I recently read a very entertaining and informative account of the construction of a small wooden building. No, really! Michael Pollan, now best known for his books about food (which I thoroughly recommend), wanted a hide-away — a writing retreat in his garden in which he could work, day dream, and feel connected to the world around him. Deciding it was the best way to really understand the act of building, he undertook most of the work himself, with the aid of an irascible local carpenter.
In the middle of the narrative, as he is describing the ‘topping out ceremony’ (a modern day echo of the ancient ritual where an evergreen sapling is nailed to the top of the newly complete frame, presumably to appease the trees felled in construction), the following bird conservation relevant quote leapt out at me:
“I remember, on that January morning when I took delivery of my fir timbers, how the sight of those fallen, forlorn timbers on the barn floor had unnerved me – ‘abashed’ was the word I’d used. In the battle between the loggers and the northern spotted owl, I’d always counted myself firmly on the side of the owls. But now that I wanted to build, here I was, quite prepared to sacrifice not only a couple of venerable fir trees in Oregon, but a political conviction as well.”
As I read this, I wondered what side I am on, and whether I am any more consistent than he was. For example, I count myself firmly on the side of cutting carbon emissions to try and mitigate against runaway dangerous climate change. I feel strongly enough about global warming to have taken part in a demonstration in London last December. But every year I get on an aircraft to go see family in America, putting over a ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. I continue to run a car, albeit a small one, and often use it to drive a number of miles purely to watch what I judge to be more interesting birds than the ones I can see locally — and this despite my preaching about how many wonderful birds can be found just in Reading!
I do make what I consider to be some positive choices — we are rather too sparing with the central heating in the winter, and try to put an extra layer on first. Between us we are fairly fastidious about recycling and reducing waste. I have locally grown vegetables delivered because I believe that represents a more sustainable way to feed ourselves than the complicated nationwide supermarket distribution system. But of course, I still use supermarkets for plenty of other things. I eat a much lower proportion of meat in my diet than is now normal in Britain, since I believe intensive livestock farming is bad for the environment in many ways. We’re working towards eating more ‘bits’ of the animals that we do eat. I don’t cook a lot of seafood, and not just because I never really liked it that much, but because I’m wary of what one ‘should’ and ‘should not’ eat. If I ever do, it tends to be something relatively sustainable like mackerel. I give a little money now and then to conservation causes, but nowhere near as much as I could probably afford to. But overall mine is a modern, western middle class existence, dependent on vast energy use and imported resources from all over the world — by definition not great for wildlife.
I got into a bit of a mess in my version of the now infamous ‘worm’ essay when I started talking about moral responsibility. But I think what I really meant was this: I can not claim to be what you might call a decent, consistent person, if I talk as though wildlife means everything to me, and act as though it means nothing. In addition, knowing the actions I have taken which will have harmed wildlife, I almost feel a duty to, if you like, ‘make reparations’ and give something back — if only because if nobody did, we’d have no wildlife left to feel guilty about.
I can acknowledge my own contradictions, as Michael Pollan did when he built his log hut — I am also aware I need to actually go and make some choices which meaningfully aid nature conservation. Otherwise my acknowledgement means nothing, and I should stop claiming to really care about birds. How I make those choices, and what I think conservation actually means, is something I will come back to another day.