This is a welcome book, dealing, as it does, with an important issue for those of us who are birders.
The structure of the book is that the editor produces two introductory chapters on the issue of climate change and the contribution of travel as it applies to birdwatching in its widest sense, and those are followed by 29 accounts by a variety of birders on how they watch birds in a low-carbon way and how it doesn’t cramp their style and enjoyment very much.
The two introductory chapters are required reading for all those who travel massively to watch birds around the world and those in the bird-tourism business. Javier Caletrio deals with many of the common excuses which are used to justify travel mainly to see birds, many of which are of course merely subsets of those excuses used by the vast majority of people who do not travel for birding but travel for other leisure activities. He does this very well in the chapter ‘Questions of travel, climate and responsibility‘ in such sections as ‘Why do we need to fly less?‘ and ‘Can we cancel out or balance our emissions from flying through forest preservation offsets?‘. These are well-researched, well-referenced and well-explained sections of the book which could be lifted wholesale into many other books about leisure travel, but the section ‘Will some biodiversity-rich places disappear without wildlife tourism?‘ is aimed straight at one of the more beguiling trains of thought that can be used by birders to justify jumping on a plane. Throughout the introductory chapters the tone is clear but not hectoring.
The individual accounts that follow (I’ve read many of them but not all) are varied in style and approach (which is what one wants in an anthology of essays) and they make a good case for how enjoyable patch-birding or other low-travel options can be. However, we find that many of them are written by those who happen to live, or have chosen to live, in bird-rich localities. They won’t be quite so persuasive to those whose work, family or bank balance tether them to less attractive birding locations. As someone who did some birding in Norfolk last weekend (although the motivation for the trip was mostly to meet family) I can imagine other birders thinking ‘If I lived in north Norfolk I wouldn’t travel so much either. You don’t see coach trips from Cley to Pitsford (or Summer Leys or Stanwick Lakes) but since I live in Northants I’m going to nip up to the Norfolk coast sometimes, thank you.‘. Taken together, the individual accounts are persuasive that the authors enjoy low-carbon birding and they will make other readers think about these matters more.
I’m surprised that the Bird Fair didn’t get more of a mention here. The large part that birding travel, much of it to very distant places, plays in the lives of some, and the aspirations of more, birders was shown in high relief by the Bird Fair. One of the reasons that I didn’t go to the ‘new’ Global Bird Fair this year was that it seemed not to have taken a step away from that aspect of birding.
The focus of the book is travel, whereas travel for all purposes tends to be about a third of our carbon footprint. Low-carbon birders might well be signing up to renewable energy deals, avoiding eating meat (particularly red meat), turning down their thermostats and not having children – or maybe they aren’t. Those aspects don’t feature much in this book which is understandable but when a person looks seriously to manage their carbon footprint they probably should look across all those areas and more, and then start with decisions that make the most difference to their carbon emissions and the least difference to their happiness. If you have no children, are vegan, buy renewable energy at a higher price, travel very little for other purposes then maybe you will regard your birding travel as sacrosanct – but it will still be there, doing harm to the climate (that’s inescapable). The world is full of difficult ethical decisions, and let’s not duck the fact that for birders, birding travel is an ethical area.
Much of the reduction in carbon emissions will have to be achieved by policy change rather than individual change but the great thing about making sustainable decisions yourself is that you don’t have to wait for everyone else. If you decide to drive half as much, then you can do it starting today. That decision will be made easier if there is good public transport and it is affordable. Travelling to many birding spots, try Spurn Point for example, from a distance is massively time-consuming and expensive and one can see why busy people don’t even consider it.
I suspect that covid gave a boost to low-carbon birding. One effect of covid was that many of us broke long-established habits (one of mine was buying cups of coffee all over the place) and the lower-covid era hasn’t led to them being re-established, at least not at the same level. A part of me hopes that the current hike in energy costs has a similar impact on us and that we emerge from it eventually with better ingrained habits. We’ll see.
I’ve had a rapid internet search and I can’t see lots of books about low-carbon train-spotting or being a low-carbon football fan or low-carbon gamebird shooter. I’d like to think that birders, despite their manifold faults, are perhaps leading the way, too slowly, to a more sustainable hobby and that what we do now will be something of a model to others. Things are certainly changing and I am confident that they will change ever more quickly, and this book is an important contribution to that change. The progress in recent years encourages me, and encourages me to believe that the little-read words at the front of the Peterson Field Guide to the Birds East of The Rockies which state that ‘the observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness‘ are true. Let us hope so!
The cover? The cover, by Gary Redford, is attractive and appropriate even though 24 out of the 30 contributors to the book are male and I keep wondering whether some of the shadows are in the wrong places. I’d give it 9/10.
Low-carbon Birding by Javier Caletrio is published by Pelagic Publishing.