This is the second post in a series on “2020 Visions for Environmental History” being published jointly by NiCHE’s blog The Otter ~ La loutre and Rachel Carson Center’s blog Seeing the Woods, with posts by Lisa Mighetto, Alan MacEachern, Arielle Helmick, and Claudia Leal. The series is intended to promote discussion at a session of the same name at the World Congress for Environmental History in late July.
In late July, I’m off to the 3rd World Congress of Environmental History in Florianopolis, Brazil. Perhaps because of the effort and expense of getting there, it is a relatively modest global conference, with the program listing 385 presenters, including 86 from Brazil. Of the 299 international presenters, a full 88 are from the United States, another 19 from China, 19 from the UK, 6 from Canada, 1 from Lesotho, and so on. I have calculated that the 299 of us will fly approximately 3,027,300 kilometers to reach Florianopolis, and 3,027,300 kilometers to return home. The fuel burned for our air travel—that is, from just our 598 seats, not the 598 flights in which we fly—will release approximately 1,500 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Put another way, international travel for the WCEH will reduce the Arctic summer sea ice cover by approximately 4500 square meters, the size of 3 hockey rinks.
This, one could say, is the nature of life in the early 21st century. As I write this sentence, there are 17,143 planes circling the globe. [By the end of the day, there would be 224,508, an all-time high, breaking the record set the day before.] And it is safe to say that academics, let alone environmental historians, do not constitute more than a tiny percentage of the more than ten million flyers on any given day. But as an environmental historian, by training and inclination duty-bound to look both backward and forward in time, I can’t help but compare my fossil fuel use to that of people 10, 100, or 1,000 years ago, and to consider its effect on people 10, 100, or 1,000 years from now. Like most everyone I know, I am not living a carbon-neutral life. Which means that when it’s time to give my eulogy, regardless of what nice things they may say about me, they will also be well within their rights to acknowledge that the world itself is an infinitesimal bit warmer, an infinitesimal bit poorer, because I was in it.
I wrote about my complicity in the climate crisis, and air travel specifically, last year in “The Alanthropocene,” hoping to generate discussion about academic travel. And I helped organize the WCEH “2020 Visions” session in part to discuss it further. But I have been too incremental, and Lisa Mighetto has leapfrogged ahead of me, offering not only “The Trouble with Conferences” last week, but also, in an upcoming post, specific proposals for improvement. Rather than reiterate and endorse her argument, I want to make a related one: that relying less on in-person networking and more on virtual networking has the potential to do more than reduce our “carbon airprint,” it has the potential to help us re-imagine and enhance our field.
I feel obliged to say: I like academic conferences. As some wag once put it, they’re the leisure of the theory class. And in truth they are much more than that. I have developed projects, made friends, and learned lots of what I know at them. The best ones have field trips, are field trips, and are also short courses, professional development workshops, barn raisings, and revival meetings.
But short of the field trips, much of what conferences give us can be accomplished virtually. In fact, conferences are already largely virtual. We see the call for papers, submit our proposal, register, organize our session, and, in the present case, discuss our presentation online. We live tweet the conference and put notes on the cloud. We even take photos of bookjackets at the book fair, avoiding the hassle of lugging books home, so that we can order them online later and have them shipped to us. (Or we just order the ebook. Best not to consider the extravagance of an entirely virtual experience facilitated by an international flight.) We count on the relationships we have made at conferences continuing virtually afterwards.
The conference itself is the real-world bottleneck in this virtual activity, and like all bottlenecks, it limits entry. The cost of flights, hotel, and meals makes it more difficult for early career, independent, precarious, and global South scholars to attend. The more international the event, the more this is true, as the demographics at the WCEH can attest. At such events, it tends to be well-established scholars who represent their nation, for example, with the assumption implicit that via their individual participation internationalization will trickle down to their national fields. This is at best an indirect way of helping widespread international interaction and collaboration occur.
In 2016, while on the board of the International Consortium for Environmental History Organizations (ICEHO), the group that hosts the WCEH, I organized a survey of “members of our members”—individuals who belong to our member organizations. Asked for their wish list of how ICEHO could better serve our field, respondents focused on virtual activities: 76% wanted us to publish news, events, and resources in the field, 55% to maintain an online forum for scholars, and 44% to develop an online journal. Just 11% thought we should stay focused largely on organizing the WCEH. Put another way, the majority of members surveyed would like opportunity for more day-to-day interactions with the international environmental history field.
Ironically, a move to more virtual conferencing could help facilitate better day-to-day communication, by building digital infrastructure and expertise. That could in itself foster collaboration. For example, while a group like NiCHE can’t improve access to or speed of broadband in Africa, we could offer stable server space to an African environmental history group holding a virtual conference. NiCHE could, in effect, do what we have done on social media (and by we, I in large part mean Jessica DeWitt): promote our Canadian field in the process of promoting the international field, and do well by doing good.
This post has moved a fair distance from air travel. And maybe that’s the point: that once we move away from imagining that an association or a field is defined by its periodic physical meetings, we can begin to focus on defining it by the interactions of all its scholars, anytime, in any form. It’s not a matter of choosing between “virtual” and “real,” it’s a matter of choosing between “virtual” and “exclusive, occasional, and carbon-intensive.”
 I compiled the national affiliation of presenters, used https://distance.co to calculate their nation’s flying distances from Florianopolis, determined the resulting sea-ice loss based on the widely-used findings of Dirk Notz and Julienne Stroeve, “Observed Arctic Sea-ice Loss Directly Follows Anthropogenic CO2 Emission,” Science 354 issue 6313 (11 November 2016), 747-50, and converted this to hockey rinks, my national unit of measurement. All of these calculations—other than the size of a hockey rink—are necessarily inexact. For example, long flights tend to be more fuel efficient than shorter ones, but because they are at higher altitudes, their resulting emissions have a greater effect on climate. My calculations are undoubtedly overstated in some ways. For example, they make no allowance for presenters coming to Brazil for multiple purposes, such as archival work or fieldwork. But they are also understated. They do not take into account international attendees who are not presenting, Brazilians’ domestic flights to the Congress, or the many international presenters who will undoubtedly travel with family.
 See https://flightradar24.com; and Travis Lupick, “Airplanes are a Massive Source of Carbon Emissions….,” Georgia Straight, 3 June 2019.
 For a summary of the survey, see ICEHO Bulletin 10, October 2016.
Excellent exploration of an important consideration.
Of course, as with everything else in this complex, nonlineal world, it’s not quite as simple as comparing virtual or face-to-face conferences. Virtual communications have their own environmental costs as well, such as the enormous amounts of energy, plus the amount of natural resources, required to maintain the servers and other infrastructure that makes this virtual world possible.
There’s no free lunch, not even a relatively inexpensive snack.
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