The Ethics of Conferences in the Age of Climate Change

Posted by on Dec 8, 2014
The Ethics of Conferences in the Age of Climate Change

nice article with a ridiculous title appeared in Saturday’s New York Times on the efforts of Lauri Zoloth, president of the American Academy of Religion, to create a “sabbatical year” from the AAR’s annual conference as a way of decreasing its carbon emissions:

“We could choose to not meet at a huge annual meeting in which we take over a city. Every year, each participant going to the meeting uses a quantum of carbon that is more than considerable. Air travel, staying in hotels, all of this creates a way of living on the earth that is carbon intensive. It could be otherwise.”

A bioethicist, Zoloth began her presidency by focusing the 2014 meeting on the theme of climate change, but her suggestion here is much more radical and feather-ruffling.  As anyone who’s attended an annual discipline-wide academic conference is well aware, they are massive affairs. The Modern Language Association’s annual meeting attracts between 7,000 and 9,000 literature and humanities scholar every year. The American Sociological Association brought 6,000 sociologists together in 2014. The American Anthropological Association regularly hosts over 5,000.  Etc etc etc.  This is only a tiny sampling—there are over a dozen huge disciplinary conferences every year, and any number of smaller thematic, interdisciplinary conferences that draw from across the country and sometimes around the world. (These numbers are far smaller than some meetings of natural science disciplines: 30,000 people regularly attend The Society for Neuroscience‘s annual affair. And non-academic science and technology conferences, such as the Offshore Technology Conference, which attracts 100,000 people to Houston every year, can be far larger.)  Most participants fly many hundreds of miles to these conferences, and also drive or take taxis to the airport.  Air travel is a particularly damaging form of carbon consumption, since airplanes emit vapor trails, nitrous oxides, particulates and of course carbon dioxide directly into the stratosphere — in terms of near-term warming per passenger mile, flying can be almost 50 times worse than driving.

In this context, Zoloth’s point about a “sabbatical year” speaks to a question of values and priorities. While some scholars consider academic conferences to be merely a requirement towards landing a first job, earning tenure or demonstrating continued ‘activity’ and ‘relevance,’ for others it’s one of the relatively few perks of an increasingly strenuous occupation: travel (generally funded by one’s institution) to a (usually) desirable location to socialize with old friends and conference buddies (think of the Archimboldi scholars in Roberto Bolaño’s 2666). In a more pragmatic vein, conferences (at their best) create the intellectual community that we speak of so often but rarely manifest: a group of scholars with similar interests (or at least methodologies) coming together to share knowledge and discuss ideas and practices. Given the fact that most contemporary academics are hyper-specialists, and thus often the only person at their home institution who is involved in or knowledgeable about the intimate details of their research, it can be a rare chance to meet other people similarly passionate about the origins of the Mughal Empire or eco-feminist speculative fiction (guilty as charged).

But we should ask of ourselves: Is what is generated at every academic conference truly more valuable than the considerable emissions produced by thousands of scholars flying thousands of miles? (And consider who’s doing the valuing: current actors or the poor people, primarily in the Global South, who will suffer the worst consequences from our present actions?)  This is an open question — I can see smart people disagreeing, and the answer depends on a bunch of factors — but many individual scholars I’ve talked to, mostly in the environmental humanities, have pondered it and decided to scale down their conference-going.  Others attend with a sense of guilt and a heavy heart.  Even beyond the emissions saved — which are admittedly, in the context of total global emissions, barely a drop in the (acidifying) ocean — one could ask: might academic institutions, by consciously meeting less frequently with climate change in mind (and openly communicating the reasoning behind this decision), help disrupt the problematic norms that still assert that environmental issues are third, fourth or fifth priorities, if that?  As educators, do we have a special responsibility to face moral issues head-on and thereby encourage ethical action?

It should be noted that there are alternatives to consider beyond simply meeting less frequently.  While video conferencing is fraught with technological glitches that make a true back-and-forth difficult, one wonders if there are creative alternatives that are not being considered, such as gatherings on virtual spaces such as Second Life. (I for one would love to see what kinds of characters scholars would create for themselves.)  Another possibility is to do away with national conferences altogether in favor of regional gatherings, which tend to be more intimate and require less air travel.  And a biennial (or even triennial) conference isn’t necessarily bad thing, either: the primary American ecocriticism / environmental humanities body, the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment, meets every two years, and (in my opinion) that very infrequency charges the meeting with particular energy and excitement.

Ultimately the question should not be viewed from the perspective of individual decision-making. Any meaningful modification of the regularity and scale of academic conferences will depend not on ethical individuals or even conference committees (though they can certainly play a role) but on the much more diffuse groups that expect and reward regular conference-going: job search committees, tenure review committees, and larger institutional boards that take this kind of professional activity into consideration when deciding on hires, promotions, and salary increases. As long as these groups expect a certain level of active participation in often distant conferences, scholars will feel the need to fly to them.  These expectations were created when oil was cheap, plentiful and guilt-free, but norms are always in flux.  As with all questions of climate change, the problem won’t be solved by individuals but by collective action, and therein lies the dilemma.  It certainly helps to have a few courageous people in positions of authority — such as Lauri Zoloth — to take the lead and begin to shift the paradigm.

I’d love to hear the thoughts of other academics (or anyone) on this question, so please do comment below or forward this post to folks who might be interested — especially if they happen to be on any conference committees!  It goes without saying, but only by actively injecting questions of environmental and climate ethics into regular discourse and decision-making will they come to be recognized as the pressing imperative they are.

UPDATE: It’s been pointed out to me that there’s is a good academic piece on this subject, measuring and discussing the ecological footprint of the 2011 annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers.  See Joseph Nevins, “Academic Jet-Setting in a Time of Climate Destabilization: Ecological Privilege and Professional Geographic Travel.”


  1. Martin Hultman
    December 9, 2014

    Very important to deal with!

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