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Wednesday, May 24, 2006


A photo, a book review, and a some political philosophy

Pigeon Guillemot, photographed outside the Monterey Aquarium, Monterey, California

This picture doesn't have the "photographic" quality of the White-crowned Sparrow photo below -- composition not as interesting, wings a little blurred because I'm not good enough to turn off "Auto" mode and set the speed and F-stop manually. But it tells a story and leads into the rest of this post. The Pigeon Guillemots, seen in the inset sitting on a rock, aren't the flashiest birds in the world, although with the white patches on their wings and their very red feet contrasting with their coal-black bodies, they are hardly unattractive or even drab. They aren't common, at least in places where most people (including myself) frequent; indeed, these birds may have been "lifers" for me -- my first sighting of the bird (I actually don't think so, but since I don't keep records of these things, I can't be sure). But the reason I like this picture, and the experience of seeing these birds, has nothing to do with their appearance or their scarcity. It has to do with the way they, like many similar heavy-bodied seabirds, "run" across the water in order to take flight, leaving "footsteps" in their wake. It's a small thing, clearly, but one which never ceases to delight me.

Which brings me to the book review. Talk about serendipity. I actually stopped in a bike shop to look for a dog (don't ask!), and while there, wandered into a nearby garden/gift shop. And as such shops often do, scattered amongst the knickknacks were a variety of books on random topics, presumably ones which caught the fancy of the shop owner and which were presumed to catch the fancy of shoppers. And there, in the garden shop by the bike shop, I found How to Be a (Bad) Birdwatcher, by Simon Barnes, of all things the chief sportswriter for The Times on London, but also a writer on birds and other natural history subjects. And this short (only 220 5"x7" pages) book turned out to be a real find, a page-turner and certainly among the most readable and worthwhile books on birds or natural history I've ever read. I couldn't recommend it more highly.

And how does this relate to the picture above? Because the thesis of the book, encapsulated in the phrase "I don't go birdwatching. I am birdwatching," is that you don't have to be able to distinguish a Western Sandpiper from a Least Sandpiper, or a Cordilleran Flycatcher from an Olive-sided Flycatcher, in order to appreciate birds, or nature in general. You don't have to qualify as a "birdwatcher," or a "birder," and certainly not as a "twitcher" (someone who runs, drives, or even flies off at a moment's notice when a rare bird is sighted) to appreciate birds. You simply have to appreciate them -- the color, the sounds, or, as in the picture above, the motion (and the color).

The book does actually qualify as "Birdwatching 101," as, chapter by chapter, Barnes leads you on from that starting point, through the use of field guides, binoculars, and audio tapes. Then he moves on to natural history, and understanding the value of place (where birds congregate and why) and time (breeding, migration). But all of this is done in a conversational style quite unlike any other similar book I've ever seen. It's all intermingled with stories of Barnes' life, his relationship with his father, and so on. And, even while covering a wide range of topics and making the reader appreciate how one's appreciation for birds can be enhanced by greater understanding, he never strays far from his thesis that being simply a "bad" birdwatcher is plenty reward in and of itself.

Throughout the book, and one of the reasons I recommend it so highly, are general observations on natural history. Here's an example which bears directly (in my view) on the subject of "intelligent design," something I've written about before:

"One tentative count [of the number of species in the world], from the great scientist and thinker Edward O. Wilson, comes up with the number 1,032,000. Of these, only 4,000, including ourselves, are mammals, with another 10,000 or so birds and a further 28,000 other backboned animals. There are 12,000 different species of nematode worms. A cake diagram [I assume that's British for pie chart] shows that almost three-quarters of all living animal species are arthropods--that is to say, animals with jointed appendages and usually an external skeleton. Most of these are insects. That includes 98,000 flies, 112,000 butterflies and moths, and a whopping 290,000 beetles. That prodigious number gave rise to one of the most famous throwaway lines in the history of science. J.B.S. Haldane, another great scientist, was asked by his theological colleagues what, after a lifelong study of creatures, he could assume about their creator. He replied: 'An inordinate fondness for beetles.'"
From which Barnes segues into understanding our place in the world:
"Watching birds is one way of understanding this revolution in thought [evolution, which started with Charles Darwin's interest in those very same beetles]. Understanding that evolution is not a tree with a bottom, a middle, and a top, but a bush with a million twigs. Every twig is equally valid, equally important. Every different kind of bird we see is one of those twigs; every bird is another solution to the problem of life [surviving and reproducing]."
At the end of the book, Barnes turns to the environment, and conservation:
"Liking birds is not just a nice thing to do. To look at a bird and feel good about it is a violent revolutonary act. To put out peanuts is an act of insurrection. It is an act that demands a revolution in political thought, for it is quite obvious that conservation is far, far too low on the political agenda...The environment ought to be right at the top of the political agenda, because 100 percent of us live in it."
Which brings us finally to political philosophy. Whether the word "revolutionary" is used properly in the previous paragraph is certainly debatable. But here's what is clear (and becoming clearer by the day to more and more people): changes to the environment can be, if not irreversible, certainly not reversible in our lifetimes or the lifetimes of even hundreds of future generations (should such generations exist). If the people of Cuba were impoverished, and dying at a young age, or if Black people were enslaved in various countries around the world, or suffering under apartheid, a revolution or a civil war or similar event can actually turn things around in a short time on a human time scale. But when a species goes extinct, it will never return. When glaciers melt, if they don't melt forever, it will at least be tens or hundreds of thousands of years before they return.

So why, you may ask, am I a political (non-electoral, but definitely political) activist and not an environmental activist? Two reasons. First, politics--the host of issues I cover in this blog, like war, Cuba, Palestine, etc., as well as some that I don't, like abortion just to name one--is what interests me, and you really have to follow your gut on things like this. Activism is voluntary, and it's obvious that you will work the hardest on things that interest you. And second, I am convinced that, whatever the mediocre or even dismal environmental record of the Soviet Union and China, that at bottom it is capitalism and its insatiable desire for expansion and profit which is the ultimate threat to the environment (not to mention the very concrete damage to the environment caused by war which is itself by and large a product of imperialism). And so by working to replace capitalism with a system which is driven by the desire to satisfy human needs rather than by generating profit, I am also working on behalf of the environment.

But, you might say, "human needs" could be opposed to the needs of the environment. Which brings us back again to Barnes' book. Because Barnes does an excellent job of explaining the interconnectedness of humanity with nature, and, in so doing, demonstrating how "environmental needs" are "human needs." There may, naturally, be short-term conflicts where some particular human need does come up against what's good for the environment. But in the long-term, they must be in harmony. Survival of our own species, if not the planet, depends on it.

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