If you follow climate and environmental discourse as closely as I do, then you know that the recent New Yorkerpiece by the acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen has triggered 1) applause, 2) denunciation, 3) head-scratching. The self-proclaimed eco-pragmatists at The Breakthrough Institute are cheering.
The self-appointed climate change truth squad is jeering.
Others who focus on sustainability issues found it worthy of discussion.
So what are we to make of these contradictory reactions? Are critics and admirers reading the same article? Yes, and they are responding, legitimately, to different arguments being made in the same piece. Let's break them down and see what Franzen gets right and wrong. To start, he laments that climate change is at the top of the environmentalist agenda today, shifting wildlife conservation and biodiversity off center stage. This claim is somewhat true, to the extent that climate change dominates public conversation, environmentally speaking. Indeed, Franzen likely channels the frustration of many conservation biologists when he writes:
And so I came to feel miserably conflicted about climate change. I accepted its supremacy as the environmental issue of our time, but I felt bullied by its dominance.
Right here climate activists can see where Franzen is headed and I'm sure they are not happy with the suggestion that they are monopolizing Big Green's attention. But guess what? It's pretty much true and Franzen isn't the only one that has felt conflicted about this. The prominent earth scientist Jon Foley has written:
In the rush to portray the perils of climate change, many other serious issues have been largely ignored. Climate change has become the poster child of environmental crises, complete with its own celebrities and campaigners. But is it so serious that we can afford to overlook the rise of infectious disease, the collapse of fisheries, the ongoing loss of forests and biodiversity, and the depletion of global water supplies? Although I’m a climate scientist by training, I worry about this collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems.
He said that in 2009! Now, in fairness, with Foley's help, those other concerns have since become a larger part of environmental discourse. For Franzen, the main concern is birds, since they are his passion. In his piece, he suggests that the present-day welfare of birds is not being properly attended to, because groups that have pledged to preserve and protect birds, such as the National Audubon Society, have turned their attention to climate change. It's an unsubstantiated charge, which Audubon responds to thoroughly and tartly:
Moreover, Franzen is deeply unfair in his characterization of Audubon, suggesting that the organization has gone wobbly in its mission:
In recent decades, it's been better known for its holiday cards and its plush toy cardinals and bluebirds, which sing when you squeeze them.
Oh, please. I worked as an editor at Audubon magazine for much of the 2000s, so I had a front seat view to its many worthy conservation initiatives, a number of which I covered. My takeaway experience was that Audubon was trying to reconcile its impassioned grassroots with a national and international blueprint for conservation. Since leaving the magazine in 2008, I haven't kept up with the organization, but I'd be very surprised if it wasn't just as actively involved in efforts to preserve crucial habitat for wildlife and, just as importantly, in efforts to bring multiple stakeholders to the conservation table, which is messy, under-appreciated work. It was surprising to me that a bird lover like Franzen, who must be familiar with Audubon's many conservation activities, could be so cavalierly dismissive of the organization. Franzen's lengthy discussion of the complexities of climate change is more accurately grounded, particularly how difficult it is for the average person to grasp the enormous scale of global warming, much less what to do about it. But he sets up a false construct when he pits climate activists against conservationists. Here's the strawman:
It’s not that we shouldn’t care whether global temperatures rise two degrees or four this century, or whether the oceans rise twenty inches or twenty feet; the differences matter immensely. Nor should we fault any promising effort, by foundations or N.G.O.s or governments, to mitigate global warming or adapt to it. The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority.
That's one hell of a presumption. I think this response is apt:
The bottom line: People can be equally concerned about climate change and the plight of birds. Sure, some folks are going to be motivated more by the former, but others will be just as motivated by the latter. The question that Franzen should have tried to answer is this one: Has climate change become the overriding priority of conservation groups, to the detriment of ecosystems and biodiversity threatened today? That is not a rhetorical question either, given what many researchers contend. There is an opportunity cost to one concern taking precedence over another. We saw this play out, for example, during the debate over endangered species protection (remember those contentious days?), when the focus was on single species, until conservation policies became more holistic. I get that it is impolite--maybe even politically incorrect--to point out that climate change does compete for the green mind's limited pool of worry. So it was perhaps inevitable that Franzen would invite a backlash by treading into such territory. But he didn't help himself by putting forth a muddled argument. Such a shame, too, because I think it is legitimate to question, as Jon Foley put it five years ago, the "collective fixation on global warming as the mother of all environmental problems."