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.


8 responses to “Why Environmental Philosophers Fly to Conferences (or Not)

  1. I find it interesting to distinguish between personal (vacations, “love miles”) and institutional (conferences) emissions, because this could suggest that a blind choice of the institution (i.e. to host three conferences a year in the same less attractive place rather than six a year in Bali, Paris etc) would unburden an individual from the responsibility of contributing to climate change.
    However, I have another dilemma: could it be right for a student coming from a developing country to hide behind a potential “right to development” and fly more miles than others to “catch up”? Although this sounds attractive, I feel it’s bogus. I am still in the process of developing the argument.

  2. Nice point about the blind choice of institution. It seems to me that even though I might not have *full* responsibility for my “usual” academic travel emissions, I do at least have *some* responsibility for making my choices of destinations carefully. I also think that if I am not an attendant of a workshop but rather the organiser (or if I am the designer of a funding scheme), then I have some special responsibility to inluence the format in such a way as to limit emissions…

  3. I wrote an article examining this issue a few years back: “The carbon credit crunch”. This was published in THE PHILOSOPHER’S MAGAZINE, in the 4th quarter issue of 2010: http://www.exacteditions.com/read/tpm/4th-quarter-2010-7576/1/2/

  4. Those in Europe – especially the UK – may be surprised how easy it is to get around Europe by train. As a philosopher one can work on the train, and enjoy and be stimulated by the sight of the world going by. The German rail website, Bahn.de is particularly good. There are some terrific prices between Germany, France and the UK especially if one can book well in advance

  5. ps Coming to or from the UK Bahn.de usually lets one schedule in a 23hr break in Paris or Brussells for no extra cost…

  6. Pingback: Flying for the Environment | Ethics for a Green Future

  7. Pingback: Zen and the Art of Airplane Travel | Ethics for a Green Future

  8. Pingback: Ethics for a Green Future

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