Flying for the Environment, One Last Time

Announcement: This blog will now not be actively updated anymore. We hope you enjoyed the writings on this page over the past months and years!

However, if you do have any interesting further thoughts on the ethics of conference air travel — or, of course, in line with the focus of this blog: on any other green/future/ethics-oriented topic — that you would like to see go live on this blog, feel free to send them our way and we will consider it.

On a final note, let us remark that there is not too much writing on the ethics of (conference) air travel. But we thought, we’d mention that it appears in Anthony Weston’s “Mobilizing the Green Imagination” on p. 58/9 (thanks to William Grove-Fanning for the pointer). It also gets a small mention in the opening paragraph of an editorial by Clive Spash in Environmental Values. Philip Cafaro has written a whole paper on “Reducing consumption to avert catastrophic global climate change: The case of aviation“. 
P.S.: There’s also a Twitter profile called “Stop Flying” for frequent critical updates on air travel.

Flying for the Environment, Again

On this blog, we have examined the question whether green folks & philosophers should refrain from flying to conferences (see for example here).

Some time ago, Ian Christie (University of Surrey) responded to our request and sent in some personal thoughts on the topic:

This is a tough issue for environmentally aware and responsible scholars. I made the commitment to give up flights for holidays back in 1999, and have not gone back on it. For work, I made the same decision in 2000 on the way back to London from a two-day trip to a conference in New York – I was dismayed to reflect on the ratio of GHG emissions to achievements for the event. I had to take a last-minute flight – to Berlin – in 2004; other than that, I’ve kept to the commitment.
The problems it poses are large. For one thing, my holiday travels are more expensive and more restricted, as I use trains and ships and stay within Europe. For another, my academic career is constrained quite considerably. And finally, the commitment – as part of an effort to ‘walk the talk ‘ and reduce my eco-footprint – receives little or no social approval and encouragement. I also see almost no peer support even from environmentalists: I know hardly any who have given up flying for work, though I do come across some who have stopped all holiday flights.
I would break my personal pledge for two reasons: first, to visit a friend or relative in need ; and second, to do some work in a distant place that I felt was so valuable as to justify the flight, which I would also offset. But I don’t see that my giving a conference paper in person is work of such value as to justify a flight. Maybe giving policy advice to a committed government or business or community would be.
At all events, I think any academic committed to sustainable development must make some personal stand that demonstrates the possibility of living more lightly and responsibly on the Earth. And since flights have a large impact, they must come into question unless they can be argued to be a small price to pay for a greater good.

Zen and the Art of Airplane Travel

At some point, we were collecting statements from environmental philosophers on whether they are willing to fly or not. A perceptive and stimulating statement comes from Lucy Weir:

Using any kind of energy other than that derived directly from a simple vegan diet to propel ourselves from place to place might be an ideal position. But I’m interested in showing that there are serious problems with ideals, with ideologies, and in particular, with imposing ideologies on others. Therefore I have to conclude that I cannot advise others on a right or wrong way to live and that includes no right and wrong in the context even of deeply damaging activities, like flying in aeroplanes propelled by fossil fuels.

What would an ecologically aware Zen practitioner do?

There are no guidelines in Zen. But there is the constant demand to pay attention, to wake up to what is going on, to a reality that is evident, observable, when the attention is kept focussed on each moment. The practice of seeing oneself see opens one to the full implications of the impact of ones actions. And yet one may not always be able to avoid causing suffering. This is the tragedy. We may still, even without principles, be bound to a course of action that condemns us to exacerbate harm, right until the end. Yet we can only respond from the particular set of circumstances, from the context. And if raising the question causes more of us to shift uneasily in our aeroplane seats, or to forego the joyous whoosh of take off, then perhaps the loosening of our attachment even to this wonderful luxury can be brought into focus.

There is no perfect relationship with the world. The relationship with the world that we would have if we were to hope to live more in accordance with natural laws would demand so much of us that we would have to give up every luxury, everything but the most simple materials to meet our needs, even challenging our natural drive to procreate. But there is no perfect relationship. There is only the work to see ourselves as impartially as possible, as impermanent connections that unfold into one another. We inevitably create suffering. We can, however, see ourselves seeing what is going on, both in our relationships with ourselves, in our relationships with other humans, and even in how we relate to the non-human, living and non-living, systems within which we’re embedded. We cannot expect perfection from ourselves and setting ourselves up with idealistic expectations causes ever more rigidity in our reactions which is entirely counter productive. But we can be compassionately aware of that suffering, and even when we fail to relieve it, we can use that failure as an opportunity to observe, impartially, to forgive, and reflect on what could happen differently. When we succeed, to relieve suffering, that is enlightenment.

Would I willingly fly to conferences? I want not to want to. I watch my moment by moment response and I feel wry relief when the possibility is closed to me, through poverty. When I can afford to travel at all, I consciously seek out alternatives to flying, and if I can, I take them. However, like wine, I find the rush of take-off utterly seductive and I regret that I can’t indulge myself more often. In spite of the stark sterility of airports, the heart-thumping anxiety of security checks and final calls, the sheer exotic pleasure of being whisked from one time zone to another is thrilling. I would fly unwillingly, then, feeling the huge weight of what suffering that action supports. But I’d probably find myself smiling as the plane lifts off.

Flying for the Environment

On this blog, we have examined the question whether green folks & philosophers should refrain from flying to conferences (see for example here).

Some time ago, Dr. Rupert Read wrote a very perceptive piece for the Philosopher’s Magazine (4th issue of 2010)  which we repost in full below.

Can one justify, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, flying to conferences on environmental philosophy?

First, let me make clear that the issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to help stop dangerous climate change, is of secondary importance. The primary issue is political: collective action is what is really needed if we are to do enough to stop manmade climate change. If I choose not to fly,  the actual positive impact on the climate resulting from my decision may be less than small: it may even be zero (if it sends a tiny price signal, by reducing demand for fuel, that others then burn up more readily because it is slightly cheaper than it would otherwise have been). Whereas, if I get involved in a successful collective effort to rein in emissions (e.g. a successful international climate treaty), that effort will have a very large impact, a guaranteed impact that cannot be bypassed by others’ short-term self-interested economic behaviour.

The issue of whether or not one takes individual actions, such as not flying, to ‘do one’s bit’ to stop dangerous climate change, is then of secondary importance; but secondary importance is still a kind of importance. Furthermore, as an environmentally-minded philosopher, one needs to take a lead.   Just as it was nauseating and self-defeating to see the world’s leaders flying into Copenhagen last December, so the credibility of environmental philosophers is just inevitably somewhat tarnished if they turn up to their conferences by air.

Which brings us back, and now directly, to the question that prompts this article: To fly, or not to fly?

One starting point for me, in relation to this difficult question, is to recall the Latin phrase Primum non nocere, “First, do no harm”, associated with the Hippocratic Oath. This dictum, as well as the moral prescriptions behind it, is taught to many doctors in medical school. The injunction of course does not bar them from (say) doing surgery.  It certainly does bar them from doing unnecessary surgery. The thing that environmental philosophers need to ask themselves, if they are serious about fighting the war on dangerous climate change, is this: Is your journey really necessary?

There is a tremendous risk of self-deception here. It is so easy for human beings to think that what they are doing is very important, more so than what others are doing.  One needs to ask oneself whether one can really be an environmental leader, and a morally self-respecting person, if one sends enough CO2 into the atmosphere to potentially injure or kill a present or future person. I am thinking here of the ground-breaking study by Craig Simmons et al laid out in the early chapters of The Zed Book, a study which should be much better-known than it is. It indicates that for every person currently living a high-carbon lifestyle, including flights etc, on average about 10 future people will suffer from manmade ‘natural’ disasters.

Environmental philosophy might change the world. The choices we as a civilization make really could depend on what wisdom we manage to achieve about ourselves and our place in the world.  Does the end justify the means? Well, it certainly doesn’t if there is virtually no prospect of wisdom being achieved.

So those of us contemplating jetting off to a philosophy conference abroad really do need to ask ourselves how much good we would really be doing by going, and whether we can justify the harm that we are certainly responsible for if we go.

I do not say any of this lightly. I love conferences.  I can’t do my job as a philosopher properly without going to some, even occasionally by air, although not as many and not as often as in the past.  Conferences on climate and the environment could be of huge importance to our dwindling chances of saving ourselves as a civilisation. What’s needed is wisdom, and if philosophers lack the wisdom to help sustain our civilisation, then who has it?

But it does seem to me an extraordinary sign of the level of denial in relation to the climate crisis that hardly anyone seems to take the question of flying to conferences seriously

Let me give some examples. A few years ago, I said to the organisers of a conference in Florida on ‘Climate Philosophy’ that I wasn’t willing to fly to it. I hoped that we could organise my ‘giving’ my talk there via video-conference. They couldn’t manage this.  To their credit, they did set up an audio-link for me to take questions, after someone else read my paper out.

This summer I have had a more discouraging experience. A Scandinavian environmental philosophy event later this year, ‘Climate Existence,’ was not even willing to consider my attending by remote means. It is depressing, when the organisers of a conference designed to look explicitly at how to stop ourselves climatically obliterating ourselves is not willing to consider how to minimise its own destructive impacts.

On the plus side, I will (I hope) soon be ‘attending’ by video-conferencing facilities a conference in Australia on ‘Changing the climate: Utopia, dystopia and catastrophe’.

The most surprising experience I had recently was arranging my attendance this autumn at an EU event in Brussels on intellectual perspectives on biodiversity.  The travel form assumed that I would be coming by plane! Of course, I am planning to go to that event by Eurostar. (If one can conveniently go to an environmental philosophy conference by train, then there is no excuse for plane-ing it.) What hope is there, if the organisers of an event on biodiversity – massively threatened by rising, dangerous emissions – do not even consider the possibility that international participants will come by means other than plane?

There is hope. Through technologies such as Skype and Oovoo, more and more people are getting used to video-conferencing as an effective way of interacting. I am hopeful that within a few years conference-organisers will be thinking of this, and it won’t be an awkward bolt from the blue when I say to them that I am keen to be there but preferably in electronic form.

To sum up, then. There are, of course, real losses if one chooses not to attend international conferences. Even if one does attend an event by means of new technology, there is no way of recreating by videoconference the feel, the informality, the networking opportunities that come from people being together in a place. As Jeremy Rifkin argues in his recent book, The Empathic Civilisation, the unprecedented dilemma that we face as a civilisation is how to expand our mutual empathy and concern, while reducing our entropic and environmentally-catastrophic impacts.

But certainly I think at least this: If philosophers do not ask themselves whether they can justify travelling to conferences by air, then who will?

My purpose in writing this piece would be served, if each reader were to ask themselves seriously the various questions that I have raised in the course of it. I close by briefly indicating the way that I try to answer them.

Aware of the above-mentioned tendency to self-deception, I endeavour to ask myself whether the benefit – I mean, a foreseen benefit in terms of philosophical advancement that may itself help people — for me and others of my attending a given conference by air are worth the down-side of the possible negative effect on future people of my doing so. I perform, in other words, a crude and rather imprecise utilitarian calculation, using the study by Simmons et al as an aide-memoire for the reality of the stakes. As noted above, the result of this is that I have drastically reduced my flying. Rather than being a habit and a norm, it has become a rare exception.

Dr. Rupert Read is Reader in the UEA School of Philosophy, Chair of the Green House thinktank, and Green Party Politican.

2014 Yaounde Seminar on Theories of Justice – Call for Papers

The Chaire Hoover of the Catholic University of Louvain and the Catholic University of Central Africa are organizing the Yaounde Seminar on Theories of Justice between 18 and 24 August 2014.

This international,  interdisciplinary and bilingual seminar is addressed to PhD students, MA students in their second year of study, as well as professionals from various fields and representatives of civil society interested in theoretical and practical issues of justice. At the end of the seminar, participants are invited to discover Cameroun on a touristic weekend.

Contributions are expected by 31.03.2014.

For details about the invited participants, application process, fees and venue, please check the website of the Catholic University of Louvain la Neuve:



Hotel Industry and Environmental Ethics


By Sam Marquit*


 Travelers are seeing a revolution these days. The green movement has officially gone worldwide. Hotels in the industry are changing their practices as well as what they buy. They are all trying to achieve the much-coveted LEED certificationThe increase in environmental ethics is a refreshing and welcome change.

One city in particular at the forefront of this environmental ethics movement is actually Las Vegas. Currently there are a number of buildings going up within the city itself. These new buildings are all being built with eco friendly materials and even being purchased locally to reduce the emissions from trucks during transportation. Other hotels in Las Vegas are changing their practices to be more environmentally friendly. None has done it better than the Palazzo Hotel and Resort. Recently the hotel was named the “Most Eco Friendly Hotel in America”.

As a commercial contractor, it is great to see the buildings I have worked on make a positive impact on the planet. However, there are others who are behind and many are highly rated in the public eye. Hotels occupy and expend a large amount of natural resources during daily operation. As a result, they produce large amounts of waste being thrown into landfills. These organizations need to realize emphasize the environmental benefits while pursuing social and economical benefits.  The Environmental Ethic of Hotels is the ethic regulations and more practice concerned with the environment during hotels operations.

It is 2013 and organizations as well as people must pay attention to the environment. It is important to protect and maintain stabilization, permanence and beauty of our planet for future generations to follow. While the Palazzo provides a great blueprint to mimic in order to achieve sustainability, not enough businesses have followed suit. Ink48 in New York City is taking steps to correct this with their Earthcare program. This program allows members to come together and discuss different ways in which they can go green.





*Sam Marquit is an independent ‘green’ contractor  and a guest contributor to this blog.

Risk Assessment in Developing Countries

In the discussions on how to provide protection against risks in order not to compromise the ability of future people to enjoy a clean and safe environment, one distinction is of particular importance. It refers to the way in which developed and, respectively, developing countries should manage these risks for the benefit of future generations.

Taking this distinction seriously from a normative point of view, two issues are worth exploring:

1)      While in the developed world, the problem seems to be mostly one of optimizing risk management, or how to provide public safety by effectively minimizing natural risks, in developing countries, the main problem stems from a complex system of inter-related social vulnerabilities, which generates a number of separate, additional risks. Certain social and institutional problems specific to developing countries are so important in terms of their negative effect on public safety and environmental protection that they should be considered risks in themselves.

2) Secondly, developing countries display a characteristic which, at first view, may seem paradoxical. They are countries where societal risks are high, pervasive and self-reinforcing, but, at the same time, they are the least concerned to work for minimizing them. Instead, they seem to be focusing primarily on natural risks. On the contrary, developed countries with a tradition of concern for public safety take societal risks seriously, even in cases where these are (comparatively) much lower.

Take, for instance, nuclear energy. Except for particular conditions (for example, high seismic hazards), the natural risks are quite comparable across the two groups of countries using similar technologies.

However, risks of short-sighted or even contradictory policies resulting from institutional backwardness, corruptibility, non-compliance, are not so comparable. In some developing countries, far from being isolated factors, they are the daily background of decision-making.

Choosing a site for a waste repository or deciding on the decommissioning of a nuclear power plant are, therefore, fraught with a distinct set of problems: lack of coherent regulations, poor administrative capacity to take action in case of an accident (starting from overlapping responsibilities of institutions to insufficient buses to transport people from the community affected), or the shallow excuse that public policies should first mirror the immediate interests of citizens (welfare, development).

If this is how things look in some parts of the developing world, I would argue that such different situations should require different strategies. In my view, this would mean that developing countries should abandon the ‘reductionist’ fallacy, of equating risks with (only) natural risks, and take societal risks seriously. The fact that this would definitely be more costly for the time being should not affect the normative dimension of the problem. If we choose to rely partly on the analogy with the budget a person should manage to minimize a set of risks, then being poorer would not imply one should not save. On the contrary, being poorer is in many cases being more vulnerable, and saving could add some protection.

Your thoughts and comments are very welcome.

And I was hoping for spring…


’Winter is coming’… is the motto of one of the rivaling clans in the very popular HBO TV-series Game of Thrones based on an even more popular book series by George R. R. Martin calles A Song of Ice and Fire. It depicts a small world with rivaling political forces fighting for influence and power in the shadow of a pending natural disaster – The Winter – that will make the battles, intrigues and cunningly laid plans to dominate others seem like child´s play.

’Winter is coming’… Soon the different groups and parties will be forced to join rank against this common enemy – or be overrun by forces much greater than their own. At least that is the impression I am left with having seen the first two seasons of the series. It might just be me looking through a distorted perspective, but I cannot help see the series as an allegory of the political landscape today and the fight for power, resources, influence and economic advantages that takes place in the shadow of the ”winter that is coming” in our reality: climate change. I am not sure whether it is this resemblance with the current political situation or the surprising amount of very scantily clad young women, blood filled action scenes and mythological scenery that has given the series the huge success it has had.

But it does seem fitting that the series is aired in a situation where we basically seem to have given up on climate change and are just focusing on getting the economy back in growth mode.  It is very hard not to hear the words ”Winter is coming” as a comment to our own situation. A situation that is characterized by the inability of democratic societies to recognize that the idea of perpetual growth in a closed system is suicidal. A situation characterized by our common ability to close our eyes to the dire warnings from climate scientists that we are heading for 4 degrees temperature raises or more within the next 100 years (for some reason nobody seems concerned about what will happen in 150 years).

’Winter is coming’… and as the as the severity of the situation grows, reality to an ever incressing degree resembles a lazy tv-movie: from the stereotypical scientists warning us about a pending disaster to the stereotypically uninterested politicians that are more concerned about re-election than taking care of the public good. It is like watching ’Jaws’, ’Earthquake’ and ’Vulcano’ at the same time with the only difference being that we are all playing the part of the politicians these days.

No matter how many hyped concepts such as ’green’, ’sustainable’, ’responsible’ or environmentally friendly’  we place before the basic notion of ’growth’ there can be little doubt that the current tehcno-fetishism and daydreaming about golden technologies that will allow us to continue our patterns of consumptions and save the planet, are wearing thin. Techo-optimism is a new phrase describing the bankrupcy of a culture that is left hoping for the impossible while digging its own grave. A culture so unimaginative and fearful that the mere idea of changing our life-styles seems more threatening than the catastrophic climate changes caused by our current way of life.

’Winter is coming’… and as it approaches we go on with our daily lives: watch Game of Thromes, song contests, Champions League, make babies, laugh at stupid pictures on Facebook, and generally forget about the reality we live in. The human ability to hope in the face of hopelessness and continue to live everyday lives in the shadow of events out of our control is a beautiful phenomena. There is strength and hope in that. But what about our ability to deny that we are in a situation where we need to hope and fight? Our ability to simply close our eyes to the havoc we create and vaguley hope that spring will come no matter what we do? It is hard to see that as anything else than part of reason why the winter is still coming – and it is already April.

Why Environmental Philosophers Fly to Conferences (or Not)

After some reflections on conference tourism (here, here, and here), we asked for statements “Why are you flying to conferences? If not — why not?”

Martin Schoenfeld (this is his blog) said:

Yes, I do restrict my air travel. Why? Frankly, because I think not doing so would be bad karma. How? In that I only go to places now where the trip serves multiple purposes, such as attending a conference and giving a departmental colloquium at the same destination, or combining personal reasons, such as visiting friends or looking up relatives, with professional activities. But just going to one place for one purpose—nope, not anymore. Karma!

Robin Attfield said:

I find this difficult. In practice, I try to avoid long-haul flights, but continue to travel to places in Western Europe, which can sometimes be done by train. I have passed up invitations to go to Hawaii and to China, in each case sending my paper by other means. (In the case of China, I made a DVD and posted it to the relevant conference, which apparently appreciated it.) But I did travel to Pennsylvania and Notre Dame to honour two invitations in 2011. On the other hand, I managed to send a paper to a conference in 2010 in Washington State electronically, and to reply to live questions by telephone.

I also had some thoughts:

yes, I do travel to conferences. And I now even accepted a job abroad which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t also said Yes to the “love miles” involved in visiting friends and family at home. I tried to justify work-related air travel to myself by envisioning these emissions as the university’s emissions rather than as my emissions. Though, to be honest, when I flew to Japan my curiosity to see a new country was just as much a motivation to attend the conference as the purely academic interest. In such a case, it’s much more difficult to claim that these emissions are not my emissions — which is only partly true anyway, if at all. And anyway, even if they aren’t my emissions, I am still the one in the position to do something about them.
While I do travel to various places for work-related reasons, this reduces my desire to travel for private reasons (it’s as if my privileged position as an academic allowed me to tick off the box “See the world” on my life’s to-do-list – a box which I shouldn’t have put on the list in the first place, though…).
I currently lack the will to restrict myself more, and if I would do more, I would start with other things. Still, I feel a lot of tension about flying and I refrain from acquiescing in my current stance. I also welcome hostile remarks from friends as a helpful reminder not to acquiesce…

If you’re willing to share some lines (also anonymously), please do so! You can contact us here.

Enforcing Mindsets and Lifestyles?

There is a widespread view that a liberal state may prevent people from harming others but that it should not promote certain comprehensive doctrines about the good life. In environmental policymaking this means

  1. that the state may prevent us from harming others (by limiting or taxing our emissions)
  2. but that the state may not prescribe by which means we should reduce emissions, whether this be eating less animal produce, travelling less, buying less stuff in general, etc. — that’s a matter of personal choice
  3. and that the state may not prescribe to reduce our emissions out of a certain motivation; as long as we reduce our emissions, the state should not care whether we do so grudgingly, whether we do so out of love of nature, whether we do so by embracing a lifestyle of simplicity, whether we embed this change in a religious lifestyle, etc.

Here is one specific way to challenge the 2nd and 3rd aspect of this widespread view. It is just terribly cumbersome if the state refrains from enforcing certain means of reducing emissions and refrains from engendering certain motivations in the citizenry. It is inefficient to let individuals decide individually on their preferred ways of reducing emissions. Coordinating lifestyle change would save costs. Changing mindests and motivations is simply much easier and needs less willpower, when it’s done together. The state could save each of us lots of trouble by using tax money to celebrate green changes in mentality, by inculcating new green paradigms in schoolkids, by coercively enforcing the normality of reduced mobility rather than letting us commit to this goal in isolation, by publicly creating momentum for a change in diet, etc.
Given that in the long run we have to change our mindsets and lifestyles anyway in order to refrain from harming others and given that travelling this road together is just much less pain, one might argue that the sheer cost savings of the community doing this with state enforcement and state encouragement justifies the accompanying curtailment of liberty.
I am making this point very hesitantly. It’s more of a question: How far do the mere psychological cost savings — the size of which is often  underestimated in my view — go in allowing illiberal environmental policy measures?