If you’re wondering why the debate over the environment is as stagnant as the air on a sultry July day, think about the tactics the environmentalists have used in the past decades.
They are poker players who placed all their chips on a single idea—that climate change is inevitable and is only caused by human activity, and the sole purpose of the environmental movement is to lobby governments to act in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Disagree with this premise, and you’re a “climate denier.”
Those of us (such as me, and Matt Ridley, and Bjorn Lomborg) who think of ourselves as “lukewarmers” in the middle of the debate—that is, we think that the earth is getting warmer, but not as fast as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it is, and that there might be other causes than burning fossil fuels—are cast by environmentalists, using the time-honored metric of “if you’re not with us, you’re against us,” as being as bad as all their other critics.
The moves made by environmentalists are significant because they define what philanthropy about the environment should be. If the only way to heal the earth is to send checks to large environmental groups to influence public policy, many of us would have reservations.
But what if there were older ways to give, ways that involved interacting with nature rather than with politicians? Here one finds a surprising ally—novelist Jonathan Franzen.
In 2015 Franzen wrote an essay for the New Yorker (which I discussed at Philanthropy Daily) in which he explained that, as a bird lover, he was bothered by the efforts of environmentalists to focus exclusively on politics instead of on activities that helped to protect birds. He has now produced a sequel to this essay for The Guardian.
Franzen takes a long time to make his point. He first tells us the personal essay is dead. Then he says he tried to be a reporter but isn’t any good at doing interviews. Then we hear how he has struggled to quit smoking, and then we are told that President Trump is bad. What’s going on here?
It’s only when we get to the last half of the essay that we learn that what Franzen is getting to is his response to his earlier New Yorker piece. He says that when he began to write the essay, he was “in a state of rage about climate change.” What inspired him to start writing was reading a Naomi Klein book called This Changes Everything where she said that the world had ten years to avert climate disaster:
“Klein wasn’t the only leftist saying we still had 10 years. In fact, environmental activists had been saying the same thing in 2005. They’d also been saying it in 1995: We still have ten years.”
Franzen takes this repetitious message as saying that the left was blind to ecological devastation, although it’s also possible that the slow rise in temperature means the world has more time to deal with the problem than gloomy greens claim.
But Franzen’s message is this: suppose rising temperatures doom the earth. How do we save birds?
Here he sticks it to the National Audubon Society, “once an uncompromising defender of birds, now a lethargic institution with a very large PR department.” In 2014 Audubon announced to the world that climate change was the number one threat to the birds of North America. “The announcement was both narrowly dishonest,” writes Franzen, “because its wording did not square with the conclusions of Audubon’s own scientists, and broadly dishonest, because not one single bird death could be directly attributed to human carbon emissions.” Cats and buildings are more of a threat to birds than rising temperatures.
His second complaint against Audubon was that he clicked something that said he wanted to join them in fighting climate change. This led to lots of fundraising emails, including one that said “Join Author Jonathan Franzen in supporting Audubon.”
“No one had asked my permission to use my name and image for solicitation,” Franzen writes. “I wasn’t sure the email was even legal.”
Finally, in his New Yorker essay Franzen described some projects in Peru and Costa Rica that he thought did a good job in saving the habitat, in the hopes that large foundations would fund them. None did.
Franzen hoped his essay would start a conversation on the left on the best way to help birds. Instead, “I got a missile attack from the liberal silo.” The president of the National Audubon Society, he says, sent four separate denunciations.
“I felt the way I felt in eighth grade,” Franzen writes, “shunned by the crowd and called names that shouldn’t hurt but did.”
I thought about Franzen’s piece when I read this Washington Post article about an event sponsored by the Audubon Naturalist Society, an organization as old as the National Audubon Society but far smaller. Audubon Naturalist owns a 40-acre sanctuary in Chevy Chase, Maryland that was infested by deer. One Sunday afternoon in December, they had volunteers meet at dawn and link arm in arm to chase away the deer.
I’m fairly certain that the volunteers weren’t quizzed about their political affiliations or positions on bills pending before Congressional committees before they linked arm in arm for their battle. They just did their duty and spent time in the woods.
There’s talk of a “conservative environmentalism,” but it should begin with this point: Conservation is an honorable goal of philanthropy. Preserving land and creating sanctuaries is a good—and nonpolitical—deed.
Environmentalists should spend less time on social media and more time in the forest. They might then learn that protecting birds is more important than virtue signaling.