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A different take on Birding’s Carbon Conundrum
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A different take on Birding’s Carbon Conundrum

A different take on Birding’s Carbon Conundrum

A Different Take on Birding’s Carbon Conundrum

Posted from Seattle, WA on Jan 6, 2022; edited since

Posted January 6, 2022 from Seattle WA

Links to two articles have been posted to Tweeters, Washington state’s birding chatline, that challenge birders to not drive so often or so far for birds. Here are the links to those articles, the first link is a sweet story from the Guardian here:

You don’t need to travel long distances to spot birds, Britain’s twitchers urged | Birdwatching | The Guardian

And the second is more critical, a somewhat hard-hitting piece from a personal website. The link is here:

Birdwatching’s Carbon Problem | Bryan Pfeiffer

This article is stylistically flawed as the author somewhat egregiously accuses the Five-striped Sparrow of not being beautiful (that’s a lie! -Ed) and even goes on to blame this poor bird for what birders do to see it. Flawed or not, the subject needs to be broached and the article makes its case well. Thanks are in order to those who posted the links, both people who I already held in high esteem. We do not want the Earth to go down in flames without anyone ever taking notice or anyone asking the birding community to seriously grapple with this elephant-in-the-closet.

But I disagree: This would be a terrible time for birders to let up

There is also, however, a case to be made for an almost diametrically opposite point-of-view. This would be a terrible time, in my view, for birders to reduce their effort to see birds, although I would concede that everyone should give their own carbon footprint a lot of thought and think about what the level of ‘carbon-spending’ they feel comfortable with. But if birders are caught in indecision and asking themselves: “Should I go on this or that trip that I would like to go on–or should I not go in order to reduce the world’s carbon footprint and my own complicity in it? My answer is: Go on the birding trip!!!

Let’s start with the easy reasons first:

The Birds and the people helping Birds need us to be out Birding!!! (and going far to do it can be what makes it meaningful!)

Pro Aves supporters, “Conservation Allies,” in Colombia. Pro Aves owns and operates the El Dorado Lodge in the Santa Marta region of Colombia as well as many reserves and lodges throughout the country, where more forest defenders were killed in 2021 than in any other country. They need our help, both financially, which we can do while sitting at the computer, but also in person, which might involve spending some carbon.

The Birds and the people who are on the ground trying to help the birds need our support and attention, In person. This need is playing out most poignantly in places like Colombia right now. A politically indigenous group may be risking their own personal safety trying to save a forest that others would like to log, mine or otherwise degrade. The friends-of-the-forest have built a lodge—with the implicit invitation for us here in the US to come for a visit and birdwatch. Such a case is described eloquently in an article by western Washington’s own Bryony Angell in a Bird Watchers Digest article Sept/Oct 2021. Angell focuses on the key role women conservationists are playing in Columbia, particularly at the El Dorado Ecolodge and reserve in the Santa Marta mountains. Now, many of us may not be in a position to travel to Colombia, but what is the birding community’s reaction going to be to this powerful ask by women conservationists of Colombia? Please don’t tell me it will be to say: “I have to prevent climate change, I’m only going to bird areas I can walk or ride the bus to.”

Nothing tells the world you love birds like being out there with binocs or a scope and looking at and for them!

  1. My second argument involves the interaction between bird lovers and the larger world. Nothing says ‘Birds are important’ more than the sight of people out spending their day looking at them. Nothing is quite so public and yet quite so intimate and personal. I could spend a day at home writing letters to people about the importance of birds and my hat is off to anyone who does that. Thank you. But when Delia and I go down to West Point and set up the scope, people are curious what we are looking at. Other times we go over to the Waterville Plateau and drive around slowly in places no other Seattleites ever drive around in or attract the attention of the security guards as we walk through the small amount of brush at the Tucson Airport Wash with binoculars in hand. We are telling everyone whether they are security guards, other birders, dog-walkers or whoever that we care about and love birds (And by the way Delia and I always—always—ask ourselves, “Would we feel as comfortable doing what we are doing if we were a Black couple?)

Getting out and about with binoculars and scopes demonstrates–perhaps more than any other way–a love of Birds. For the sake of the Birds, We must not slow down!!!

Asking people to not use carbon doesn’t work, and you can’t scale it up anyway

  1. A third argument concerns what things work to create change and what things don’t work. Asking people not to do what they love and scolding people for doing what they love may fall into the latter category. I am proud that nobody on tweeters got defensive when they were asked to consider reducing their carbon use, but the ask was from trusted members within our own community. We all presumably share a concern about climate change and some knowledge of its effects on birds. But this type of asking or scolding can’t be scaled up and broadened to the rest of the population. Go ahead and call me a coward but I don’t intend to ask the guy who blows past us on I-90 in a huge 4 x 4 with two ORVs in the bed to stay home and instead get his kicks from jogging or off-roading remotely on Zoom.

And at its worst carbon-counting can encourage scolding, turn us against each other and ruin our credibility

  1. 4. The fourth pillar involves seeing an even darker underside of the third. It’s the fear that asking/scolding will not only be ineffective, but that it will be corrosive, destroying our reputations, and our community, possibly even turning one against another–and that there is potentially no end-game to it. When is driving to Union Bay using too much carbon? I once read an article in some organ of the left/environmental print-world (that I have always paid attention to) bemoaning the fact that people so often fly to see their elderly loved-ones, especially when these people were sick. These were called “love-miles,” and the article hypothesized about the damage this was doing to the climate. My own take on this is that if we run with this approach, one typified by asking people not to fly those love-miles to see the dying aunt, we are likely to lose any credibility we might be lucky enough to have for influencing anyone to do anything.

No one is more scared of climate change than me, but it’s still not the main cause of bird extinctions

  1. Concentrating on climate change can miss the real enemy, which is–bear with me–not climate change but the anthropogenic destruction of Nature brought about by many specific human effects of which a major one is climate change. It is astonishing how often the problems of the world environment are reduced to the single issue of climate change. Now, don’t get me wrong. Nobody fears climate change much more than me. I would seriously advise anyone to think about moving to a place of residence above 350 ft in altitude, and start looking now. I see creeks and rivers disappearing entirely, wells drying up, and cities folding up, driving gargantuan refugee streams that will be added to an already explosive political situation and will lay the groundwork for fascism, civil war or even the destruction of civilization and the extinction of many species, exactly what has happened because of climate change in Syria.

However, climate change isn’t the only problem causing bird die-offs and extinctions, the relentless expansion of the human agricultural footprint is probably much bigger by an order of magnitude, at least at the present time, especially if you add in the “agriculture” of the sea, fishing, and acquacultre. (I could recite a dreary and very long list of birds being threatened by agricultural expansion, but I’ll spare you–and me the research—Let me name one that’s newly endangered due to this cause only, the Worthen’s Sparrow of Chihuahua, Mexico).

The thing that’s striking about the agriculture issue is that it is not always as tough a political fight as climate change. I would consider a large part of the “agricultural footprint” to be residential trimming and lawns. Just because no one benefits from this production doesn’t mean it’s not agriculture. Grass lawns are chosen by land managers large and small based on nothing more than our collective sense of aesthetics. The English gentry had sheep grazing all around their Manor houses, everyone wanted to be like the Gentry, and the Toro mimics the look. If lawn-owners woke up to see the beauty of the way God was doing things, i.e., to see the beauty of Nature, all this could change by this summer. They could let native plants and wildflowers grow and let pollinators dance about where now there is ugly, sterile chem-lawns. We’d have a billion more birds in five years. Climate change could never be fixed so easily or quickly, even positing a change in the way people think, and it always makes more sense to spend your activist ‘bucks’ where they have the most chance of actually affecting the world.

This is also true with cattle ranching. If consumers could demand more grass-fed and find a way to ask that ranches be “messy” rather than “clean,” the deleterious effects of beef production could be vastly ameliorated and in much of the world turned into a positive factor in preserving eco-systems.. It would be a huge effort, but not nearly as daunting, or haunted with hidden landmines as trying to stop climate change.

Reducing one’s own carbon footprint is great and worth it, but it’s pushing a string when it comes to affecting total carbon use

  1. What might actually work to slow clmate change? Let start by making a plonking statement: Our individual efforts to save energy, though admirable and desirable, do not lead necessarily to reduced overall energy consumption.  The real fight over climate change involves public policy, and seeing it through the lens of individual decisions can create false hope and complacency.

This may go against the tide. Bill McKibbon has written pieces, several in the NY Review of Books, (I’m not actually quoting him here) that present the climate-change glass as half-full. The gist of these and many articles is that various new technologies—say LED lighting, solar panels or Heat pumps (Delia and I just got a Heat Pump, which we love) will reduce the demand side for energy, and as the cost of solar panels keeps falling, and green-energy targets keep being ratcheted up, the country might soon reach a point where climate pollution begins to decline and then fall by the way side.

But there is a huge fallacy in this way of thinking. Any new climate policy that leaves fossil-fuel-pricing untouched will fail to result in a reduction in carbon pollution.  So-called “Green energy” may take an ever-larger share of the pie. But as the pie becomes larger at an even faster rate, fossil fuel use will continue to increase. It doesn’t matter how many windmills litter the ridge over Ellensburg, It doesn’t matter how many acres of desert habitat we cover with gleaming solar panels, and it doesn’t matter how many people change over to LED lighting: Any slack in the demand for fossil-fuel energy will be more than made up for by new demands from industries that no one even imagined 15 years ago. Yet newer “needs” that we can’t imagine now will spring up after that. Examples of brand-new energy-needing industries include indoor-Marijuana-farming and Crypto-currency mining. Markets will clear. The internet itself stands ready to use more than all the new wind and solar energy people are thinking about producing as it moves toward giving us a 3-D experience every time we go online.

Most proposed new policies to “combat climate-change” have no chance of working

Thus many proposals designed to slow climate-change, such as mandating wind and solar, subsidizing the buildout of charging stations, insulating houses (though that can be a wonderful way to help alleviate poverty-induced suffering) or mandating efficiency in new construction (although perhaps a great idea) or improving the grid (which will actually subsidize more climate pollution if not paid for by users) will not have any significant effect at all on reducing climate change.

But some of the things that have been done or are being proposed are actually much worse than the Republican plan to defeat climate change, which doesn’t really exist because they believe or pretend to believe it isn’t happening and therefore do nothing—a sometimes preferable path!

A case where “doing something” is worse than doing nothing is anything that subsidizes or mandates biomass or biofuel. As Environmental Working Group officer Scott Faber has noted, “You can’t be for saving the planet and still be for ethanol.” Scientists have revealed how the massive land needs of biofuels have forced the land-use-footprint of agriculture into the prairies and rain forests and they have done the numbers: any biofuel is worse than using plain old gasoline.

Meanwhile, things we have done to address the problem are actually making it worse

It’s now known that the US ethanol program is why we have the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and it’s why it’s now hard to find a Chestnut-collared Longspur in the eastern half of North Dakota. Ethanol has added 90 million acres to the agricultural footprint of the United States, pushing food production into the Amazon and other tropical areas.

The destruction of the Bornean Rain Forest in the name of the environment, to meet supposedly green biodiesel mandates of the European Union–is chronicled in a New York Times article here.

Meanwhile, Mary S. Booth has written a devastating, scathing article in the New York Review of Books on the turn toward so-called “biomass” (forest-burning) by European and British governments and now gaining currency in the US (Green New Deal? It’s not clear that the Green New Deal is resistant to the Biomass hoax) and describes the destruction of a wetland forest in the Southeastern United States to help meet phoney green targets in Great Britain and the European Union.

If Americans did want to reduce climate pollution it would be immensely easy economically but immensely difficult politically. They would only have to do one thing, although that one thing can be divided into two things. The firest would be to end each and every subsidy for fossil fuel and then to put a tax on carbon in order to recover the external costs of fossil fuel. This could be revenue-neutralized by automatic distribution back to the people in the form of instant cash. As a country, we have a carbon tax already and the fact that the press and media refuse to call it a carbon tax is a symptom of our underlying biggest problem—that humans are not really trying to stop climate change because we are a tropical species and want to remake the temperate zone into a tropical homeland for humans with no icy windshields. The carbon tax that is already in place, though battered and bruised and maligned, is now called by only one name: the gas tax, no one ever publicly admits it is a carbon tax.  It has already worked magnificently, a fact that politicians bemoan daily because, as a Republican state senator complained the other day, it’s revenue-haul is static and even, horror of horrors, projected to decline somewhat in the future—because that’s what taxes always do, they reduce the sales of whatever it is that they tax.

All this still understates the difficulty: humans may be hard-wired to warm the planet!

Beavers are hard-wired to dam flowing water. Put a Beaver in a hotel room, pipe in the sound of running water and the Beaver will try to build a dam.  Humans, who as a species arose from the Garden of Eden, where I’m pretty sure it didn’t snow, or Tropical Africa, where I’m sure it didn’t snow outside the Ruwenzoris, may be similarly determined to alter the environment they wake up to in the morning. It is well-known that humans do this with the landscapes they live in. Whereever humans settle and prosper, they create a “broken savannah,” an ecosystem of small woodlands broken by small prairie-like openings, when humans settle in praires they plant trees near the house and where they can. Humans arose and/or were most successful in the broken savannah areas of Africa, I understand. I’m not sure if the Garden of Eden was in a broken savannah, probably! They try to recreate the world from which they arose.

With climate.  Humans may be trying–with the back of their brain in charge–to recreate the world they arose in. Human culture has always celebrated warming, warmth, sunshine, and clouds and rain going away. (“You are my sunshine”. And a thusand other songs). Humans have never made peace with the temperate zone winter. They invented central heating, warm clothes and heated toilet seats. They may see fairly clearly what’s happening in the front of their brain but be unable to focus on the issue or bring themselves to make any thought-changes. About it.

What is my evidence of this? The stunning lack of intrest by the public, the parties, the politicians, and the media in analyzing the tools at our disposal to fight climate change.

Our carbon tax, and the strange situation in which no one in America in any leadership position, even in the environmental movement, admit that that’s what it is. And the irony that it’s being attacked and proposed for extinction just when a carbon tax makes more sense than ever. (The gas tax).

The surreal lack of interest or discussion about what exactly is a low-carbon standard. And the likelihood that it is another biofuel hoax.

The similarly surreal lack of interest in ethanol and its relationship to carbon pollution.

The most obvious example of the hard-wired argument is something I can’t prove, but I think honest people will admit: If the world were getting colder—if ice was forming off the jersey shore in the winter and nobody wanted to go swimming there in the summer, Humans would get right on the stick and solve the problem. And they would first end all the government subsidies in place that make the problem worse.

The fact that people avoid the subject.

But let’s keep an open mind and remember: moderation in all things: there are truths everywhere

  1. Having said all this, I still don’t want to lose sight of the importance of moderation when it comes to my own damn-the-carbon-full-speed-ahead point of view. I admire anyone who is aggressively trying to reduce their own footprint, Individuals can show and lead the way! Just don’t stop birding.

I believe carbon reductions are most likely to make a real difference when they are fun and enjoyable. Buying an electric car for birding and posting about how it is working out on Tweeters might be such a step. And it would be great for ebird to create top-100 categories for birders who only bike, or use other less-carbon intense modes of transportation.

Thanks everyone! Go Birding!!!

 But I have to work tomorrow.

         Sorry I have to close the comment section because of bots but I welcome any feedback at ednewbold1@yahoo.com

-Ed Newbold Wildlife Artist/Store at 1st & Pike, Seattle, WA

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