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.

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One response to “Flying for the Environment

  1. To my mind, the sentence that ‘[c]onferences on climate and the environment could be of huge importance to our dwindling chances of saving ourselves as a civilisation’ really settles the question. If there’s even a small chance that this statement is true, then the expected value of attending these conferences greatly exceeds the expected value of foregoing the emissions.

    With emissions in China and elsewhere soaring, we could not prevent dangerous climate change even if we got everyone in Europe to conserve. Our best hope, I believe, lies in technological breakthroughs that bring the cost of alternative energy down (see Henry Shue’s excellent 2013 paper ‘Climate Hope’). If people disposed to work against climate change do all they can to bring about a change in public policy, there is at least some hope that we might make these breakthroughs in time to prevent the worst consequences. In contrast, the contribution that a few thousand–or even a few hundred thousand, philosophers, politicians, environmental activists, and so forth–would make by staying at home is negligible. Go, by all means!

    Of course, other things being equal, it’s better to take the train than fly. On the other hand, if the plane is much cheaper, it’s probably better to fly, and give the money you save to a group lobbying for political change.

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