Category Archives: Cultural Perspectives

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.

Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences II

In a recent post,  we discussed whether researchers can justify jetting across the globe for their research (in particular for environmental research). We collected three reasons that could be adduced for the justifiability of “conference tourism”. We now add three further strategies for defending airmiles:

A fourth and prominent reason is this: the carbon emissions can be offset. If offsetting actually works and is actually done (by the university or by the researcher herself), then there is no overall environmental effect from flying to workshops.

Fifth, even if it might be a moral imperative to shift the whole research culture to more local interaction or, if international cooperation is deemed very valuable, to more electronic versions of international interaction, it might still be said that it is unfair to expect single researchers to go ahead with that shift if there is no joint action by the whole research community. There is no duty to be the lone “hero” who takes up large personal costs that others refuse to take up.

A sixth way to defend conference flights is based on doubt about the effectiveness of individual, small actions. If refraining from single flights does nothing to prevent — or not even diminish — climate change, then the reason for restraint vanishes according to many moral theories (even according to some non-consequentialist theories).

For some objections to the last two strategies, see the paper by Sabine Hohl and myself in Analyse&Kritik. Note that even someone agrees with our objections might still think that political action is a more effective and a more fair means to protect the climate than personal, small, voluntary actions such as a refusal to participate in conference travel.

The next post in these series collects reasons that speak against flying to workshops and talks. Any suggestions are welcome. Also, I need to collect a list of ideas for making international cooperation in research cooperation greener that anybody can agree on: no-regret-measures, first steps, creative solutions we haven’t thought of, etc.

Justifying the emissions for flights to environmental conferences

Is there a paradox when climate scientists fly to scientific conferences? Many people on the street think so. They find something inconsistent in the idea of contributing to climate change in order to solve climate change. I am sure that any researcher working on environmental topics had some explaining to do with respect to her conference flights: Friends and family push for it at some point or other. The same is true even more starkly for environmental activists who fly for their activism.

I’d be interested to start a collection of arguments that justify (or condemn) such conference flights. Surely the most common and plausible strategy for environmental researchers to justify their conference flights makes use of consequentialist reasoning: Greater good can be achieved (even in environmental terms) by researchers flying around the world in order to make scientific progress than would be achieved if they stayed at home.

A second strategy for exculpating the researcher is more radical: It questions the idea that the conference-travelling researcher has any explaining to do in the first place. Rather than the researcher, it is the university in whose name he travels (or the society who pays the university to do its work) who bears the burden of justification. The university who employs the researcher and expects results from him is the “principal” who bears the responsibility for his travels, while the individual researcher is only the “executive agent” who does what he is told to do.

A third strategy refers to the place that research has in the life of the researcher. The academic path is a personal project to which she is deeply committed — and, so it is claimed, everybody has a right to pursue such projects. This highly valued core aspect of her life would be thwarted if she couldn’t participate in the conference circuit. It would be “too much to ask” if she would have to give up being part of the academic community. The case for overdemandingness seems particularly strong when we notice that for those who do get funding it would need a very active and conscious decision to refrain from academic travelling.

These are just three possible justifications. I look forward to collect more of them (and also to collect condemnations). Note also that each of these strategies not only justifies flights but also delineates the limits to which it does so. To the extent that my decision for a workshop in Japan was motivated by the excitement of seeing that country, to the same extent none of the three strategies mentioned above would be of much help…

An overlooked rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle

When I want to lose weight, I am often relieved to run out of chocolate in my apartment. Often the relief occurs because I know that I couldn’t resist the temptation. But, interestingly, I might be happy to run out of chocolate even if I were able to resist the temptation. Why is this so? Trivially, it’s much easier to refrain from eating chocolate when there is no chocolate around. If I simply don’t have the possibility of grabbing another bite then I am spared from constantly having to fight the urge to do so. If, in contrast, the chocolate were there right in front of me, I would use up lots of mental effort for refraining from it. I could save this mental energy by simply not having the opportunity of eating chocolate in the first place. (The internet even offers self-binding websites where people are actually willing to lose money in order to make it easier for them to reach their goals and overcome their temptations.)

Where is the link between the chocolate and the Polluter Pays Principle? Note first, that there are many different  rationales for the Polluter Pays Principle. There is…

  • …a consequentialist rationale: having to pay for pollution gives people an incentive to pollute less
  • …a corrective rationale: making polluters pay is fair because their payment can be seen as compensation for the harm they cause through their pollution
  • …a distributive rationale: the polluters typically benefit from polluting and making them hand over part of their benefits to those who are harmed by pollution yields a more equal distribution than if they could keep their gains.

I want to suggest that there is a further rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle, namely…

  • …a second consequentialist rationale: making people pay for pollution reduces the mental effort they need for refraining from pollution.

The idea is the same as with the chocolate. Assume that you are the type of person who voluntarily foregoes air travel. This sacrifice is based on your personal conviction that the heavy pollution involved in flying makes air travel immoral. You are the type of person who does not need to be incentivized by a Polluter Pays Principle in order to forego flying. Your intrinsic motivation is sufficient. The crucial point now is this: You might still be glad if your government were to tax air travel. This would make it easier for you to forego flying. Rather than having your conscience do heavy-duty work in suppressing daydreams about holidays on the Maldives, you can simply tell yourself that the taxation on the flight would make the flight too expensive for you anyway. Instead of having to rely on the burdening mental effort of intrinsically motivating yourself, the Polluter Pays Principle allows you to take the motivationally easier route of foregoing flights on the basis of your financial self-interest.

In other words: By setting up a Polluter Pays Principle, the government provides a service to environmentally conscious citizens. The government saves them the mental energy of having to exert willpower in order to perform voluntary green actions out of pure moral conviction. This rationale for the Polluter Pays Principle is genuinely different from the other rationales.

Rawls and Popper at Climate Negotiations

At the Bonn Climate Conference that took place last month, philosophical theorising entered the political negotiations. UN climate chief Cristiana Figueres noted that “equity is difficult to define” and everyone agrees: There is a bewildering disagreement on equity principles. Dr. Prodipto Ghosh therefore stressed that equity norms must not simply be asserted but must also be justified. You can see him talk here (minute 29), invoking Popper and Rawlsian ideas along the way.

In his view, we must systematically compare different equity proposals by following a six step validation procedure (see p. 8 and 9 here). A crucial step includes testing whether the different equity proposals are consistent with basic ethical criteria (universalizability, avoiding harm, etc., see p. 10 and 11 here). While his specific suggestions are based on some – in my view – adventurous philosophical premises, the basic thrust seems right: We better find some way to resolve that disagreement.

Dr. Ghosh and myself might be wrong in thinking that the best means to resolve the disagreement over equity norms consists in finding agreement on a method to resolve the disagreement. That might be too academic and too artificial to be of any help in practice. I am not sure what other means would be more effective in achieving the goal of agreement. But what I am sure about is the importance of agreement (or at least convergence). Why? The bewildering variety of equity proposals makes room to choose one’s favorite principle based on self-interest (cf. Lange et al.).

A good example is the US negotiator who made self-interested use of the disagreement on equity in subtle but powerful ways. You can see him talk here (at minute 11:40). He stressed how there were multiple interpretations of equity, how each interpretation is valid, how equity is a qualitative concept that doesn’t fit into a formula and how we should respect diversity of opinion. He displayed other ingenious ways of dodging the equity issue (such as ruling out equity proposals on account of their lack of realism, meaning nothing else than that rich countries are not willing to bear the costs). But the above mentioned insinuations were particularly salient in instrumentalizing disagreement for the purpose of avoiding being nailed down. This proves Dr. Ghosh right: We should not rest content with the current state of massive confusion & disagreement over equity principles.