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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

Posted from Seattle, WA on Jan 6, 2022; edited and rewritten on Jan 7, 2023

Posted January 6, 2022 from Seattle WA (edited Jan 7, 2023)

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

The Pfeiffer article is somewhat flawed as the author egregiously accuses the Five-striped Sparrow of not being beautiful. Although I have yet to see the Five-stripe, I can tell you this is a lie. Pfeiffer even goes on to blame this poor bird for what birders do to see it. However, Pfeiffer deserves great credit for broaching the subject: we birders, like everyone else–but perhaps especially us–need to be thinking about this and it’s brave to bring it up when some will resent the messenger..

But I disagree: This would be a terrible time for birders to let up–The message would be: Nature is not worth seeing, enjoying or caring about

I hold a diametrically opposite point-of-view. This would be a terrible time, in my view, for birders to back off from their effort to see birds and the wonders of Nature and it would send exactly the wrong message to the World. The most obvious examples of how much damage the “back-off-birding” ideology could do are occurring throughout the tropical forest. In many places where the forest remains intact it is quite popular with the locals who are taking various actions to save it. One of the main methods is to build an eco-lodge, which brings me to the next heading.

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!

Getting out birdwatching is crucial for the bottom line on many an infant eco-lodge in vulnerable areas of the rain forest. But it is not just there. This matters everywhere. . Nothing says ‘Birds are important’ more than the sight of people out spending their precious time looking for 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 and it often results in a great conversation and usually both parties learn something.

Delia Scholes and Brian Pendleton at Griffeths Priday State Park in 2020.

Getting out and about with binoculars and scopes demonstrates–perhaps more than any other way–a love of Birds and it brings financial support and a reason-for-being to all habitat areas that are in any way set aside for birds. For the sake of the Birds, We must not slow down!!!

Asking people to not use carbon not only doesn’t work, it’s also an approach that isn’t scalable

At the root of back-off-birding meme is the concept that the way to combat climate change is through voluntary self-deprivation. We will all do a little or a lot less of what we used to love to do. The problems with this approach are many. One is that it tends to fail This is obviously very important, but it also matters that the approach isn’t scalable. Let’s suspend disbelief for a thought-experiment and imagine that birders, because of their heightened awareness around this issue and their love of birds, might adopt this idea. Now let’s further imagine that they succeed in significantly lowering their collective carbon footprint. What next? The 4 x 4 shown above was parked today (written Jan 7, 2023) at West-Ninety on the Samish Flats. This is a mega duck-hunting area and presumably it was carrying hunters and just looking at it, …well it obviously gets bad gas mileage. If I had met the returning owners of the 4 x 4, should I have asked them to hunt less and not drive as far to hunt when they did hunt? Ouch! Not only will this kind of ask not work, but it will also turn people significantly against the asker. The people who encourage these kinds of asks won’t be able to win elections and even worse than that, their friends and otherwise-would-be-followers and admirers will scratch them off their lists of people they might listen to..

Individual, voluntary, consumer efforts can succeed when they promise to take us to a better life

There is a slight hope in the world that lower-carbon alternatives might simply lure us away from fossil fuels. It’s possible that products like this Rivian EV 4 x 4 will be so superior they can create a movement similar to the one away from horse-and-buggies to internal combustion automobiles that happened in the early 1900s.

Delia and I do not pretend to be climate-heroes and we are not. In the last year we replaced an oil-burning furnace with a mini-split Heat Pump in our house. Thanks to this, our lives are now significantly better than they used to be. Admittedly, part of the improvement is that the old furnace would groan to life at periodic intervals, with the noise of the fan and the whoosh of air out the ducts and the sound and fury constantly reminded us we were burning fossil fuels and parat of the climate disaster that is in process. But crucially, there were massive improvements in our lifestyle and personally my ability to organize inventory for the business. The old furnace took up much of the basement where my shop and studio are located and it and the ducts ruined the sightlines in the basement. Now we can see across the basement and we were so exuberant we went on a painting spree and every time either one of us goes into the basement we come away in a better mood. We set the temp and don’t argue about each tick of the thermostat. The realization that burning fuel might not be the best way to heat a house for one’s one happiness might begin a meaningful change in the world’s climate footprint.

In the transportation sector there is a parallel. I can barely stand the sight of Elon Musk’s face on my web portal these days but I still give him a huge amount of credit for changing the thought-patterns of the culture around EVs. It’s astonishing to see these rakish fossil-fuel muscle cars and sports cars that race away from a stoplight making ear-splitting noises and then think, “Sure, but a Tesla could beat it, the Tesla holds more people and it’s also arguably prettier.” The realization that EVs are better technology, not the scolding argument that one must drive them to save the environment, is what could change the game.

Birding presents a strange backwater for the EV market. There are plenty of good birding opportunities around town but if a birder were to stay in Seattle they’d be missing the majority of birds in the state. Okanagon County is a mecca as are the beautiful Blue Montains and the “Northeast Kingdom,” where you might have a decent shot on a Pine Grosbeak or a Spruce Grouse. These types of trips represent the toughest challenges for EVs, long mileage combined with varying outback destinations, spending the night in the sparsely populated counties, we love the Omak Inn. But this is all a moving target. Charging technology and infrastructure is in flux. Delia and I are happy to keep as much money in the bank account unperterbed as we can, but we are keeping our eyes out for an EV that we could trade to when we ever say good bye to her fairly-beloved 2005 Prius.

What birders and birding can and should do is focus on those birders who have made the switch to EVs and give them as much play and publicity as possible. It would be great to see birders profiled in the magazines and piping up on birding chatlines about their experience with birding-while-EV-driving..

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Sadly, with pledges, promises, hoaxes, greenwashing schemes dominating the political landscape, personal action may be all there is

Show me a person who cares about Nature and I’ll show you a person who is currently worrying that some do-gooder project intended to stop climate change is threatening the Nature that they love. Whether it’s windmills in the path of the Warblers resting at Ohio’s Magee Marsh before their flight over Lake Erie or powerlines subsidized along the San Pedro River Nature corridor, or the Prairie in North Dakota being plowed under to grow corn for ethanol, a lot of environmental destruction is being fast-tracked in the name of the environment while little or nothing is being done to stop climate change.

A Chestnut-sided Longspur in a North Dakota prairie. This species and others dependent on the North American prairie has suffered devastating declines as the prairie is broken by the plow and turned to row-crop farming. The conversion that accelerated in recent times has been largely driven not by people needing more food but by the egregious government mandate to put ethanol in gas tanks. Ethanol and the other “biofuels” are among the great hoaxes of the age that have destroyed the environment and actually sped up climate change in the name of fighting it. Photo by Ed Newbold, North Dakota

The overarching theoretical problem with the politics of the climate fight is that the environmentalists are marching to the orders of Macroeconomists who, though they are wonderful people and very very smart and gifted and knowledgeable, as far as understanding economics they have thrown out what was developed up to John Marshall and are wandering in the wilderness, trying to be all things to all people.. In my opinion, macroeconomics will someday come to be seen as our generation’s alchemy or astrology.

Macroeconomists focus on the supply-side when it comes to energy and think that the goal should be to increase the “renewable” energy share of the pie. Thus they think we will be better off if we can reach 25% renewable energy say, over 10% renewable. But a school child might point out that the pie might well grow, even grow exponentially, and thus the growth of the total fossil fuel footprint will remain unhindered.

This way of framing the problem also creates a fertile field for “rent-seeking.” Rent-seeking is a term that was popularized by a woman economist in the 70s and it refers to the seeking of money streams directly from government or from the imposition of government rules and mandates. When there is a lot of money to be made that is based on things like the definition of renewable energy, a lot of effort will be invested by lobbyists in rejiggering those definitions.

Thus we have Biomass, biofuel, agrofuel, ethanol, Hydrogen, carbon-sequestration, LNG terminals and powerlines all qualifiying as sustainable or renewable or green. Even solar and wind technologies need to be included here as though they don’t produce carbon, they have serious negative environmental costs and should only be embarked upon when there will at least be the tradeoff of a lower total carbon footprint and this minimum requirement is never there (as Fossil fuel prices remain unaffected.)

Perhaps the most sinister of all the fraudulent green technologies involve the various biofuels, and perhaps the worst yet may be biomass. The Europeans have done the science on biomass, which is turning forests into woodchips, transporting the chips and burning it to create energy, and found it to be green by ignoring the carbon that is released upon burning. Seriously.

A hero in the fight against climate-destroying rent-seeking is Mary. S. Booth

Here is a link to Mary S. Booth’s website:

Mary S. Booth, PhD | One Earth

Mary S Booth has almost singlehandedly led a gallant fight against Biomass and has gone to the trouble of suing the European Union. Do you know anyone who has done that? Neither do I. She is a person to listen to and a career to follow and support.

Here at home, the left seems to have abandoned the good fight against ethanol. But ethanol is largely to blame for the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and the loss of prairie habitat on the Plains. It also increases our climate pollution overall as it drives agriculture into the rain forest. As Environmental Working Group activist Scott Farber has said, “You can’t be for saving the planet if you are for ethanol.”

The sad decline in exports from Ukraine has been covered in the press, thank Heavens for a free press. But almost never mentioned by news sources be they left or right-focused is the fact that our ethanol mandate drives up world food prices and thus is a factor now in people actually dying of starvation.

On that sad note I will end this essay. It’s not a great ending, I agree. I’m working on a deadline.

cheers everyone,

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