Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for April 6th, 2015

Birdman, or the unexpected virtue of ignorance

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Jonathan Franzen

By now, many of you have probably read Jonathan Franzen’s baffling New Yorker essay on climate change, as well as the rebuttals it quickly inspired from a wide range of scientists and conservationists. Franzen opens his article by describing himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man,” and he argues that the issue of climate change has usurped time, money, and resources from environmental efforts focused on saving particular species. His proposed solution, if he has one, can be hard to parse in its specifics, but he seems to envision the future as a choice between two alternatives:

We can dam every river and blight every landscape with biofuel agriculture, solar farms, and wind turbines, to buy some extra years of moderated warming. Or we can settle for a shorter life of higher quality, protecting the areas where wild animals and plants are hanging on, at the cost of slightly hastening the human catastrophe.

Franzen doesn’t leave much doubt about where his sympathies lie—although we should also note the neat rhetorical trick here of referring to climate change as a “human” catastrophe, when it’s nothing if not an existential threat to countless species, birds included. And the science and politics behind the piece have already been thoroughly debunked elsewhere. (In Franzen’s insistence that all models are “fraught with uncertainties,” and that “North America’s avifauna may well become more diverse” in the wake of global warming, he verges perilously close to his own brand of denialism.)

Still, I don’t think anyone really expected Franzen to come up with startling insights on either science or public policy. What I find more interesting—and which I haven’t seen analyzed so far—are his opinions on the one subject on which he can credibly speak with authority: the way we talk, or ought to talk, about issues like climate change and conservation. He writes:

As a narrative, climate change is almost as simple as “Markets are efficient.” The story can be told in fewer than a hundred and forty characters: We’re taking carbon that used to be sequestered and putting it in the atmosphere, and unless we stop we’re fucked.

Conservation work, in contrast, is novelistic. No two places are alike, and no narrative is simple.

I think that Franzen gets this precisely wrong, and in ways that are more revealing than he intended. Both climate change and conservation are complicated subjects, but on the level that we’re discussing here—mobilizing voters or donors, raising money, and turning a scientific problem into a political one—conservation has an enormous emotional advantage. Environmental groups have long since learned the power of the flagship species, charismatic megafauna like the elephant or panda that can cement an issue in the collective imagination. It’s what climate change needs but has never had. And although the specifics of either topic may be hard to describe on Twitter, a picture of an endangered spotted owl nests easily on Instagram.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

And I know for a fact that Franzen understands this point perfectly, because it parallels the circumstances of his own environmental awakening. In his essay “My Bird Problem,” he says that he first became interested in nature through birdwatching, which in turn was sparked by a confluence of personal factors, including his childlessness, a troubled romantic relationship, and the death of his mother. “Always, in the past,” he writes, “I’d felt like a failure at the task of being satisfied by nature’s beauty.” Birdwatching became his gateway into the natural world, to the point where “nature had become the place where the birds were.” (There’s also a sense in which his obsession with birdwatching was an expression—or alternative form—of his work as a novelist: he describes it as learning how to pay attention, which only meant applying the same intense degree of noticing to nature as he did to human lives.) Later, his birdwatching trips in Europe awakened him to the plight of songbirds, which were being hunted ruthlessly in countries like Malta and Albania, a subject that he’s addressed with great passion and eloquence for The New Yorker and National Geographic. Yet the connection remains indelibly emotional: few readers will ever forget the moment Franzen goes to sample ambelopoulia, or grilled songbird, at a restaurant in Cyprus, and ends by burying their two tiny bodies in the earth with his fingers.

In other words, Franzen’s interest in environmental issues, including climate change, is rooted in an irrational—but genuine—thicket of autobiographical feeling, and much of his recent New Yorker piece reads like the work of a very smart man who has already reached an intuitive conclusion and is casting about for its intellectual justification. It’s a testament to the effectiveness of emotion in motivating environmental action. And Franzen is manifestly aware of its potency: a crucial subplot in his novel Freedom involves the use of the cerulean warbler as a “poster bird” for the larger issue of overpopulation. (As Walter, the protagonist, says: “As long as we put a cerulean warbler on our literature, I can do whatever I want.”) Later, when asked why the foundation has chosen to focus on the warbler, its benefactor says: “I like the bird. It’s a pretty little bird.” Compare this with Franzen’s feelings for a yellow wagtail he saw in Cairo: “My reaction was emotional: Here was a tiny, confiding, warm-blooded, beautifully plumaged animal that had just flown several hundred miles across the desert.” The language is more elevated, but the emotion is the same. And it’s exactly what climate change has always lacked. Instead, it needs writers who can talk about systems of behavior, distill complicated issues into vivid terms, and draw a line between present action and its consequences far in the future. It needs novelists, in short, like Franzen himself. And if he really thinks that climate change is something that can be explicated on Twitter, it’s because his heart has already been captured by a different kind of tweet.

Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2015 at 9:49 am

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

April 6, 2015 at 7:30 am

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