Aviation is responsible for a large proportion of the climate impact of professional life in university communities. One much-discussed option for reducing this climate impact is to shift some conferencing activities to online distance formats. However, university professionals recognize limits in — and in some cases actively dislike — current webinar formats, in part because they lack the personal warmth of conventional conferences.
This webinar brings together a “dream team” of recent global innovators in academic long-distance conference formats with an improved personal experience. First, the popular “Nearly Carbon Neutral” conference format developed by Ken Hiltner and colleagues in the humanities and social sciences at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) replaces static webinar podium presentations with a combination of easy-to-prepare video presentation and written discussion feeds, while preserving the sense of a time-bounded event. Second, the semi-virtual, multiple-location format piloted at the 2018 International Conference on Music Perception and Cognition (ICMPC15/ESCOM10, with hubs in Argentina, Canada, Australia, and Austria), developed by Richard Parncutt with local and international colleagues, offered in-person attendance at web-linked hubs around the globe. Third, organizers of the Student Sustainability Leaders Symposium, held November 5th, 2017 with 1 main location and 2 satellite locations, will present on their experiences. The webinar moderator will be Tina Woolston, Director of the Office of Sustainability at Tufts University.
While distance conferencing is just one of many options for reducing the climate impact of university life (www.flyingless.org), it is frequently the first option people mention (both favorably and unfavorably). Therefore, the innovations presented in this lively webinar will make an important positive contribution to the fast-approaching cultural transformation of university lifestyles in a time of climate change.
An exciting, low-carbon academic conference will begin in a few days. Organized by the Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA), a section of the American Anthropological Association (AAA), the title (and theme) of the biennial meeting is Displacements. These include, according to the conference website, “episodes of profound political upheaval, intensified crises of migration and expulsion, the disturbing specter of climatic and environmental instability, countless virtual shadows cast over the here and now by ubiquitous media technologies.”
Scheduled to take place April 19-21, #Displace18 is the first time that the biennial meeting will be a virtual gathering. “Air travel is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, and one of the chief ways that an academic livelihood contributes to carbon pollution,” the SCA explains. “We are exploring the virtual conference format with the ideal of carbon-neutral activity in mind.”
According to Jerome Whitington, a visiting professor of anthropology at New York University, the no-flying conference emerges not only out of climate change concerns, ones related to a marked increase in interest in ecological matters among cultural anthropologists over the last decade or so. It also grows out of a new generation of cultural anthropologists eager to experiment with alternative ways of interacting and disseminating knowledge and ideas like open source and new media formats.
Before it has even begun, #Displace18, a conference co-sponsored by the Society for Visual Anthropology, has already succeeded, it seems. As of this writing, there are 48 local nodes around the world where attendees and participants in the conference will gather “to watch portions of the conference together, and in many cases host their own workshops, dialogues, and local events.” The locations range from Addis Ababa, Bangalore, Cartagena, and Seattle to Copenhagen, Lima, Montreal, and Quetzaltenango. According to Whitington, the geographical diversity of participants constitutes a marked increase over previous, in-person SCA meetings. And with over 330 registrants thus far, the number of participants has also grown considerably.
Beyond the Displacements gathering, Whitington points to the need for the SCA to engage its members in serious, far-reaching discussions—ones that he is charged with helping to organize and facilitate in his role as the SCA’s “Climate Liaison.” While there have been no formal or published critiques within anthropology levied against the decision to hold a no-flying meeting, some have suggested that such efforts are misplaced, that they do not make much of a difference in the fight against climate change. There are also questions of how virtual conferencing will impact informal benefits that in-person meetings allow for—for example, by allowing scholars who come from historically marginalized communities, or scholars who are at small, geographically isolated institutions to connect with people who share their concerns, struggles, and experiences. It is for such reasons plus the hope that #Displace18 is only a first step, Whitington says, that the SCA needs to “get it right” in developing the appropriate, low-carbon tools. This requires extensive consultation and negotiation among anthropologists, as well as experimentation and flexibility.
A key goal is to engage to the AAA regarding its yearly meeting, one Jason Hickel, an anthropologist at Goldsmith, University of London, recently characterized as “an enormous carbon bomb.” The international annual conference involves several thousand people, each of whom, Hickel estimates, travels “about 3,000 miles round trip, emitting 900 kgs of CO2 per person in the process.” (The SCA is engaging in a rigorous carbon footprint analysis of Displacements.) This, he argues, is “nothing short of carbon colonialism, shot through with violent disparities of race, class, and geography.” It is also, he writes, contrary to the AAA’s own code of ethics, which states: “Anthropological researchers must do everything in their power to ensure that their research does not harm the safety of the people with whom they work.”
It is inspiring to see the members of the Society of Cultural Anthropology taking this code to heart, and helping to push the discipline of anthropology in a low-carbon, ecologically just direction.
Parke is traveling overland by Amtrak for the next 2 weeks, for a mix of talks and meetings on food policy and #flyingless topics.
If you are near one of these events, please stop by to say “hello.” The chance to meet in person feels especially precious during these years of not flying.
New York City, Mar 16 (tomorrow), noon, CUNY Institute for Sustainable Cities, Hunter College. 1216 East Building. Contact O. Douglas Price (Twitter @ODouglasPrice) with quick RSVP to arrange building entrance. Presentation and discussion on #flyingless themes.
Atlanta, Mar 19 (Monday), 11:30am. Emory University, AMUC room 223. Presentation and discussion on #flyingless themes.
New Orleans, Mar 21 (Wed), 5pm, American Heart Association Epi/Lifestyle meetings, 5pm poster presentation related to U.S. food policy research.
Memphis, Mar 24-25 (tourism on music and civil rights themes).
Bloomington, IN, Mar 26 (Mon), 12:30pm, IU Food Institute, 405 N. Park Ave, on #flyingless themes and 4pm, 513 N. Park Ave. (Tocqueville Room), on U.S. food policy research.
Urbana Champaign, IL, Mar 27 (Tues), noon, University of Illinois, 426 Mumford Hall, on U.S. food policy research.
Chicago, Mar 28 (Wed). No meetings planned yet (indeed, suggestions welcome).
This journey is a pilot for a different way of organizing academic life, with a moderately smaller role for academic conferencing and a somewhat bigger role for slower-paced academic tours or sojourns from place to place. Among other activities, this tour gives me a chance to share topics from the second edition of my book, Food Policy in the United States: An Introduction(Routledge/Earthscan), published this month, March 2018, as well as to act out some of our initiative’s ideas for #flyingless. Thank you to all the nice people who arranged these invitations. If you are interested in other people doing travels in a similar spirit, follow the inspiring Twitter feed of Giuseppi Delmestri (@gdelmestri) this month, and the growing number of other lifestyle pioneers we share from the @flyingless feed.
In these years of not flying, am I deprived of cross-cultural exchange, adventurous vacations, networking for my career, or art? No. The whole world is at my doorsteps.
My daily subway commute ends with a walk through Boston’s Chinatown. My work colleagues come from all parts of the globe. On the way to a movie, my family eats at the Asmara Ethiopian restaurant. I worship from time to time at the Spanish language services in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross (Catholic) and Congregación León de Judá (evangelical). Walking distance from home, we see a concert by a Malian singer and guitarist at the Somerville Theatre. Traveling to NYC, my family stays in a side-street B&B in Queens, a global metropolis unlike any other. I read the international news, watch international history documentaries on television, and reminisce about past travels in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and Europe. It is true that I feel the loss of travel by air to new places, but I enjoy plenty of cross-cultural exchange.
On a family bike tour, we take the new ferry and pedal through the alternating francophone and anglophone fishing villages of Nova Scotia. We speak with fishing folk, packing plant laborers, naturalists, and international tourists. In a random conversation in a grocery store parking lot, we listen to the stories of a First Nation Canadian man about the old farms that were paved over. It is true that I feel the loss of vacations by air, but I enjoy fine travels regionally.
For work, in the past few years, I have learned from conferences and meetings in Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Immokalee, Woods Hole, Albany, and many other places. I travel frequently by train to Washington, DC, for work. In one long trip next month, I will take Amtrak for meetings, conferences, and presentations in New York City, Atlanta, New Orleans, Indiana, and Champaign-Urbana, with stops for tourism in Memphis and Chicago on the way. It is true that the train journeys are sometimes wearisome, but they have offsetting pleasures and the work time is good. It also is true that I feel the loss of travel by air to meetings in other continents and the West Coast, but I see many colleagues from those places at the meetings I do attend.
For art, I have always visited the great galleries of Washington and New York, and Boston’s Museum of Fine Art, but for some reason I never had been inside the Isabella Stewart Gardner museum or Boston’s Public Library, which are both walking distance from my office, until after I stopped flying. Why not? Because, when I was flying, I thought I lacked the time. Reflect on the irony! It is true that I miss the Prado and the British Museum, and have never visited the Louvre or the Hermitage. I will have to use the virtual tour, which is of course not the same and yet an artistic and technological marvel in its own way. It also is true that I feel painful loss at not being able to revisit the temple at Borobudur or the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which is a holy place to me. As a balm for my heart-ache, I instead visit Trinity Church in Boston, which is the masterpiece of the architect H.H. Richardson and the artist John La Farge, and the delightful quiet Romanesque chapel of the monks of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist alongside the Charles River. This week, I watched on TV Jim Jarmusch’s charming movie Paterson, about a quiet poet with a passionately artful sense of place in his run-down New Jersey city. Art is not a competition, and nobody should care if the museum we visit is ranked third or eighth globally. If we have a heart to listen with, we all can recognize that we are blessed by enough art to occupy all the hours we can devote to it.
For people who fly frequently, it is possible to drastically reduce flying while preserving what we love about cross-cultural exchange, adventurous vacations, stimulating work-life, and art.
For readers who doubt my claim, take your own mental inventory. If you fly four or more times in a year, imagine that you cut your flights to one quarter of their current level. To compensate for the loss, imagine that you increased your time invested locally and regionally, in overland travel, and in longer and more extensive use of the rare flights that remain. Confirm for yourself, while the environmental impact of your aviation falls 75%, that your quality of life would barely be diminished, and even the small sacrifice might trigger a response in your own soul, enhancing your appreciation for the treasures that surround you in your own place and region.
Some readers will consider my message obvious. Others will rebel against it with a hardness I can only attribute to selfishness. A third group will tell themselves that they would be willing to fly less if only the system were more supportive (through more understanding employers, more reasonable expectations from family members who live elsewhere, better train prices and comforts, better national climate policy, and so forth). For people in this third group, please focus for now on advocacy. For starters, especially if you are connected to a university community, please participate in the advocacy aspects of our #flyingless initiative (see petition, list of academic supporters, and FAQ).
Friends, leaders, environmentalists, we would like to hear you speak more about the aviation industry.
Many influential writers and activists on environmental issues address the fossil fuels industry, but rarely discuss the aviation industry. There are some exceptions, such as Alice Larkin (@AliceClimate), Kevin Anderson (@KevinClimate), and George Monbiot (@GeorgeMonbiot), who frequently address aviation. Many others seldom do. Check the Twitter feeds of your favorite environmentalists. Search for your favorite climate change writer’s Twitter handle plus the words “aviation” or “flying.” Tabulating a sample of tweets for one high-profile climate change thinker this week, I find 45% are about the fossil fuels industry, 10% clean energy, 45% politics or activism, and 0% aviation, automobiles, home heating, or other industries that actually use fossil fuels.
Perhaps the movement finds it easier to talk about energy production than energy consumption. This may be fine for some consumption uses, but not others. At one extreme, replacing fossil fuels with clean energy in the electric grid may be more fruitful than reminding people to turn off lights. As a middling case, replacing gasoline cars with electric cars may be partially helpful. And, at the other extreme, we have aviation. We are skeptical about mainstream media coverage of biofuels, electric flight, and offsets. Changes in aggregate demand are fundamental for this particular critical industry.
It is unjust and unreflective to call for drastic economic changes in the fossil fuels industry while remaining silent about the aviation industry. The geographic locus of conflict over fossil fuels is in the coal mines of Appalachia, the oil wells of Oklahoma, and the gas extraction sites of North Dakota. The geographic locus of conflict over aviation would be in airports filled with comparatively privileged travelers, and (as @AntiAeroGAAM reminds us; added Feb 8) in the fields and communities displaced or damaged by new airports and airport expansions. It feels immoral to ask coal miners to be good sports about the economic transition they face, while remaining silent about the changes required for frequent flyers.
In public debate and in the theater of public engagement to protect the environment, the aviation industry deserves a place alongside the fossil fuels industry. We appreciate the occasional tweets and articles by leading environmental writers and public speakers about aviation already, but the issue deserves more. For example:
Along with articles about tax breaks for Exxon, let’s have more articles about the more universal tax breaks for jet fuel.
Along with articles about the Paris Agreement, let’s increase coverage about the omission of international aviation from that agreement.
Along with coverage of EPA’s failures to regulate carbon from energy plant emissions, let’s write more about the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) inadequate approach to addressing aviation emissions.
Along with reports about sacrifice zones and spills from pipelines, let’s give more attention to the daily noise pollution and localized air pollution for low-income neighborhoods near airports.
Along with editorials calling for divestment from fossil fuels, let’s consider divesting from the aviation industry.
When I raise this issue, friends sometimes say that environmental progress requires a steady focus on policy change and industrial transformation. They say talking about “personal change” would be a self-indulgent distraction. Yet, I don’t see why the aviation industry is equated with personal change, while fossil fuels are treated as an issue of industrial structure. I do wonder whether high-flying personal habits induce a cognitive dissonance, which has muted environmental writing addressing the aviation industry. Conversely, I suspect more political writing about the aviation industry would trigger contemplation of personal change. My own experience, and that of some authors involved with our initiative, is that flying less can be part of a slower lifestyle that is simultaneously good environmentalism and joyful. But, this personal change is not the goal of this blog post, which is about hard-nosed coverage of aviation as an industry.
Friends also sometimes describe their own flying for environmental work as essential. Yet, environmental NGOs and researchers alike could still adopt a reasonable budget for aggregate reductions in flying for environmental conferences, prioritizing a smaller number of high-impact flights. Thinking about the COP meeting in Paris, many European participants traveled by train and bus, and the conference would have been just as successful if they all had done so. As for the enormous U.S. presence, my friends and colleagues were inspired by their experience in Paris, and yet our next important work may involve more domestic travel to bridge the political and cultural gulf that produced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris agreement. Clearly our first work is at home. The question is not about judging environmentalists; the question is about having the small public interest non-profit sector demonstrate how to do its small share, at a time when courageous changes are expected from every major sector of the economy.
I recognize that most of the world’s greatest environmental writers focus on broad social transformation. In the spirit of this broader transformation, I say to them it is both fair-minded and strategic to quit the soft treatment of the aviation industry. I’ve said enough on this myself. I am ready to hear from you, whether you agree or disagree with me, so long as I don’t hear a deafening silence. Friends, speak up more about the aviation industry.
The new guidelines require students and faculty applying for travel grants to “provide an explanation of how their travel request maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.” It continues:
Given that aviation is an important contributor to greenhouse gas emissions globally, it is advantageous to travel using modes other than aviation when feasible; and, when aviation is essential, to use direct flights, stay for a longer time period on a single trip, and accomplish more and more diverse activities on each trip. Short travel will still be supported, but applicants who propose environmentally responsible travel plans will be favored.
Even more concretely, one of the program’s three evaluation criteria now states that a grant proposal will be evaluated based on whether it “maximizes environmental impact while minimizing travel emissions costs.”
You have probably guessed that I proposed this change and drafted the language TIE adopted. If I were king of my university, rather than a mere faculty member, I would institute a yet stronger policy, immediately ending all subsidies for travel by air. I feel impatient with the pace of change for universities, including even my own, which has a strong reputation for environmental leadership. Yet, at a time when our national politics has collapsed into dysfunction, it nonetheless pleases me that TIE adopted this modest policy.
Previously, the travel grants program’s poster — no longer in use! — illustrated the exact wrong way for environmental organizations to think about travel, complete with clip art of an airplane.
Now, Tufts University is doing better than that.
Accept this challenge: what similar changes can you promote at your university?
This #flyingless initiative is not just about personal austerity. It is about challenging universities to lead the way in modeling a better way of doing things. In small steps, and then soon dramatically bigger steps, let’s keep moving forward together.
In a new book, climate scientist and #flyingless supporter Peter Kalmus integrates lucid readable summaries of the key facts about climate change and charming personable engagement with the human dimensions of making radical lifestyle changes.
Along with Joe Nevins and I, Peter was the third presenter in a session of the first nearly carbon neutral online conference organized by Ken Hiltner and colleagues at the University of California Santa Barbara in 2016.
Peter is both a scientist and a community builder. His web project, “Scientists Who Don’t Fly,” features personal accounts of climate scientists who wrestle in fascinating diverse ways with the lifestyle implications of their scientific work. Far from being a downer, the overall effect — like Peter’s book — is upbeat. Though people sometimes will try to tell us that change is “unrealistic,” these appealing personalities offer their own testimony that it not only is feasible in principle, but they have done it themselves and still are thriving.
Best of all, Peter’s website has a “join” link for you to submit your own testimonial.