Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Of mangos and Iraq

I took this photo in Costa Rica with a group of Wisconsin birders in 2002. I bet a lot of those same birders have gone to Beloit in the past week or so, to see that same species. There's a real thrill when a bird turns up in an unexpected out-of-range place. It's partly the delight of surprise--a mango in Wisconsin?! And it's a mystery. What prompts a tropical bird to suddenly wander so far from home? How could it suddenly appear in Wisconsin when it hadn't been reported once anywhere else after it left the tropics? Such an unexpected vagrant gives us a feeling of a genuine miracle, right there in Beloit.

The news passes like electricity through the birding community. Everyone naturally wants to see it--by definition, birders want to experience birds first hand, and to see such a rarity so easily--well, who wouldn't want to go?! Of course, there's a much greater feeling of accomplishment for a birder to be the one who discovers a rarity himself or herself, but chasing someone else's discovery provides the exact same boost to one's state checklist and for many in this case, lifelist. And there's a genuinely sad feeling of being left behind when everyone else rushes off to see a rare bird when we can't join in the fun.

So for a birder to bring up the subject of squandering natural resources in the face of so much joy and fun is...well, what kind of person would do that? A spoilsport? A crank? A supercilious preacher? The boring grownup squelching the fun of the partying kids? Al Gore vs. George W. Bush? Holier-than-thou? One comment on a previous blog entry said people like this, "like to stereotype listers as insensitive people who do not care about habitat or other concerns with birds. I prefer to not to judge listers and its not any of my business what they do with their hard earn money or how they should spend it." Of course, that same post stereotyped ardent conservationists. We've developed an "us vs. them" mentality within our own small ranks as birders.

I've been watching Ken Burns's series The War this week. During that war, Americans were all making major sacrifices--giving up many kinds of food, limiting their driving, saving cans and fat and other products to recycle for the war effort. At that time of privation, if people chased a rare bird they would be shunned by their community, especially if they made a huge, exultant thing of it. America was emerging from the Great Depression when the war started, so maybe it didn't feel like people were giving up very much when so recently they hadn't had many of those things anyway. And there certainly was an atmosphere of giving up things for a noble purpose, as they were being bombarded with news every day that friends and neighbors and brothers and sons had been wounded or killed. And because everyone sacrificed and felt that unified purpose, we decisively won that war, defeating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, in less than five years. Imagine that.

Right now most of us Americans and virtually all of us American birders are no longer used to privation. Even as we hear news of friends and neighbors and, for some of us, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters dying in the current war, we are so accustomed to the high levels of consumption that have become a hallmark of America that there is a genuine and heartfelt cry of outrage when people suggest that we stop and think about how much we are consuming. It's especially ironic because as even prominent supporters of the war have now admitted, we are only engaged in this war because of the limited supplies of the very natural resource that we're squandering.

Imagining the natural resources being burned up in every flight taking our men and women to Iraq makes the travels of a few dozen birders to Beloit, Wisconsin, seem pretty paltry. But I wonder--during World War II, the almost universal national will was to support our soldiers in every way possible. Saving bacon grease. Rationing fabric and food items. And saving gas.

We are at war right this moment. We aren't quite doing the math in this war the way we did in that war or in Korea or Vietnam. After a battle, the military once reported to the news the number of casualties. Now we hear the numbers of the soldiers who died but not unless we search hard can we unearth the numbers of the soldiers who have lost limbs, eyes, chunks of brain. We have a dangerously reduced perception of the sacrifices our soldiers are making. And instead of sacrificing together to win a noble cause, indeed, as if to underline the fact that at root, this war is for no noble cause at all, we're being encouraged to keep shopping, keep consuming, keep burning up the natural resources that our men and women's blood is being spilled for.

I'm not going to go into the issues of environmental degradation that directly affect birds as well as humans when we extract oil, when we transport it (sign up for a Google News Alert for oil spills if you don't think they're happening almost every day), when we refine it, and finally when we burn it, contributing to pollution and global warming. We feel we are entitled to burn as much as we can afford. Burn, baby, burn. Our consumption of oil is somehow so rooted to our national identity that, ironically, for the most part the people who most support this war are the ones who most conspicuously squander oil. The very people who most stridently want to dictate what individual Americans can do in our own bedrooms whine about being preached to when it comes to conserving the one natural resource at the heart of this ugly, ever-lasting war and at the root of the global warming that will, unchecked, destroy our coastal cities, wipe out species that we treasure, and change the course of world history.

I don't care if you chase the mango. It's a lovely bird, and as out-of-place in Wisconsin as an environmentalist is at a Hummer dealership. But the America I'm seeing in The War was not a place where people got shouted down for even mentioning the idea of sacrifice for a larger purpose and the greater good. If we want this war to end the way that one did with the good guys triumphing, maybe we should start acting like the good guys again.