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By Scott Sullivan


3 Billion Birds

“3 billion birds have disappeared” read the headline. How do you count things that aren’t? I thought. Take a census?

“Since 1979,” the story explained, “North America has lost 29 percent of its wild feathered friends, a study published in the recent journal Science finds.

“The bird population in the United States and Canada was probably around 10.1 billion nearly half a century ago and has fallen to about 7.2 billion birds,” it continued.

Aren’t Mexican birds North Americans? I’d guess almost all those 10.1 billion, give or take a few, alive 50 years ago have since perished. More hatched since then may no longer be with us either.

Analyze anal word guys and of course we’re confused. Gals too; neurosis boasts gender equity. “The estimated total birds living today in the U.S. and Canada are close to 3 billion fewer than in 1979” might have been a more-accurate headline, Save disappeared for faux-magic shows. Write a long head like that though and no one will read your story.

Word guy jobs come with weird expectations. People think you have power to change things you don’t. Whatever you write just makes it more like it is. See beauty through bad and it keeps you going.

Take Greta Thrunberg. The Swede, 16, sails across the Atlantic (jets leave an unacceptable carbon footprint and kill birds too) in a 60-foot racing yacht with solar panels and underwater turbines to speak at a U.N. Climate Action Summit in New York City, scolding rich people for not caring. Next she’s off to a climate-change conference in Santiago, Chile. Cue the “And a Child Shall Lead Us/Canary in a Coal Mine” music.

When I was 16 trashing the atmosphere mowing lawns so I could afford to buy Rachel Carson books, global nuclear war was our doomsday du jour scenario. It’s more romantic to think life will soon come crashing to an end when we’re young than after we’ve lived so much more of it we’re complicit.

“Peace” and “love” were our antidotes then. Greta’s bromide “science” holds curative powers that can be easily twisted too. Take “healthcare,” whose costs are killing us.

Who can fix the fix we are in? The New Testament gives at least two accounts of “What then shall we do?” being asked.

  • In Luke 3:10-11, the multitudes put it to John the Baptist. “He who has two coats,” he replies, “let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Soon John was beheaded on Herod’s orders.
  • In Matthew 27:22, Pontius Pilate asks the masses, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus, who his called the Messiah?” “Crucify him!” they answer.

Leo Tolstoy’s book “What Then Shall We Do?” dealt with Moscow slum life and poverty through the ages. In response he called for a life of responsibility, self-discipline and compassion fueling work done not to exploit others but because it’s right in its own right.

Easy for him to say. Count Leo was born an aristocrat with an estate, time to squander writing and growing beards. The results proved epic.

Crimean War service transformed Tolstoy from a dissolute writer to a nonviolent anarchist whose works seemed like treason to many in his class.

They responded with ad hominem attacks still popular today. Look at response to Thrunberg. Rather than discuss a person’s main points, critics point out the their human shortcomings.

The Russian Orthodox Church excommunicated Tolstoy. His wife Sophia, mother of 13 children, didn’t like his wish to give away all their possessions either. At age 82 he finally worked up the nerve to separate, left home on a winter night bound for nowhere and died in a railway station one day’s journey later.

Through the lens of time, John the Baptist, Jesus and Tolstoy hold up better than Herod, Pilate, the multitudes and attackers. But they’re not easy role models.

As I mowed 50 years ago, the clipped grass collected in a bag I emptied and used for mulch. Owners of now-proper lawns gave me money.

What then? The question is no more gone than the 3 billion birds who lived.