Criticizing Conference Flights

In recent posts I compiled considerations that might justify flying to academic conferences, including environmental conferences (here, here, and comments). I now list points that might disapprove of “workshop tourism” (I aim at completeness rather than a systematic taxonomy):

  • Passengers on airplanes can often be said to cause harm. At least, they are complicit in harm. That’s the first and most straightforward reason that speaks for staying at home. The climate change ensuing from aviation emissions puts people at risk, especially the poor in the future. Many travellers exceed their fair share of emissions, thereby also behaving unjustly towards their less emitting contemporaries.
    Those who refrain from flying not only refrain from harming but also have beneficial secondary effects in terms of affecting the behavior of others. They are role models who change perceptions of what’s “normal”. On some occasions, these pioneer’s decision forces conference organisers to adapt the format, thereby stimulating experimentation with new ways of doing academic interaction.
  • A second reason: In virtue ethic frameworks, there are obviously many problems with flying. By putting one’s own butt into an airplane seat one uses a big complex humanly built metal bird to thunder over the earth, thereby making thousands of miles in a very short time without having any sense of the physical and cultural distance one has thereby bridged. The “metal bird” exhausts dirty emissions all along the way. All this is often just for trivial benefits and for advancing career prospects.
  • A third reason: In case one works on environmental questions there might be special duties associated with one’s role. One reason for this is consequentialist: the behavior of environmental researchers and activists is more closely observed by the public and therefore has a larger impact on public attitudes. Another reason for this is the larger knowledge (compared to the population) that environmental folks have about the harmfulness of flying. But there might also be deeper reason, to do with a certain consistency between one’s core projects in life (such as one’s professional vocation) and one’s behavior.
  • A fourth reason: Travel-based cooperation filters out researchers from well-off universities for interaction. Scientific interaction based on reading each other and internet-based interaction would give better access to people from less well-off countries and lead to a less biased sample of voices in the scientific dialogue.
    Also, travel-based scientific cooperation is more closed in the sense that you typically need institutional funding to participate. This excludes voices that are important but less well integrated in institutional structures (such as independent researchers).
  • A fifth reason: Flying may be bad for you. A former economics professor who limited himself (vacation included) to three flights per year questioned the value-added that large conferences have for established professors.[1] This might not only be so for established academics: More generally, time spent at the desk rather than in airport terminals might possibly be more productive…
    In addition: The mental stress experienced in airports will probably let you die at least two years earlier than you would otherwise die…

Many further suggestions are welcome. I would especially like to collect some personal statements and thoughts on “why and how” of researchers who deliberately restrict their air travel (also anonymously, if you prefer).

[1] Neue Zürcher Zeitung 19.10.2009, Nr. 242, p. 37.


4 responses to “Criticizing Conference Flights

  1. Martha Sherwood

    Although trained as a biologist, with a respectable research reputation, I am retired from a non-academic position and would need to self-pay to attend conferences on environmental ethics, a field that currently interests me. I don’t think that in principle an academic whose research specialty is environmental has any greater mandate to conserve resources than one in some other specialty, but the degree to which a multiplicity of conferences , featuring repetitive papers documenting miniscule modifications to the existing body of knowledge, dissipate intellectual capital and divert resources from educating future generations, as well as needlessly burning fossil fuels and polluting the environment, really concerns me. Being retired, I am not under pressure to attend conferences to present trivial papers. If I really had something unique and potentially important to say, for which face to face contact was the best method for presenting it, I’d go to a conference at a remote location.

  2. Thanks for the input. Would you suggest that researchers ask themselves on a case-by-case basis whether their presented paper is something really valuable? So it’s not OK to travel for any old paper but OK to travel when there’s a real advance?
    I think I like the idea — at the very least to have it as a criterion.

  3. Pingback: Why Environmental Philosophers Fly to Conferences (or Not) | Ethics for a Green Future

  4. Pingback: Environmental ethics of research travel (discussion) | Roundtable

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