“It took falling in love with birds to give me something positive to do with my feelings. Something to try to care for, rather than be angry or guilty about.” — Jonathan Franzen, 2019 interview
“If you could see every bird in the whole world, you’d see the whole world.” — Jonathan Franzen, “Why Birds Matter”
In September 2019, the novelist and birder Jonathan Franzen wrote a controversial essay in the New Yorker about climate change. Franzen argued that the crisis could not really be solved politically—and apocalypse could not be averted—and that we should focus on smaller battles we could win. Backlash was swift. In this publication, Franzen’s “privileged climate resignation” was characterized as “gloom and doom,” and the author called out Franzen’s misunderstanding of climate science. Climate scientists were reportedly “pissed” at what Franzen wrote. The New Yorker issued a note at the end of the article, acknowledging that “a previous version of this article mischaracterized the scientific consensus around a ‘point of no return.’”
I have a confession to make. Recently, I have been thinking about Franzen’s much-criticized essay, about how I found some of its conclusions entirely reasonable when I read it two years ago. Franzen’s climate pessimism—his cynical acceptance that earth’s human inhabitants do not have what it takes to stop burning fossil fuels, or that, in any case, “drastic planetary overheating is a done deal”—overshadowed the other, more compelling arguments he made, points worth remembering and taking seriously. Critics have argued that Franzen was wrong on the science and wrong on the psychology of what motivates people to act. But Franzen’s idea of “Save What You Love,” also the title of an essay in his 2018 book The End of the End of the Earth, does demonstrate an understanding of what can motivate people to protect nature. Fighting large-scale, long-haul political battles does not preclude also taking actions that are smaller, or even local, and based on the idea of saving particular things we love and find ourselves attached to.
I believe in a fossil fuel-free future. I believe we all should all fight for climate justice and the passage of a Green New Deal, which would drastically decrease and ultimately end fossil fuel extraction and use over the next few decades. I understand that the capitalist class has mostly zero incentive to allow a true Green New Deal to happen—they oppose practically everything we on the left stand for. But I’ve always thought being a leftist requires one to lose a certain degree of cynicism; no less is true than when considering what to do about climate change. So while we have to reject the resignation part of Franzen’s essay, and his notion of what constitutes acceptable climate action, we’re not (I hope) so limited by cynicism toward him that we can’t take in the valuable pieces of his argument.
On the left, we are very good at explaining how the important issues of our time are large-scale and systemic—whether it’s the systemic racism of institutions, economic inequality brought about by laws and practices that serve the wealthy, or even climate change. It is true that efforts to address climate change have to be large-scale. It is true that the average person isn’t responsible for the climate crisis. It is true that society must transition away from the values inherent to capitalism—greed, exploitation of average people, and destruction of the natural world—and toward socialism if we are to address the root causes of climate change.
At the same time, we would do well to apply the idea of “all politics is local” to our climate efforts. We are all familiar by now with certain individual efforts to counteract climate change, such as those described in the UN’s “Lazy Person’s Guide to Saving the World,” which largely focuses on consumerism and transportation or lifestyle choices without mentioning the impacts we can have on our local environment and natural areas. But we need bottom-up efforts to save what’s dear to us in nature, especially what’s local. This is the core of Franzen’s message (packaged as it is in a defeatist wrapping).
Franzen wrote, in the 2019 piece:
“It’s fine to struggle against the constraints of human nature, hoping to mitigate the worst of what’s to come, but it’s just as important to fight smaller, more local battles that you have some realistic hope of winning. Keep doing the right thing for the planet, yes, but also keep trying to save what you love specifically—a community, an institution, a wild place, a species that’s in trouble—and take heart in your small successes. Any good thing you do now is arguably a hedge against the hotter future, but the really meaningful thing is that it’s good today. As long as you have something to love, you have something to hope for.”
For Franzen, “something to love” was birds. He went birding with some friends in Central Park and was startled by all the bird species he had never seen before. In “My Bird Problem,” he wrote: “I felt as if, all my life, I’d been mistaken about something important.” He explained further: “Only now, when nature had become the place where birds were, did I finally get what all the fuss was about.” And, “birds made me happy like nothing outdoors ever had.”
He writes about the serendipitous nature of birding in this beautiful passage, which describes an experience that stands in such stark contrast to the otherwise on-demand way in which we watch the things we consume:
“Just as I was remembering what a monumental waste of time birding was, the woods came alive with songbirds, something fresh on every branch, and for the next fifteen minutes each birdlike movement in the woods was a gift to be unwrapped—western wood-pewee, MacGillivray’s warbler, pygmy nuthatch—and then, just as suddenly, the wave was gone again, like inspiration or ecstasy, and the woods were quiet.”
“That’s why birds are so important. Birds are one of the few aspects of nature that will come to you. A bird will visit your backyard, and you can have an encounter. You may not know anything about where it came from, but there it is in your tree. Birds are, I think, the best remaining ambassadors from nature to the America we now live in. That’s why, even apart from their beauty and their dearness, there are strong environmentalist arguments for increasing bird awareness.”
Franzen spoke about how birding affected his relationship with environmentalism and conservation, in “Pain Won’t Kill You,” a commencement address printed in his 2012 essay collection Farther Away:
“Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it–was considerably worse, in fact–but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved. And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became, strangely, easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.”
In his other controversial 2015 piece, “Carbon Capture,” Franzen had written about a large-scale conservation project in Costa Rica. “Biodiversity is an abstraction,” he wrote. In order for people to care about biodiversity, they need to “know what it consists of.” In this sense, we need to know what the natural world around us consists of. We need to pay more attention to nature. Franzen asserts: “Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats, rather than as an abstract thing that is ‘dying,’ can avert the complete denaturing of the world.”
Observing the statue of the natural world around me has led me to realize that residential and suburban areas often inspire feelings of dread. The water-guzzling green lawns (considered “ecological dead space”). The homeowners’ association or city rules that send a different household to the lawnmower each day of the week (it’s like a lawnmower on surround sound every day in my childhood neighborhood) or that dictate that you can’t participate in the city’s compost program because the bin attracts flies. The lack of native plants (one sees the same kinds of trees in totally different places), or the use of trees and plants in the most stereotyped of ways—a single kind of tree lined up one after the other along a walkway or median, totally unnaturally. Even worse, urban areas of major cities often lack trees and green space in areas inhabited by the poor and people of color. Trees provide not only aesthetic benefits but shade for people who walk around hot cities or take public transit. (Wealthier parts of town are often lush with plant life.) We’re doing all the wrong things. What we need is more dense and communal and beautiful public housing, and more nature and green space in our living areas.
I see the natural world much differently now than in the past. I actually see it and hear it and feel concerned1 about it. I see nature cropping up in the cracks and seams—the way grass or flowers poke through asphalt or a concrete sidewalk or wrens build nests in the nook of a staircase. When I look around my neighborhood in Southeast Texas, or the backyard of my childhood home, in Central Texas, I see plant life (I don’t recall ever learning about native plants in public school) and I hear birds, insects, frogs, and, of course, dogs. On a recent walk around the neighborhood, I noticed residents had put piles of brush at the curbside for the city to pick up in the coming days. I saw entire shrubs pulled up by the roots,2 discarded like trash. I feared a small creature would make a home in the refuse, only to be violently swept up when the trucks came to pick it up. I saw bright green lawns; one home had a sprinkler going around noontime. I sat outside near dusk once and saw fireflies—those ephemeral neon lights I would chase as a child—which I hadn’t seen in years.
The Carolina Wren has a clear crisp loud call. If I put out little shallow trays of water, other birds will come around, too, including Northern Cardinals and White-winged Doves (the song of these doves is one thing that reminds me most of my childhood). Osprey, which migrate to coastal areas in the fall, have a sweet-sounding call that has been likened to “a whistling kettle taken rapidly off a stove.” I like to hear the drumming of woodpeckers generally and the call of the Red-bellied Woodpecker specifically. I also get a unique thrill a few times a year when I hear, late at night, often unexpectedly, the soft distant call of the Barred Owl. These birds persist despite everything we do to thwart their survival3—routinely butchering trees (their habitat), violently disrupting and polluting the area with leaf blowers, and operating excessively bright street lights, preventing true darkness from emerging at night. Light pollution is bad for humans and nonhumans (especially migrating birds), as LED lights can damage our eyes and interfere with our circadian rhythm, which regulates our sleep-wake cycle. (In fact, I plan to contact the city to complain about two flood lights on the street that shine excessive light into my bedroom window at night.) With increasing city development of natural areas, the world gets less and less quiet, natural, peaceful, and healthy for all forms of life. I perceive this now more than ever.
For most of my life, I never had time to think about any of this. Like many of us, I’ve spent most of my life indoors, in artificial conditions. Time off from work meant laundry and sleep, not going to a park. Time outside meant lying on a fold out lawn chair in the sun for a few minutes—the warmth of the sun feels so good after long hours in a cold, sickly-lit building—in a concrete backyard, gazing up at the sky, looking at some slowly moving clouds, always construction noise nearby or an airplane overhead. Having quit my previous fast-paced job and the lifestyle associated with it, I can perceive all these things more clearly—sound, light, dark (or lack thereof), trees, birds, life in the crevices, small frogs, strange-looking insects, moths attracted to outdoor lights. I am also more sensitive to the fact that so many humans spend their days in boxes—at stores, malls, restaurants, offices, and factories.
We can see—and think about—nature and humanity more clearly when we’re slowed down. Slowing down reaches an extreme when you do something like birding. Birding is slow and observational, requiring almost all of the senses. You need to pay attention to sound and sight, along with depth perception (and good binoculars also help), and movement and light and color and shadow. Interestingly, the bleakest of places may harbor rare or interesting species of birds (for example, a water treatment facility in South Africa). Nature finds ways to survive, but it shouldn’t have to if we are maintaining our planet for the benefit of all life, not just human life.
One good thing about the pandemic is that it has increased people’s use of parks and natural areas, and has caused an uptick in gardening and birding. There’s more we can do. There are natural areas under threat of development everywhere. Sometimes the area is a mowed lot; sometimes it’s a small patch of native forest. These fights are local and must be fought. We need to save these areas. We need to support local natural areas and larger public wildlife refuges. We need to put native plants in our own gardens and backyards and in other natural areas when the opportunity arises—native plants require less water and maintenance. None of this will win the climate crisis, but some climate effects can be mitigated. For example, when Hurricane Harvey brought torrential rains to my area in 2017, I learned about native prairie grasses, whose roots run as deep as 15-30 feet, making them capable of absorbing rainwater and thus mitigating flooding. Few areas of native prairie grass remain, but I noticed that one area of town, home to a nature reserve of undeveloped land, did not suffer as much flooding as did the other, more developed parts of town. I suspect the prairie grass had something to do with it.
Our actions to protect the nature around us will also support ecosystems and wildlife (especially if the area happens to be along a migratory flyway, in which case that place may be a critical source of rest, refuge, and food for birds) and add enjoyment and beauty (or even sustenance in the case of community gardens) to our own lives. All of these benefits are meaningful in a country in which our cities are overdeveloped and bleak and undeveloped areas increasingly destroyed and privatized.
Franzen made a lot of people angry with his climate essay, and this is understandable. But the valuable part of his argument should not be overlooked. We could all stand to be inspired by nature that’s near us. Looking around our own neighborhoods and towns and cities, we can see that there’s a lot of work to be done to preserve what is natural and beautiful—and critical—to our survival and that of other forms of life on earth.
“First, here’s what discourages me. What discourages me is the prospect of people becoming so estranged from nature that they stop caring about it. As the world becomes more crowded, as nature recedes, the possibilities for having direct encounters with it diminish. Nature becomes an abstraction, a thing being ‘lost,’ and abstractions are no contest for the virtual world in which we now live, the world of social media and the internet and television advertising, the grand lie of all that. What gives me hope is seeing what people do if they get to experience nature.”
What do I love the most about the natural world? Darkness when it’s night time. A blanket of bright stars on a clear night. Quietness so that I can hear the rustle of wind through the leaves. Fall foliage. Fresh air. A mountain hike, a blue lake. A tiny frog I spotted on a trail in Lost Maples State Natural Area. Birds. And, of course, the living things I don’t notice today but I will tomorrow.
I need to do more than support my local wilderness preserve or put out food and water for birds. Franzen also recommends supporting large-scale conservation projects, which he wrote about in “Carbon Capture.” ↩
Some plants had been killed by the freeze in Winter Storm Uri. Still, there was something unsettling about seeing the plants uprooted. ↩