Academic Travel Causes Global Warming

January 22, 2008

OK, the headline is a stretch. However, it is true that air travel puts large amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, soot, and even water vapor directly into the atmosphere, all of which makes an inordinate and unsustainable contribution to global warming.

And academics do fly -- a lot. As the environmental writer and activist Mark Lynas argued in the New Statesman: "Probably the single most polluting thing you or I will ever do is step on a plane."

Ian Roberts and Fiona Godlee published an editorial in the British Medical Journal on the "carbon footprint of medical conferences." They determined that flights destined for the annual conferences of the European Respiratory Society and the American Thoracic Society put more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than do 110,000 Chadians or 11,000 Indians in an entire year. The problem does not end with medical researchers. Scholars of all stripes travel to meet, greet, and, in one of our more ironic roles, preach the gospel of sustainability.

How do we reduce our contradictions or, better yet, our carbon emissions? The solutions are obvious, which is why no one wants to talk about them. They would require sacrifice, or at least a new way of thinking about and conducting our professional lives. Bring up the issue among a gathering of scholars and you will get something like the following responses:

  • "I know that flying is an environmental problem, but travel is essential to my work (and I really like San Francisco in the fall)."

  • "My research is a collaborative enterprise. I need to discuss it with colleagues face-to-face (over wine and cheese)."

  • "The importance of my research outweighs the environmental costs of air travel."

All of those points are reasonable (despite my parenthetical interjections). However, only the third argument directly engages the issue. And in some cases it might be accurate. The environmental costs of flights by scientists whose research, teaching, and outreach deal with environmental problems might be offset by their contributions to the development of sustainable policies, practices, and technologies.

But what about the rest of us?

Take a conference I attended last year in Amsterdam. I flew 6,687 kilometers from Minneapolis to Holland to attend a virtual-ethnography workshop. We discussed such problems as the transference of traditional ethnographic methods to the Internet, research ethics, and differences between computer-mediated communication and face-to-face interactions. It was a fascinating set of discussions and a great opportunity to interact with leaders in that new field.

However, there is more than a little irony in flying thousands of miles to discuss virtual modes of communication. As several colleagues and friends back home asked, "Couldn't you do that from here?"

Unfortunately, the environmental potential of virtual technologies remained outside the discussion in Amsterdam. As is true throughout the academic world -- perhaps with the exception of British thoracic specialists -- no one seems interested in discussing the matter.

Perhaps that is because our most sacred privilege is at stake. We love to travel.

To borrow a line from the Book of Luke, "What then must we do?" Although cash-strapped administrators would love to see us travel less, most professors would be unwilling to give up the big trips. Conferences are viewed as equal parts opportunity, obligation, and perk. Probationary faculty members, in particular, feel an obligation to present at the relevant disciplinary conferences.

Maybe instead of thinking about the issue in terms of limitations, it is better to think about new opportunities. Good alternatives exist. Among the most promising is videoconferencing.

Last year a group of students, a colleague, and I hosted a videoconference session with Nicole Constable of the University of Pittsburgh, the author of Romance on a Global Stage: Pen Pals, Virtual Ethnography, and "Mail Order" Marriages (University of California Press, 2003). Rather than fly Nicole to our campus, we asked her to take an hour to interact with us via video link. While we encountered some technological and logistical difficulties, the event demonstrated how rich and useful videoconferencing could be if conducted on a larger scale. Distance educators have discovered the potential of videoconferencing, and so should the rest of academe.

The School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, where I teach, has invested in user-friendly videoconferencing technology, and we are starting to experiment with ways to replace carbon-based forms of collaboration, at least in cases where live conferencing is difficult or unwarranted.

Of course, we are not alone. The University of Texas system has taken a strong lead in academic videoconferencing, and many institutions have discovered the economic, logistical, and ecological benefits of working in electronically mediated environments. Several scholars and organizations have even started to hold meetings in Second Life and other virtual environments.

As for offline travel, a renaissance in regional conferencing would go a long way toward reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions. Currently, many scholars overlook regional conferences and prefer to attend high-profile national and international meetings.

Granted, Miami is more appealing than Minneapolis in the winter, and our grad-school buddies probably won't attend the regional meeting. Nevertheless, some substitution of regional meetings for national and global ones would help us replace the plane with train, bus, or car, all of which are less destructive than air travel.

Oil is a tough drug to quit. It takes us on the most amazing trips. Sometimes we really do need to go, but in other cases it is an unnecessary anodyne. How many times have you found yourself thinking, "Did I really need to fly to New York to hear that?" Let's face it, academic research is usually better read than recited.

Those whose field sites are situated in other parts of the world find it particularly difficult to avoid flying. However, when we can reduce air travel yet still maintain meaningful research and teaching practices, why wouldn't we? Put in social terms, why should the rest of society take our research conclusions seriously if we don't take the most significant scientific consensus of our time to heart?

I would write more, but it is time to go. The gate agent has called for rows 31 and higher to board the plane.

Mark Pedelty is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of Minnesota who really did write this column waiting for a plane. He and a group of colleagues are now planning a virtual conference for the purpose of developing more effective means of virtual conferencing.