‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ – Emily Dickinson

Some 1.5 billion lives saved proves that people can fix things – or at least make them less bad. A new research report – on birds – is heartening, at a time when most environmental news is beyond discouraging.

Researchers found that American regulations to reduce lethal pollution averted the loss of 1.5 billion birds, during recent grim decades in which bird populations plummeted by billions.

Why do these 1.5 billion survivors matter? Consider them the proverbial canaries in the metaphorical coal mine of our world. Consider that as other species go, so goes humanity.

Cornell flagged the report this week, by scientists at Cornell and the University of Oregon, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The bird story reminds us, at a time of bitter political division, that citizen and political action can be effective; that political parties can overcome partisanship; that conservatives once “conserved.”

And at a time when much of the political “right” has swapped conservatism for anti-science denialism and short-term business cycles, it’s worth remembering that the anti-pollution measures that saved the birds were due to people’s actions over time.

The bird research paper focused on America’s cap-and-trade program to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, the NOx budget trading program. As nations tackle climate change, using cap-and-trade and carbon pricing schemes, the NOx program could serve as an example for climate action.

But these avian lives cross a much bigger picture. That 1.5 billion birds were not wiped out, like billions of their brethren, is one small story in a vast global environment, the impact of one bureaucratic measure in one country.

Clean air measures evolved and rippled outward:  the 1963 Clean Air Act was “the first major environmental law in the United States to include a provision for citizen suits. Numerous state and local governments have enacted similar legislation, either implementing federal programs or filling in locally important gaps in federal programs,” notes Wikipedia.

Like pollution, migrating animals respect no borders, and wider cooperation was soon necessary. The 1991 Canada-US Air Quality Agreement, also known as the acid rain treaty. It was brought in by a Canadian Progressive Conservative government and an American Republican administration. Within the U.S., it was possible, note legal historians, because of a rare bipartisan partnership between Republican President George H.W. Bush and Democratic Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine..

That regulations and treaties work – yes, always imperfectly – remind us that domestic governments were not always gridlocked, countries once got along,  that the domestic and international rancour of recent years is not the norm.

And, frankly, any source of hope is welcome just now. The Paris Agreement on climate change marks its fifth anniversary this week, on Dec. 12. Those five years have been the hottest five years in history; last month was the hottest November on record..  No country has met its promised goals of the Paris Agreement. The impact of climate change on agriculture means higher food prices and even famine, human migration due to environmental crises is increasing, and amid the throes of COVID-19 we are told to brace for even worse: “we have entered a pandemic era” driven by environmental issues, warns Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases; quoted in Rolling Stone.

As canaries once signaled life or death to coal miners,  environmental collapse signals life or death to the natural world – on which humanity depends.

But we are not powerless. People have acted, and can act. We acted four decades ago to clean the air, and decades later can count 1.5 billion bird lives saved.

American poet Emily Dickinson once wrote that “hope is the thing with feathers.” The survival of some 1.5 billion “things with feathers” gives cause for hope.





Curious free range human. Creative writer, journalist, photographer