I don’t know if it will be downloadable (I do know that I am at work…boo!). But I have to assume it will be pretty great.
Get details here.
[READ: December 6, 2010] “The Way of the Puffin”
After a few years away from lengthy New Yorker articles, Franzen returns with this 13 page (!) article about China. The last article that we saw from Franzen was about his birding passion. That passion has not subsided at all, and his co-passion of environmentalism is what sends him across the globe to the Yangtze Delta.
Franzen receives a Puffin-shaped golf club head cover, which he finds quite adorable. But when he sees that it’s made in China, he wonders about the environmental impact of this adorable item. He calls the company that makes the puffins (Daphne’s Headcovers), and is told that they use environmentally conscientious Chinese labor. She also tells a (heartwarming) story about karma and how a good deed will get repaid manifold. She tells Franzen about the workers in China and invites him to go check them out. This leads to Franzen’s most “reporter”-like piece, and probably his least personal.
At first I wasn’t that interested in the piece. I feared it was going to be a long slog through environmental degradation and depression. And while it was that, Franzen also humanizes the story through the efforts of that rarest of birds: the Chinese environmentalist.These environmentalists are trying very hard to clean up China. But as Franzen learns very early on, China is more interested in development and monetary gain than in the environment. As one of the environmentalists notes, for years, the environment was important to China, but when they started to realize what they could gain through development and wealth the younger generation opted for riches. And so, we see a picture of development gone mad with protected lands sold off to make golf course, lakes and rivers filled in or bridged over and even, as in the case of one emperor, planting invasive grasses in an attempt to make China bigger (not to mention several of the world’s tallest buildings).
Really, the article is one sad story after another, with Franzen and his guides traveling to different areas in search of ever more helpless and ever more rare birds. We even hear of a poaching operation in which small birds are used to capture larger birds, in which some birds are beheaded and destroyed for unspecified reasons, and other birds are sold and kept in small dark cages–ultimately to be resold as songbirds.
Despite this, Franzen keeps some hope alive though the work of these activists. They are young men and women (some of whom have lived in the U.S., all of whom have amusing English nicknames–like Stinky) who are trying to influence the Chinese government into doing the right thing. They explain that the Chinese government itself is interested in doing the right thing and in environmental preservation, but that local mayors and citizens simply want development, which of course means more money. So the activists try to influence policy (even if their organizations officially don’t exist in China). They’ve even managed a small amount of success in their efforts.
Nevertheless, ever nagging in the back of my mind is the realization that there are 200 members of the group that Franzen talks to and yet there are 20 million people in just one of the towns that is advocating for development.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. Despite himself, Franzen gets to play golf with a set of state of the art clubs on the above mentioned golf course. When the round ends earlier, his disappointment is palpable.
And when Franzen eventually arrives at the plant that makes the puffin covers he sees first hand that their environmental impact is, indeed quite low. Their sources are reputable and they even pay quite well (relatively, of course). True, none of the factory workers really even knows what golf is (although the plant owner is a member of the exclusive golf club where Franzen played), but they seem to be treated well. Franzen even feels a bit bad that he’s not coming away thinking worse about the Chinese labor (an amusing bit of liberal guilt there).
This article was written in 2008, and one can only imagine how much more of what he describes has happened in the last two years. It’s a story of futility more than anything else. Of feeling that perhaps guilt about anything is rather pointless. Of course, when you start thinking like that, then you stop caring about anything.
It’s a long article, but surprisingly relevant given China’ ascendancy. And Franzen makes for a compelling tour guide.