Chinese astrologists say 2018 is the Year of the Dog, but Jonathan Franzen, the National Book Award winner and notorious bird lover, is celebrating the Year of the Bird: the hundredth anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the federal law that, per the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, “makes it illegal for anyone to take, possess, import, export, transport, sell, purchase, barter, or offer for sale, purchase, or barter, any migratory bird” without a permit. (Incidentally, Friday is also National Bird Day.)
In a conversation with the New Republic, Franzen discussed how President Donald Trump’s anti-environmental extremism might actually bolster conservation efforts. He doubled down on his feud with the Audubon Society, the world’s largest bird conservation group. He lamented America’s cultural obsession with cats, but insisted his war on feline pets is not quite as militant as it seems. And he revealed what really happened to Walter’s cat at the end of his 2010 novel, Freedom.
You recently published an article in National Geographic, the sub-hed of which says that birds help save our souls. But can birds save us from Donald Trump?
[Laughs.] I think the proper question is whether we can save birds from Donald Trump. And I think the answer is broadly yes—we can save them. But it requires focus, and particularly a focus on priorities.
Why should anyone prioritize the plight of birds, though, especially given the daily outrages and injustices from this White House?
I think there are two parts to the answer. One is that I believe we have an ethical responsibility as a species to do what we can to avoid creating an epic extinction event. We inherited this world. It created us, and a certain amount of respect should be due to the natural world.
There’s also a more immediately self-interested argument to be made, which is we don’t really know what a sterilized planet is going to do to us in the long-term. The jury is still out on whether you actually can eliminate most species from the world and make up for it with artificial measures such as we have in the past.
Birds themselves have little utility to human beings. Yes, they pollinate. They kill pests. But by and large I think they’re a net drag on the economy because they’ll come and, you know, eat your blueberries. But birds are these really visible indicators of when you have a functioning ecosystem—when you have a place that has some vestige of wildness to it. And when the birds disappear, that tells me, “Oh my, a whole lot else is disappearing.”
In your 2015 New Yorker piece, “Carbon Capture,” you made the controversial argument that environmentalists focus too much on climate change at the expense of birds. Donald Trump said sort of the same thing during his campaign. “The wind kills all your birds,” he said. “All your birds, killed. You know, the environmentalists never talk about that.” Did you have hope at that point that that he was speaking your language?
No. Donald Trump has never spoken my language. He’s the free-associater-in-chief. He must have seen something in the previous 24 hours that led him to say that. I never mistook him for a person who cares about anything but himself, frankly, and his family’s interests.
Has the Trump administration changed anything about what you wrote in that 2015 piece? Are you still “miserably conflicted” between climate change and conservation? Do you still think climate change is extremely unsolvable?
The argument I made in the New Yorker piece was premised on the fact that we’re not going to do anything to prevent drastic climate change. If you’re a thriving, stable, small, ethnically homogenous democracy in Northern Europe, you might be able to do a pretty good job of reducing your carbon footprint. But by and large that’s not the way the world is. And that’s not the way Americans are. So it grew out of a sense of irritation that people were still pretending we could actually stop this from happening.
But scientists then, and even now, said we can do something about climate change.
I perhaps stated my case a little too strongly. Yes, we can take action to reduce carbon emissions. Yes, this will have some effect. It may have the effect of slightly slowing the progress of drastic calamitous climate change. It won’t prevent it, and it won’t delay it for long. But it is worth doing, because every little bit helps. This is a worthy goal.
What I had a beef with was that it was the idea that it was the only goal that anyone who cares about the environment should have. What has happened in the past couple of decades is that whenever you bring up the environment, people start talking about climate change. That’s all. And what that does is it drains attention away from real crises in the present moment and also real steps we could take to help preserve the natural world. And if we don’t try to arrest the degradation of the natural world now, there won’t be anything left to save even if we miraculously succeed in staving off climate change.
The problem with climate change is that it distracts us from those really urgent problems, or even worse, it makes us so fatalistic and so depressed about the fate of the natural world that we just give up.
Wait. That’s funny coming from you, because you seem particularly fatalistic about the fate of the natural world. Is that not a correct characterization of how you look at it?
Well, here’s the thing. Yes. But my New Yorker piece ultimately was a meditation on how you find meaning in your life.
Let’s reduce it to a really absurdly simple choice. I can devote myself to reducing my carbon footprint, or I can devote myself to going down to the local wetland and pulling out invasive weeds and trying to restore a degraded natural space. If I reduce my carbon footprint, there is zero practical effect. No one could ever measure it because it is meaninglessly small. Whereas if every Sunday I go down and pull weeds at that little half-acre scrap of land, the next year I will see fewer invasive plants. And suddenly a bird that has not nested here since it became degraded is back. I made a difference to that bird. And that is intensely meaningful.
It’s like, can we can we just accept that this terrible thing is going to happen and then look at how we find meaning in our lives, given that fact?
Do you think there’s a case to be made that the Trump administration’s anti-environmental actions will actually mobilize more people to become the type of environmentalist that you believe is more meaningful?
Perversely, yes. That is my hope. The question is whether enough people care about the natural world. And I think the environmentalist community as a whole could be doing a better job as a whole of keeping the focus on the here and now. Unfortunately, a lot of of the big NGOs moved so heavily into climate at the expense of other advocacy that it’s going to take quite a bit for them to reverse course.
I know that’s your main criticism of Audubon, and I’m wondering if you still stand by it. Because Audubon responded, and they said, We can do two things at once. We can still argue against Arctic drilling because it degrades habitats while arguing against it because it worsens climate change. What is the problem with that defense?
It caused me a lot of grief internally to write that piece and to criticize an organization that consists of people who love birds. It’s hard to criticize a bird-loving organization.
But their defense doesn’t takes anything away from my contention that rolling out a massive press release about climate change being the number-one threat to North American birds is actually counterproductive. And I would stick to my contention that this used to be a ferociously bird-protecting organization. It led the charge on DDT in the 1960s, and it is not taking such controversial positions now.
What are the controversial positions you’d hope Audubon and other bird advocates take?
I’d like to see them be tougher on the wind industry, and not so eager to reach compromise. Not to say there should be no wind farms, but to be quite aggressive and not trust the industry to police itself.
I would like to see any large national prominent bird organization take on the problem of outdoor cats. Nobody wants to do that, because everyone’s watching their cat videos, and everybody loves cats, and is sentimental about their cats. But those cat people tend have a lot of time on their hands, and they tend to make life very difficult for anyone to point out what an ecological catastrophe cats are in North America.
Not indoor cats though, right?
No! Indoor cats are great. I like an indoor cat. They’re beautiful animals. I just don’t like to see them killing birds, which is what they will do if you let them outside.
Did Walter kill the cat in Freedom?
I think if you read it, it’s pretty clear that he did not. He left it at an animal shelter in St. Paul.
I’ve got the book right here—I’m sitting in my study and I actually have a copy—and I believe I can quote chapter and verse on that. “Made it all the easier for Walter after a three hour drive to deposit the animal at a Minneapolis shelter, that would either kill it, or fobbed off on an urban family who would keep it indoors.”
There was some chance that, because it’s so cute, some urban family would want it. Walter’s too soft-hearted a guy to kill a cat. In fact, as soon he gets rid of the cat, he misses it and feels sorry for it.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.