April 3, 2015

The Audubon Society is really pissed at J-Franz


The Audubon Society is pissed off. Via Shutterstock.

The Audubon Society is pissed off. Via Shutterstock.

In this week’s New Yorker, Jonathan Franzen argues that the Minnesota Vikings stadium should include bird-safe glass walls, and that the Audubon Society, as well as Minneapolis Star-Tribune bird blogger Jim Williams, are too focused on the threat of climate change to send out press releases about stuff like the Vikings stadium. Now the VP of the Audubon Society is calling his article “an act of extreme intellectual dishonesty.”

J-Franz wants to think local. The Audubonians want to think global. These things aren’t mutually exclusive, as Franzen’s article implies.

But Franzen’s convinced that the organization is headed in the wrong direction, and by the way, it sends dumb Christmas presents:

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.

The Audubonians are upset with the author they thought was a friend. (They did send him stuffed birds at Christmastime.) Franzen writes novels that include extended rants against the dangers of the modern house cat, which he has referred to in The Guardian as “an educational service.” Seems like everybody’s on the same team here, no?

Not this time. Not after an ad hominem attack.

Play by play: J-Franz reads about the need for stadium glass, and the people who don’t want to invest one tenth of one percent to protect local wildlife. An article about the way climate change is threatening the population of the loon–Minnesota’s state bird–runs in the Star-Tribune.

Williams, of whom Franzen is a notable fan, says, “We’ve been talking about birds being killed by flying into glass. That’s going to be nothing compared to this.”

Around the same time, J-Franz receives a press release from the Audubon Society, this one saying that the “greatest threat” to American birds is climate change. J-Franz is surprised the greatest threat is not the impending football stadium in Minnesota. So he takes it to the New Yorker.

Franzen writes, “It wasn’t that I didn’t share Williams’s anxiety about the future. What upset me was how a dire prophecy like Audubon’s could lead to indifference toward birds in the present.”

Joe Romm and Karl Mathiesen wrote some thoughtful responses. Other readers decided not to engage:


Yesterday Mark Jannot, Vice President of the Audubon Society, released a passionate response to J-Franz. It’s a little over-the-top, but the main thrust of his argument is that a focus on climate change, and thinking long-term about the planet, will not “distract” anybody from local or immediate bird problems.

“[Franzen’s article] is based on a piece of intellectual sleight of hand (or, at best, clumsiness) that one might have expected the New Yorker’s vaunted fact-checking apparatus to have caught and spat back out,” Jannot writes in the Audubon blog. “. . . There is no evidence that a robust climate movement has been or could become the soul-sucking force Franzen claims.”

That’s just the beginning. The falconry gloves are off:

It’s not clear what the Audubon Society did to piss off Jonathan Franzen. But the Audubon that emerges from Franzen’s essay is a band of once-scrappy conservationists who have grown content to peddle squeaky plush toys and holiday cards; we’ve seized on climate change, apparently, in a last grab at relevance.

In order to gin up that caricature, however, Franzen, who has no journalism experience that I know of, was forced to ignore or actively distort a great deal of inconvenient truth. In fact, the very examples he cites in his piece of the kind of retail, grassroots protections we should be offering to birds (and the very kind that would presumably be subsumed in a wave of climate neurosis) were spearheaded by . . . Audubon.

Take that effort to push for the use of bird-safe glass in the Minnesota Vikings’ planned crystal palace of a stadium. Franzen comes out as a big supporter of the idea, but he does so without ever acknowledging that Audubon has been the driving force in that fight. The “local bird-lovers” Franzen references? Audubon. (You can verify it for yourself in this post from Franzen’s favorite bird blogger, Jim Williams.)

Franzen similarly holds up as a model of courage those who would risk alienating the powerful hunting lobby by demanding a ban on lead ammunition, which gets into the food web and poisons birds and other animals. Yet he neglects to mention that the successful effort behind the passage of California’s watershed lead-ammo ban in 2013 was led by Audubon.

He mocks those who would sacrifice eagles and condors to the blades of wind turbines in their monomaniacal pursuit of renewable energy—but he fails to recognize that it was Audubon, and CEO David Yarnold, that very publicly and successfully struck back against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ruling last year that would have allowed an unacceptably high number of raptor deaths from turbines.

Perhaps these are omissions born of ignorance; maybe, for instance, despite his declaration that he had been “following” the Vikings stadium brouhaha, Franzen somehow managed to overlook the prominent mentions of Audubon’s advocacy that crop up in pretty much all media coverage of the issue. If so, though, Franzen could have easily addressed that deficiency by availing himself of that most timeworn of reportorial tools: He could have picked up the phone and spoken to someone—anyone!—at the organization whose work he so crassly demeans.

But Franzen’s casual snark—his wanton use of “diminishing” quotation marks and other rhetorical gimmicks to create an impression of Audubon as somehow soft and venal; his smug, belittling tone suggesting that there’s something wrong, rather than something impressive, in our having a science department that actually commits science—leaves me, anyway, with the unshakable suspicion that there may be something else going on here. After all, though he chose not to divulge this to his readers, Franzen sits on the fund-raising board of directors for the American Bird Conservancy, an organization that fancies itself a competitor for funding and attention with Audubon.

Whew. Franzen’s not winning any friends with this one. And the Audubon Society probably lost J-Franz’s holiday donation this year.

In a more balanced take on the article, the head of EU policy at Birdlife, Ariel Brunner, explained, “Comparing the impact of climate change and the effect of renewable infrastructure on birds is like comparing a tornado to a hairdryer. Renewables are not counterproductive to bird conservation if done properly. The bulk of the mortality is due to windows, buildings and power lines. Climate action and nature conservation must go hand in hand.”

Jeff Strickler of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune suggests that one way to protect the local birds is by buying “nontoxic, loon-safe fishing tackle.” After all this birder news, this is a good week to invest in anything loon-safe.


Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.