A Bird’s Eye View On Destroying the World to Save It

My review of The End of the End of the Earth by C.D. Rose. The Irish Times, 8 December 2018, p. 28.

A Bird’s Eye View On Destroting the World to Save It

Jonathan Franzen’s description of himself as “someone who cares more about birds than the next man” sounds innocent enough. Endearing, even. It is rather more controversial, however, when construed as a rabbit-duck illusion. Is the “Great American Novelist” — to quote a famous Time cover headline — simply a passionate, albeit obsessive, ornithologist? Or does he actually prefer birds to fellow human beings? This question lies at the heart of The End of the End of the Earth, his third non-fiction collection, in which he sets out to use the essay as a vehicle for “honest self-examination and sustained engagement with ideas”.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, the “test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function”, then Franzen has passed with flying colours. Alongside longer birdwatching travelogues, there are pieces on photography, technology, short-termism, Manhattan in the early Eighties, and of course literature (his “Ten Rules for the Novelist” have already earned him a great deal of online ribbing).

Franzen is “miserably conflicted” about climate change. On the one hand, he is convinced that it is the greatest challenge facing humanity, but on the other, he feels “bullied by its dominance” in environmental circles, where it has become a dogma that precludes any nuanced discussion.

In particular, he takes the National Audubon Society to task for jumping on the bandwagon, by claiming that global warming today is the “number-one threat” to birds in North America. In fact, he explains, not a single bird death can be “definitively” ascribed to this phenomenon right now unlike, say, wind farms. This leads him to wonder if we are not “destroying the natural world in order to save it”. It also prompts a great deal of soul-searching, as he grapples with feelings of guilt over “caring more about birds in the present” than people in the future. This notion that he is somehow deficient in “brotherly love” recurs throughout the book, although it is amply disproved by the warmth and tenderness with which he evokes his friend, the writer Bill Vollmann, or his gregarious late uncle Walt.

The simplistic message of global warming can be conveniently conveyed “in fewer than a hundred and forty characters” as opposed to the more complex — “novelistic” — narrative of wildlife conservation favoured by the author. Climate change has the added advantage of being a problem “with a human face”, one that is everybody’s fault and therefore nobody’s, hence its appeal to our narcissism both as a species and as individuals. More crucially still, it provides us with a ready-made belief system, New England Puritanism 2.0: “Unless we repent and mend our ways, we’ll all be sinners in the hands of an angry Earth”. At the latest reckoning, we have ten years left before Judgement Day, but in a decade — when we fail to meet our latest carbon-emission targets — the goalposts will be moved again. The end is never nigh enough.

Eschewing eschatology, Franzen outlines an alternative approach to environmentalism based on “loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us”. He calls it “Franciscan” — after Saint Fancis of Assisi, that other bird lover — but Emersonian would do just as well. Instead of focusing on a hypothetical future, he seeks to reconnect, here and now, with a past in which nature was still untainted by human intervention. Being the “most vivid and widespread representatives of the Earth as it was before people arrived on it”, birds allow us to take flight momentarily from the Anthropocene. That house finch outside our window is, he reminds us, “a tiny and beautifully adapted living dinosaur”. Birds’ flight paths “bind the planet together”, offering a tantalising glimpse of a totalising worldview. “If you could see every bird in the world, you’d see the whole world,” writes Franzen, fully aware that bird-watching (or “birding” in American parlance) is predicated on its own failure (which does not prevent him from being a compulsive “lister”).

The author’s avian passion remains unrequited, and this is as it should be. Birds’ indifference to us serves as “a chastening reminder that we’re not the measure of all things”. Though they defecate on us from a great height, birds could not give a shit about human beings, and this is also how it should be. After all, it is “we, not they, who need life to have a meaning”.

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