Guest blog – Save wildlife. Stop birdwatching! by Andrew Lucas

Andrew works part-time for the Countryside Council for Wales, and is also a part-time postgraduate student at Swansea University. The views expressed here are his own.


Recently, I found myself at some traffic lights when an enormous, gleaming, silver SUV pulled up along side me.  At such moments I am insufferably smug.  Here I am on my bicycle, saving the planet for all I’m worth, whilst some uncaring oaf sits behind the wheel of his CO2-belching behemoth.  But, as he roared away, I noticed a sticker in the back window.  It read “RSPB: For Birds, For People, For Ever”.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds takes a strong and responsible line on climate change.  It tells its members that it could eventually mean the end of mountain birds like the ptarmigan and dotterel, whilst many waders will go when their wetlands dry up.  Indeed, it claims up to a third of all plant and animal species could go extinct in the next 50 yearsResearch from America suggests that extinctions as a result of climate change could be particularly severe in biodiversity ‘hotspots’ like the Amazon or Indonesia .  But many who claim to be concerned for our natural heritage, like that SUV driver, seem oblivious to the implications of their own behaviour.  Why?  They may not care about the drowning inhabitants of Kiribati or Bangladesh.    But there will be fewer birds to see.  This is serious.

Some birdwatchers drive incredible distances to see rare birds.  One claimed to have clocked up 78,000 miles in Britain in one year.  Another reckons he has driven millions of miles over the years, in pursuit of the next tick.  They are the extreme end of the spectrum, but most birders will admit to travelling many miles in the course of their hobby.  Some will visit the Scillies, Norfolk, the Scottish Highlands or Fair Isle on an annual basis.  Others indulge in year listing, which involves dashing around trying to see as many species as possible between January 1st and December 31st, only to start the whole futile process all over again the following year.  The information that birders collect, through schemes like the BTO’s Breeding Bird Survey, is vital to conserve birds and their habitats.  But that data is gathered by birders watching their local area and reporting what they find, not chasing across the country to see a bird found by someone else.

The birding community rightly condemns the tiny minority of twitchers who harass migrant birds or trample habitat.  But birders never consider the impact of their own travel on the planet.  In a saner world, driving 400 miles to see an exhausted waif that has just staggered across the Atlantic would be seen as incredibly irresponsible.  But we just regard it as quaintly eccentric.  In the unlikely event that I find, say, Britain’s first Mourning Warbler hopping around my home, I would feel justified in suppressing news of its arrival simply to save the carbon that would be burnt by birders coming to see it.

But it doesn’t end with bird watching in Britain.  Few of us can bunk-off work for a year to criss-cross the globe in search of birds, like a few individuals.  But open any wildlife magazine and you’ll find it stuffed with adverts, offering to whisk you off for a fortnight to anywhere you care to mention, in pursuit of birds, plants, insects, or wherever your interest lies.  When naturalists gather, the talk is of where they’ve been, what they saw, and where they’re going next.  Mention the phrase ‘carbon footprint’, and you just get a sheepish grin.

The penny has dropped with a few wildlife tour companies, who now claim to be carbon neutral through the process of offsetting.  It works like this: you travel as much as you like, but pay a small fee for someone in the third world to plant a tree, or get a slightly more efficient stove.  This supposedly saves the CO2 that you have blown flying half way around the world for a Spoon-billed Sandpiper.  You don’t have to worry about saving the planet.  Those nice people in Malawi will do it for you.

Of course, there are problems.  It will take your tree 60 years to grow to the point when it absorbs all that carbon.  Will it get cut down in the interim?    Was the land where your tree grows needed for other purposes?  Would the Malawians have had that efficient stove without your help?   Who knows?  But twenty quid is a small price to pay for guilt-free birding, so who cares?

Tackling climate change requires radical cuts in CO2 emissions.  There is no magic solution, no miracle technology coming to our aid.  It just means burning a lot less oil, gas and coal than we do now.  I can’t claim any moral high ground here. I’ve been lucky enough to pursue my interest in birds across Europe, North America, Southern Africa and Southeast Asia.  I once drove 100 miles to see my first British Little Egret.  In 1981 it seemed to make sense.  Little Egret was an exotic Mediterranean species, conjuring up sweltering days in the Camargue.  I needn’t have bothered; global warming means there are now hundreds on my local estuary.  But if we are really sincere about climate change, we can’t go on like this.

It’s time for those who say they care about the environment to start behaving as if they do.
This article is closely based on one which was originally published in the journal ‘Natur Cymru’.

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41 Replies to “Guest blog – Save wildlife. Stop birdwatching! by Andrew Lucas”

  1. I think this should be re-titled "Save Wildlife, stop twitching" I recently spent a week in North Norfolk to celebrate becoming 70 by watching birds. By staying at the Youth Hostel in Wells-next-the-Sea, walking or using the excellent bus service, I was able to avoid much of the carbon spewing travel mentioned here. Any mileage done in a small diesel car was offset by donating to I also plan to visit Wales later in the year, travelling there by train and using a bicycle

    1. awesome, I was just about to post about Carbon offsetting as a Joke! and yet here we are, people actually believe the planet will be a better place by simply spending more money. nice one.

  2. Andrew,

    Some good points made here. Alternatively, people will live their lives and if they are not using their cars then life indoors may be a bit harsh for those that love their environment.

    What might be interesting to learn is the average miles driven in pursuit of one hobby against the next and Birders may want to assume the moral high ground but if they didn't get into Birds and Wildlife in the first place, would they burn more miles if they got into say, following sports on a regular basis and therefore not also become members of organisations like the RSPB?

    We will all face big challenges as fuel prices force people from being as mobile as they might have been before but is the mileage driven by the Birding community not on a tiny scale combined to the miles covered by all and sundry just living their lives within their means?

  3. Interesting and thought-provoking comments from Andrew although the points voiced over offsetting need further clarification. Certainly, the travel companies are being more than a little cynical with tree-panting schemes but the scheme has another conservation parallel that I will get to in a moment. Trees are actually a relatively small answer to the problem of rising CO2 and it is thought that a better and greater CO2 sponge is phytoplankton. It is even thought that replanting of rainforests would not reverse CO2 build-up but would only slow down the rise. It is therefore essential that we stop polluting our seas and if possible, look for ways to reverse the trend.

    The parallel? Wind turbines. There is admittedly, a big question mark about nuclear power but not enough money is being put into tidal and solar sources whilst wind turbines are not efficient enough to do more than scratch at the surface of the problem.

    However, I am not in any way saying that the schemes should be stopped but it would be nice if the people that are contributing to them or are feeding the demand were aware that the offset is not what it could and should be if it were done differently.

    The problem is determining what constitutes unnecessary travel in Andrew's essay and who decides. I have a car licence but I have not earned enough to own a car so consequently 90% of my travel is by foot, bike or public transport. Unfortunately, that does not mean I have a carbon neutral lifestyle so how far in to the minutiae do we have to go? As just one small example of sensibility, I am over 50 and although I can easily walk or cycle to work, I am not going to risk my health by doing so in rain or snow.

  4. A fantastic post! Very well said.

    I don't think you were getting at encouraging people only to go birdwatching if they can use public transport or leg power?

    I took what you wrote to be about an apparent lack of connection or awareness of some RSPB members (who love birds so much they pay membership to an org' that protects them), and the choices they make in their lives that have a heavy negative impact on the very environment those birds need to survive.

    It must be difficult for NGO's to really engage their members with the hard truths about the impact of their lives on our environment. People don't appreciate being made to feel bad & so I assume membership would drop off very quickly!

    Is there more the RSPB could do? It seems a bit perverse that people are paying them to protect the birds that they themselves may be contributing to the destruction of.

  5. Andrew

    Some very valid points. Driving hundreds of miles per bird that as you say, is out of place and lost has no conservation merit and adds little to our knowledge of avian ecology. Nevertheless, there is some movement to suggest alternative methods of travelling by private vehicle (see and I suspect some twitchers would point out that they try and 'fill the car', to share travel costs and thus indirectly reduce an individual's carbon footprint.

    However, where I would start to deviate away from your thoughts is, paradoxically, where travel distances are greater than that which can be achieved within the UK; i.e. global travel. True, the carbon footprint per person, per journey will be greater, but there are material conservation benefits in doing so and I'd like to share one personal example with you (and those that read the blog).

    I love Africa. I have been fortunate to travel to several different countries in this great continent and seen some amazing sights. For my (our) honeymoon, we travelled to Uganda and spent 5 weeks travelling around the 'Pearl of Africa'. We hired a car (4x4) and tent with camping equipment, bought food from local markets or shops and stayed in campsites, either run by individuals or within the National Parks. So we contributed to the local economy and made it clear that we were visiting Uganda to see its wildlife. In doing so, in a very small way, locals learn that their natural heritage can earn them money, sustainably. Remember, birders visiting a forest to see birds will come again and again, a forester will come once.

    And of course we went to see the Mountain Gorillas in Bwindi (Inpenetrable Forest) NP and like most birders, paid local fishermen to take us in a dugout canoe (hand-powered) to see the shoebill. And here is the main point. It is more than likely that the gorillas and the shoebill would be no longer (in Uganda at least) if it were not for tourism. And it is probable that the rainforests where the gorillas reside would be severely threatened, if not more so than they are, by forestry and logging, legal as well as illegally.

    In the shoebills instance, fishermen once hunted them as 'pests' as they considered that they competed for fish; they even burnt the papyrus swamps to remove habitat (and therefore reduce habitat for other species). However, an enlightened group of Ugandan bird guides, having realised the potential that avian tourism brought them educated the local fishermen that they could participate and act as local guides for tourists, including birders, to see this enigmatic bird. So the local community benefits in having a sustainable income, have a real incentive not to hunt the shoebill and as an aside, now have, by rural African standards, a decent public toilet, funded by money received by tourists to see the shoebill. Whilst it may not be possible to accurately counteract the carbon footprint generated by tourists, I would hope that the conservation benefits are clear to see.

    I am sure that you could find many other examples across the world a long similar lines where habitats or species once considered to be pests, food or otherwise are now viewed by local communities as a sustainable source of income rather than a 'one-off purchase'. European (I include the UK here) birders and naturalists in general can and do provide a valuable (financial and moral) incentive to protect these habitats. And there are material benefits to the UK citizen too. Rainforests are the 'lungs of the world', without them, global climate patterns will change, affecting our ability to grow crops to feed us. It is in our interest to protect them too and by providing an income to local communities rather than just telling them to protect them, would in my opinion, send a much more positive message.

    So I would advocate responsible global travel (and responsible local travel). And, if an individual from the UK has personally seen a shoebill, or a tiger, or the Amazon rainforest, then they are much more likely to be an advocate for its protection as it is no longer an abstract concept or something they've seen on TV.

  6. Loads of good points here but a bit of a shame that the writer has resorted to sweeping statements such as, "Birders never consider the impact of their own travel on the planet". Really? Never? 

    Many of us hardly travel at all, but rather get to know (nod to Bill Oddie) our 'local patch' or maybe a few nearby areas. 

    You might not be aware of us disabled bird lovers who are unable to access many habitats and reserves. Public transport can be prohibitive to us and we may require larger vehicles to carry wheelchairs and other equipment. I have a CR-V with a hoist, but my husband balances this by cycling 15miles each way to work. It's easy to make judgements without seeing the whole picture. 

    And the condemnation of those who, "will visit the Scillies, Norfolk, the Scottish Highlands or Fair Isle on an annual basis", also seems a bit harsh. An annual holiday to a special place in the UK has surely got to be an improvement on the frequent foreign holidays that much of the non-birding population indulge in. 

    Of course climate change and the future of the planet are the primary issues and we all need to be more mindful of how we are contributing to these and how we can reduce our impact. I just think we're more likely to get more people on board if we take a less excluding and punitive approach. 

  7. An interesting point, but may I suggest possibly over simplified. Carbon sequestration, pollution, carbon neutral are all valuable points in the current climate, actual and political. And yes if we all did a little, the macro effect would be increased. The problem though is we all doing a little is great in theory, virtually impossible in practice.

    Looking at just carbon emissions air travel faf far outwighes anything the birdwatching communities SUV's may emit. Changing people's desires and aspirations are the major challenge. I have friends and colleagues from all walks of life, and what is interesting almost all of them think progression, both economic and aspiration are the only thing that matters. But all of them love going to the countryside for whatever reason, be it holidays or watching wildlife, or just to get away for the day from town life. Explain their effect on that activity and they just don't comprehend this. One friend as a season ticket holder, travels to Manchester every time Manchester United play, a round trip of 200+ miles, but he's also a keen birdwatcher. Is he wrong to do this?

    The issues are hugely complex. Should we buy food from abroad? should we ban central heating? What about plastics, both drilling for crude oil and the manufacture and recycling costs? Should we ban all forms of electronic device, phones, PC's, laptops? They all take power to make them work, but where does that power come from and what is the cost carbon wise?

    Bringing this back to your well structured argument, what is increasingly an issue away from carbon emissions is the impact tourism and bird/wildlife watching is having on the natural environment. Ergo what impact does this have on the species which depend on this natural environment. You are a cyclist. So am I. But! Cyclists are becoming a real problem in fragile forest and upland habitats with the proliferation of mountain biking trails. Only last week I heard of an organised mountain biking weekend completely ignoring the "nature reserve do not enter" signs and riding through an area without any paths, because it "was there". On the Somerset Levels it is now almost impossible to find places free from people coming to see the wildlflife. The RSPB and others have done a fabulous job creating and promoting this unique and fantastic habitat for wildlife. But go there even in the middle of the week and the place is packed with tourists.

    I have no problem with any of this, gas guzzling SUV, tourists enjoying a Sunday run out, families bicycling through forests, or holidays abroad, or even using electronic gadgets (I'd be hard done by to comment without a computer). What we do need though and it never seems to hit home to individuals, is, if an individual makes a decision to do something, then that decision has a positive cause and negative effect. That's a fact. I have a shower, positive, I use water, negative, which may be better used to keep rivers flowing. I drive to the Somerset Levels to see a bittern, positive, but negatively I'll burn fuel, possibly pollute the waterways with windscreen washer fluid, or oil from the engine, and of course be another person in a place which is being sold as a wilderness landscape for nature.

    You raise a very valuable point, but the answers in my opinion are complex, related to human ambition, and solving the issues we all face is, well something that keeps me awake at night sometimes.

    Peter Mortimer, a writer from the North East made a valid point last year, we should all reduce our lifestyles by 15% to help save the Planet. Personally I like that way of thinking, I try my best, but I am one in 7 billion, and I still like driving to the countryside.

    Oh and by the way, keep an eye on Brazil, that's where the sleeping dragon of the real Global problem you highlight is currently waking up.

  8. Fine..cancelled RSPB membership cos its wrong to use car...long jouney to Strumpshaw Fen for the Swallowtail now environmentally incorrect and Scotland for the Eagles / Divers is just a bit difficult for me as a will give that a miss and of course, woodland management volunteering work in aid of Butterflies will have to just sit at home and watch dearest Kate jet round the world on as they say mate "on ya bike" and take the moral high ground...with you.

  9. Love It!! Fantastic Blog...

    It is always a source of complete amazement and astonishment at the lack of environmentalism amongst conservationists. I myself have a Land Rover and was convinced I still needed it for work until only last week when finally the cost of filling the tank yet again has convinced me otherwise, hardly a major win for the eco in me.. only being convinced by the pain in my wallet.

    Still you have talked me into getting back on the bike now and I shall be cycling to work for the forseable.. trying to do my bit for the environment and saving money for beer at the same time. Win Win

    Thanks Andrew a great post!

    1. "Still you have talked me into getting back on the bike now."......till next Winter maybe!!

  10. Andrew - a great blog contribution. Someone had to say it, and of course it's mainly about twitching. I can understand the desire of Birders to see rare birds and wouldn't deny them this but in a world were we who are passionate about conservation (and I have no doubt most twitchers and birders are) we do need to be much more aware of the CO2 we're pumping out simply going to see wildlife. If you're lucky like me and have a reserve on your doorstep then this is less of an issue as it's walkable and cycleable, something I'm doing more of. Given the cost of fuel more of this will have to be done by necessity! I have worked out, that if I walk or cycle to my reserve I save nearly 2kg of CO2 and that's in a highly fuel efficient car! That's an eye opener.

  11. It is very clear that collectively our environmental footprint is too big and as a result we are causing the environment we live in to deteriorate in all kinds of ways. Unfortunately Andrew's post comes across as just a little smug (despite the little mea culpa at the end) and that has clearly raised the ire of one or two of the respondents here. I think how we get the message across is actually a vitally important point, particularly as I would guess that the 'man (not) on the number 9 bus' is rather less likely to sympathise with Andrew's point than the typical reader of this blog. We cannot afford to hide the truth about climate change and how we all contribute to it, but telling your SUV driving neighbour he is a climate-wrecking pig is probably not going to persuade him to change. Part of the answer is to persuade our (and other) governments to implement policies that persuade us to do the right thing e.g. by making cycling safer in cities and towns, making public transport better and cheaper and so on but we also need to find a persuasive tone of voice to change attitudes to consumption so that we all live more enviromentally friendly lives.

  12. Well for ordinary bird watchers who probably only travel 100 miles a month your blog is insulting,what about putting something about all the other hobbies that use far more fuel for travelling such as watching football,horse racing,all forms of car racing and loads of others.All these young people going to university must contribute massively as well and of course provide no income to offset it while doing their 3 years plus gap year to get over all the effects of alcohol consumed in that 3 years.
    Father worked half days at age 11 and if we got back to that most of country's problems would disappear including the insulting ones you lay at bird watchers hands.


    Urge all RSPB members to avoid these holiday's that utilise the dreaded internal combustion engine and we wouldnt to upset anybody..I am so angry about this "blog". For over 30 years I have supported both financially and practically "wildlife conservation" in the UK and NOW when planning my annual Scottish trip I am told by some "person" that this is unnaceptable and uses the RSPB as a cover for his views...Look to Wales young man and try to stop the slaughter of Badger's.

  14. I think Andrew makes some very good points and I have thought about the subject further. However, I think Andrew is also speaking from an idealistic standpoint (if you cannot be idealistic when you are young, when can you?) because his future career will undoubtedly take him into areas (and I don't just mean geographically) where it is impossible to keep his carbon footprint down, particularly if he is ambitious.

    I have mentioned this to Mark on occasion because I sometimes feel that air and road travel are easy targets when there is much more to reducing one's carbon footprint than just reconsidering the way we travel. Mark and I both love wine and I bet the majority of what we buy has put in considerable air miles. In other words, only people who drink local ales have the lowest drink score for the most part - there are good and improving English and Welsh wine producers but they cannot cater for the market here in the UK. How about eating sensibly? Well, there are some foodstuffs that will never be grown in northern Europe such as bananas so they would be out completely. TV chefs often extol the virtues of locally-sourced foods and i certainly would not disagree, especially for quality but I sincerely doubt that we have the production capacity for some foods if everyone in the UK was to turn in the same direction. Nevertheless, reducing one's carbon footprint completely would certainly have to factor in this consideration. Worse still, the air freighters that ship the food in are inevitable not the more efficient mainline designs that fly us to Corfu and Orlando but are fuel-guzzling dinosaurs (there are still DC-8s in this role even today) that would be unacceptable to passenger airlines. In other words, it is far less efficient to ship a bunch of bananas from west Africa than it would be to fly a person or persons (weight for weight) on the same route.

    I think this is where some of Andrew's ideas encounter their greatest flaw because it is far wider than putting birders and RSPB members under the spotlight. The real issue in conservation is that we need to arrest population rise on a global scale and let the level fall naturally without needing wars and famine to do the job, as will inevitably be the case if we keep on this route.

  15. Hmmm.

    I was amazed when talking to another birder a few years ago when she merrily announced her sixth international wildlife watching trip of the year, and was entirely unconcerned about any carbon cost - or the effects of her trips on the local ecosystems.

    But generally I'd say that birders - and RSPB members especially - tend to be more ethically minded than most, and do consider the environment. (I've restricted my own trips, and am very careful about carbon cost and ecological impact when I do travel.) But let's not forget that many communities - even in the Scottish islands - may heavily depend on eco-tourism for their economic survival. Cutting out tourism may benefit one ecosystem, but it may harm another if a local community has to look to other industries for sustenance.

    In short, we all need to behave responsibly - reduce our travel, but when we do travel, do so as ethically as possible. However, I know many people would like some guidance as to the ethics and carbon costs of any trips they might think of making.

    Perhaps the RSPB, tourism agencies and companies and the travel, wildlife and birdwatching press could do more to advise rather than chastise?

    (As it happens, I'm an wildlife and environment journalist, and I can offer any interested parties sound articles on this very subject for very reasonable rates!)


    While we debate the rights and wrongs and who should do what this recent article highlights the huge CO2 mountain we have to climb. If we as wildlife people can't be bothered to take responsibility for our own actions and just find reasons and excuses then there really is little hope. I find some of the comments to this blog very depressing indeed.

  17. There is a finite resource of Carbon on planet earth and by doing a lot of driving we are merely recycling this resource.We are not producing more or less carbon.
    Ecotourism and especially wildlife tourism places a value on wildlife and encourages countries to protect and nurture their wildlife resources and biodiversity. Air miles in search of wildlife may not be such a bad thing.
    Carbon trading is great. I have planted 12 trees in the past year which means that I can now take as many air flights as I like. Seems a lot of codswallop to be polite, but as in the case of the Brazilian amazon rainforest this may be a life saver. The Brazilian government has realised that there is vast monetary funds available from carbon trading and they have found that by not cutting down rainforest that an awful lot of this cash is heading their way with a resulting massive decline in Amazonian rainforest destruction.
    Human kind looks at climate change / global warming on an infinitesimal scale. It is inevitable that climate change will occur and that all we are doing by burning up carbon fuels, etc is slightly speeding up the process.
    Finally if there were no selective pressures placed on the biodiversity of planet earth then no speciation would occur. Global warming or climate change , man made or otherwise exerts these environmental pressures on life forms and promotes the evolution of new life forms and increasing gllobal diversity which surely cannot be a bad thing.

  18. Having known Andrew as a friend and collegue for sometime he knows I support his viewpoint made on this blog. But its worth pointing out to those of you who may think Andrew's comments are coming from a "young niave man" should probably be made aware that Andrew has worked in nature conservation, and "looked to Wales", for more years than he probably cares to remember (or would want reminding about). He will be very flattered by this assumption but won't be by me telling you that he would describe me as the younger generation. I'm 32. Andrew's comments come from someone that knows more that a thing or two about nature conservation from a varied and sucessful career.

  19. In that case Rich he should know better than lump everyone together,the usual thing people do when not considering in this case that some of us have a small carbon footprint as well as being bird watchers.It appears he bases a colossal length of blog degrading birdwatchers upon looking at one vehicle.

    1. Dennis, you are getting hung up on a point narrative and a metaphor. I really don't think Andrew saw one SUV with an RSPB sticker and started condeming all birders over their carbon footprint. It may have got him thinking. I would also imagine there is a word limit or at least a desire to keep these blogs to reasonable length so there is always going to be generalisations.

  20. Before I start, can I forestall hoots of derision from work colleagues, my wife, and my teenage children? I’m afraid I’m far from young (there’s a clue in the article!). In fact, I have over 30 years in frontline nature conservation. I suppose I’m just well preserved; it must be the cycling.

    Anyway, thanks to everyone who has responded to this, my first ever blog. I was quite nervous this morning, so I really appreciate comments that have been, almost without exception, supportive or constructively critical. Thanks also to Mark for allowing me the platform.

    I cannot reply to them all - to do so would require another blog, and I think I’ve had my go! But I will try to briefly address some cross-cutting themes here.

    As some have pointed out, this is a very complex subject; it goes to the heart of how our society is organised. I apologise if I have made sweeping generalisations or been a little glib. My aim here is to interest, provoke and entertain a specific audience. To do that, within a reasonable word count, you have to cut corners.

    There is a natural tendency to react defensively. How dare you! What about other people? What about other countries? What difference does my behaviour make? This neatly shoves the problem onto other people’s shoulders. If you’re reading this blog, my guess is that you think deeply about nature and the environment. If we can’t change, what hope is there?

    Andrew Dawes made an excellent point about positive and negative effects. We all need to think about that balancing act, and play our part. The points about sustainable tourism are also well-made, but I’m afraid ‘sustainable air travel’ is an oxymoron. Climate change – and peak oil – has seen to that.

    I’m not suggesting that we all live in a yurt and exist on roots and berries. In fact, such a message would be a massive turn-off to the wider public. We have to show that a modern, comfortable and fulfilling lifestyle is possible whilst staying within the Earth’s limits.

    This is not some ‘greener than thou’ competition. But it is an issue that we, individually and as a society, cannot duck forever. To quote George Monbiot, “If the biosphere is wrecked, it will be done by nice, well-meaning cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.”

    Thanks again.


  21. Hi Andrew and everyone else. I had a similar discussion with Mark when he was still producing excellent blogs at the RSPB but I cannot help thinking that the shots fired at air and road travel are too easy. If you look at various websites on the subject it clearly makes the case that air and road travel account for 10% (or better) each or thereabouts of the total carbon emissions even in the western Europe where industry is nowhere near as bad as it used to be. Before I go on, can I first point out that I am not in any way trying to say that air and road travel are sustainable in their current forms.

    Firstly, there are major moves afoot to produce sustainable fuels for road vehicles and I am not just talking about bio-fuels. The ability to do this has always been with us but as I think we are all aware, the petroleum companies have bought up the research so it does not see the light of day (at least, not yet). I see no reason why development will not go forward in the future although we should rightly watch for the alternatives that are introduced in case they too are not sustainable.

    Andrew, with respect 'but I’m afraid ‘sustainable air travel’ is an oxymoron. Climate change – and peak oil – has seen to that.' is not as accurate as you may imagine. All that I have said about road travel above is equally true about air travel and that is just the basic bones. One point I made to Mark (he was talking about a claim made by the producers of a small biz jet to be the greenest aircraft yet produced - the Phenom jet if I remember correctly) was that we have missed a few very important tricks. The assumption that air travel is unsustainable is partly true if we are only considering jets and even there, it is possible that what I am about to point out may be possible with the right development. Basically, the problem goes back to the 1950s - arguably, the 1940s if we want to consider the 'Magnificent False Start' that was the De Havilland Comet but I digress. Boeing launched the Model 707 onto the market in 1958 and the leap forward was epic in terms of speed of travel even compared to the Lockheed Starliners and Douglas DC-7s that were fresh on the market. In fact, Transatlantic times were almost halved in one moment and piston engines became the lumbering relics of the past in an instance even though they were far more efficient in terms of fuel burn. Worse still, the hybrid power of the turbo-props was coming into existence in the form of the Vickers Viscount and in its developed long-range forms the Lockheed Electra, Vickers Vanguard and Illyushin Il-18 and was ignored because they were not seen to be prestigious in terms of speed. Annoyingly, the most efficient and green aircraft in the skies are the DHC-8s, ATR-72s that take people between Manchester/London/Edinburgh/Cardiff to places like Jersey/Shetland/Belfast where they are only acceptable because the shorter sectors mean little in terms of the extra time taken to make a journey [Note: similar sized jets do not perform well in a green comparison even if they are quicker]. Now the gist of this is that there is no reason why prop technology cannot be applied to medium and long range travel. Following on from this, it is true that the military is looking at sustainable fuels for jets so I see no reason why this will not become available to the commercial sector too.

    To repeat, I am not in any way saying people should not think about the travel they undertake but it is important to understand that even their food has clocked up some horrendous air miles and by way of old and inefficient technology. In my honest opinion (even though I am not guilty of the travel), it is risky to have a pop, even unintentioned at the people who are already listening. One of the posts above makes a very good point about the people that follow sport and/or business users. Unless these people are conservationists too, they will surely not have read this excellent discussion and that is the biggest challenge of all - getting the message out further. Similarly, I am not at all sure the RSPB, WWT, Wildlife Trusts or any of the principle governmental/regional bodies would maintain land/reserves that they could not promote through encouraging visitors. At the same time, would any of us want to support places that we were not allowed to see? The RSPB did extremely well with the Harapan appeal but imagine if they had added the footnote - 'please do not try to go there because air travel is wrong.' It really does not matter that few people will ever go there, human nature will stop people supporting something that is prohibited to them.

  22. OK Just done the maths..Liverpool to Norwich return for my lady wife & I:
    £291.00 (Not First Class)
    Accommodation cos cant use little Motorhome.
    plus another £50 ish for local fares meals etc
    Cost to visit RSPB Strumpshaw Fen for the Swallowtail
    £400 plus.
    So would need to cancel membership of RSPB/WWT/Butterfly Conservation/and stop monthly subscription to Médecins Sans Frontiè difficult to take scope and camera on the train.And a bit too far to cycle and dont think my old bike would quite make it...or my knees.
    So Mr Lucas get off the fence and say this IS what i should do.(amongst other things)

  23. I happen to agree with Stuart Parker and had penned a pretty barbed response to this "insufferably smug" (your words Andrew, but they fit the bill nicely) post by someone who really should know far better, but clearly doesn't, even after 30 odd years in frontline conservation?!

    But I'll leave my original response I think - and go outside to see a pair of little owls a few miles away (and cool down).

    May I drive Andrew?


  24. Judging by some of the responses, it would seem a nerve has been struck.

    I think the original blog nicely illuminates some of the inconsistency in our behaviour as a society and the posters who have kneejerked in response probably know deep down there is a bit of cognitive dissonance going on in their heads. Or I may be just be being too kind and understanding and you actually are just self-centered arrogant humans who want to have their cake and devour it.

    I think the crux of the past few days' blogs is that we perhaps should be looking at ourselves and our actions a bit more and considering the impact in terms of the bigger picture.

    Yes, they've been illustrated in very stark terms with a bit of glibness and dash of hyperbole but it does distill something of the duality many of us currently inhabit seemingly harking back to the good old days on one hand and blindly pretending we're not currently where we are. I'm afraid that's just not good enough. It's irresponsible.

    Firstly, there never were any "good old days" - it's a very common mistake people make when judging things with hindsight. Every age faces challenges and hardship; in point of fact they never change that much but we all feel they're somehow unique to our age.

    But we do face massive change and the path we are on is not the right one by any stretch of the imagination. We are all wrong-headed about the state of play. Just look at DavidH's comments, for example. The idea we're just shifting a bit of carbon about and evolution will cope with the changes is so utterly laughable I feel stupid even referring to it but this is the kind of thing we see presented to us by some of the newspapers and wider media. We're slowly slipping down into a dark age as science is strangled and our world consumed from under us.

    And no, I haven't presented a 5 step plan to greener living that'll save the planet for you to tear apart with cynicism and ire. I don't have all the answers, no one person does. I do, at least have the clarity of thought to see the problems and do what I can to not take part in the wider ills.

  25. Yes I have indeed thrown my toys out the pram over this ill thought out "blog". we carry people because we present an idea / concept that is both practical and has a "reality" about it.If the truth be known vehicle usage for us all will be dictated by "World Economics" and over 3 million Britons will be in fuel poverty by 2016 (Reuters)
    Stupid articles as evinced by Mr Lucas only serve those who decry conservation and give credence to people who describe us as "tree huggers or whatever". I am 65 years old and have spent most of my life working for and contributing to the causes of wildlife conservation as and where I can.If Mr Lucas really wants to have a go,then take on the Tory Gov over relaxation of planning legislation/stop over- fishing in our seas/High speed rail so the captains of free enterprise can be in London 10 minutes earlier,etc etc .Have a look at what the Japanese are doing in the name of research etc....the list goes on Mr Lucas.
    So thats it Sir, final words.. you have really p*ssed me off and I am away to the recycling depot with rubbish, then on to a spot where if lucky
    I might see my second "Comma" of the year...and yes by car!

  26. Brian.

    You say the blog “nicely illuminates” some of the inconsistencies in our behaviour, then you write that the post has been “illustrated in very stark terms with a bit of glibness and dash of hyperbole”.

    I would suggest that although the blog does (potentially) illuminate inconsistencies in our behaviour, it does not do so “nicely” (or “well”, as I’d put it) - and the trouble with illustrating one’s point starkly, glibly (much worse) or with hyperbole is that in general, one’s audience is often immediately divided.
    Green science often fails with its PR. Andrew’s blog is a very good example of that.

    One really should not attempt to successfully (or seriously) promote green science by preaching to the partially-converted whilst at the same time, sneering at the unconverted, (with metaphors or not).

    I’ll go further and suggest that Andrew’s blog is, at best, clumsy, at worst dangerous – and the glib finger-pointing at “easy targets” (such as the SUV driver used to at least illustrate his point metaphorically?) does our battle with trying to slow climate change, promotion of conservation (or cyclists for that matter), no favours at all.

    Successful conservation invariably begins with empowering people, making them feel good about thinking about the bigger picture and doing their bit. It’s very, very complicated and a hard battle. But it has (like everything else) to be started in the right way.

    You will not empower people nor make them feel good about doing their bit if you start off by pointing fingers and calling them names (whether in jest or not, it’s actually hard to tell in Andrew’s blog), if they are behaving in a way that you don’t agree with.
    You’ll just put their backs out.
    E-v-e-r-y single time.
    That’s a long term strategy to unsuccessful conservation.

    Andrew may have cited that one SUV-driving RSPB member (his “oaf”) as a clumsy (easily missed) metaphor, but the smug (self-satisfied, despite the brief mea culpa climb-down at the end of his post as Jonathan Wallace highlighted) overtone of the post is indicative of other members’ (of the conservation fraternity) attitude which serves only to quickly turn people away, not begin a change in behaviour.
    This seems (sadly) to be a modern phenomenon in conservation, including climate science. It’s an attitude and technique which actually seems to propagate numbers of “climate deniers” – the very opposite of what was originally intended.

    Many SUV-driving RSPB members (I’m not either by the way, although I do run a small car with an NGO sticker on the back) might turn to Andrew (after being accused of being “oafs”) and react angrily. I would regard that as quite normal – in fact very predictable.

    Some of them (a tiny few) might look to Andrew for guidance or perhaps advice I suppose - and upon realising that he has multiple children, might point out, that potentially he has demonstrated that he’s actually missed the “bigger picture” (which you mention at the end of your response Brian) and he should pause to gain the “clarity of thought to see the problems” (like you write you’ve done Brian).
    NB. I should point out here that personally, I would never cite overpopulation as the root of all climate change evils – that’s waaaay too simple - but many (famous) conservationists, some politicians and members of the public might very well do.

    I hope Andrew’s blog was just clumsy and that his “varied and successful career” (his colleague’s words) demonstrate other techniques (not smug scolding, finger pointing, glibness or hyperbole) to assist us in our cause, because if not and this is actually how he considers it’s best to “save the planet” (his words), he has a futile battle ahead, with plenty of backs put out along the way, including backs of fellow conservationists…

    I will say this for Andrew though - even after ending his original post with the buttock-clenchingly rash:
    “It’s time for those who say they care about the environment to start behaving as if they do.”

    - At least he had the presence of mind (and complete lack of glibness, ironically) to apologise to some responders here for originally being “a little glib” and for using “sweeping generalisations”.

    For the record, I respond as a scientist, employed in the environmental sector, who cycles a lot and who is sadly becoming more and more used to seeing conservationists’ finger-pointing (in the name of green science), trying (in vain – quelle surprise) to “save the planet”.
    I just wish they wouldn’t. I really do.
    Because each time they do, we all take a step backwards - I breathe another deep sigh and my eyes start hurting from rolling so much.

    Like you Brian, I have no five step plan to save the planet. But I hope I might be able just to begin to appreciate what stance not to adopt, to kick off any “planet-saving”.

    Finally, Brian – where I whole-heartedly agree with you is (if I may use your words):

    “…we perhaps should be looking at ourselves and our actions a bit more and considering the impact in terms of the bigger picture….”.


    But let’s give ourselves a chance of success though, eh?

  27. This really isn't complicated. Drive less, fly less, buy local, turn off the lights, = less CO2.

    1. So Gert, to loop this back to Andrew's original Blog, does your statement rule out ever driving to see a bird (twitching), end-of?
      I think the point is that many people who use their cars to fulfil some pleasure in their lives may indeed be making enormous contributions as well as savings to their footprint in other ways.

      I wonder if the RSPB, WWT etc will be glad in future to see their reserves devoid of people because they have instead chosen to stay at home and yet thankful that the planet is being saved after all.

  28. Brilliant blog Andrew.

    Totally agree with all your points of view. In essence surely we should all be making an effort and taking some sort of responsibily in combating climatic change e.g. by limiting the likes of air travel and driving gas guzzling vehicles, etc.

  29. Thanks for raising this Andrew. Its really a personal issue that each of us will approach in our own way. Having struggled over my formerly massive carbon footprint and reduced my twitching across the UK (although once your over 500 it gets a lot easier!) I try and confine myself to birding by bike in Lincs as far as possible. Also cut back foreign travel to 1 or 2 trips per year and given up full time employment, partly because I drove so much I came to dislike it. I've spoken to some twitchers with astounding carbon footprints who profess to love birds and oppose shooting them who stare in glassy eyed dumbfoundment when faced with this issue. People cannot understand that their cars have killed many times more birds than wind turbines ever will.

    Having given up work I've spent a lot of time reading many excellent blogs by people like the Archdruid, Jim Kunstler and Dimitry Orlov. What it comes down to is that western industrial civilisation as we know it will progressively collapse as the oil runs out/becomes too expensive to use for transport and over optimistic predictions of replacements for oil fail to materialise. Twitching on anything other than a local scale is only possible because of cheap oil and when it runs out so will twitching. The Ron Johns of 2100 will be lucky to be on more than 350 for his British list.

    Since 90% of the worlds population effectively eat oil there will be a population die off when the remaining oil becomes too expensive to use in agriculture. We are post peak many of the resources we need to sustain ourselves so start making your arrangements. Mine include growing my own veg, turning off the central heating and getting used to green listing before I'm made to. Oh and also keeping my Zeiss Dialyts and Kowa scope going as long as possible. I hate to think how much embedded energy there is in all those fancy new scopes, cameras and lenses.

    The reality is that human greed will dictate every drop of oil will be used. In the long run the sooner the binge is over the better and the earth, the human race and any other remaining species can start to adapt to the consequences.

    1. "cut back foreign travel to 1 or 2 trips per year and given up full time employment, partly because I drove so much" this point I did not know if I should laugh or cry.....then I read "my Zeiss Dialyts and Kowa scope" and I knew the answer.....


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