Tag Archives: emissions

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.

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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.