Changing Human Hearts, One Blue Jay at a Time

The New York Times Opinions 2 weeks ago

NASHVILLE — Whenever people who are concerned about the environment gather, the conversation invariably turns to questions of how to live more gently on the earth. Concerned people are always asking how they can eat more responsibly, shop more responsibly, keep house more responsibly. How can they lower their carbon footprint? How can they tend their gardens in a way that supports troubled pollinators and other wildlife?

As long as the federal government is in the hands of climate-science deniers, concerned people understand that there’s no hope for a sweeping approach to the growing climate emergency. So they cling to concrete measures that everyday folks can take instead. Fortunately there are many ways to help: Every week, the Climate Fwd. newsletter from The Times includes practical tips for living more sustainably.

But what about the sublimely unconcerned people, those who are living in a way that makes absolutely no sense in light of the incontrovertible changes our climate has already undergone, never mind the peril it faces? I’m not talking about people who have been duped into believing that the climate emergency is just a manifestation of liberal hysteria. I’m talking about educated people on both sides of the political aisle who understand what’s happening but who feel exempt from personal responsibility for it. How is it possible to be informed about this calamity and yet calmly proceed as though nothing at all has changed?

Sure, some of us are by temperament more inclined to worry than others, and some have a greater capacity for imaginative extension. But increasingly, I’ve come to believe that the difference between concerned people and unconcerned people is largely a matter of personal investment. People who don’t feel, in a personal way, what’s happening to the world are better able to put it out of their minds. If you’re fleeing a wildfire — or living for days without power because of the risk of wildfires — you think about these matters with greater urgency.

The problem is that we can’t afford to wait until everyone is feeling the pain of the climate emergency before we do something about it. Environmental activists need to engage ordinary people in ways that will help them see exactly what’s happening and what’s at stake — and to see it as close to home as possible. To anyone who’s paying attention, nature is already providing ample evidence of what’s going on.

One of my favorite eye-opening exercises is Project FeederWatch, a citizen-science initiative of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Bird Studies Canada. Its goal is to conduct a census of North American birds by crowdsourcing data. Participants choose a particular area — the space immediately surrounding a bird feeder, for example — to monitor two consecutive days each week. They count the birds they see and record the number and species of birds online for scientists to aggregate at the end of the census season. This year, the count runs from Nov. 9 through April 3.

These data, the project site notes, “provide information about bird population biology that cannot be detected by any other available method.” Population fluctuations from year to year are natural and can be expected, but evidence of a strong downward trend may allow wildlife organizations to intervene in time.

With a new study showing that nearly three billion North American birds have been lost since 1970, many of them once-common backyard birds, the new data provided by citizen-science initiatives like Project FeederWatch can be crucial to understanding the effects of a changing climate on avian populations. For people who are concerned about the environment, this kind of program is especially welcome. It’s always better to feel that you’re doing something than to feel that you’re entirely powerless.

Equally important, though, is the way the program can encourage unconcerned people to feel a personal investment in the welfare of the creatures who share their ecosystem. Once someone begins to notice that there are fewer blue jays around than there were during their own childhood, it’s hard to return to a state of indifference. The next question is almost always, “What happened to them?” And the very next question will be, “How can I help?”

Of course, it takes a certain amount of interest to hang a bird feeder to begin with. That’s where it can be helpful to enlist the aid of someone who is pretty much guaranteed to be curious: a child. Even better: a classroom full of children. (Gift registrations to Project FeederWatch — which cost $18 each — are available here.) The program is ideal for older kids because it is both flexible and user-friendly. There’s no minimum amount of time required for monitoring, and it’s fine to skip some weeks. Registration includes a kit to help new backyard birders identify common feeder species. Figuring out what kind of bird is visiting is half the fun of hanging a feeder, and it’s one of the ways children are likely to enlist the whole family in this project.

Like every other hands-on way to help this planet in crisis, Project FeederWatch alone won’t change the world, but it might well manage to change some hearts. No wildfire required.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer who covers flora, fauna, politics and culture in the American South, is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”

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