Monday, November 15, 2010

The Audubon Movement

The origins of the Audubon movement, first at the State level in 1896 in Massachusetts, marked the articulation of a new awareness of the value of birds, and a demand that the attrition imposed by commerce in feathers generated by the millinery trade be halted. A similar popular movement developed in England at about the same time, so most of western society was somehow sensitized.

In the U. S. this became a twenty-year struggle, largely volunteer, because the nation’s outlook was primitively utilitarian.  Part of the story is well told by T.   Gilbert Pearson who first led the crusade nationally in a 1937 book, Adventures in Bird Protection. About twenty state societies organized themselves. They first formed a national committee to coordinate their voices, then a National Association of (State) Audubon Societies in 1905, with Pearson as its executive. This grassroots effort culminated in the passage of a Migratory Bird Protection Act in 1918.

The Great Depression of the early 1930s was rough on groups like State Audubon Societies and all but six of them succumbed to its economic ravages.  In 1934 the early Association was abandoned and a separate organization, the National Audubon Society was incorporated.  A new president, John H. Baker, was both a good amateur ornithologist, and a Wall Street veteran who had accumulated enough to be comfortable.  For him, Audubon work was a public service. He sometimes asked prospective employees whether they could afford to work for the Audubon Society.  He brought together a superlative staff and created several new imaginative programs.

Peter Mattheissen chronicled the slow development of wildlife protection in America in a 1959 book, Wildlife in America. And Frank Graham, Jr., in a 1990 book, The Audubon Ark, reviewed the history of  the Audubon movement which
provided so much leadership in its first half-century. He did not, however, question the basic assumptions of the movement.

The sad fact of a century of conservation/environmental activism is that, despite occasional local accomplishments, and the “rescue” of a few endangered species through captive propagation and other means, birds and other wildlife went into catastrophic decline during that century of increasing devotion to conservation..
World Birdlife’s insightful formula, 9-6-1, is indicative. It reminds us that of the more than 9000 bird species, 6000 are in decline, and more than 1000 face extinction in this new century.

William Vogt, an Audubon staffer during Baker’s first creative decade, later wrote The Road to Survival. This first neo-Malthusian text alerted us to the implications of human population growth, but Vogt saw no politico-economic connections among these problems. Neither did Mattheissen or Graham, writing decades later.   

The conservation/environmental movements have been sentimental because they fostered noble ends without adequate attention to practical means. These means are the social institutions (religious dicta, laws, rules of the game, traditions, etc.) we build to guide human behavior. The task is thus moral and political, not scientific or corporate.

 In several Audubon convention talks during the Sixties I tried to alert local Auduboners that their task was to become the ecological conscience of their communities. But Audubon’s education programs were not much modified thereby.

The challenge, then, is to understand why the first century of the movement failed in its broader objectives, and to articulate a fresh account of “the creation story” to capture the imagination of all the people of this smallish planet so as to prevent the crowding of too many more species out of existence. We are all fellow-travelers in an exciting evolutionary trek.

During its first half-century the Audubon movement did much to inspire the nation to conserve wildlife. But in 1968 the National Audubon Society  succumbed to the post-World War II notion of professional managerialism and unwittingly went bureaucratic. The new president, Elvis J. Stahr, even complimented the Board for breaking out of its bird-protection mode. He didn’t know birds and assumed that it would suffice to have someone on staff who did, to warn him of problems and opportunities. But he didn’t ask.

Professional managers, we have been slow to learn, are a social phenomenon
generated by our need to overwhelm the war-making capabilities of  both Germany and Japan during World War II.  Government set the goals and paid the bills, so all the managers had to do was produce and watch the bottom line.  This was most unlike running a business.  Unfortunately, this truncated sense of responsibility became the corporate world’s guideline after the war.

Stahr was a gentle manager. He fired no one. He learned quickly. During his first year in office he took me to lunch almost weekly to probe my biologist’s view of things. But he didn’t want to set policy. He readily admitted that he was a front man. “Don’t bring me problems,” he would say. “You’re a vice-president; solve them, then tell me about it so that I can raise more money.”  This unfortunately created a policy vacuum, and in an increasingly complex era it became easy for staff to go off on its own tangents. The Audubon Society no longer spoke with one voice.

The U. S. still has an almost blind faith in growth. For one thing, growth covers up mistakes. But organizational growth almost inevitably leads to bureaucracy, whether the organization be religious, governmental, corporate; or like Audubon, non-governmental, an NGO.

Anthony Downs, a sociologist who wrote Inside Bureaucracy, said that any organization that grows beyond the point where the president no longer knows more than half of his subordinates by their first names will behave bureaucratically.  Russell Peterson, who succeeded Stahr at Audubon, apparently understood this because he immediately told staff, “Call me Russ.”

Of course, the Seventies  were also the era of  a new environmental awareness. People joined Audubon and Sierra just to find out what this ecology stuff was about. Audubon membership climbed to half a million, but could not much exceed or long sustain that number, even though pollsters said that tens of millions of people were now interested in birds. The managers naturally complimented themselves on this growth rather than seeing it as driven by events. “We must be doing something right!”

If Audubon (as they now call it) is no longer  the leader it was, its promise is still great.  Birds can more easily be made exemplars of the wonders of the continuing-creation/evolutionary process to alert people. But this may mean that an NGO like Audubon will need at least as many poets and ethicists as it does managers. 

The best way to do that may be at the local level. Charismatic Audubon staffers are a starting point, providing they are often on the ground, interpreting local bird life, its habitat needs, and the marvels of migration and of existence itself.

Again, however, the task is a social one, not one of individual conversion. Of course, individuals must lead a social movement, but success comes only if they convince enough others to join in making the necessary changes in the system. It is the system that, in the past, frustrated our good intentions, and will continue to do so if we don’t reform it.  This is called institution-building, and governing-elites must do most of it.

Multiplying that local effort, rather than building larger managerial teams, may be the way to go. Decentralize the organization if that will accomplish the task. The task again? To learn to fit our (real) needs into the carrying capacity of Nature’s systems without crowding the other species unfairly. Aristotle saw that 300 years before the Christian era, and said it.  For him, this is what it meant to be reasonable.  He didn’t mention birds, of course, so we overlook the connection.

Our environmental ethics are the space we agree to leave for all those Others, birds included, when we take our God-given/evolutionary privileges seriously. Being “by nature” a social species, “We” is all of us, even though many will remain slow to learn. We must cajole them. 

It should, however, have by now occurred to you that we cannot “save the birds” without simultaneously making significant changes in the commercial mentality and practices that now dominate our use of the land and waters that have produced that birdlife  since before we came along.  The destroyers are no longer poor fishermen-turned plume hunters. The economic system on which we are all more or less dependent is now the source of our problems. But overpopulation also creates the demand for too much economic throughput.

We have hardly begun thinking in terms of socio-politico-economic systems, but this is what bird conservationists will have to learn to do if they are to conserve birds. Otherwise, more of the same talk about saving birds may make more people aware of the problem, but it will also frustrate them because they will be all too aware that bird populations continue to decline.

It was accidental that bird conservation was one of the first resource conservation tasks we tackled. The more fundamental problems were only beginning to surface, and we did not much recognize them until 1999, say. But most of us missed the signal they waved in Seattle that year.  

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