By Steve Dudley
There appears to be some debate among conservationists and environmentalists about what we should be prioritising—the climate or biodiversity. For me it’s clear. There will be no biodiversity without a planet, so climate change remains the biggest threat to all life on Earth.
Our planet’s biodiversity is ultimately tied to the planet’s health, and right now we’re effectively in critical care phase. If governments continue to fail to tackle the climate crisis then it matters little what biodiversity measures are in place as many will not be sustainable with increased planetary warming. So, without ambitious climate policies, and without legislation and infrastructures to enable all of us to live more environmentally friendly lifestyles, the onus remains firmly on the individual to reduce their own impact on the planet and demand system change. How each of us chooses to do this is dependent on many factors and not everyone has the same opportunities to reduce energy consumption, but even within current constraints our personal actions matter.
I used to believe that an individual’s action bore little impact on the fight against climate change. But the more I began to understand my own lifestyle, my own energy consumption, my own climate impacts, the more I realised that collectively, those who care enough to make changes, can make a difference. I guess like most people, I was just too slow to wake up to the real impacts of climate change and what was driving it.
I’ve been a birder for 35 years, and for over 20 of those years I twitched the length and breadth of Britain and enjoyed foreign birding trips around our wonderful planet. My increasing carbon footprint became a concern for me around 20 years ago to the point that 15 years ago I felt, as a conservationist and environmentalist, and in the absence of effective legislation and our government’s continued failure to meet agreed environmental targets, I had to do something myself. I could no longer consciously call myself either a conservationist or environmentalist while living the lifestyle I did.
Reducing my birding carbon footprint had to be part of reducing my overall carbon use. There was little point reducing only a segment of my impact, but my birding was one of the low hanging fruits I could easily tackle. So, I stopped national birding and twitching in favour of a local area, not a local patch, but the wider area of the Peterborough Bird Club which covers around 500 km². I also reduced my overall overseas air travel—instead of going on two overseas trips in a year, I went on one longer (in time) trip reducing my air travel by half.
As a result my local birding intensified and, as my miles began to rack up again, I had a rethink and reduced my local birding. This I’ve done over the last 10 years to my home fenland area comprising my immediate fen (from which I can walk out on to from the house), adjacent fens and two main sites each around 10 miles from the house. That really did bring my birding mileage down to what I was comfortable with, with an overall reduction from more than 60,000 miles per annum to less then 5,000 miles.
I’m lucky to live in a productive birding area so the ‘localisation’ of my birding over the last 15 years hasn’t meant unexciting birding—far from it! The fens are teeming with birds year-round. My immediate arable fen still holds good numbers of declining species such as Corn Bunting, Yellowhammer and Grey Partridge. Hobby and Long-eared Owl breed locally on the wider fen and our garden list stands at 150 species and is the best site in the county for Tree Sparrow. Wetlands within 10 miles of the house hold breeding Crane, Bittern, Marsh Harrier, Black-tailed Godwit and Garganey; in winter they are wildfowl and wader havens; and during spring and autumn often turn up plenty of quality migrants.
My international travel remained a concern. Not only was I still flying but I had been working within ecotourism as a bird guide for over 25 years. Reducing my bird guiding to a single location, Lesvos, was the first step. This meant both giving up being paid to visit exciting countries and the income that went with it. I was embedded within Lesvos ecotourism having written the birding guide for the island, but I could still change my own operations which would contribute to reducing my carbon footprint there. Staying for longer periods I stopped taking groups out from the UK but switched to offering day trips to visitors already travelling to the island. It was however ultimately the Greek economic collapse coupled with the Syrian refugee crisis that effectively cut around 98% of tourism on the island. I had little concern for myself at this point, my only concern being for all my Lesvos friends whose income had been at best reduced to a fraction of what it used to be, or at worst the loss of everything they had worked for.
Back home, and my wife Liz and I set about converting two small fen cottages into a single house as environmentally as possible using (more expensive!) green alternatives for the build (e.g wood frame, wooden windows, natural insulation materials, water harvesting).
Liz and I are committed to further reducing our personal impacts on our planet. As much as I love travelling the world and seeing new places, cultures and wildlife, I’ve decided to stop all international air travel. This has been a massively hard decision to make as I’ve made it whilst still being able to afford to travel to pretty much anywhere in the world. So, I’ll never see a tiger, a Blue Whale, an albatross, and much, much more that I’ve long dreamed of seeing in the flesh.
Whilst I accept that by no longer travelling to areas that depend on ecotourism I’m depriving lodges and other local services of valuable income. Global conservation should not be based on the affordability of a destination to those with expendable income. Such a system is ultimately flawed, and whilst some nations have increased their conservation efforts and spend as a result of increasing ecotourism, just as many countries have done nothing, this system concentrates ecotourism in areas with the most sought-after species and it ignores huge swathes of the planet because they don’t offer sought-after species or they don’t have the infrastructure to support even the most rudimentary of tourism demands of the 21st century traveller—the majority of globe-trotting birders today expect to travel and stay in comfort, enjoy good food and be led by the best guides. After all, they’re paying top dollar for their experience.
Liz and I are also committed to retiring to an island archipelago that already generates all its electricity needs using renewable energy sources—and one which is rich in birds and other wildlife year-round. Our move to a small island will further contain us and will be ideal to switch to an electric vehicle run on locally generated renewable energy. To ready myself for this move I’m going to forgo go another of my real, but carbon hungry, passions—my Manchester United season ticket—and the 7,500 of car miles that comes with it. But whilst I live in the fens, I’ll retain my season ticket (of 20 years) for my local team, Peterborough United, so I’m still able to enjoy the blood and guts of live football—and just seven miles from the house!
Lastly, I’ve been able to make a small impact via my employment. For the last 23 years I’ve run the British Ornithologists’ Union (BOU). As well as working from home for all of that time (no commute with associated carbon consumption), part of my job has been arranging face-to-face conferences and meetings (remember them?). When I took the BOU onto social media in 2011 I soon became aware of the ability of social platforms to bring together people from all around the world. Having helped to establish Twitter as the social media platform of choice within ornithology, I was keen to use the platform for global conferencing. The World Seabird Union was the first to take to Twitter to run a series of annual Twitter conferences from 2015, and the BOU followed in 2017. From 2019 I got the BOU to support the WSTC series and in 2020, and with the International Wader Study Group, we ran the first International Shorebird Twitter Conference (#ISTC20)—something I am sure the IWSG will now make an annual event.
Such conferences allow both presenters and attendees from all around the world to present their research and/or attend a truly global event, few of whom would have been able to make it to an in-person event. Such Twitter events are as low carbon as you can get. No travel. No catering. No running of energy-hungry venues. And they come with other important community benefits including increased inclusivity and diversity of attendees and enable those with little or no funding to attend and/or present their research—something they couldn’t dream of doing at a far flung international in-person meeting.
I continue to make efforts to reduce the carbon demands of my personal and professional lives. At the same time, and for as long as I can afford to do so, I will continue to support NGOs and others committed to researching and conserving our world’s birds. So it isn’t a question of turning my back on the need to conserve the planet’s biodiversity, but rather controlling what I can personally and contributing to the global conservation efforts of the institutes best-placed to fight on the biodiversity front.
If you don’t think you can make a difference, then read this excellent article ‘Global study uncovers best ways to change consumption to cut carbon footprint’. There are bound to be things that you can do to make a difference. Imagine adopting just one new thing to help you reduce your carbon consumption each year. More if you can (the faster we all reduce our carbon needs the better). Once you know you’re making a difference you’ll feel the difference within you and this will spur you on to doing more. Come one. Be one of the billion people of the planet to make a real difference.
I’ve surprised myself at how easy it has been to make all the changes Liz and I have made to not just reduce the carbon demands of our bird and wildlife watching, but across most areas of our lives. We feel richer for doing so and appreciate our local environment and its wildlife much more because of renewed focus on it. And we can’t wait to retire! And with it realise our dream of island life, with new birding and wildlife adventures, and being a step closer towards living well within the limits of our planet.