Sunday 25 July 2021

The Spoiler of Fun

A heads-up for the squeamish: this post is about low-carbon birding. Well, kind of...

The topic first appeared on this blog about a year ago. More than two years prior to that, in April 2018, Javier CaletrĂ­o's 'BB eye' piece, 'Are We Addicted to High-Carbon Ornithology?' was published in British Birds. So the conversation had been going on for quite a while before I joined in. The fact is, although I was aware of the discussion, for a long time I had no interest in engaging in it. When I wrote that NQS post, 'The Elephant in the Room', Javier's Twitter page had a paltry 899 followers. It now has 1,575. Better, but clearly many birders are still not willing to talk about low-carbon birding. Like I wasn't. So, briefly, I want to outline what changed my mind...

In February 2020 I wrote a post entitled 'The Twitching Thing'. Although I haven't been an active twitcher for decades, essentially it was a tribute to twitching. Written in the light of impending Covid-19 it was meant to be an upbeat post, and this was the closing paragraph:

'One occasionally sees twitchers getting knocked, and twitching itself dismissed as some kind of less worthy activity. I think this is very unfair. In my experience at least, twitching has rarely been about a number, but rather about a bird, a location, and good company. That is the magic mix, and it can truly be enormous fun. Why knock it? If there's one thing all of us need in this world, it's a bit of light relief..'

As usual I promoted that post on Twitter. But among the comments I received were two killjoy efforts which basically said, 'What about climate change?' The implication was obvious. Twitching is a high-carbon activity which impacts negatively upon our environment, so should I really be singing its praises? I am pretty sure that one of those comments was from Javier, the other from Norfolk birder Tim Allwood. I responded like many do when faced with something they don't much like. I ignored them.

But the point had been made, and got me thinking...

I'm not blind to the parlous state of the world but have zero confidence that mankind will fix it. However, I'm a relatively old bloke, and younger generations deserve a crack. They don't need us lot setting a rubbish example. So, okay, low-carbon birding then. I was willing to talk about it at least. It took a while, but cue 'The Elephant in the Room' about four months later.

And what was it that got me involved initially? A couple of mildly provocative tweets. I say 'mildly provocative', but others might say annoying, irritating, or worse. Tim is still at it on a regular basis, and I have seen him told on Twitter that he will 'never change people's behaviours by telling them off'', by someone who has 'studied campaigning theory professionally'. Well, presumably I am a rare exception to that rule.

Anyway, what exactly has prompted this post? This Twitter exchange, earlier today...

So, there's Tim getting in with a mildly provocative tweet once again, and a not untypical response. More often though I think it's fair to say Tim meets with silence. As in my case. But now there is an opportunity to engage. How does it go?

Like this...

I have never met Tim, and certainly don't know Josh. However, assuming what I glean from the internet is correct, Tim is a teacher, probably in his 40s (?? - hope I'm not doing him a disservice there) and Josh is a 22 year-old conservation student and president of Nottingham Trent University's Conservation Society. I think I get what Tim is doing - using whatever means he can to engage birders in the low-carbon birding discussion. And if being a bit in-your-face is what it takes, so be it. In this case his approach is 'moaning' and 'ruining other people's posts'. I have also seen it described as 'preaching'. Whatever you call it doesn't really matter. What matters is the nature of the response. And low-carbon birding appears to be something few are willing to talk about, fewer still to embrace. Doesn't bode well really, does it?

Also today I was skimming through a certain birder's Twitter page. It was exactly like so-o-o-o-o many others. In reverse chronological order the last two months went like this: Western Sandpiper, Pacific Golden Plover, Oriental Turtle Dove, Elegant Tern, Black-browed Albatross, Roller, Lesser Grey Shrike, River Warbler, Great Reed Warbler. That's some fair old mileage there. There was a bit of local birding too, but basically it was one long list of twitches. To be fair, if Twitter had existed 35 years ago my page would have looked quite similar to that, but in the mid-1980s we were less aware of the cumulative consequences of such activity, and less still the dire state of things globally.

I mentioned earlier that I have zero confidence in mankind's ability to fix things. The above illustrates why.


  1. I have read each of your posts on this subject Gav and have now formulated a considered repost.`

    People like Tim Allwood get on my tits. They have made life decisions such as to not wear a face mask, to dress in lycra and ride two abreast along country lanes or to decry every wasted mile made by fossil fuel. Each standpoint is all fine and dandy until they get natzi on everybody with an alternative view and berate them, piously, from a tall pedestal, just hoping for a chance to confront and preach.

    Call them out for what they are or just ignore them which really upsets them. If you are so inclined then take on board what they say and adjust your life accordingly I have. Oh yes, I was convinced that a different toothpaste was beneficial to me and the planet and tried it, but I didn't bang on about it to everybody each time I saw a flash of incisor.
    (Hyperbole but it makes my point)

    Driving and carbon footprints are a big deal, we all know that. But I have asked before, just how many twitchers are there and how many collective miles are notched up? Compare it to football supporters across the land and it will be all but insignificant so, maybe TA will take his objections to some of the fan based Twitter accounts?

    In my experience, fanatics and preachers come in many guises and they are all boring boring little people with narrow minds. Really Gav, you won't win any friends on this topic my friend, let it be and live your own life.

    Peace and love.

  2. One of the difficulties with this subject, I think, is where does one draw the line? I'm 61 and have been a low-carbon birder since long before that term was coined. This is mainly because I loathe flying and driving. Of course, I have twitched birds, but I would never drive to the other end of the country or fly to Shetland or whatever. However, I must admit I'm tempted by the black-browed albatross at Bempton. Not because I "need" it for my list but because I never expected to see an albatross and would very much like to. It's a two-and-a-half-hour drive from my home to Bempton. Should I really not be allowed to do that? The other thing that makes me uncomfortable is people who filled their boots twitching and world birding for years now seeking to deny young birders those same opportunities. Apologies for the long comment.


    1. This is a very interesting comment Malcolm.

      "The other thing that makes me uncomfortable is people who filled their boots twitching and world birding for years now seeking to deny young birders those same opportunities."

      I was listening to the World Service on Saturday morning (as I drove up to Snettisham as it happens...) and there was a program about China's carbon emissions. One of the points that came up was exactly this but on a grand scale. China takes the view that it should be allowed to reach the same point as The West in terms of development before seeking to reach net zero, and that they have to get through their [current] carbon-intensive period to achieve that before they level off, and thus lectures from the USA and others about what they should do are patently unfair and will essentially be ignored. China sees the problem - indeed saw it very clearly just recently, but will not be dictated to, or at least not at the present time. Of course the timescale that China has laid out is one that makes the Paris Agreement a total waste of time - it will be impossible to meet those targets.

      I also see most of Tim's posts as the 'fun police', but they do have the effect of making me stop and think quite frequently, which is precisely what he and others are aiming to do and they don't care how they do it. It is indeed possible that on some sub-conscious level that by being bombarded I don't go out as much as might otherwise. I have no idea. I've tried to set out my thoughts before now and end up going in circles simply as there are no easy answers - none - but one I keep returning to is how much of the "you should only bird locally" commentary comes from people who live by the coast or somewhere NICE. Of course this isn't a coincidence, and the counter-argument is that I should move. One day I will, but right now jobs and schools are more important than my spare time.

      I could continue typing for a good while, but I might instead transfer onto my own blog!

    2. PS It isn't that I disagree with the message, far from it, and indeed I did gulp a little when I read that list of rarities and realised that I had seen four of them, two this past weekend. But (and as demonstrated by some of the other commenters on here) I can also see how the delivery of the message can be rather off-putting, and therefore also counterproductive - more stick than carrot, what little praise there is for the good stuff seems to get hidden by vast amounts of criticism for the bad stuff. The argument is of course that it is far too late for softly softly and only hard-hitting stands any chance of success. Like others I am afraid I am not hopeful that we as a species can do this. Our family does all sorts of things to try and be better global citizens; ie we're largely vegetarian, we grow some of our own stuff in the space we have, lots of our clothes are home made or second hand, we don't drive to the shops, we got rid of one car a few years back, we cycle in London and use public transport locally, we swapped our energy provider, our use of central heating is very low, we don't mine bitcoin... the list goes on and on, but one gets the feeling that nothing other than complete abstinence and zen living is acceptable in some circles, and most people - us included - can't complete with that.

  3. Ive had to leave Tim to his own devices on Twitter, Gav. It was getting beyond irritating and Im not a Twitcher! Despite me having no kids, not eaten meat in 33 years, we buy organic and local most of the time, I use no chemicals on my garden, Ive only flown a few times in my life and my missus has never flown, I spend all year local patching mainly within 10 miles he would still have a go at a one off twitch. It does the exact opposite of engaging me. I want to say fuck it, I do enough to protect other peoples kids I'll do what I like! So I had to avoid those accounts. I am happy I am doing my share, but for sure, we are doomed. Graeme Lyons posted more eloquently by saying regardless of what we do, the real vision is one of exctinction and until it happens to humans we will continue to spin into oblivion.

  4. If I might be allowed? I would like to offer my own slant on this rather sorry state of affairs. As all the previous comments have inferred, the pious high ground assumed by the preaching teacher is of his own making. His opinions and decisions are purely an individual's birthright within our democracy. That he chooses to voice these opinions via whatever social networking platforms he frequents, then so be it. Each and every individual seeing this stuff has two choices, read it or don't read it! If your choice is to read what the guy has to say, there is still no compulsion to agree with him.
    Gavin says in this post that Tim is a teacher. No wonder he's on a mission. He spends his entire life telling people how it is? The one thing you aren't allowed to do is question their word; I should know as both my parents were school teachers, as are many acquaintances within the Kent birding community.
    I have so many fabulous memories of the eighteen years I spent, in like-minded company, twitching the county of Kent, occassionally further afield. To deny the current generation their chance to experience those similar highs and lows is about as selfish as I could be. My appreciation of our natural world has been enhanced, no end, by my holidaying around the Mediterranean and beyond. Again I wouldn't wish to deny others those similar encounters because I've chosen not to do such things myself. Climate change and extinction? The lure of the dollar will always overide any other issues until it's past the point of no return. Anyway they'll all be driving Teslas in a few years, so what's the problem?

  5. In just a few hours this post has received twice the visits that most NQS material gets ever. It has also generated a fair bit of reaction on Twitter, certainly more than I am used to. So, rather than do what I normally try to do (ie, reply to each comment individually) I'll save it for a brief follow-up post in a few days. In the meantime, I'd like to say many thanks to you all for taking the trouble to write a comment on here. It is gratifying to know that people read your stuff, and think about it too. Cheers all...

    1. One thing that is missing from this debate Gav, is variation. It's not a binary decision to travel or not, there are many alternatives to consider.

      I own two cars, one costs over £300 a year to tax because of the emissions, the other costs £30 and is barely more damaging to the environment than a squirrel's fart. The use of either must make a vast difference to TA'd debate, well, I assume so.

      Of course, none of this is going to make a jot of difference to planet Earth as long as billionaires continue to have the ultimate in dick measuring contests in order to be first to witness weightlessness for about 2 minutes.

  6. All,

    The first response is awesome and had me in stiches while I was watching the dowitcher earlier. However, I don't wear lycra, never have and never will. Not even in the bedroom. I do wear a mask and will as long as necessary. I never ride two abreast. And Natzi? Well, my dad fought them, but they were Nazis back then.

    To the more considered responses...
    I think the climate crisis is the only problem facing the natural world about which sensible people can end up advocating not doing anything.

    Birders have been great at asking for change in many areas, from dog walkers to grass verges. But looking at ourselves and our own actions, and being critical, is extremely hard to do. It's easy (but mistaken) to blame other things (other countries, overpopulation etc) or find reasons not to change (it's futile, my actions are unimportant, other people are worse) while we carry on as if our emissions are having no effect, but we also have agency and can instead do something positive. Nothing will change until people change. And that change is now happening. It might not be enough, it might be too late, but I'm going to give it proper go.

    Low-carbon birding - as has been said - isn't about being perfect, it's about making a reasonable effort given your own circumstances. Plenty of people are now doing just that, while some are doing the opposite with spurious justification. All the posters here (bar my mate Dave) are thoughtful people and have made positive changes. That's all it is.

    Let's try not to be fatalistic and instead let's help to leave a habitable planet for all those who come after we've gone.

    Thank you everyone for engaging. Even you Dave.

  7. Dave is correct. It's not a binary travel or sit at home situation. Think of it as your personal carbon budget - you use it how you see fit, but it's limited. The personal budget for Paris Agreement is about 5T per year and decreasing annually. About of fifth of that is for travel, but that's not much more than 3500 miles in an average car at 160g/mile. Of course, if a person sees it as useless to try, then that's moot. Still, pretty much everyone I've me who has said acting is pointless as we're doomed, doesn't hold that view when it comes to other environmental issues.

  8. Sorry for being a bit late to the party, but just a quick comment or two if I may. Overall, I agree fully with Gavin and think he presents a pretty measured account of the issue. l'm not sure I have much to say over and above what I already said in this blogpost of mine from a few weeks ago ( However, I must confess I feel increasingly depressed about this issue. For one thing, the premise of Low-carbon birding is, at face value, totally uncontroversial: i.e. that birders can and should explore ways of making birding and nature conservation more sustainable. That this proposition provokes so much resistance, handwringing, excuses and whataboutery is profoundly depressing. I also think it's pretty depressing that this conversation so often turns to whether or not Tim Allwood's approach on twitter is problematic or not. Personally, I admire Tim's doggedness. But even if it were the case that Tim's approach were troublesome in some way, it beggars belief that so many in the birding community get more angered about Tim's behaviour on twitter than they do about the conservation sector's weakness in the face of climate catastrophe and biodiversity loss. I think, for many, peoples' beef with Tim is not really *about* Tim per se. Rather, "Tim Allwood is mean on twitter" has become just one of a host of cliched rationalisations that birders resort to to avoid thinking critically about their and others' behaviour ("live and let live", "what about overpopulation?", "yes but what about big corporations?" are other such instances). As a community, rather than grasping the mettle and taking this shit seriously, we mostly resort to excuses, whataboutery and deflection (as some of the twitter responses to this article testify). I should say that I don't think I'm perfect when it comes to climate crisis/emissions etc., far from it, but at least I am willing to try to think seriously about the issues raised in Gavin's blog. From what I can gather, many perhaps most, other birders don't want to, and that's a desperately depressing state of affairs.

  9. Check out Pete Alfrey's take on it here, it is much more nuanced than riding a bike...

  10. Oh yeah,

    This guy:
    "Not a fan at all of some of the people behind the group 'Low Carbon Birding'- some of them nasty and bitter (jealous ex-travellers who are broke and broken I've heard from others)."

    And we're all capitalist lackeys too.

    Always about the people
    Always justifying business as usual while waiting for someone to overthrow the capitalist system.

    Again, like yesterday, I read those personal comments with extreme bemusement. For the record, I am rather solvent (looking at very early retirement soon) still kicking a ball and very much enjoying life by the sea.

    Such comments about others from grown men remind me of a rather unpleasant Bullingdon club toff attitude. Reducing our carbon footprints while we spread the message and hope for system change will have to suffice. Someone else can smash the system.

  11. To me, carbon emissions and global warming is a minor issue when compared to the millions of tons of micro plastic particles that have infiltrated our environment.
    As regards the global temperatures that have been recorded in the history of the planet, right now we are relatively freezing. That's 14c average today as against 12c in the last ice age. Forty seven million years ago the average global temperature was around 28c. When the dinosaurs got hit by that rock (10km dia) the average was 24c. This lasted millions of years so nothing new.
    Add that to the volcanic emissions of the Siberian Traps which lasted over one million years, I'd say our carbon footprint emissions of today are insignificant.
    Really, it doesn't matter unless you are a human expecting and relying on the extraordinary stable climatic conditions of the past 12 thousand years and the unearthly stable climatic conditions of the past 300 years.
    The climatic conditions of today are an geological aberration. Sod the politics and just go twitching. It won't make a dot of difference. Really, we've just had a good run and are now seeing reality.

    1. I did wonder if you were going to join the party? Always rely on you to add a twist to proceedings. Quite how accurate those statistics quoted are is, no doubt, up for discussion but they do offer a very different perspective to this current climate/carbon footprint debate.

  12. Dyl, the information was gleaned from the book that accompanied the BBC series Walking with Beasts.
    To say I was surprised is putting it mildly. I'll send you a copy.