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.

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3 responses to “Flying for the Environment, Again

  1. John T. Maher

    Well said. I would add that your comment on an exception “I would break my personal pledge for two reasons: first, to visit a friend or relative in need” is a concern shared across species as part of the political, and therefore quite understandable, but an ahumanist view is that the amount of humans is so large that all benefit if as many as possible perish so you should especially refrain from flying in such circumstances. The issue upon which you put your finger is bigger than one might realize as the concept of the university is changing to one of a virtual community as the cost associated with foundational Uni education is ever more unreachable for the masses. If the students can not and ought not travel to class, why should the indulged sophists who teach them burn off fossil fuel in transit where ideas may travel with less fuel? A ‘localization’ of situated knowledge may also be more interesting in certain fields.

  2. I’m one of those fellow environmentalists. This strikes me as noble, but fundamentally misguided. First, the holiday travels. I can see the case for giving up holiday travel altogether. But to go everywhere by surface at greater cost is a bad choice even in terms of fighting climate change. That money would almost surely do more to fight climate change if it were either (a) directly invested in alternative energy R&D; or (b) donated to a green pressure group or political party lobbying for such investments Any gains made by a few greens sacrificing their vacations will be wiped out in a few days by one day of emissions by the BRICs. A breakthrough in alternative energy, on the other hand, might really save our bacon.

    But what really makes my heart sink is the line ‘my academic career is constrained quite considerably’. Looking at Ian Christie’s webpage, I see that he has been a ‘Freelance researcher, advisor, teacher and writer on sustainable development and environmental policy. Projects for central and local government, public agencies, business, NGOs and think-tanks. Part-time policy advisor to ministers and officials on sustainable housing and climate policy, 2006-2008. Associate of Green Alliance think-tank. Visiting professor and lecturer at CES. Chair of RESOLVE advisory group at CES, 2007-2010. Trustee of Involve; Foundation for Democracy and Sustainable Development; Global Action Plan. Advisory committee member for WWF-UK’s global and national programmes, 2004-2010’. For pity’s sake, surely all this work is valuable enough to be worth some flying? It won’t help anybody if people in a position to change ideas and policy on climate change sabotage their own careers.

  3. really well put…thanks for the share.

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