Ecological privilege and the ugly underside of airborne conference-going

by Joseph Nevins

Hardly a week seems to pass when an announcement or a “call for papers” for a conference, seminar, or workshop enters my inbox, or I hear a colleague mention a recently undertaken or soon-to-happen trip to some far-flung locale for an academic gathering. Among other things, they are a manifestation of the growth in what Karl Høyer and Petter Næss call “conference tourism”—a phenomenon that typically involves air travel for the vast majority of participants.

Airborne academic conference-going is often undertaken with a certain glee given the opportunity to meet up with old friends and make new ones, to travel to interesting destinations, and to exchange ideas with engaged colleagues. Although the individual benefits are clear, rarely, if ever, are the considerable socio-ecological costs raised, costs typically incurred by the already vulnerable, the global majority who live on the world’s socio-economic margins.

The failure to do so is especially striking in a time of climate change, one that now demands immediate, radical reductions in the ecological footprints of (especially) the twenty percent of the world’s population  responsible for more than 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. In the face of such demands, the effective response of academics has been to jump on the next flight to yet another conference city, growing what are typically already grossly oversized, individual and collective carbon footprints in the process.

It is a behavior that flows from and serves to exacerbate the unjust “isms” associated with race, class, nation, and empire, ones constructed in part by the extraordinary spatial mobility enjoyed by Western academics as a whole: (Flying is an activity of the planet’s privileged classes: according to the World Watch Institute, less than 10 percent of humanity has ever flown.) The costs also emanate from and reproduce ecological privilegewhich allows for the appropriation of a disproportionate amount of the planet’s resources, the privatization of the benefits and the socialization of the detrimental impacts—and its flipside, ecological disadvantage.

To get a sense of how big the footprint is of professional academic gatherings, I measured the impact of attendee flights to and from Seattle, the host city of the major conference of the Association of American Geographers in 2011. An estimated 7,300 people attended with the vast majority coming from throughout the United States and Canada and 20 percent from outside of North America.

Total conference-related air travel resulted in roughly 5,351 metric tons of carbon emissions. (By way of visualization, one ton of carbon emissions at standard atmospheric pressure would fill a cube, each of whose sides would be more than eight meters by eight meters.) The actual impact on the climate system was far greater, however. The height at which planes fly, the mixture of emitted gases and particles, and the contrails and other forms of cloudiness that aviation produces mean that air travel contributes to the warming of the climate approximately 3  times more than that of its carbon emissions. Given this, the meeting’s effective aviation-related footprint was approximately 2.2 metric tons of CO2 emissions per attendee—regardless of mode of travel (an estimated 7.66 percent of attendees were already in the Seattle area or traveled there via ground transport). In other words, the impact of conference flights per attendee was, by itself, greater than which what would be allowable were carbon emissions allocated equitably and sustainably among the planet’s denizens. As for the conference as a whole, its total aviation-related warming effect on the climate system is that of about 16,053 metric tons of CO2—equal to the annual emissions of 76,443 Haitians (based on 2006 figures from the U.S. Department of Energy).

One might contend that in a world of more than seven billion people, a population that produced 36 billion tons of carbon emissions in 2013, the impact of any individual conference, even one involving thousands of people, is too small to be of concern, and that scrutinizing it is a diversion from the need to focus on the big picture, or structural matters. But just as “everyday” sexism flows from and helps to reproduce patriarchy, so, too, does individual consumption relate to systemic ecological injustice—that is, there is a dynamic interrelationship between agency and structure. Moreover, as Kevin Anderson, deputy director of the Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, states, such a contention can serve as an excuse for personal inaction and a way of avoiding putting one’s proverbial house in order. “Divide the world into a sufficient number of small parts,” he writes—say, California, Beijing, or London—and everything fits into the “classification of ‘miniscule’, i.e. so small as to be irrelevant.”

The “miniscule” matters not only for the biosphere, but also for human well-being and issues of social justice as climate change disproportionately impacts people of color and low-income populations and countries—due to their already existing vulnerability and the accidents of geography (as climate change-related detriments spread unevenly across global space and concentrate in particular regions). In terms of individual bodies, increasing carbon emissions, and air pollution more broadly, contribute to respiratory illness and asthma, and large numbers deaths annually. (The World Health Organization approximates that outdoor air pollution caused 3.7 million premature deaths in 2012. Climate change, according to one estimate, contributes to the deaths of another 400,000 annually) Hence, conference-going of the jet-setting variety helps to kill—and typically the most vulnerable among us.

Admittedly, one could make the same argument about any consumptive practice based on industrially-produced goods in a world of gross inequalities embedded in unjust systems. But what makes flying stand out is the size of its impact, one that dwarfs all other acts of individual consumption and hence its injurious effects. Furthermore, by allowing for fast travel, flying “saves” time that allows for additional acts of consumption (such as more trips).

There are alternatives, of course to conference jet-setting. These include: choosing the sites of meetings on the basis of limiting the total amount of miles travelled; reducing the frequency of meetings (changing them from annual to quadrennial, for instance); holding smaller conferences that draw on spatially limited areas; requiring that attendees take ground transport; and instituting ways of disseminating research and networking that do not require in-person meetings.

Beyond such innovations, more far-reaching changes are needed, ones entailing slowing down, doing and consuming considerably less, and sharing the Earth’s resources in a far more equitable fashion than is the case currently. These changes have implications not only for the individual choices of academics, but also for our collective professional practices that involve, among other matters broadly related to consumption, long-distance travel—ranging from job interviews, to guest lectures and academic conferences (and the pressures on graduate students and non-tenured faculty to participate in them). While the neoliberalization of the university and the growing emphasis on quantifiable forms of professional academic output help to shape these practices and to limit alternatives, this does not at all mean that academics don’t have agency—or responsibility.

What allows us, the ecologically privileged, to ignore responsibility is our social position. Even if we are aware of how our practices relate to injustice, we do harm-inducing things (among other reasons) because we are structurally allowed to do so, because we don’t want to inconvenience or to deny ourselves, because we can pass off the costs to unseen and seemingly distant others, and because we are rarely, if ever, compelled to account for our profligate ways.

A more just world necessitates such an accounting—in addition to new sociological imaginaries and practices, and new ecological ones to which they are inextricably tied. Putting an end to the high-flying ways of academic conference tourism is one of many good places to start.

Joseph Nevins is an associate professor of geography at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. His research interests include socioterritorial boundaries and mobility, violence and inequality, and political ecology. Among his books are A Not-so-Distant Horror: Mass Violence in East Timor (Cornell University Press); Dying to Live: A Story of U.S. Immigration in an Age of Global Apartheid (City Lights) and Operation Gatekeeper and Beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (Routledge).

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2 replies »

  1. Joseph Nevins is an inspiration on this topic. No exaggeration — a conversation with him a couple years ago persuaded me to undertake a year without flying for either pleasure or work, despite being an active academic. I made it only 11 months (sigh), from May 2013 to April 2014, but I’m trying again now. Why should we be hypocrites? If we tackle this issue with courage, we will have greater integrity in our research and somewhat rarer conferencing on environmental issues, *and* quite probably we will have some extra time left over to spend with loved ones.

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