Up north at our place in the country, the birds are back. To me this is the true start of spring. I love waking up to their racket. It means life is starting over. The swallows will be moving in to the house we built for bluebirds (they always do). The goldfinches will be fighting it out with the grosbeaks at the feeder. The turkey hens are looking for a place to nest. A heron might visit the pond. Maybe we'll see the bald eagle again.
To tell the truth, I care more about the birds than I do about global warming. They're right here in our meadow. They bring me joy. They are concrete, not abstract. There are things I can do to protect them. I can decide to conserve our little patch of woods. I can keep the cat in.
I suspect there are lots of folks like me. One of them is Jonathan Franzen, a serious bird nut who recently wrote a piece in The New Yorker that infuriated everyone. In it, he argues that the environmental movement's obsession with climate change makes it harder for people to care about conservation and the birds. Climate change has driven all other environmental concerns to the margins of the agenda. They don't get the air time they deserve. The hypothetical fate of birds tomorrow has crowded out the real fate of birds today.
I think he's right. We don't have to wait for climate change to wreak havoc on the earth. Humans have already done the job themselves. Climate change is not wiping out the white northern rhino. People are.
Mr. Franzen also makes a larger point, a deeply gloomy one. He argues that the climate problem is so tough that it's probably not solvable – not any time soon, at least. So we'd be better off to focus on problems we can actually do something about.
The piece has ruffled feathers, to put it mildly, and critics are pooping on him from a high height. They say that Mr. Franzen's either/or distinction is bogus. They also say his pessimism about climate change amounts to "climate neo-denialism." In other words, by arguing that climate change is a hopeless problem, he's playing right into the deniers' camp.
Actually, I'm more optimistic than Mr. Franzen on this score. I no longer think climate change is a hopeless problem. I just think the way we currently talk about it is hopeless. The debate is dominated by hysterics who say that unless we take action x by tomorrow, the planet is doomed.
No wonder that most people are overwhelmed and depressed by the subject of climate change. It's too big and complicated to understand, let alone do anything about. It makes them feel powerless.
It's time for a change. We need to bury the whole idea of environmentalism as we know it, and stop pretending that some grand global agreement will bail us out. We need to construct a new approach to energy and the environment that is more realistic, more pragmatic, more humane – and that also embraces far more than climate change.
One approach is summarized in a short document called An Ecomodernist Manifesto, published this week by the Breakthrough Institute. It argues that human prosperity and an ecologically vibrant planet are not only possible, but also inseparable.
"Lots of environmental problems have got much better as people have gotten richer," says Canadian environmental scientist David Keith, who's one of the scientists who backs the manifesto. I don't have space here to list all his credentials, but let's just say he's among the smartest guys in the world. "Air pollution is substantially better in the last 40 years because of the Clean Air Act. Clean air has added about a year and a half to the lives of the average Canadian or American," he told me. "We understand how to do these things. Wealth and good governance matter."
Economic development, the manifesto argues, is indispensable to save the planet. The key is to "decouple" development from nature by using nature more intensively. We must intensify human activities such as farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement – as we are already doing – so that we can leave more of the natural world, and the spaces we love, alone. The most productive and efficient way for people to live is not in some rural Edenic paradise (where small numbers of hunter-gatherers, it should be noted, were very good at wiping out whole species) It's in densely packed cities.
The public seldom hears this perspective, because the media tend to give the airtime to folks like Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben. And that's a shame, because these thinkers offer a far more creative, rational and optimistic way to move forward.
Dr. Keith, who has moved to Harvard as a professor of applied physics and of public policy, is no stranger to controversy himself. He thinks that solar geoengineering – perhaps by spraying sulfates into the stratosphere – could be a way to stabilize or at least slow down the rise in global temperature. A lot of people are dead-set against the idea, either because they fear it would let us off the hook for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, or because they think it's too dangerous a way to fool around with Mother Nature.
I have no idea if solar geoengineering is the way of the future. There are many ways to the future, and that may be one. What I do know is that there are far more ways to the future than we have discussed, and it's time to start. It may even be possible, as the manifesto promises, that humans have the opportunity in this century "to re-wild and re-green the earth – even as developing countries achieve modern living standards, and material poverty ends."
Some extremely smart people are hopeful about that. Something to cheer you up as you listen to the morning birds.