The politics of low-carbon birding

By Jonathan Dean

“Keep the politics out of birding”: it’s a familiar lament which anyone active on birding twitter will likely have come across at some point. Such sentiment is understandable. Politics can be fractious, tense and divisive, while birding is something we do for fun, to relax from the stresses of everyday life (well, in theory at least: a frankly rather cack-handed quest for a Greenish Warbler while visiting Fife last month was anything but relaxing). But despite some birders’ unease, I want to persuade you that politics – broadly understood – is absolutely central to birding in general, and low-carbon birding in particular. It is neither feasible nor desirable to keep politics “out” of birding. And for those of us committed to decarbonisation, foregrounding the politics of low-carbon birding helps us grasp what is at stake in advocating for a lower-carbon birding culture, and also helps us navigate some of the obstacles that currently stand in our way.

But what, exactly, does it mean to talk about the politics of birding? The frustration many birders feel about bringing politics into birding is understandable, but often misconstrues what politics is fundamentally about. For my day job I teach and research politics: in so doing, I am well aware that many people, with good reason, equate politics with either formal elite decision-making (the world of political parties, parliaments, diplomacy etc.), or the expression of partisan ideological positions. But I chose my career path not because I am enamoured with day-to-day goings on in Westminster (quite the opposite!), or because I particularly like arguing and debate (I’m quite conflict averse in person). I pursued an academic career in political science because taking politics seriously compels us to ask some fundamental questions about how the world is organised, and our role as individual citizens within it. This is true of birding as much as anything else. For example, in an age of climate crisis, how we do our birding is inextricably tied up with political questions of justice, equality and resource allocation. There is a finite amount of fossil fuel left to burn if we are to remain within 2 degrees of warming, let alone 1.5. This means that if we take, say, a long haul birding holiday, or multiple short haul trips by plane, we are in effect helping ourselves to a disproportionate share of a finite resource, exacerbating existing inequalities of power and resources, and tacitly suggesting that the hard work of decarbonising should be left to others. That’s undoubtedly a bitter pill for many birders to swallow, not least because it confronts us with the fact that we do not just simply “go birding”. Instead, the call for lower-carbon birding (as well as recent discussions relating to, for example, race and gender in birding) shows us that there is a collective politics, which all birders have a stake in, concerning where and how we go birding, and what kinds of birders and birding experiences we value.

Meanwhile, for those of us already committed to cultivating a lower-carbon birding culture, casting low-carbon birding as political can helps us understand some of the obstacles in its path. One such obstacle is a political culture in which we often turn political commitments into fixed identity categories (the terms “Brexiteer” and “Remainer” are cases in point). In the context of birding, my fear is that decarbonising birding gets seen as the preserve of a minority who assume the identity of “low carbon birder”, while everyone else implicitly carries on as before. To prevent this, it is crucial that we work to embed low-carbon birding within mainstream birding culture, emphasising that everyone can decarbonise their birding (albeit perhaps to different degrees), and avoid a situation where low-carbon birding is cast as a niche identity, cut off from the wider birding community. We must emphasise – contrary to familiar stereotypes – that decarbonising our birding need not mean a total cessation of all overseas travel, not least because low-carbon birding abroad is less difficult than many realise. Depending on the time of year you can (in non-Covid times at least) leave London by train early morning and be watching Slender-billed Gulls on the Catalan coast, Snow Finches in the Swiss Alps, or Lesser White-fronts in Dutch fields before the day is out. And even if we stop short of completely giving up birding by plane, it is far better we convince every single birder to reduce their average annual numbers of overseas trips and long-distance twitches, than have 97% carry on as before while 3% fully-embrace low-carbon birding.

But the push for lower-carbon birding has a further obstacle to contend with, namely the fatalism and pessimism which pervades contemporary political life, including within birding circles. This fatalism suggests that individual actions don’t matter, and that my decision about whether or not to go to Peru to get some tanagers and cotingas on my world list will not ultimately make any difference to the speed and scale of the climate crisis. A variation on the same theme is the claim that the climate crisis, as a “systemic” feature of our present moment, is not something we as individuals can feasibly hope to change. There is some truth to this: the climate crisis is indeed profoundly systemic, but this is no justification for inaction: a key lesson to be drawn from earlier political movements is that the dichotomy between individual action and systemic change doesn’t hold. Consider, for example, one of the biggest socio-political changes in my lifetime: the stigmatisation of homophobia. As recently as the early 2000s, homophobia was enshrined in law via section 28, and casual homophobia was utterly pervasive when I was growing up in the 90s. But now, thanks largely to numerous individual queer and LGBT people having the courage to speak out, homophobia is stigmatised to a degree unimaginable barely twenty years ago. The stigmatisation of egg collecting in the mid twentieth century was similarly rapid, paving the way for the emergence of modern birding as we know it.

So birding, like anything else, is shaped by a complex range of norms, assumptions, identities and practices that are, in a certain sense, fundamentally political. Consequently, to ignore calls for a lower-carbon birding culture is every bit as political as advocating for it. It is ultimately a political decision – both individual and collective – whether or not the birding community continues to throw its weight behind a range of practices, identities and lifestyles that depend, ultimately, on the combustion of fossil fuel and, by extension, the reduced liveability of the planet. And as many others have already said, if people turn to us in the birding, ornithology and nature conservation community – the very people who, in theory at least, should care most about nature and the future of our planet – and see that we are not serious about decarbonising, then we cannot seriously expect others to do likewise. In an age of climate crisis, keeping politics “out” of birding is a luxury we cannot afford.

@JDeanbirding

Top: Airplane approaching St Maarten’s airport. Photo by Ramon Kagie.

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