Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 6, 2018

The birds, the bees, and Holden Caulfield

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In “Catcher in the Rye”, one sign of Holden Caulfield’s looming nervous breakdown is his worries over the ducks in Central Park:

The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

The title of the novel stems from Holden’s misreading of Robert Burns’s “Comin’ Through the Rye”. He sees himself as protector of children playing in a huge rye field near a cliff. If he can’t catch children as they come to the edge, they will die. In my mind, his worries over the ducks and the children amount to the same thing.

Those who don’t care about the ducks and the children are “phonies” in Holden’s world, including a girl named Sally who is much more comfortable with 50s values than him. When she goes out on a date with Holden, he asks her to blow off the city and come live in a cabin with him, like Henry David Thoreau. He said that would be a lot better than becoming typical New Yorkers who “are working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers…”

For people my age, the novel connected deeply in the same way that “On the Road” did. Holden Caulfield, Jack Kerouac and even James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause” rejected the “straight” world. Holden even dreams about moving to someplace in the Southwest and getting a job as a gas station attendant. Getting back to nature in the 1950s was equivalent to being connected to the ducks that Holden worried about. Leave everything behind and move to Vermont where such birds can be found, as well as the bees and the bats.

65 years later, Holden might have found out that there was no place to go to since Mother Nature was in danger of being destroyed just like those kids in the rye field. They are being destroyed by the “phonies”, especially those whose class interests the White House defends.

Starting with the seabirds, there are signs that they are headed toward extinction because of overfishing and climate change as the Guardian reported on December 12, 2017. The numbers of kittiwakes have fallen by up to 90 percent because overfishing and changes in the Pacific and north Atlantic caused by climate change have affected the availability of sand eels which black-legged kittiwakes feed on during the breeding season.

The black-legged kittiwake

If it isn’t climate change and overfishing, seabirds have to contend with plastic that kills millions of marine bird species each year. The albatross is particularly vulnerable since they use their beak to skim the surface, picking plastic up along the way. Up to 98 percent of the albatross that have been studied have plastic debris in their gut. Once ingested, it can obstruct the digestive tract and can puncture internal organs.

Dead albatross with plastic in its gut

If civilization needs plastic, it also needs electric lights that are used in urban centers at night to show off skyscrapers to the public. The allure of beams and bulbs can be a death sentence for migratory birds when they reach metropolises like New York. Drawn by the light, they collide into buildings at an alarming rate. Between 100 million and 1 billion birds crash into buildings across North America every year with some deaths caused by reflective windows during the day and others by bright lights at night.

Finally, there is industrial farming that is based on commodity production. In both Europe and the USA, monoculture cash crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat require extensive use of pesticides to kill the insects that birds feed on. In 2013, the Guardian reported on the drastic decline of birds in England, the country where industrial farming was born. “Numbers of the farmland-dwelling grey partridge have halved since 1995, while the turtle dove has declined by 95%. The yellow wagtail, which inhabits farm and wetland, has declined by 45% over the same period.” The deaths are not only a result of insects being reduced but also by birds feeding on crops that have been sprayed by a type of chemical known as neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are also responsible for bees dying off. Derived from nicotine (what else would you expect), they have a tendency to show up in pollen besides the cash crops they are used to protect. You can find the residue in clover and wildflowers nearby the cash crop fields, especially corn.

I suppose people like Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt could give less of a shit whether an albatross lives or dies but the extinction of honey bees is a direct threat to our ability to reproduce as a species. More than two-thirds of key crops require naturally occurring pollinators such as the honeybee. This includes coffee, cacao, and many fruits and vegetables. It will also have an impact on drinking water since a disappearance of trees will inhibit the retention ofmwater. Some scientists worry that homo sapiens can become extinct within a few hundred years if honeybees go extinct.

Why should I worry about extinction? At my age, I am facing my personal extinction before very long. I guess it is some kind of neurotic obsession thinking about how we are going to last another three hundred years let alone the billion years that will usher in an expanding sun that will evaporate all the water on earth and kill every single living thing. That doesn’t take into account an asteroid hitting earth long before that and doing a number on us like it did to the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

Like Holden Caulfield, I fret over the kids near the cliff and the ducks. If we could at least manage our resources intelligently, we’d have an outside chance of surviving. But with people like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in charge of an irrational system, rationality does not go very far.


  1. “I suppose people like Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt could give less of a shit whether an albatross lives or dies” Of course Romantic poet and Conservative philosopher ST Coleridge had just the image for that: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rime_of_the_Ancient_Mariner#/media/File:Ancient_mariner_statue.jpg

    Comment by Derek Bryant — May 6, 2018 @ 11:13 pm

  2. Great post. Your “some kind of neurotic obsession thinking about how we are going to last” is merely an aware human operating at the upper levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

    Comment by Manuel García, Jr. — May 6, 2018 @ 11:44 pm

  3. A nice piece of writing segueing into dead birds from Catcher in the Rye. Trump boasts about his sons shooting precious elephants and giraffes in order to feed starving villagers. What sort of scum still goes on African safaris? And can anyone imagine a young Donald Trump or Scott Pruitt reading On the Road?

    Good reference by Derek to Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — May 7, 2018 @ 1:24 am

  4. Reblogged this on Synaptic Shrapnel.

    Comment by Eric Blair — May 7, 2018 @ 1:54 am

  5. Reblogged this on nickweechblog's Blog and commented:
    What kind of future faces our descendants? It’s surely the main issue? There’s some hope Louis, but how much?

    Comment by nickweechblog — May 7, 2018 @ 3:20 am

  6. This was a wonderful elegiaic piece. I can only say that the young are much more environmental conscious. We have not been able to pass a better world onto them. But I remain a believer in the socialist future of human kind to paraphrase Trotsky. The young will defeat the foes that we could not conquer. Best wishes Lou from a long time reader and friend


    Comment by Gary MacLennan — May 8, 2018 @ 9:11 am

  7. Boom KO GS HT RFT DD Aced.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — May 8, 2018 @ 12:12 pm

  8. I used to go hiking a lot in a 700-acre park off the GW Parkway near DC. If you could screen out the sounds of traffic, jet aircraft, and CIA helicopters roaring up and down the river, you could almost imagine yourself in wilderness–and this inside the DC Beltway.

    At one time, the place abounded in ducks, herons, osprey, cormorants and other birds. During the past two years, most of these seem to have disappeared. No bird corpses on the hiking trails, but no birds either.

    This could be an artifact of increased recreational use of the park and the river, water levels, springtime temperatures, etc.–no idea what normal is for the Parkway environment. But reading this piece, I get a creepy feeling about where things may be heading. Quo usque tandem … .

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — May 8, 2018 @ 12:47 pm

  9. My thought for the day.: The richest and most powerful manipulators on the planet must really think that they have a technolgical fix that will save THEM went the world slides into Dante’s inferno. Once the cat was out of the bag so to speak i(n the 1980s), that humanity would have to quickly and drastically change the way that it does business only a few strategies were possible. One everyone except the poorest would have to make sacrifices. large and small depending on ones place in the food chain to at least buy time until technological changes, AND drastic reductions in birth rates until such time that an advanced population was small enough to live on the earth sustainably. The other strategy would be to murder much to the population and then clean up the environmental mess afterwards.
    Yet it seemed to me that since 1990 neither course of action was taken. But finally today after 28 years it has dawned on me that choice number two in disguise was taken. I had thought that once large amounts of methane start being released from the northern trunda and Artic that it is all over for humanity including the rich. I could not understand why they rushed forward to this point with hardly a whimper. In recent years I started to wonder if all the stupidity being exersiced in the middle east was really just an attempt to keep the world calm as humanity was being led to a methane gas chamber, in a manner of speaking. These less than relevent stories about the middle east, and Russian election meddling just keep the sheeple distracted while their planet is being terrorformed for their culling.
    Yet I had some doubt because there are not enought life boats for the rich to exit the planet and go to Mars once this planet is cooking. Now I have just decided to accept the fact that the super rich think that they are holding some aces that will exempt them from the fate of the rest of humanity. except for those servents that they bring with them. Understanding that the rich may be holding back on some crucial technological information gave me some hope…. for about 10 seconds. But then I figured that aces that the rich think that they are holding might make a difference in saving millions of people but not tens of millions of people let alone billions.
    I wonder if there are microwave ovens in their future?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — May 8, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

  10. Personally, I couldn’t relate to “Catcher In The Rye” at all, I think the Novel “Billy Liar” by the British author Keith Waterhouse, is far superior, and so is its sequel, “Billy Liar On The Moon”.

    Comment by trevor a millar — May 8, 2018 @ 3:32 pm

  11. i overheard a small part of this Sam Harris podcast a couple of days ago. I have no idea who the speakers were. But the first speaker, Louis for lack of anything better says, if we do not start trying to live by the golden rule we are doomed. Then the second guy, Reza, says, it is not just a question of wanting to live by the golden rule. There are plenty of people who wish to do that. The problem is modern society has become so complex that people really have no idea when their actions are harming other people. When that rule was stated people understood that it meant that you do not sneak in to your neighbors bedroom and steal their CDs. Now if you invest in a 401K and that money gets invested in a petroleum or chemcial company that brings you big returns but yet pollutes the water and air in a distant land you get no negative feedback as to the consequences of your behavior, as just one example.
    I found that comment by Reza particularily relevent. We live in a world in which it requires a high degree of knowledge just to understand how things are interconnected. Just taking the time to aquire that knowledge is an act of altuism. So first of all if a human like spieces is going to survive the vast majority of its members, including and especially the most powerful among them need to be commited to implimenting the golden rule. Does that sound like our humanity? Then second the vast majority need to understand how the parts of the whole system fit together and have a reasonable degree of understanding what the consequences of our public and private choices are. Does that sound like our humanity? Then I would add a third crucial factor. We need to be able to understand what facts are even more relevant than other facts to be able to prioritze our behavior. Does that sound like our humanity?
    What percent of Americans, what percent of humans, recognize that environmental degredation is THE most relevent story of humanity?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — May 9, 2018 @ 11:04 am

  12. 1.) Desire to live honestly
    2.) Understanding how things work and likely or at least possible consequences of choices
    3.) Ability to assess the relevence of multiple options
    If the masses could even get one out of three then Znet, Informed Comment, the Unrepentent Marxist, the Real News Network, New Economic Perspectives, Bill Mitchell – Billy Blog, Less Wrong.com, Systemic Disorder, Collapse of Industrial Civilzation, and finally Cold and Dark Stars would be the most read sites on the internet.
    Are any of these sites in the top 500? Are any of these sites in the top 1000?
    Are the producers of these websites in any way intellectually substandard? Are they in anyway negligent?
    Can it really be said that the masses are blameless for falling for the same old tricks of manipulation over and over and over again? Would it really be a wise choice to place the fate of our planet in their hands? Yet if there is no democracy how can a society reasonably determine in whose hands the fate of the nation and of the planet should be placed? Furthermore how will the excesses and abuses of power of such hands be checked without the constraints of democratic institutions? Will we get the answers to these questions by watching the next episode of Fargo? House of Cards? Game of Thrones? Tootsie? Blood in the Sand? Sand Pebbles? Silence of the Lambs?

    Comment by Curt Kastens — May 9, 2018 @ 10:14 pm

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