Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Squandering energy and boasting about it

"Bridled" Common Murre
Common Murre, photographed from Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine in 2013. These seabirds are indeed suffering from a huge array of issues in the ocean, including climate change.

I just got a heartfelt if rather personal criticism from a KAXE listener in an email titled “Bragging about excessive, unnecessary travel harms birds.” Aaron wrote:
Hearing your show on 2/3/16 on KAXE in Grand Rapids MN, I was sickened to hear you boasting of all your jet traveling, just to add to your life list. You talk and write of doing one’s part to help, or at least not harm birds, on your website and radio shows, yet you choose to boast of very harmful behavioral choices.  
You have heard of climate change and how it's harmful to lots of bird species right? This winter in Alaska there are tens to hundreds of thousands of common murres washing up on shore dead; likely from a very warm region of the Pacific and the biological changes that came with the excessive heat. You must also realize that jets burn kerosene and massive volumes of it right? Your trip to Africa alone will emit more transportation based carbon pollution than most Americans will put on in a year of driving around living a normal, local life. 
I would have hoped that boasting of unnecessary pollution creation would have been something you'd put aside long ago. We need media icon birders like yourself to start questioning and criticizing the travel/ airline/ fossil fuel industry, not bragging of gluttonous usage.  
I was really saddened to hear this installment of your show, and hope that in the future if you can't find the rationale to not be a monstrous fossil fuel consumer/addict, that at least you'll have the common sense to not brag about it, thus encouraging others to do behave in the same harmful ways.  
The thing I asked myself 15 yrs ago when I was a travel/ airline industry sucker is "is this really necessary to support these industries that are very harmful to so many creatures worldwide, and increase my carbon footprint dramatically from where it is already as a wealthy (especially when considered globally) person, and is this the kind of behavior I want to boast of for ego kicks?" I've only been on a jet once since then and it was to be with my wife while she was working in Europe for two months. Life is as rich as ever, and we now see ourselves as cultural creatives, modeling an airline/ kerosene free lifestyle and encouraging others to stay grounded (literally). 
As Aaron points out, I can’t defend my energy usage. My speaking and writing about birds and photographing them are my only means of income, so like Aaron’s wife traveling to Europe for her work, I travel when my job calls for it, and  I provide free use of the many photographs I’ve taken on all my travels to all kinds of environmental and educational non-profits, which they use in publicizing disasters such as the deaths of those murres in Alaska.

The words "boasting" and “bragging” are loaded ones, but they make me feel defensive because Aaron is right: any time we step into a jet we are indeed contributing to climate change. Any time I type on my computer or switch on my digital recorder to record a radio program, I’m doing the same thing, and though not at the same order of magnitude, every bit hurts. Russ and I have spent the 35 years we’ve lived in Duluth trying very hard to shrink our carbon footprint in every way we can, but it’s always sobering to realize that no matter how hard we try, we can always do better.

I’m not going to apologize to Aaron—I don’t see his choice to travel to Europe to be with his wife, or her traveling there for work, as being somehow superior to my own reasons for travel. But he is right that I should be mindful of my energy use. I’m not sure how I can write and talk about the beautiful birds of this planet without sounding like I’m boasting when I get to see them. I guess all any of us can do is try our best.


  1. Laura:

    Sorry for the personal attack feel of my criticism. I'd like you to know that I have defended your show and what you do as an avian advocate in the past, when I've heard criticisms of your show that I felt weren't warranted. The installment I heard last Weds sounded like nothing more than excessive, unnecessary travel bragging, and I'm so tired of how the travel industry crazily drives up carbon footprints, and that people seem so oblivious of it. I guess I can understand your wanting to do a sponsored trip to Africa, but what the Ugandan govt is hoping for, and what you will be promoting, is another example of the travel industry turning otherwise rational people (like yourself), crazily irrational. If you consider climate change and carbon emissions the number one environmental issue (if you don't then disregard my considerations of course), then how would increasing the numbers of people jetting to Uganda for a wk or two, and looking at birds, and buying a few local crafts be good for the environment; where's the eco in that kind of tourism? It's a dated, flawed economic development plan that is already completely unsustainable. The main problem is choosing to fly great distances and burn massive amounts of kerosene (fossil fuel) and then bragging about and encouraging others to do the same.

    If you care to share how ship travel is worse than jetting I'd be curious? It seems like there's no getting past the basic physics of all that elevation gain and the high speeds involved in jetting.

    By being an "airline industry sucker" I simply mean that I used to save up my money and get on a jet a time or two/ yr, to make myself more worldly and well traveled. Those considerations of "worldliness and well traveled" may have had some validity 50 yrs ago, but I now see those ideas as hollow advertisements for massive fossil fuel consumption, and even shows a lack of global perspective or concern given climate change's worldwide biological chaos. As to my definition of wealthy, I'm speaking globally, since it is the globe's wealthiest 10% (people like us) that are responsible for the majority of the carbon pollution.

    Take care.

  2. Pretty ridiculous of Aaron to attack you like this in my opinion. You do so much great work for birds. The use of fossil fuels certainly has a major impact on our climate and is something we should be mindful of, but the consumption of meat and other animal products by far outweighs that--as a large portion of habitat destruction and methane in air is a result of animal agriculture. I encourage you to check out this documentary if you have yet to do so:

  3. Aaron and I exchanged some emails, but I ended it with this:

    Really, I'm mystified why your wife gets a pass for having a job that requires flying, and you get to fly to tag along, but you're judging me for my work. If my audience were limited to northern Minnesota, I could limit my programs to this. But my radio show is on stations from coast to coast, the audience for my podcast is international, and as someone with ties to several international non-profits that need to publicize the plight of the birds in areas other than northern Minnesota, it's my job to talk and write about, and photograph and make sound recordings, of birds from all over. And when you're talking about us wealthy Americans in relation to poor people the world over, remember how dismissive you're being about impoverished Ugandans who are desperately trying to make a living without destroying their forested and savanna habitats and wildlife.

    I don't want to deal with this exchange anymore. I work harder than most of the people I know, for far less compensation than anyone I know, have publicized to more people than you can imagine how harmful jet travel is, how harmful most boats are, how harmful driving is, how harmful eating meat (especially beef) is, and on and on. All we can do is to be mindful, to provide carbon offsets wherever we can, and to clean up our own act before we start judging other individuals. You don't know me--you do not know the many ways my husband and I have made our lives as energy efficient as possible--how we chose a house in town rather than the woods so he could walk or bike to work and our kids could walk or bike to our neighborhood school, and how much money we invested in making our old house energy efficient, and how we both chose careers back in the 70s that would promote environmentalism in every way. I cannot do this work as a hermit just to meet standards you don't expect your own wife to meet. Or do you think my job is somehow less important than hers, so has less justification for travel?

    Lang Elliott wrote, "Even if our earth ship is sinking (due to climate change, rampant development, etc.), it remains imperative that we retain our ability to touch the miracle, and to smile, laugh, embrace, and love without judgement. Otherwise, we will not be able to live happily and react to life’s challenges with sanity and forethought."

  4. I got a thoughtful letter from a friend--she sent it as an email, so I'll leave it unsigned. I feel cosmically sad and tarnished right now. She wrote:

    I have always supported FOR THE BIRDS. You have reached many people and have done so much good for birds and our understanding of them. Your enthusiasm for birds and their welfare has always been evident and all I can say is Thank You from Ken and I. We were able to listen to KUMD from where we live in Cook County and then to WTIP when your show appeared here in Cook County.

    In your programs there had always been trips to pursue birds and because we know so many birders and have closed our eyes to their “need” to travel, we simply felt, on balance, that we would ignore the traveling because of the benefit FOR THE BIRDS provided the public. We have always felt that chasing birds was not justified and that listing itself does more harm than good from an environmental perspective. But I personally like Bob J., Peder, Jan G. and a whole bunch of these traveling bird chasers. Everyone tries their best to be respectful of the environment and nobody, including us, ever gets it all right. I believe you when you say that you and Russ do try to live in ways that respect the environment.

    You do have an additional burden which goes with your position of respect in the public. You have used your position, from all my knowledge of you, in many very good ways. You educate through your public talks, books, teaching and radio show. Promoting the environmental protection that birds need and converting individuals into more knowledgeable and respectful people regarding good environmental practices is a very special achievement to be proud of.

    However, your “Conservation” Big Year really stood out as something not quite so good or admirable. Your reasoning that by visiting especially rare or endangered birds to highlight their plight was not at all convincing when all the traveling involved was not in any way serving conservation of the species. And to add further to that was the fact that you choose to make it a traditional Big Year count making the conservation claim ridiculous. The programs were often frustrating to listen to as you promoted and justified traveling North America and told us with great pride how many species you racked up on each trip and even pointed proudly at the miles you traveled. What happened to 100 ways to save the planet? What kind of example were you presenting to people who would become anxious to follow your example? It was so obviously a personal quest that it is no surprise that even some non-birders recognized it for what it was. So if it is OK for you then it’s OK for everyone?

    In your response to Aren (Erin?) you justified all the traveling because it was how you earned your living. Your earnings from your job of giving talks, field trips, publishing and other paid media must indeed be high to be able to afford all these trips. After the Big Year you continue to travel to even more distant places in the world and continued your programs which again centered often on the experience of the travel. I loved those earlier years when your shows were about birds, when your shows inspired everyone because of your infectious enthusiasm, when your grasp of ornithological information was a treasure of fascinating facts and when your shows were an example of how much joy one could find in the natural world of birds.

    Laura, we have a lot of respect for you. Please consider not continuing to endorse all this traveling because it really is not for the birds.