The State of the Birds Part 1: Putting all your conservation eggs in a neoliberal basket
In case you don’t know, Stateofthebirds.org is the web domain of “The U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative” (NABCI). Since 2009, NABCI has published a “State of the Birds” report every year (except 2015). Most of these reports are topic-centered. 2010 focused on “climate-change;” 2013 focused on “Private Lands.” In Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America, I argue that the 2011 State of the Birds Report, which focused on “Public Lands” thoroughly embraces a neoliberal environmental ethic. The 2011 report used (and subsequent reports use) the massive data set on bird populations produced by eBird, a citizen-science initiative where users input bird sightings through a web portal. NABCI, like many neoliberal organizations, champions public-private partnerships as a means of measuring, defining, valuing, and managing large populations. In this case, they used “new statistical techniques developed by scientists at the USGS [United States Geological Society] and National Audubon Society” to produce the most detailed analysis in human history of North American birds.
So what was the state of the birds in 2011? Pretty dire, per the report.
“The state of our birds is a measurable indicator of how well we are doing as stewards of our environment. The signal is clear. Greater conservation efforts on public lands and waters are needed to realize the vision of a nation sustained economically and spiritually by abundant natural resources and spectacular wildlife.”
Five years later things have not taken a turn for the better. The 2016 State of the Birds Report notes that “one-third of all North American bird species need urgent conservation action,” which means that 437 bird species “are at risk of extinction without significant action.” Only 14% of the 1154 bird species in North American are of “low” conservation concern. That’s not good. The last page of the 2016 report declares in large type at the top of its last page “Everybody wins with bird conservation.” What might we make of the converse: “Everybody loses without bird conservation?”
The 2017 State of the Birds report seems to retrench in the face of these conservation losses. The U.S. NABCI committee “decided to link future State of the Birds reports to specific policy initiatives that influence bird conservation.” The 2017 report, then, “focused on Farm Bill conservation programs, meant to serve as a key communication tool aimed at Congress and the public that demonstrates how the Farm Bill can positively influence bird populations, especially on private and working lands.” The most important conservation component of the Farm Bill is the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which essentially pays farmers not to farm land deemed environmentally important. CRP is strongly tied to commodity and land prices. When prices are high, demand from farmers to enroll land in CRP is low; when prices fall, demand increases. In 2014, commodity prices were high, and, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “the maximum acreage cap for CRP [was cut] to 24 million acres” (NSAC), which is down from a high of 36.8 million acres enrolled in the program in 2007 when commodity prices were low. In short, the CRP element of the farm bill is always tied to commodity prices. Higher prices are bad for birds.
So are Republican presidential administrations. As the NSAC bluntly puts it, President Trump’s proposed budget would “decimate the bill’s conservation title” by cutting or eliminating many of the conservation-focused elements of the Farm Bill. And the likelihood that bird conservation will even be a part of the Farm Bill debate seems quite small given the complete inattention to conservation of a Republican-controlled Congress.
NABCI, who really have no other choice, have put all of their bird conservation eggs in a neoliberal basket of public-private partnerships. Even with funding, many of the conservation successes of the Farm Bill rely on “voluntary, incentive-based programs” to improve bird habitat. Without incentives, voluntary conservation measures will be sure to disappear. The SotB 2017 report notes that the Farm Bill “pays huge natural dividends” that can be measured in terms of population increases, land conservation, and dollars contributed to the economy by “hunting and birdwatching” and the “net benefit of ecological services (water quality and wildlife habitat).” According to the report, the Farm Bill also “creates eco-benefits for the entire farm” and delivers return on investment in birds and clean water.” All of these things are true; the Farm Bill is great for bird conservation. But, when the 2018 Farm Bill debate happens, little to no attention will be paid to these conservation successes. The report calls for “the use of science to maximize Farm Bill conservation effectiveness” that will “enable science-based decision-making and strategic planning.” To be blunt, we all know how ineffective science has been in influencing climate-change legislation in the U.S.; there’s little hope that science will have any influence on the 2018 Farm Bill.
So can the NABCI, whose 28 partners include groups from the Audubon Society to the Department of Defense, from the National Parks Service to Ducks Unlimited, succeed in influencing Congress and the public? How many people are still reading this? If you are, stay tuned for part 2.
The State of the Birds Part 2: The State of the Birds is Liquid
If neoliberal conservation practices are doomed to fail (as I argue in part 1 above, and as global warming makes a more comprehensive and convincing worldwide argument) should everyone just throw up their hands or wings and give up? NABSCI has another method up its sleeve: “Human Dimensions (HD),” which they define as is “a field of study that applies the social sciences to examine research questions that have implications for wildlife conservation efforts.” Specifically geared toward bird conservation, HD seeks to build “social science capacity in the world of bird conservation” in order to develop “an understanding, through social science, of how to support birdwatchers, natural resource managers, and other key audiences interested in bird conservation.” In partnership with the social sciences, NABSCI asks questions such as “How does culture influence people’s relationship with birds? What are their attitudes, values, and opinions? How can we motivate/change behavior? How effective are our conservation strategies?” HD seeks to understand collaboration, common ground, volunteerism, and strategic communication, among other things. If science alone can’t do the job, why not try the social sciences?
Maybe we could take things even further. The humanities seem just as doomed as conservation practices today, so why not think about what the humanities can tell us about birds? As a last resort literary study and philosophy might offer some ecological tools for adjusting the ways humans interact with birds, and vice-versa. Here are three.
1 1. In the shameless self-promotion department, I argued in Scarlet Experiment: Birds and Humans in America that we might find “other universes of value,” to use Felix Guattari’s term, that aren’t beholden to outmoded, anthropocentric (and anthropomorphic) modes of subjectivity. After all, even as the USDA kills millions of them a year, European Starlings love feedlots; likewise Canada Geese love the suburbs. While I don’t write about them in Scarlet Experiment, American Crows love human-altered habitats, especially when the congregate in the heat and light of cities in cold winters. They’re not flocking together just for fun; they mean to survive. And, as much research has recently shown, they know who we are. See Live Science’s click-baity “Hitchcockian Crows Spread the Word about Unkind Humans” (https://www.livescience.com/14819-crows-learn-dangerous-faces.html). Crows can remember an individual human, even if the haven’t seen him or her in a year or more. Can you tell one crow from another? You might want to learn how to.
2. Read some fiction that takes ecosystems, humans, nonhuman animals, and life and death seriously. Victor LaValle. Margaret Atwood, Kim Stanley Robinson. Emily Dickinson. Kathryn Davis. Jeff VanderMeer. VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy creates and explores a novel ecosystem made up of biologists, dolphins with human eyes, owls who might be your husband, and moaning creatures who slough off their faces. His Borne writes a new life-form into existence, a creature named Borne who might be part cephalopod and part bio-engineered mistake. The Strange Bird gives us a bird that becomes an invisibility cloak and then becomes four birds. All of VanderMeer’s worlds ask readers to think seriously about how we might survive in ever-mutating ecosystems.
3. Think about the concept of “kindness” that Timothy Murphy develops in the last chapter of his book Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People. For Morton, “kindness” is an “acknowledgement of nonhumans,” “that we share their world, and they share ours.” This is not a “sharing” in the usual ecological sense, where we would think of sustainability, conservation, or return on investment. Morton’s kindness does not find itself in economic analyses or spiritural considerations. Instead, he thinks of closeness outside of the binaries of cost/benefit, of “theistic discourses of good and evil, or biopoliitical discourses of sickness and health, or petrocultural discourses of efficiency and sustainability.” This closeness is closer than even the line between self and other, closer than the space between active and passive. “Ecological awareness is claustrophobic. You find yourself surrounded, permeated, composed of not-you beings.” It is so close that “you” yourself is punctured by “not-you beings,” by the dog curled up next to you, by the music flowing out of your computer’s speakers, by the birds, the house sparrows, the European starlings, the American crows, outside your window. All of these things are always closing in on you. They cannot be escaped.
And ecological awareness of this kind doesn’t just function on this molar level. Morton writes, “Ecological awareness is knowing that there are a bewildering variety of scales, temporal and spatial, and that the human ones are only a very narrow region of a much larger and necessarily inconsistent and varied scalar possibility space, and that the human scale is not the top scale.” The human scale is not the top scale. The human scale is not the top scale. Scales are not hierarchies. Morton invites us to think of a rock. “On an inhumanly large timescale, rocks behave like liquids, coming and going, moving, shifting, melting. Rocks fail to sit there doing nothing. Humans aren’t caught in anthropocentrism without an exit, because they can discern rocks to be liquid, attuning to the timescale on which that liquidity operates, letting it affect them, becoming excited or horrified.” Ecological awareness tells us to think of rocks as liquids, as moving things that flow through space and time. The timespan of human life is not the timescale of geologic time, but we can tune into this scale. It’s anti-anthropocentric, so slow that a human point of view disappears. And ecological awareness brings other scales with it. “On an inhumanly small spatio-temporal scale, tiny slivers of rock vibrate all by themselves.” Rocks are always moving on this scale, “quivering” as Morton calls it.
So what if I say: The state of the birds is liquid. Birds are individuals, flocks, populations. They are speciating right now. Ask an ornithologist how many species of red crossbills there are. One? Eight? A billion? (see: http://www.audubon.org/field-guide/bird/red-crossbill). Birds are dinosaurs. They make nests in your gutters. Morton writes “for some reason, this part of your house is where the sparrows, not you, get to have fun.” Sparrows can colonize part of your house. Starlings can colonize a feedlot. Crows can colonize your neighborhood. They know you. Birds have an ecological awareness. They feel magnetic fields. They know how many hours a day the sun shines. They know where the bugs are. They know the temperature. One bird can know where Tierra del Fuego and the Arctic are. It flies to both places. Human conservation practices want to kick birds out of the human world, to say what birds are worth, to say that birds are good, to say that we should value birds. A different kind of ecological awareness might start by saying: “Here are some birds. What are we doing to them? What do they doing to us?”