I so thoroughly enjoyed my exchange with Andrew Ivers that I decided to rope another one of my blogging friends, Conor Gearin, into a back-and-forth. This, time our topic was Jonathan Franzen's recent New Yorker essay about global warming--a perfect subject to discuss with Conor, a biology and English literature major about to graduate from Truman State University. He's off to MIT to study in their science writing program, a perfect place for his deep appreciation for and understanding of science and the humanities. Conor contributed two entries to this post; my laggardly self offered only one. Conor blogs at Notebook, which is also the title of the wonderful column he wrote for the Prep News at St. Louis U. High, where our friendship began.
Science is about skepticism, and that’s what makes it so valuable, beautiful, and hard. It fits well into an essay when things appear as tidy opposites—when just a small cost increase would buy special glass to reduce bird window-strike mortality, but the bad men don’t buy it to save costs. But I work with an ornithologist studying window-strikes. He’s skeptical about the techniques currently marketed to reduce such bird deaths, and hopes to experiment with them to find out if any truly work. It might turn out that the one act we think would restore balance to Middle Earth might not save a single hobbit.
In “Carbon Capture,” a recent piece in the New Yorker, novelist Jonathan Franzen offers a corrective to our “Puritan” focus on climate change to the detriment of more immediately impactful conservation efforts. His opening gambit is convincing: when the Vikings built their new glass-walled football stadium, the Minneapolis Star Tribune’s Jim Williams argued that it was worthless to worry about the thousands of birds projected to die from striking the glass walls when “the real threat to birds was climate change.” Williams seemed to be drawing from a contemporary report from the National Audubon Society stating that climate change was the “greatest threat” to American birds, even though the apocalyptic date for this threat was 2080. Arguments like this allowed the sponsors to decline increasing the cost of the project by one tenth of one percent to install specially patterned glass that could have helped prevent bird deaths.
As a polemic, Franzen’s essay is successful in getting his readers out of the rut of worrying about climate change and forgetting about the issues close at hand. It’s not that we shouldn’t worry about climate change—it’s that not driving to get groceries doesn’t get you five minutes less time in climate change purgatory. You should focus on “helping something you love, something right in front of you, [where] you can see the results”—for the sake of our own inner peace, and for the birds.
But first, a word of reproach. In criticizing the Audubon’s climate change PR tactics, Franzen puts scare quotes around “citizen science data,” as well as “report,” and scare quotes seem to be implied around ‘scientists’ in the phrase “its own scientists.” While it is true that a report from a nonprofit is different from peer-reviewed literature, Franzen would do well to remember that those individuals are actual scientists, and that online citizen birdwatcher data—often collected by people with more experience than he—has made possible continental and global population monitoring.
Being someone “who cares about birds more than the next man” does not qualify one to make sweeping generalizations about bird biology and responses to climate change. Ornithologists with PhD’s are not exempt from this—the only difference is that there’s more pressure on an ornithologist to cite her sources and provide convincing evidence than there is for a science journalist. Franzen’s claim, early in the essay, that “North America’s avifauna may well become more diverse,” is the sort of marginally acceptable evidence used in a polemic. The range expansions from climate change we have seen are not good ones, not ones that increase biodiversity: mosquitoes moving up mountains and armadillos tearing up the southern United States. Franzen conveniently overlooks the utter havoc that would likely result if tropical species expanded their ranges into temperate North American ecosystems, and the possibility of next-to-irreversible loss or alteration of northern habitats that are dependent on particular climactic conditions.
A dose of humility, in other words, would be refreshing.
If it matters, I agree with Franzen that some models based on range-shifts have overestimated the impacts of climate change on bird populations. But I would only go so far as the cautious correctives written by those with the data: Dawson and colleagues in 2011, or Millar and Herdman in 2004, for example. Vertebrate responses to climate change was the topic of a literature review I wrote for a class last spring. I cited 17 sources in that paper, and still sometimes think of how my teacher, a seasoned ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, recommended I should have included more studies, more systems. I do wonder how many peer-reviewed articles Franzen read for his essay, and how many he thought was enough.
But after his arrogance plays out, Franzen stays and listens to longtime conservationist Daniel Janzen later in the piece. This tropical ecologist acts as a sort of doppelgänger for Franzen—instead of devoting his life to fiction like Franzen, Janzen and his wife Winnie Hallwachs have spent “nearly half [their] lives” creating the Area Conservation de Guanacaste (ACG) in Costa Rica, a massive reserve that includes much of the tropical dry forest remaining in the world. (Aside: Franzen makes the comment that “the forest in Santa Rosa seemed desperately dry to me,” aware that he is visiting a dry forest in the dry season. He next concludes all cows in Scotland are brown.) Listening to Janzen’s stories about the many struggles of ACG—“the story of Oliver North’s airstrip for the contras … the story of Janzen’s discovery that dry-forest moth species spend part of their life cycle in humid forest, and how this led him and Hallwachs to expand the scope of their already ambitious project … the story of how Janzen and Hallwachs learned to do business with multiple landowners simultaneously”—leads Franzen to his most admirable idea: that conservation work “is novelistic.” It is about narrative, and “no narrative is simple.”
My time in the company of ecologists could be reduced to this elegantly simple idea. The traditional scientific manuscript format is also known as a “narrative report”—it tells a complex story. Here’s what we thought at first, here’s where we are now, and here’s all the weird shit that happened in between. And the usually unspoken reality is that ecologists fall in love with their subject, and that this and only this can sustain a worthwhile career. It is this close association between fiction writing and conservation that allows me to continue on a trajectory towards becoming a full-time biologist rather than a full-time writer, and I thank Franzen for his flawed but beautiful reminder of what it is I think I’m doing with my life.
But if I see him, the first thing I’ll say is that you don’t “census” birds, you survey them. (You can never detect every individual.) It matters.
You have the virtue of being both scientist and writer; I can lay claim only to the latter title. Still, as someone who has spent more time thinking about Franzen than the next man (har har), I was intrigued by his argument that our fixation on the “eschatology” of climate change has come at the expense of more traditional conservation efforts—that, in environmental terms, we’ve allowed anxiety about the future to license indifference to the present.
The essay bears many Franzonian hallmarks: a certain arrogance, which you have deftly identified; a seductive either/or argument that suffers under scrutiny; a rueful faith in mankind’s ability to somehow stumble through the end times; and a tendency toward contrarianism.
Along with his significant novelistic success, these are the things that drive people nuts about Franzen. As an unabashed fan, I admit to wishing he would avoid the clumsy scare-quoting that you identify. From what I can tell, Franzen is a pretty knowledgeable birdwatcher, and he was also a devoted high school science student. You’re right: he ought to know better than to denigrate researchers whom he should probably consider allies. (A separate bad science question: Franzen quotes Don Alberto, a leader of an indigenous Colombian community, as saying that the sun feels hotter to him in recent years. Without question, Franzen accepts Don Alberto’s testimony as a sign of a warming planet. That’s not really how climate change works, is it?)
I think the weakest part of the essay is the either/or argument; a professor responding to Franzen’s essay in the April 20th New Yorker called Franzen’s opposition between conservation and climate change a “false choice.” Your post gets at the same point, and it confirmed some of the doubts that arose in my mind as I read the essay. Is there really demonstrable evidence that climate change has diverted resources that would have once gone to what Franzen conceives of as “pure” conservation activities? Is there really a division between the two?
The nut of Franzen’s argument is that such a cleavage does exist: that climate change is a “done deal,” and that, in the absence of the kind of intergovernmental efforts that are required to make a real dent in climate trends (sorry, Prius drivers), we ought to do more to mitigate its immediate efforts. As Franzen puts it, “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.”
This dichotomy in turn rests on an argument about human nature, an argument that I found compelling. Basically, it goes like this: we now know that climate change is so large a problem that only massive governmental action can make a difference. This knowledge, coupled with the abstract quality of climate change that Franzen rightly identifies, makes us somewhat fatalistic about the prospects of reversing the effects of global warming: Governments aren’t likely to act, so what can I meaningfully do about rising tides and melting glaciers? The answer, of course, is nothing—and the cruel joke is that my indifference is precisely what makes my government less likely to act (and the American government is the key player here; without meaningful action by the United States on carbon emissions, the international community isn’t likely to do much). As Franzen writes, summarizing Dale Jamieson’s book “Reason in a Dark Time,” “…America’s inaction on climate change is the result of democracy. A good democracy, after all, acts in the interests of its citizens, and it’s precisely the citizens of the major carbon-emitting democracies who benefit from cheap gasoline and global trade, while the main costs of our polluting are borne by those who have no vote: poorer countries, future generations, other species. The Amercan electorate, in other words, is rationally self-interested.”
This is a cruel spiral in which to be trapped, and if my own experience is any indication, Franzen is right about the despair that this helplessness can engender. In high school, when I’d been reading Elizabeth Kolbert’s landmark New Yorker essays about the impending catastrophe of climate change, I believed that if we all just recycled and drove hybrids, everything would be all right. Today, I understand the utter futility of that position. (“The problem here,” Franzen says, “is that it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual…drives to work or rides a bike.”) I still recycle, but without the hope that used to accompany dropping my completed New Yorkers into the blue bin.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling powerless against climate change, and this is what makes Franzen’s argument so hypnotic. I agree with you that the high point of the essay—the point where Franzen, as one of our leading novelists, has something truly unique to contribute to the discussion around environmental decline—is Franzen’s discussion of the relative narrative characteristics of conservation and contra-climate change efforts. This is the kind of language that my English major self finds too often lacking in our scientific discourse (and, for what it’s worth, it’s the kind of language that you are uniquely equipped to bring to our scientific discourse, my multi-disciplinary friend).
Climate change, Franzen argues, is a “story [that] 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.”
This is the story I’ve succumbed to since high school. It’s both harder and easier to tell oneself this story, at once depressingly hopeless and perversely liberating. “Climate change is everyone’s fault—in other words, no one’s,” Franzen says.
But I wonder if Franzen is too quick to wave the flag of surrender. Of the three letters that the New Yorker printed in the April 20th essay in response to the essay, one from Jane Alexander, an Audobon Board Member, caught my attention in particular. Alexander contends that “Climate change is not, as Franzen writes, an abstract idea. Each of us experiences global warming as a local, and visceral, phenomenon—as drought, typhoons, snow, melting ice, or rising tides.”
This story—the story of climate change as indeed my problem—is the story that is lost as soon as we get too sanguine about climate change as a fait accompli. By rehearsing this story—and, it should be noted, by only interviewing people in South America—Franzen inadvertently reinforces this story. The alternate tale—that no, I’m not off the hook, and that yes, climate change is touching my life in immediate, painful ways (in, for instance, the ways it affects the birds that nest in my back yard)—has yet to be told successfully, Al Gore’s efforts notwithstanding. But that doesn’t mean we should stop trying to tell it.
You’re right to point out that scientific prose often lacks in storytelling quality. But in most cases, this is intentional—scientists’ skepticism makes them very cautious about adopting a narrative to explain the data. Only with extensive testing and independent confirmation do they begin to believe in their own stories. Certainly without having hunches, no one would try anything new. But unlike you and me (I don’t feel like I’ve earned my science stripes quite yet), these people ruthlessly poke holes in their own ideas for the sake of trying to get at realities outside themselves. These realities can be counter-intuitive, boring, or bizarre. Often, telling a story too early, even a good one, can lead to a wrong conclusion.
The task of a science communicator writing for a broad audience, I suppose, is to tell a story about what we know so far, or how we’ve gotten where we are, without trampling over the uncertainty that remains. And while narrative can be crucial, I think the currency of science communication is metaphor—that bridge between what readers know and what they are about to imagine. As a poet and a science journalist, I’m intensely interested in this bridge.
And I think you have a great point about the essay that still needs to be written about climate change in our backyards. I wonder if you’d agree with me that the reasons for this lack have to do with our imperial economics. Like debilitating manual labor, we’ve outsourced the current effects of climate change to developing nations and impoverished regions: the tropics, Siberia, the lower 9th ward of New Orleans. Its most immediate effects (increased storm frequencies, higher average temperatures, and sea level rises) are not felt in the temperate climate of Franzen’s backyard, but are felt in real ways on the margins—in latitudinal extremes and the tropics. So even though science doesn’t work that way, perhaps Don Alberto does know more about climate change on an experience level than you or I.