What’s it all About Jonathan Franzen?

This last month(April) saw a pissing match between several birding organizations–or was it a “snark-battle over bird conservation strategy” as one person put it? This pissing match/snark-battle revolved around one person whose name is Jonathan Franzen. Mr. Franzen is a novelist and essayist whose works have, many times, featured birds. He was pictured on the August 2010, Times magazine cover as a, Great American Novelist.

His latest book, Freedom, was critically acclaimed, but received very mixed reviews on Amazon.com. That's a Cerulean Warbler on the cover.

The first time I heard of Jonathan Franzen was an interview in the American Birding Association's(ABA) February 2015, issue of Birding. After reading the interview I came away with several impressions of Mr. Franzen. He was a serious birder although a late starter. He had a tremendous concern for the birds he watched having written about the slaughter of birds in the Mediterranean region. But he has a huge carbon footprint. Having written and read so much about climate change I have a tendency to judge people on how much carbon they put into the air. He has two homes. One in Santa Cruz, CA and one in New York, NY. He travels worldwide for business and writing assignments. In the interview he's pictured in Brazil, Spain, the Eastern Sierras, and he mentions doing a lot of traveling in Europe in his twenties. It sounds like he's still doing a lot of traveling. He is identified in the interview as being on the board of the American Bird Conservancy(ABC) a bird conservation organization that I donate to. The interview ends with this statement,

I recommend this to anyone who cares about birds. Become active in the ABA and the local Audubons. Contribute to ABC.

In my research on climate change I've bookmarked many organizations that deal with the subject. On April 1st, I heard Jonathan Franzen's name again. It was in a ThinkProgess article called, The Corrections: Jonathan Franzen’s Deeply Irresponsible Climate Change Article.

The New Yorker has published one of the most bird-brained and hypocritical climate articles ever, “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?” Quick answer: No!

There is zero chance the New Yorker would publish such easily-debunked nonsense if it's author were anyone other than Jonathan Franzen, a fiction writer of some acclaim, with several popular books rated 3 stars on Amazon. But as I came to learn — and as the New Yorker should have known — his entire essay is a stunning exercise in hypocrisy.

I was curious so I found the article in the New Yorker and read it. It can be found here. Please read it. I will have something to say about it shortly and It might surprise you that I agreed with much of what he wrote.

To slow global warming, we could blight every landscape with biofuel crops and wind turbines. But what about wildlife today? CREDIT ILLUSTRATION BY OLIVER MUNDAY

Grist had another article called, Jonathan Franzen is Confused About Climate Change, but then, Lots of People Are.

Jonathan Franzen, noted author of depressing literary fiction, has taken to the pages of The New Yorker to lament that no one cares about saving birds any more because all anyone cares about is climate change, and anyway, maybe we should just let humanity burn from climate change and save the birds because birds aren’t big jerks like people.

The essay is … not good. Just qua essay, really not good. I can’t imagine The New Yorker publishing it under any other byline. It is odd to read in the pages of that august magazine, for instance, criticism of a peer-reviewed study the author admits he has not seen but has judged “from the Web site’s graphics.”…

Despite the many valid criticisms, I find myself nursing some small ember of sympathy for Franzen. His essay reminds me of lots of conversations I’ve had over the years. I’ll be talking with someone — a smart, well-read person — and when they find out I write about climate change, they’ll kind of hesitate, and I’ll prod, and they’ll tell me their Climate Thing.

Most people haven’t taken the time to get familiar with all the ins and outs of climate change. It’s an incredibly complex and politically charged subject with all sorts of contradictory and fragmentary information bouncing around various info-channels. It takes some dedication and a thick skin to get a well-rounded understanding of it and most people have no particular incentive to do so.

Then the ABA got into the fray on their blog defending Jonathan Franzen, their new buddy.

And while Audubon could be forgiven for interpreting Franzen’s essay as an attack, I had a hard time reading it as such. Franzen’s criticisms are couched in a respect of an organization he calls “energetic” and “activist” in the near past. Sure, he finds the turn towards climate change to be ill-considered (and granted the plush birds line was a bit of a low blow), but not because it’s not an important issue, but because Audubon has historically been at its best when the weight of hundreds of thousands of motivated members are brought to bear on issues that have more immediacy than what Franzen calls the “imponderable” issue of curbing carbon emissions. The gist being that birders want to help birds in ways beyond changing light bulbs and signing online petitions.

I learned from this blog post that Audubon had responded to Jonathan Franzen’s article.

We were hardly a hundred words into Jonathan Franzen’s essay in the New Yorker about climate change and conservation when we suddenly found Audubon taking all kinds of flak about our concern about the impacts of climate change on birds, of all things. As though doing research on the topic and taking steps to do something about it might somehow be bad for birds.

By the time we got to the end, our confusion had turned to incredulity. Just what exactly was this man trying to say?

Franzen’s flawed logic leads him to believe that people can’t work to reduce the sources of climate pollution while protecting the birds and places they love at the same time. That’s not our experience here at Audubon—far from it. Our members can walk and chew gum at the same time.

As anyone knows from reading this blog I'm not a big fan of National Audubon. You can read my posts, Carbon Intensive Bird Event Sponsored by Audubon and Dear Brigid to get a general understanding of why. By the way, Brigid McCormack did finally respond to my email and I hope to post on that response sometime soon. The release of Audubon's, Birds and Climate Change report, may be a turning point for me and I agree with David Yarnold, President of National Audubon Society that people can work on both issues. I know I can. Here in drought ravaged California I am constantly getting emails from Audubon California about Tricolored Blackbirds, Double-crested Cormorants, hummingbirds, California Gnatcatchers, Snowy Plovers, water issues and birds, lead issues and birds, etc.

I said that I agreed with much of what Jonathan Franzen stated in his article although as a novelist he plays it fast and loose with his facts. Maybe that something he thinks a novelist can do. Here are some quotes from the article that I agree with.

…it’s important to acknowledge that drastic planetary overheating is a done deal. Even in the nations most threatened by flooding or drought, even in the countries most virtuously committed to alternative energy sources, no head of state has ever made a commitment to leaving any carbon in the ground.

The science is clear on this. We are heading (already there) towards a warming planet. Our carbon budget will soon be exhausted.

Jamieson’s larger contention is that climate change is different in category from any other problem the world has ever faced. For one thing, it deeply confuses the human brain, which evolved to focus on the present, not the far future, and on readily perceivable movements, not slow and probabilistic developments. (When Jamieson notes that “against the background of a warming world, a winter that would not have been seen as anomalous in the past is viewed as unusually cold, thus as evidence that a warming is not occurring,” you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry for our brains.)

Based on my experience people don't understand climate change. They don't get it!! They don't take the time to even try to understand it. They just go along with their life hoping someone else does something about it.

Climate change shares many attributes of the economic system that’s accelerating it. Like capitalism, it is transnational, unpredictably disruptive, self-compounding, and inescapable. It defies individual resistance, creates big winners and big losers, and tends toward global monoculture—the extinction of difference at the species level, a monoculture of agenda at the institutional level. It also meshes nicely with the tech industry, by fostering the idea that only tech, whether through the efficiencies of Uber or some masterstroke of geoengineering, can solve the problem of greenhouse-gas emissions. 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.

Yes we will be fucked and so will all of Jonathan's “nature” preserves and the birds that live in them. In his article he alluded to this.

The forest in Santa Rosa seemed desperately dry to me, even for a dry forest in the dry season. Hallwachs pointed to the cloud cover on the volcanoes and said that during the past fifteen years it has steadily moved upslope, a harbinger of climate change. “I used to win cases of beer betting on the date the rains would come,” Janzen said. “It was always May 15th, and now you don’t know when they’re going to come.” He added that insect populations in Guanacaste had collapsed in the four decades he’d been studying them, and that he’d thought of describing the collapse in a paper, but what would be the point? It would only depress people. The loss of insect species is already harming the birds that eat them and the plants that need pollination, and the losses will surely continue as the planet warms.

Jonathan Franzen seems to think that there is nothing we can do about all this.

The problem here is that it makes no difference to the climate whether any individual, myself included, drives to work or rides a bike. The scale of greenhouse-gas emissions is so vast, the mechanisms by which these emissions affect the climate so nonlinear, and the effects so widely dispersed in time and space that no specific instance of harm could ever be traced back to my 0.0000001-per-cent contribution to emissions. I may abstractly fault myself for emitting way more than the global per-capita average. But if I calculate the average annual quota required to limit global warming to two degrees this century I find that simply maintaining a typical American single-family home exceeds it in two weeks. Absent any indication of direct harm, what makes intuitive moral sense is to live the life I was given, be a good citizen, be kind to the people near me, and conserve as well as I reasonably can.

Certainly a statement of convenience for a globe trotting individual. Have you noticed that climate warming is never anybody's fault? It just seems to happen. In my comments on the ABA's blog I wrote,

Mr. Franzen is correct when he's saids that. The problem with that thinking is that in our “relatively” wealthy modern society there are so many Jonathan Franzens and collectively they put lots of carbon into the atmosphere.

In The New Yorker article, Jonathan Franzen fails to identity himself as being on the board of directors of the ABC. That's part of the controversy. He also trashes the National Audubon and their Birds and Climate Change Report. The link will take you to Audubon's website where they explain the report and even links to the actual report itself.

A hundred years ago, the National Audubon Society was an activist organization, campaigning against wanton bird slaughter and the harvesting of herons for their feathers, but its spirit has since become gentler. 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…

After I commented on the ABA Blog about the Jonathan Franzen controversy I was contacted via Facebook by a Michael Retter. He is, “the editor of the ABA's newest magazine, Birder's Guide. He also wears his ABA cap while working as a Technical Reviewer for Birding magazine”.

Hi, there. I think you may be the Richard Hubacek who commented on the ABA Blog? If so, I invite you to read the discussion on the ABA's Facebook discussion group about the Audubon climate report. Many knowledgeable people believe it is deeply flawed. That doesn't mean they don't think climate change it real and dangerous to birds. Just that there are some major issues with the climate report that should have been caught by peer-review before publication.

Readers of this blog can also read this discussion. You might have to have a Facebook account to use this link. There you will find a point counterpoint discussion about the Audubon report. I felt it to be evenly divided on the subject and It even has birding legend Kenn Kaufman, an ABA Board of Directors member and famous low carbon big year birder telling the doubters to read the small print. At this point I would like to plug his butterfly book as the best general book on the subject but maybe I should just stay on subject. What you will not find is any mention of how drastic planetary overheating is a done deal or how fucked we will be if we don't stop putting carbon into the atmosphere. It's like they only read part of the Franzen article.

I have been reading reports on birds and climate change for many years. None of these reports state that climate change is good for birds. The ABC (Jonathan Franzen is a board member) issued a report in 2002 called, The Birdwatcher's Guide to Global Warming.

Human activity – particularly the burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas – is sending tremendous additional quantities of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.The buildup of these gases is causing the planet to heat up and is altering the basic climate systems to which nature is adapted.There is a growing body of scientific evidence that some birds (as well as plants and other wildlife) are already responding to the changing climate.

As we explain in this report, recent studies indicate that this global warming could affect birds in many ways, shifting their distributions and altering their migration behavior and habitat, and even diminishing their survival ability. In some places, we may no longer see our favorite birds – as many as 33 states could see a significant reduction in American Goldfinches in the summer! As birdwatchers, we enjoy seeing the same birds we have always cherished in our backyards or on a favorite hike.What’s more, we understand that if a bird’s range shifts even a few miles, it can have a trickle-down effect for wildlife sharing its ecosystem.

If every household in the United States replaced its most commonly-used incandescent light bulbs with more efficient compact fluorescent bulbs, electricity use for lighting could be cut in half, lowering our total annual CO2 emissions by approximately 125 billion pounds (Geller 2001)

The report had a rather large section about changing light bulbs. It's sort of funny that Jonathan's article puts down the value of changing light bulbs. In any case the ABC report seems to be saying the same thing that the Audubon report is saying. Bird ranges will be moved because of climate change and it will not be a benefit for many of the birds.

The State of the Birds 2010 Report on Climate Change found National Audubon and the American Bird Conservancy collaborating along with other groups and government agencies on a report that says basically the same thing.

In 2007, National Audubon and ABC seemed to get along well enough to release, The United States WatchList of Birds of Conservation Concern.

In 2009, Audubon California released a report called, “Curbing Greenhouse Gas Emissions Will Reduce Future California Bird Loss“. In it they state,

Up to 110 of 310 California native bird species will experience significant reductions in their geographic range in the next several decades due to climate change, according to new research from Audubon California. These reductions will be part of massive range shifts to all of the state's bird species caused wholly or in part by the effects of climate change.

Did Jonathan Franzen, living in California, ever write an essay attacking the science or conservation ethics of Audubon California? Maybe he just wasn't as grumpy then as he is now. For those that don't get that last sentence read The New Yorker article. Being in the grip of a four year drought, Jonathan is in a bad mood. Here in California we are reading and writing a lot about our situation. An example that caught my attention recently was a 4/12/15, front page article in the San Francisco Chronicle called, Rich water wasters slow to turn off tap. It would appear that many rich people don't care how much they pay for water. One quote from a Palos Verdes Estates women (I used to live and work on the Palos Verdes Peninsula) was especially telling.

The longtime Palos Verdes Estates resident argued that any concessions she might make would probably have little effect on the statewide drought. (She) admitted, however, to recent pangs of guilt…

How do you think people whose wells have gone dry, who have lost their jobs in Central California's fields, who are actually conserving water, or are concerned about California wildlife would react to that statement? But isn't that what the Jonathan Franzen's of our world believe?

At the very start of this post I stated that there was a pissing match between various birding organizations. Maybe I was wrong about that. Although Jonathan Franzen is a board member of the ABC I can find no mention of the controversy on their website or their social media. Is Jonathan representing the ABC as a few people seem to think or is it just his personal opinion? I would like to know. Audubon certainly was entitled to respond to his article. Where did I find most of the sniping coming from? It was from the American Birding Association. To be fair I don't have a wide ranging view of these things. But Jonathan Franzen's name keeps popping up on their social media. Here. Here. Here. They seem to be keeping his name highlighted. Is it because, based on his interview in Birding, he's their new bro? Seems like it but I really don't know.

I wrote about the ABA back in 2013 when I had just started to blog. It was called, Is the ABA Schizophrenic? As a birding organization the ABA has no little conservation conscious. The ABA was founded on certain principles.

The next few issues were devoted to lively discussions of what the association and its publication should focus on, as well as an abundance of lists. An early consensus was reached that ABA would devote itself to promoting the hobby and sport of birding and would leave scientific contributions and conservation efforts to other organizations. To ensure that its direction would not be subverted, turning the organization into an armchair-bird-watchers' society or a conservation lobby, an elective membership policy was instituted, in imitation of that of the AOU.

It wasn't until a vote of it's members in July of 2011 that the ABA was even allowed to advocate on birding issues. I believe that I joined the ABA in 2007. That was well before my “green” birding conversion. I had heard rumors about the ABA's troubles but had no idea of how bad they were until I recently came upon a blog called, Birding with Kenn & Kimberly. In July of 2010, there was a post titled, Which Way For ABA?

The basic gist of the post was that Kenn Kaufman had been asked to help find a new president for the ABA.

The fact is that the American Birding Association is facing a tough situation right now. Membership numbers have been declining for the last few years, there have been a number of bad management decisions, and the organization is in financial difficulties. Whoever comes in as the new president is going to have to overcome some major challenges.

There are fifty comments to the post. It makes for an interesting read. Many of the names that commented were known to me as a reader of Birding. ABA's Birding was about the only thing universally praised in the comments. There were calls for a mass resignation of the board of directors. Allegations of lack of communication and even staff abuse from the board were made. You can even see the tensions between the hobby and sport people and the conservation people.

Keep conservation limited to Birders' Exchange and “North American Birds”. Leave the shouting and oil-soaked beach media-moments to the professional advocacy groups.

It would be absolutely fatal for ABA to move in the direction of spending more time, money and staff on conservation-related activities.


Members of the broad recreational birding community should be visibly, forcefully and effectively involved with conserving habitats and the bird species that “we” profess to “love.” ABA has never placed sufficient emphasis on conservation!!!! There is absolutely no reason why working singly or in broad partnerships to achieve what is in the long-term best interests of birds and other biodiversity shouldn't be FUN.

In response to other blogs that say that ABA should drop conservation, I would disagree. An organization that represents people who derive their enjoyment from watching birds would be remiss not to acknowledge bird-related conservation issues and not to support bird-conservation measures.

i must admit that my favorite comments came from a person named Brush Freeman.

First let me just allow why I no longer am with Birding. Frankly, in my case, I just “matured” beyond the whole list,listing and chase thing list thing which is what Birding more and more and more about..I don't condemn that, it just bores me to tears now, even though I was a sucker for all of that stuff once……I dropped ABA in part because it became more and more a less GREEN org., touting the 'who gives a flip” accomplishments of individuals that burn barrels of oil chasing a single species for some sort of stupid list. Frankly no one cares about my list or yours, so why does ABA even bother with this garbage anymore..?. Let ABA buy a few preserves, some habitat in critical areas, and really make a difference. Dump the sports end of the dollar-sucking publications and do something useful for future generations..

Brush, it's called ego. That's why they publish that “garbage”. Birders have to see where they stand in the birding world. I wish Jeff Gordon all the luck in the world as ABA's President.

So have I offended everybody with this little post on my blog? The answer is no I haven't. Nothing bad about the ABC in this article. I don't have anything bad to say about them except for having a controversial board member but I will be keeping an eye on them. Not too long ago they sent me an email promoting The Biggest Week in American Birding. I noticed something unusual about the email. The event is promoting a carbon offset to protect the Cerulean Warbler. From the ABC's website.

(Washington, D.C., March 19, 2015) One of the world’s premier annual birding festivals, known as The Biggest Week in American Birding (“Biggest Week”), will feature for the second year in a row a “carbon offset” component to advance bird conservation. This year, the festival suggests a $10-per-person donation to enhance habitat for the imperiled Cerulean Warbler and other migratory birds.

The funds raised through the carbon offset will boost reforestation efforts by American Bird Conservancy (ABC) in Latin America, which has supported the planting of more than 3.5 million trees and shrubs to date, improving wintering habitat for Cerulean Warblers and many other bird species.

I've noticed that this is happening more and more. Somewhere in the back reaches of some birder's brains is the fact that birders put lots of carbon into the atmosphere having “fun” chasing birds. Let me highlight a member of ABA's staff. Noah Strycker was formerly the Associate Editor of Birding. He is still a Department Editor in charge of “interviews”. In fact he did the Jonathan Franzen interview. Noah is on a Birding Without Borders year.

This year I will try to become the first person to see 5,000 species of birds in one calendar year, a sort of cosmopolitan, modern version of Wild America and Kingbird Highway. Rather than hiring international tour guides, I’ll spend my time with passionate locals—individuals who care about their home patches, and who are making a difference for birds in their own areas. Along the way, I will explore how birding, and the conservation of birds, fits into our new, crowded, globalized millennium.

Noah seems to get it!!

It sounds like a lot of flying, but a year is a long time to trace one methodical circuit of the globe. Contrasted with the quick overseas vacations taken by many birders, the environmental impact of this project seems less extreme—or at least more efficient. Traveling with a purpose carries other benefits, too; in my view, if everyone could visit just one other country, the world would become more humane. Still, I know I will be responsible for burning a lot of fuel in 2015, so I have joined a carbon offset program. It’s not a perfect system, but in theory my net carbon footprint during this trip will be zero.

And where did I happen to read about Noah's adventure? How about the National Audubon Society's Blog. It always amazes me how interconnected birding organizations are.

Here's an idea. What would happen if the ABA incorporated a carbon offset into their fabled Code of Birding Ethics? Make it 1(e) right there under Promote the welfare of birds and their environment.

That's something I think I could get behind.

This is undoubtedly the longest post I have ever written. I guess that proves that just about anyone can write a long rambling essay. How do I want to end this thing? How did Jonathan Franzen end his essay? Does anyone remember?

The animals may not be able to thank us for allowing them to live, and they certainly wouldn’t do the same thing for us if our positions were reversed. But it’s we, not they, who need life to have meaning.

It's a pretty good ending. I'm going to leave you with a quote from a climate scientist and surprisingly a trailer from Emptying the Skies a documentary based on Jonathan Franzen's articles on the bird slaughter in the Mediterranean. He co-produced the film. It seems like it is a powerful film on an important issue. We all have a part to play in saving birds.

A Grist article titled, Should climate scientists give up flying? reports on a moral dilemma that climate scientists have. Even though, “climate scientists curtailing their air travel would make a microscopic dent in reducing emissions”, they are in a small subset of the population that really knows what's going on with climate change. I personally feel that birders should also be in that small subset of population if they really care about what happens to the birds we love. Richard Alley, a climate scientist at Penn State ends the article with a quote that totally encompasses my feelings on the subject.

Individual actions cannot solve this problem and build a sustainable future. But we cannot solve this problem and build a sustainable future without individual actions.








2 thoughts on “What’s it all About Jonathan Franzen?

  1. Hello Greenbirdingmendo,

    Hello! I’m Happily-Joyful, but you can call me Joy, if you like. I don’t know if you even check this blog’s comments anymore, but I thought I should comment anyway, because no one has commented on this, even though you link to it in a couple other blog posts.

    I swear, people these days just don’t have time for anything. It annoys me so much. Thankfully, I am a very high functioning Autistic high school student with nothing else better to do, so here’s my comment!

    I may not be registered with any birding associations, but I do love all kinds of wildlife, especially wild canines (wolves, coyotes, etc) and birds, though I don’t know much on the subject of birds. I do know a bit on falconry though obviously that’s different than watching and taking pictures of birds. I do love photography (landscape, pet, and wildlife) as well, and when I learn to drive and we move again I want to start my own business as a pet photographer, while selling my landscape and wildlife photography on the side.

    Anyway, I’m getting off topic. The main point to this comment was to say that I really care about the environment, and I want to lower my C02 emissions, but can’t because the rest of my family doesn’t seem to care. I always try to recycle as much as I can, but my younger brother and parents just want things to stay comfortable and convenient. Also, my family is religious so I don’t think my mom really believes in the whole global warming/climate change thing. I know those aren’t the same thing (global warming and climate change), but the cause is still the same – CO2 emissions. I had to look the meanings of each up, I actually didn’t know the difference until now. You learn something new everyday, I suppose! ^_^ By the way, if I got the meaning wrong, feel free to correct me. 😉

    I’m thinking my mom just doesn’t want to believe it because she thinks the entire U.S government and most US government funded science associations are corrupted – we will be moving to New Zealand next year because of religious and political reasons I’d rather not say here. I think if other countries were saying the exact same thing, that the world is becoming warmer because of CO2 emissions, then I might have a chance at convincing her. I think it would also be worth it to explain to her that we can still be comfortable while reducing our emissions – it might be a little less convenient, but we would still have plenty of comfort.

    I guess what I’m trying to ask is, if you have a way for a teen to convince their parents and brothers to take climate change seriously, it would be a big help.

    But yeah, great article! It really made me think, you know? It definitely made me want to look up and learn more on climate change and global warming and the like. 😉

    Thanks for writing this! It was awesome!

    • I will happily call you Joy. I still check my comments and I always appreciate a well thought out comment. You are in a tough place with your family. It’s hard convincing people with set beliefs that climate change is happening. I’ve had that problem myself. Things are changing though. Many religious leaders are joining the call for reductions in carbon but not all. In Paris, at the recent climate conference, over190 countries submitted carbon reduction plans that will be a first step to stop the warming of our planet. New Zealand was one of those countries. This link should take you to New Zealand’s Ministry for the Environment where they discuss all the in’s and out’s of climate change and what they’re doing about it.
      You can use it to discuss the issue with your family.
      If you would like to get interested in birds, almost everywhere you live, there is an Audubon Society with birding trips. I’m sure New Zealand also has them. In fact I’m jealous that you will be seeing so many neat birds.
      Have a good life in New Zealand.

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