Conserving our self-image

I like birds, as you may notice if you read much around here. I find them fascinating. I’m alternately amazed by and fearful for the complexity of habitats and migratory patterns; I worry about the impact on them of things like wind farms and urban lighting and even overzealous tree-pruning. The brown-headed nuthatch may not be most people’s idea of charismatic megafauna, but I like them.

brown-headed nuthatch
Photo by Anne Davis licensed Creative Commons.

So, not surprisingly, among the many other emails I get from the many other subscriptions I’ve long since come to regret, I get emails now and then about bird science and bird conservation.

This morning I got an email from the Audubon Society with the subject “Preserving America’s Conservation Legacy.” Note the wording: not “conserving America’s natural places” or its natural beauty or natural heritage or even preserving conservation itself but preserving our conservation legacy. Not about protecting birds, but about our proud history of protecting birds, which is not quite the same thing.

The body of the email offered only this blurb as clickbait:

Last week, President Donald Trump offered a glimpse at plans for his first budget, with concerning cuts to critical conservation programs that help protect birds and the places they need. These programs, part of America’s conservation legacy, have helped restore treasured ecosystems from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, the Chesapeake Bay to Puget Sound, and everything in between. But, your representatives in Washington are ultimately responsible for what happens to these vital programs.

In other words, the Audubon Society wants to keep certain federal programs going, programs that have protected “treasured ecosystems” in the past. Fine and good. What troubles me is this phrase conservation legacy. I’ve noted elsewhere that conservation tends to move quickly from conserving a thing itself to conserving the idea of a thing, but now it seems we’ve moved to wanting to preserve the conservation itself — or rather the legacy of conservation, the idea that we’re the sort of people who support conservation. We’ve been doing this thing, and we should keep doing it, because otherwise what sort of people would we be?

Possibly I’m nitpicking. But I think it’s an accurate reading of present-day political discourse. We too often support things not because we care about them but because we like to fancy ourselves the sort of people who care about those things. I don’t mean to single out the Audubon Society; it’s only that they happened to email me. It’s everybody. And the Audubon Society, deliberately or not, is playing to the audience whose support they need.

The conservation movement began a hundred years ago with people who knew wild and semi-wild places and saw them fast disappearing. It continued with the support of people who didn’t know such places but had visited them once or twice and liked the idea of them. Now it depends on the support of people who have maybe seen a nature show and thinks birds are pretty but doesn’t want them crapping all over the new SUV — people who merely like feeling that they like the idea of wild places. Realistically, if conserving wild and semi-wild places depends on the votes of people who live near them and know them, conservation is finished, because there simply aren’t enough such people left; “environmental protection,” like a lot of good ideas, depends heavily on the support of people with little understanding of “the environment” and less of how to protect it.

While we’re highlighting past successes and “preserving a legacy,” meanwhile, the matter of what’s needed now lies unaddressed. That’s how federal programs live and grow — keeping rules in place, making new ones, expanding bureaucracies, because what sort of person cuts anti-poverty programs or school budgets or environmental protection? A person who likes to think of himself as tough-minded and practical, that’s what sort, and as soon as that kind of person gets to be in charge, he’s going to stick it to the crunchy suburbanites who, really, only supported those programs because they liked to think of themselves as compassionate or tolerant or in touch with the earth. Political causes are marketed to us like any other kind of product: Buying this product Supporting this cause will make you the person you’ve always wanted to be! And while I don’t quite blame the Audubon Society for taking similar tactics, I don’t quite absolve them, either.

I mentioned the brown-headed nuthatch. According to the North American Breeding Bird Survey, brown-headed nuthatch populations in the U.S. declined by about 24% between 1966 and 2014, largely due to habitat degradation. Nuthatches live in open pine forests, and they nest in holes in dead trees. So while suburban sprawl generally isn’t doing them any good, the suburban habit of taking down any tree that looks like it might someday die, lest it fall on a house or a power line or just look bad, would seem to be a particular problem. So, then, you have to ask yourself: Are you the sort of person who leaves dead trees standing around, looking bad, bringing down property values and being generally irresponsible?

If saving wild birds depends mainly on our self-esteem, in other words, they’re probably screwed.