Friends Like These

“Bird lover” Jonathan Franzen commits an act of extreme intellectual dishonesty.

Here are a couple of warnings I offer, free of charge, to savvy consumers of glossy-magazine think pieces: 1) Beware rhetorical questions in headlines or subheads (e.g., “Has climate change made it harder for environmentalists to care about conservation?”) [1]; and 2) Beware paraphrased quotes in which the writer doing the paraphrasing manages to preserve just a single word from the original. [2] 

Jonathan Franzen begins his essay “Carbon Capture,” in this week’s New Yorker, with a beautifully apposite anecdote centered on the publication last September of a report by the National Audubon Society about the potential effects of climate change on North American birds. Our report, based on a seven-year peer-reviewed study by our science department, found that roughly half of all North American bird species face serious and possibly existential threats from global warming in this century.

“Audubon’s announcement,” Franzen writes, “was credulously retransmitted by national and local media, including the Minneapolis Star Tribune, whose blogger on bird-related subjects, Jim Williams, drew the inevitable inference: Why argue about stadium glass when the real threat to birds was climate change? In comparison, Williams said, a few thousand bird deaths would be ‘nothing.’ ”

“Stadium glass” is a reference to the long struggle by birders in Minnesota and beyond to push the Vikings ownership to cover the team’s new football stadium in a kind of glass birds can see, thereby saving perhaps thousands from fatal collisions each year. If that effort fails, Franzen, an avowed bird lover, seems to feel that it will have been people like Mr. Williams who sapped its energy. “It wasn’t that I didn’t share Williams’s anxiety about the future,” he writes. “What upset me was how a dire prophecy like Audubon’s could lead to indifference toward birds in the present.”

That would upset me, too, if there were a shred of evidence that the suggestion was valid.

Franzen’s entire argument—that an “overriding” focus on the longer-term peril to birds from global warming might undercut bird conservation today—rests on the wafer-thin foundation of Mr. Williams’s quote. The blogger’s dismissal of “a few thousand bird deaths” signals, says Franzen, our casual surrender, our cost–benefit calculation that as we battle the specter of climate change some birds are just going to have to die along the way. He fears that we won’t take our eyes off the prize (carbon neutrality, or some other silver climate bullet) long enough to throw a protective bone to a bunch of Prothonotary Warblers.

It’s a provocative statement—intentionally so. And yet, it turns out, it is based on a piece of intellectual sleight of hand (or, at best, clumsiness) that one might have expected the New Yorker’s vaunted fact-checking apparatus to have caught and spat back out. Because, by my reading at least, Jim Williams didn’t actually dismiss the deaths of thousands of birds as “nothing.” Not even close.

But you be the judge. Here’s the actual quote from the Star Tribune in which Williams discusses the potentially decimating effects of climate change on birds: “ ‘We’ve been talking about birds being killed by flying into glass,’ Jim Williams, a bird expert who writes the Wingnut blog for the Star Tribune, said in referring to a recent controversy over the design of the new Minnesota Vikings stadium. ‘That’s going to be nothing compared to this.’ ”

It’s not clear what the Audubon Society did to piss off Jonathan Franzen. But the Audubon that emerges from Franzen’s essay is a band of once-scrappy conservationists who have grown content to peddle squeaky plush toys and holiday cards; we’ve seized on climate change, apparently, in a last grab at relevance.

In order to gin up that caricature, however, Franzen, who has no journalism experience that I know of, was forced to ignore or actively distort a great deal of inconvenient truth. In fact, the very examples he cites in his piece of the kind of retail, grassroots protections we should be offering to birds (and the very kind that would presumably be subsumed in a wave of climate neurosis) were spearheaded by . . . Audubon.

Take that effort to push for the use of bird-safe glass in the Minnesota Vikings’ planned crystal palace of a stadium. Franzen comes out as a big supporter of the idea, but he does so without ever acknowledging that Audubon has been the driving force in that fight. The “local bird-lovers” Franzen references? Audubon. (You can verify it for yourself in this post from Franzen’s favorite bird blogger, Jim Williams.)

Franzen similarly holds up as a model of courage those who would risk alienating the powerful hunting lobby by demanding a ban on lead ammunition, which gets into the food web and poisons birds and other animals. Yet he neglects to mention that the successful effort behind the passage of California’s watershed lead-ammo ban in 2013 was led by Audubon.

He mocks those who would sacrifice eagles and condors to the blades of wind turbines in their monomaniacal pursuit of renewable energy—but he fails to recognize that it was Audubon, and CEO David Yarnold, that very publicly and successfully struck back against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ruling last year that would have allowed an unacceptably high number of raptor deaths from turbines.

Perhaps these are omissions born of ignorance; maybe, for instance, despite his declaration that he had been “following” the Vikings stadium brouhaha, Franzen somehow managed to overlook the prominent mentions of Audubon’s advocacy that crop up in pretty much all media coverage of the issue. If so, though, Franzen could have easily addressed that deficiency by availing himself of that most timeworn of reportorial tools: He could have picked up the phone and spoken to someone—anyone!—at the organization whose work he so crassly demeans.

But Franzen’s casual snark—his wanton use of “diminishing” quotation marks and other rhetorical gimmicks to create an impression of Audubon as somehow soft and venal; his smug, belittling tone suggesting that there’s something wrong, rather than something impressive, in our having a science department that actually commits science—leaves me, anyway, with the unshakable suspicion that there may be something else going on here. After all, though he chose not to divulge this to his readers, Franzen sits on the fund-raising board of directors for the American Bird Conservancy, an organization that fancies itself a competitor for funding and attention with Audubon.

The temptation I’ve wrestled with is to simply dismiss this silly thing, New Yorker or no, as the sad ravings of a man trying to escape his guilt-ridden Protestant Puritan heritage and justify his consumerist lifestyle. But I can’t. It’s not about defending Audubon’s honor against this weird ad hominem assault—or not primarily that, anyway. It’s about defending an idea against the false dichotomy Franzen tries to advance in his essay.

There is no evidence that a robust climate movement has been or could become the soul-sucking force Franzen claims—one that reduces dollars, projects, mindshare, or whatever other metric of “indifference” to present-day conservation you could conjure. Apart from the fact that his contention defies actual measurement, it runs directly counter to what we’ve experienced here at Audubon since the release of that “dire prophecy” in the first place. Our Birds and Climate Report has energized our membership like nothing we’ve seen before, and has already inspired dozens of examples of real-world, on-the-ground conservation efforts on behalf of birds and their habitats today.

When Franzen circles back to poor Jim Williams, whom he has misquoted and press-ganged as his unwitting straw man, he writes: “The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority.” But as far as I can tell, no one besides Jonathan Franzen is suggesting any such thing. Audubon certainly is not.

Mark Jannot is Audubon's Vice President of Content and serves as President of the American Society of Magazine Editors. 

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[1] The natural implication of this device is that the rhetorically obvious answer is “Yes”; but in reality the answer is more often a non-rhetorical “No” or, most likely, “The author hasn’t managed to make a convincing case for his thesis.”

[2] This can generally be taken as evidence of a bit too much sweat being expended in the massaging of the quote.