa, the steamy jungle of Malaysia, the mallee forests of Australia and the temperate hills of Nepal’s Himalayas. I am not alone. Birding as a hobby has exploded in the past thirty years, here and abroad. The publication of books about birds has grown tenfold and shows no signs of slowing down. Birding is a wonderful hobby and a great educational and scientific experience. I remain totally surprised that not everyone is a birder! After all, along with butterflies it is the only class of animals that is out during the daytime. What could be easier? Or cheaper? Certainly cheaper than skiing.

At least one reader will have picked up my comment about social justice being a distraction. I am not suggesting that people drop everything in favor of preserving biodiversity. It is possible to do more than one thing and to support more than one group or campaign. But what is deplorable is the indifference of liberal and left movements, even bordering on hostility, to ecology and the environment. The left still lectures environmentalists to incorporate social justice in their work … which of course they do; though the left, in its ideological fog, does not understand the political and economic implications of environmentalism (you can be sure that corporations understand this, to the extent that they devote huge sums of money to discredit it). It is of course the social justice movements that need to incorporate ecology and environmentalism into their agenda. But after 45 years since Earth Day, it remains doubtful that they will.

Franzen is probably newer to birding than I am, so there may be hope that he will realize that preserving birds is only one part of the bigger challenge. Seeing birds in their special habitat or niche is a wonderful experience … it’s fun! … but seeing birds as part of the bigger natural world is better. And perhaps in a few years we’ll have a different Franzen essay.

 

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Lorna Salzman's career as an environmental activist and writer began when the late David Brower hired her to be the regional representative of Friends of the Earth in NYC. Later she worked as an editor on National Audubon's American Birds magazine and as director of Food & Water, an early opponent of food irradiation, and then spent three years as a natural resource specialist in the NYC Dept. of Environmental Protection. She co-founded the New York Green Party in 1984 and in 2004 she sought the U.S. Green Party's presidential nomination. She is the author of “Politics as if Evolution Mattered,” which addresses the intersection of evolution with socio-political policy. 

 

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