My Climate Sin

My Climate Sin

I confess. Mea culpa. I am a climate sinner. Not a climate change denier. Oh, no! I know I’m contributing to climate change, and I know how bad it’s getting. And yet, I continue to sin.

Not constantly, mind you. Not on an everyday basis. I generally walk, bike, or take public transport. I turn down the heat and put on a sweater. I don’t leave lights on all over the house. I prefer locally sourced or fair trade, organically grown food. The same goes for clothing. I recycle. Recognizing that these habits too may not be the most climate-friendly and that calculating the climate impact of each action is beyond my capabilities, I am as good as I can be. But I have one climate sin I cannot seem to shake off: I fly.

I fly to visit family, living as I do an ocean and a continent away from where I was born. And I fly to academic conferences. I’ve done away with many smaller meetings, replacing them with conference calls. But conferences and workshops I find irreplaceable. As do even climate change researchers, I gather. My own daughter and son-in-love (cases in point) just got back from academic meetings in China and Portugal. So what is it about such meetings that compels us to fly? Can’t we just email one another?

No, we can’t. Email does not replace face-to-face communications. For instance, in graduate student supervision, I find that a strong basis of trust has to be built up first through face-to-face communication before emailed exchanges can be effective. Until the student feels confident in herself and confident that I mean her well, emailed comments are too brusk (no matter how many smileys tacked on) and emailed clarifications too slow. They can shake the student’s confidence, cause alarm or even insult, and it takes too many exchanges with too much time between them to iron the wrinkles back out of the relationship. And that’s just a two-person communication situation.

Conferences and work-shops bring in another compelling factor – efficiency. The broad and rapid exchange and development of ideas and norms achievable at a conference or workshop is hard to achieve on paper or screen. Note, for instance, Richard Hindmarsh’s piece below on the Asia-Pacific STS Network. The whole organization process began as a happenstance meeting and moan about long-distance conference travels, shared over cups of breakfast coffee at the Rotterdam 4S/EASST conference. I won’t say that similarly productive meetings don’t happen over virtually shared cups of coffee over the internet, but I would hypothesize that they are more rare.  Certainly in my own experience, I almost always come away from face-to-face conferencing with totally unplanned for new contacts, new project ideas, new agreements to co-author a paper or a book or a project application. I have never done so through random encounters online.

And so … I continue to fly, however much I realize that flying is my worst climate sin. I continue to fly, and so do thousands of other academics. We have yet again set a new record for registrations for the 4S/EASST conference, I look forward to seeing many of you there in Copenhagen in a few weeks. I hope you find the conference inspiring, invigorating more than exhausting (though the latter is also inevitable), productive – all in all: well worth whatever guilt it entails. And if you can, do come by train.

Editorially yours,
Ann R. Sætnan