Barn Swallows and the Tyranny of Small Decisions

Animals Biodiversity Vision

Here’s an e-mail and the survey we sent out on November 17, 2019.  Many thanks to the 30+ people who sent us their thoughtful and varied replies!

Dear Friends –

I would be most interested in hearing your thoughts about our small decisions that may lead to disastrous unintended consequences.  Please see our survey, below. But first, a bit of background.

Barn Swallows, birds who eat insects as they scurry across the sky, are disappearing.  This isn’t surprising, I suppose, given that they are among the 2.9 billion birds lost across species in the United States – representing one third of the bird numbers we had 50 years ago.  What did surprise me is how we got here, according to an intriguing explanation from a leading economist, Alfred E. Kahn.

In 1966 he wrote an essay, “The Tyranny of Small Decisions.”  He observed that millions of small decisions, many of which were beneficial to individuals and groups and seemed like a good idea at the time, ended in catastrophic large collective decisions over one or more generations.  Those large decisions might not have been made had those people involved been able to see the long-term effects – but how could they have possibly anticipated such outcomes?

Global warming is an extreme example.  From deciding to plow and begin the destruction of soils 10,000 years ago, one farmer at a time, to post-industrial decisions about how and where to build houses, or by what means to travel hither and yon, or with which combustibles to fuel our fires – all these countless decisions over centuries and millennia have led to a seemingly collaborative “decision” that may end life as we know it.  Had they known these outcomes at the outset, or at any point along the way, would our ancestors have behaved differently? Will we behave any differently?
Oh irony of ironies in Dr. Kahn’s work!  Here’s what Wikipedia says about his adventures in deregulation:

Alfred Edward Kahn (October 17, 1917 – December 27, 2010) was an American professor, an expert in regulation and deregulation, and [emphasis mine] an important influence in the deregulation of the airline and energy industries. Commonly known as the “Father of Airline Deregulation,” he chaired the Civil Aeronautics Board during the period when it ended its regulation of the airline industry, paving the way for low-cost airlines, from People Express to Southwest Airlines.

Now that the path to low-cost airlines was duly paved, this, among many economic “successes,” have become prominent vectors of global pollution and habitat destruction.  Kahn, long though he lived, may not have been able to come to grips with his own short time horizons. Of course, we all have mostly short time horizons, given a human lifespan.  We are all constantly making little decisions: how could we not?

Back to the barn swallows, for whom habitat destruction is dire.

Barn Swallows, one of our precious aerial insectivores, are in trouble – including those in Hadley, Massachusetts, the largest known colony in the state.  Their downward population trend is tracking along with the accelerated disappearance of insects and habitats, and growing climate chaos.

The name of an activist group, S.O.S. (Save Our Swallows), could also serve as shorthand for Save Our Selves.  We know such non-human species population declines signal the collapse of ecosystems that are the life support for many species, including our own.
Even seemingly isolated pockets of species require our every protection, because the whole system in the northeast and around the world is collapsing.  We can do well only by saving the ecological network to which we are connected.  Populations of every species and every decision made that impacts them count.

I’d love to hear your thoughts about the Barn Swallows, the march of our endless unknowing and unintentional “tyrannical” decisions, and most importantly how today we might proceed differently, across a horizon that leads to a regenerative, biodiverse and bountiful future.
We can turn this runaway train around. You can help us figure it out. Please answer our short survey, and with your permission we’ll publish your responses on our website.

Many thanks!


P.S.: A 6-minute video about Barn Swallows and bird population decline is here.

Thanks to SOS activists in Western Mass for their dedication, and to Bio4Climate board member Sharon McGregor for her passionate dissemination of essential information.
And here are your comments:

What might you personally do differently to lead to positive long-term decisions?

  • Be more thoughtful about the consequences of each purchase I make.
  • Make decisions and take action based only on what is sustainable. See below for definition of “sustainable.”
  • Study the immediate problem a little longer
  • Stop flying in airplanes; start growing some of my own food (I have enough land to try); eat less meat; lower my thermostat; move to living in community (which is healthier emotionally and spiritually for me in any case); plant more trees on stolen land that was recently deforested by 100 mph straight line winds that my family “owns.” The Menominee Nation and other First Nations were living on this land for thousands of years before my family. The unprecedented storm was probably related to our climate crisis. 450 square miles of Wisconsin forest was impacted this past summer. These are a few choices.
  • Encourage rural and urban neighborhoods to return lawns to pre-colonial ecosystem design. That is impacting a minimum of 40 million acres using the conservative figures
  • I don’t know.
  • Reduce consumption in all manners
  • Keep writing articles about carbon sequestration and regenerative farming.
  • End use of fossil fuels, stop eating meat from CAFOs, reduce overall consumption of goods, compost at home, end unnecessary air travel and pleasure cruising, vote for the politicians who support your views.
  • Create suitable habitat and encourage insect growth
  • Education
  • My head has been in systems thinking, resource planning, societal change most of my life. I now do tai chi and homesteading.
  • Increased support of biodiversity with environmental groups, media, etc.
  • Just started a web magazine to inform about supporting the development of the next generation of earth stewards.
  • Use less pesticides
  • I have no idea
  • Install heat pump, if I had fun the money. Community solar if there was interest.
  • I’m in the midst of transitioning to working full-time on farm research to develop Intensive Silvopasture (ISP) for temperate regions, which I learned during my Master’s thesis work has the potential to be one of the most effective forms of carbon sequestration (perhaps topping the list of practices in Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown). Intensive Silvopasture combines trees, woody shrubs, pasture and livestock into a system that dramatically increases soil carbon, biodiversity, and livestock health. My hope is that this work will be the most effective thing I can do to lead to reversing climate change.
  • Listen deeply to diverse viewpoints, especially those with extensive knowledge in different topics – eg ecology, history, art (very broad terms just to give an idea).
  • I think that one needs to be well informed/educated but one also needs to change one’s outlook from “what is affecting me, what do I need” to “what does the world need in order to avoid catastrophic events”.
  • I am replacing my oil furnace with air source heat pumps.
  • I will aim to bring up the topic of biodiversity and its importance in everyday conversation, and to propose small group actions to increase the abundance and diversity of native species in and around the place/town where I live.
  • drive less and consume less
  • Work by example even when it is not popular or understood
  • Work to convince others not to avoid distressing news and help them face what’s happening
  • I am trying to turn all my grass areas into wildflowers for the birds and the butterflies and the insects.
  • Go off-grid earlier in my life.
  • Learn to more effectively communicate the urgency and criticality of both the biodiversity and climate issues.
  • think like an indigenous : what effect will this have seven generations from now ?
  • continue to educate more and more about solving climate through soil.
  • Raise awareness about the decline and ways we can help; leave some lawn areas unmown; encourage neighbors not to use chemicals on their lawns and gardens.
  • Encourage planting of deep-rooted plants in my area.
  • xxxxxxxxxxxx

What groups or individuals might you try to influence along these lines?

  • Children and grandchildren.
  • Farmers, corporations, consumers, you know, basically everybody!
  • school teachers
  • Elected officials, candidates, utility companies, neighbors, family (chosen and biological), faith communities (my own and others).
  • Faith communities, conservationists, environmental justice groups
  • People who take my classes, or hear my songs, or read what I write, or otherwise interact with me.
  • Neighbors, associates, & customers
  • Our Government and our science institutions who all seem to be influenced (and funded) by the big chemical fertiliser companies here in NZ
  • Family, friends, neighbors, local politicians
  • Neighbours
  • My local network of friends / acquaintances
  • Have farmed for 15 years to model for that community and my grass finished beef markets. We are moving and I plan to approach the Northampton Ag Commission to nudge toward building soil not just protecting all farms.
  • Bioneers, Baker Creek,Green America, Soil Health Academy, Chico State, Kiss the Ground, Planetary Care, UN 17 SDG’s
  • Any group around the world involved in supporting the development of children and youth as earth stewards.
  • The agriculture sector
  • Group like biofirclimate
  • School food service: less disposables, we up composting system.
  • Hoping to involve permaculturists, farmers, ranchers, environmentalists in this work, so they can work on developing Intensive Silvopasture in their regions of the country or world.
  • Business school students, Board of Directors of publicly listed companies
  • politicians and everyone in one’s social and work network.
  • Neighbors, friends, family.
  • The people within my power of influence… friends, family, neighbors.
  • mostly my local community by setting an example
  • Everyone who walks or drives by my property
  • Everyone. I am working with students and professionals, citizens.
  • Other barn owners
  • family/neighbors
  • The young, & the farmers just beginning to go after ‘the bottom line’!
  • The general public. Too many people I know are aware of (at least) the climate issue, but are doing little or nothing to change their consumptive life style. Then, or course, there are the deniers. It’s too late to expect the policymakers to make the serious changes necessary.
  • we can ask how decreasing the human population might help preserve resources and possibly reduce fear, and lead to more balanced decision making. also, does the type of medicine influence the quality of mental health, such as increasing or decreasing selfishness or avarice?
  • academic, farmers, policy makers, cities, consumers
  • Neighbors; congregation; friends and family
  • Gardeners’ groups, Sustainable Arlington Quaker Earthcare Witness (national)
  • You do a great job of providing information.
  • I’m putting together a short talk on “sustainable” behavior and life style and would like to present it to different groups. If you have a list or an in , with groups, I could use the introduction.
  • try to devise a curriculumI need to spend time online with the many wonderful conferences that you’ve had. I attended the first one only. Continuing to educate myself on the paths that could lead to a vibrant, biodiverse future for all life on Earth is important. I need to be able to talk clearly about what I understand to help others think in new ways too. You can help provide templates for conversations that have the potential to move hearts and minds.Serve as “climate coaches”. Provide scientific information(including soil science) on the impact of mass reforestation and ecosystem restoration. Just as meteorologists are documenting our demise, provide us with the “math of hope” in climate reversal. Share documentation on how quickly ecosystems can be repaired when approached massively.
  • Some of the lectures are interesting.
  • Provide easy to access information on all social media platformsKeep stressing that ‘biodiversity’ includes everything, what we can see and other things like soil life. Chemical fertilisers, pesticides and insecticides are all killing aspects of our biodiversity, and in your case leaving the insectivorous birds short of food.
  • Continue to publish and promote science based solutions, publish and highlight examples of successful livable climate initiatives and actions
  • Create a movement and educate to help Mother Earth
  • Educate people.
  • I need a better 3 minute presentation – (biodiversity and soil, benefits to farmer and town, Natural Capital valuation)
  • Support sustaining life on planet, carbon sequestration, prevent 6th extiction
  • Tell others about the Tomorrow’s Earth Stewards website ( ) and consult when Bio4Climate expertise is needed
  • Spread the word so that people understand that there is a problem and what the cause is.
  • Make more visible the fate of the barn swallow and likely implications—for the swallows, for other birds, and for the ecosystem of which they are a part
  • Develop sample best practices for public school food service vice.
  • Gee, I don’t know. Our aims certainly align — I’d love to work together somehow…
  • Bring those groups/individuals to experiences that help them see the interconnectedness of all life?
  • continue educating people about the environmental consequences of human behavior and offer examples of better behaviors and offer reasons to hope that people can make a difference. The example of the Barn Swallow seems a good one. People are generally not very connected with the natural world around them and many people, unfortunately, are not very well educated in the sciences so that they might understand or appreciate the importance of various environmental issues. Connecting people with concrete examples of how different kinds of environmental degradation could affect their or their children’s lives might be very constructive.
  • Help lobby for new and old buildings, homes to become fossil free.
  • It helps simply to have been asked to reflect on these questions and to put my answers in writing.
  • by keeping me educated and sharing some positive thoughts on the environment
  • As a small organic farmer and beekeeper I see it first hand how everything works together
  • Reach out to garden clubs, write letters to newspapers in parts of the country where people are over-influenced by Fox News, communicate to ordinary citizens. Help people understand that the many small decisions also mount up in positive ways.
  • By continuing your voice and perhaps finding a way to make it more prominent.
  • Educate, spread the word, recruit.
  • Bio4Climate is doing everything in its power to provide the scientific basis for combating these crises. Because of our staff size and limited budget, however, our reports are not making it out to a larger audience. I also think that, with a larger staff, and teaming partners, we could extend our findings to hands-on eco-restoration projects.
  • Biodiversity can continue to bring the thoughts and ideas it has always done to people to help us to ask deeper questions on how our behavior effects others and the environment.
  • Continue your broad-based, systems-wide approach and networking
  • Sample paragraphs that could easily be shared with town and city governments.
  • Continue to plan lectures that feed our minds.

Please add any additional comments.

  • We need a very concentrated effort to stop the application of toxic chemicals to our soils and homes. I believe these are what are killing the birds, as well as the insects. People need to understand this and stop the crimes against nature.
  • After much study and thinking I’ve concluded that what is “Sustainable,” is: only decisions and actions that maintain or enhance the basic ecosystem processes as defined by Alan Savory: Water Cycle — Mineral Cycle — Community Dynamics — Energy Flow. Any and all other decisions/actions degrade our planet and environment; sustainable decisions/actions definitely prioritize Planet, People, Profits.
  • This is a multi level issue, and should be approached from many angles
  • I am grateful for all that you have already done and continue to do! Very grateful. Thank you!
  • There are some steps that should be taken. US should rejoin the international climate accords.
  • I will vote next November. I will sometimes raise the subject of the current mass extinction. I will try not to be personally wasteful.
  • But I see my ability to affect the course of events as limited.
  • Here is my recent poem on extinction of one of our bird species:

By Sue Edmonds

The Maori called us kakapo
Loved by all and trying to stay
Big parrot though we never fly
We are nearly gone away.Once we walked the entire land
And could build our nests on ground
Then the dreaded pests arrived
And all our nests were found.Banished to off-shore islands now
Where pests we hope there are no more
Each of us has been given a name
We number one two four.We feed on leaves of native plants
And sleep all day and walk at night
We still can climb to find our eats
Although we don’t have gift of flight.Our wings are used as parachutes.
To sail down when we’ve climbed up high.
Our faces have moustachios
But beaks are curved and parrot likeWe’re loners day and night for aye
We grow for years before we breed
But we can live for nine decades
Breeding only when good feed.
We’re noisy males at mating times
Climbing rocks, inflating chests
Our ‘booms’ can then be heard for miles
And ‘chings’ pinpoint our GPS.
Our females solo mothers are
To hatch their eggs and feed their babes.
We males go back to solo lives
And booming’s silenced in the glades.
‘Twas man who brought the pests with him
That bred and spread to country cover
Cats, rats are everywhere these days
Our life on mainland isles is over.
Man’s trying hard to keep us here
Still likely we shall fade entirely.
Remember us as somewhat weird
We did no harm, aged gracefully.

  • Regenerative agriculture is a compelling paradigm. Need something comparable for the seas.
  • Do you have a traveling presentation for schools k-12, libraries, religious groups? I think it would be easy to book.
  • Sustainable biodiversity foundation for sustainable life on planet
  • Bio4Climate is THE most important professional support group in my life and work right now!
  • I use to see a lot of swallows even in big towns when I was little but yes, they are rare these days.
  • Critical cause
  • Great essay on the barn swallows! I worked at a farm education center where they were actively discouraging barn swallows from nesting in the big old barns on site to keep them from pooping in order to maintain state funding (there were short-sighted sanitary concerns). I wouldn’t be surprised if this barn had as many nesting pairs as the Hadley barn. It broke my heart that no one understood their value, no matter how much I tried to explain. I wish I had had this video to show them then… Excellent video.
  • Thank you for asking. I really like the approach you all take – far from the overly messaged corporate initiatives, very reality based. Thank you.
  • Thank you for your work!
  • It is not just barn swallows – tree swallows used to nest in my bluebird boxes, not any more.
  • For too long we have given lip service to the First World problem of overconsumption and the Third World problem of overpopulation. We can’t sugar coat these issues any more. Although technological solutions may be helpful, they have not been proven on a massive scale, and will arrive too late even if effective. Only an all-out effort to do regenerative agriculture and restore our wetlands, waterways, forests, marshes, mangroves, and other vital resources will attenuate the worst effects expected.
  • more wildlife please. our ancestors talked about the number of people in the tribe and resources available. do we have enough to bring in one more tribe member? will we be able to support another human being? we cannot answer this question with a yes right now in history.
  • It’s easy to say the mobility is a very big benefit with no recourse to “science”. To put any kind of a certainty on the cost of climate change requires science and quantum mechanics, and most people do not have the patience for it. This frustrates me to no end. Dr. Hansen and others can write explanations about it (CO2 being a thermostat) for other scientists and the occasional big shot who shows an interest, but this fact needs to be broadcast like a public service announcement (psa) for everyone to hear and understand. That should be our mission. To move on to all the other issues, like what to do about it, makes most people shut down and resent the impending loss of freedoms.
  • Have you read The Barbaric Heart by Curtis White? His premise that environmentalism has defeated itself by ignoring the barbaric aspects of human nature is well expressed, and I agree that all bark and no bite fails. There must be ways to put some teeth into an effort to punish those who remain stubbornly ignorant, albeit after an extended psa campaign. A group could pools monies to place bets against fossil fuel equities (and their bankers), i.e. makes money by shorting fossil fuels. The monies made could be spent on developing a provisioning economy that does not carelessly burn fossil fuels and strives ardently not to.
  • I would like to discuss my comments, but not with the general public right now. I welcome criticism, and I will offer mine on Thomas Kuhn and paradigm shifts. To turn the progress of science into anything more complicated than that seems counter-productive. Getting closer to the truth can be described as a paradigm shift, but why? Good science is exactly that and enough said. I only recently learned about the Science Wars in the 1990s, and if post-modern philosophy is faced off against actual science, I choose the science, and I think we all should, and we should do it asap. Why mislead and further polarize with buzzwords and the complexly incomprehensible?
  • A love for the biosphere is critical, and I don’t know how to teach that except to encourage to everyone, especially the young, to stay out in nature as much as possible. The Barn Swallows project looks great.
  • On Alfred Kahn and deregulation, I am reminded of Robert Bork and The Antitrust Paradox where he suggested that huge corporations are great as long as the consumer benefits. This idea of “consumer welfare” has become doctrine, and I think my friend would agree with Bork, unless the quantum physics can somehow be taught to him. The irony of putting mobility and empty unheated space, and unseen lights, and all sorts of frivolous economic activities (and websites? and cryptocurrencies and stubborn refusal to collect solar heat) above a livable climate astounds me. To quote Greta “How dare we?”

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