Thursday, May 7, 2015

A tender trap

The other day, Anne and I went to see a woodcock mating display grounds.  We, especially she, enjoy birding, and local groups conduct various well-informed bird walks.  It seems an innocent enough pleasure, a way to enjoy Nature as it is, rather than yet again watching it be desecrated by being plowed under so we can have another nearby Sam's Club.  But things are rarely so simple.

We were driving to the location of this woodcock watch, and it was getting dark.  We wanted to be sure we ended up at the right place.  Anne then noted that we were following several cars. "There are so many Priuses", she said, "so we must be going to the right place!"  Therein lies a tale of complexity.

"American Woodcock Scolopax minor" by guizmo_68, Wikimedia Commons

It would seem in every way to be a nice thing to do--go watch, hopefully unobtrusively, some interesting birds doing their thing.  And those who do that sort of thing are usually among the more environmentally conscious among us, hence their fuel-efficient vehicles.  But.....

But on this occasion there were about 20 cars, each with no more than two occupants.  To get to the woodcock ground we each had to take a roughly 20 mile round trip.  Since each Prius weighs 3000 lbs (and some of our vehicles were, sadly, not even Priuses!), that means over 6 billion foot-pounds of energy were required for this little expedition to occur.

What seems harmless enough, or even doing a good thing, in a very real sense reflects the fact that even the most eco-conscious among us haven't really got the picture.  The real message, if sustainability is the goal, or global resource equity, is simply to stay home.  There are plenty of videos on YouTube of woodcock leks, and after all staying home leaves the local ones alone to do their thing in the privacy of their own grounds.

The serious question here is how much one should sacrifice of accessible, available pleasures in life in respect for wider, longer-term goals.  One can make fun of the Prius crowd, perhaps rightly so. Yet, should we be expected to forego every pleasure in the name of sustainability?

After all, a bird walk is a far cry from the resource abuse most of the participants also are involved in. Most probably take flights every year, maybe to go on holiday in some far-away place, or to attend a 'necessary' professional meeting, or to visit relatives.  Of if we don't fly, we drive hundreds of miles for such reasons.  And every unnecessary local shopping trip uses up foot-pounds of non-renewable energy.

Where is one to draw an ethical line?  How wrong are right-wingers to say that we should do what we want and let our grandchildren and great-grandchildren deal with the hand they're dealt, just as we have had to adapt to our particular hand?  Is there harm in such little pleasures as a bird-walk, even if it's true that many people could have material improvements in their lives were the same resources redirected their way?

Life presents us with many moral dilemmas, large and small.


Anonymous said...

Great post. I'm just going to leave this here.

Ken Weiss said...

One could even ask whether, despite being lovers of Nature, we should just leave the birds alone. Do we really have justification for gawking at them, oohing! and aaahing! and adding them to our life-list? Or is even this benign kind of entertainment (and way to impress our friends), is a presumption of power. Moral dilemmas are rarely easy; but probably in the scope of things, this one is rather utterly trivial.