The Ethics of Conference Attendance

On a neighbouring blog, The Other Librarian, I came across an interesting discussion of an issue that I had begun to think about with greater seriousness in the last two years, concerning the ethics of conference attendance. The blogger is Ryan Deschamps, a librarian in Halifax, Nova Scotia–alright, I admit it, he is ahead of me so far, in that I envy him for being both a librarian and for being in Nova Scotia. Envy aside…

In response to a post by Deschamps that weighed the merits of conference attendance (“in real life”–IRL) versus online networking, and some of the comments that followed, I began to question whether conference attendance was at all necessary, and whether in some ways it might even be destructive. Thus I posted the following:

While some can find some good reasons for face-to-face interactions, I do not think that the choice to be weighed is between face-to-face and online networking. For me the more important choice is online versus environmentally destructive. I think that if anyone were able to tally the vast amounts of jet fuel burned in the atmosphere to ferry around conference participants, sometimes thousands of miles, just to speak for 15 minutes, it might give some pause. Furthermore, for those of us in Canada who receive grants (public money) and work at universities (where the salaries are mostly funded by taxpayers), it just seems terribly odd to spend on average $1,200 per conference, on hotels, meals, fees, transport…again, to speak for 15 minutes. We truly are an overprivileged elite when we get to make such choices and entertain such discussions.

I gather from Deschamps’ response that this line of thinking was neither appealing nor convincing. His response was as follows (unedited):

Maximilian: While I think the environment ought to play into all our decisions as well, I had a question about the costs of airlines traffic and jet-fuel versus the regular commute with cars for the same individuals in the same period.

If you think about how airplanes are organized in a mass-transit way and how people often commute in large vehicles by themselves, the fuel costs may not be so different – in fact, they may be less. Add in other things like the fact that a single hotel will house most of these individuals versus heating both a home and workplace, and then there is the maintenance of roads, additional safety infrastructure, police traffic, firestations etc etc etc., I really do not think conference attenders are any worse than the regular drudge. In short, I think our environmental focus should be our day to day decisions. Ie. how many cars do we have? Do we live far from work/services? Do we use mass transit? Do we have cottages and extra homes to maintain? etc. etc. etc.

A recent (admittedly air-transport industry funded) study did show that air traffic only amounts to about 1% of emissions in Canada. Count that against cars and electrical power. . .

As far as the “priviledged” piece, I recognize your point there too, but I think it’s overstated. Assuming there is value coming back the conference – for instance, let’s say I learned how to effectively install and maintain an open source solution for an ILS, that measley $1500 could end up saving the taxpayers 10s of thousands or more. All the more reason, in the end, to be sure that a conference is going to bring something back for your employer if they indeed pay for the costs.

I will not dispute Deschamps’ figures, except to say that I also do not have a car, I live close to work, and I live in a small apartment (yes, such is the life of luxury of a university professor in Canada), so that I probably begin to do more serious environmental harm when I fly. But it’s more than that: the taxpayer has to pay for my breakfast? I just had trouble, recently, getting the food down, when I thought how bizarre and arbitrary this social system is, where some (always more) beg on the streets, and others in Canada live below the poverty line (quite a few), and here I am eating a tax breakfast and sleeping on a tax pillow.

I understand Deschamps’ response, I think. What I do not understand is how this makes for an iron clad argument that conference travel is essential. Nothing he mentions above is beyond the grasp of online networking.

One thought on “The Ethics of Conference Attendance

  1. Ryan Deschamps

    Hi Maximilian: Apologies. I did not intend for my reply to sound as if I was completely rejecting your argument. My IRL reaction was more about uncertainty or skepticism. I definitely think that alot of conferences are unnecessary, and if that was your primary point, I do hope my reply didn’t distract from that, because I agree.

    I also think that if there is a networked alternative for a travelled conference, that’s preferred. But, I do not think we should not necessarily dismiss air travel altogether on environmental grounds. I believe such pollenation to be essential in a global society, and if there is a sizable benefit to the trip, that may outweigh the relatively minor costs of sending a group away.

    As a librarian who envies your status as an Anthropologist in Montreal (*smile*), I find questions about environmental behavior very challenging and frequently reduced to “don’t dos” when the calculations are much more challenging. For instance, I hear lobbies about idling in drive thrus without any question about why those drive thrus exist in the first place: because city dwellers live in their cars. We [or a spotty collective I imagine to be a “we”] design our cities, rituals, and even sexual fantasies around the idea that we will one day own and frequently use a car of our own.

    The problem is not idling, the problem is the drudge — the fact that I turn my computer on [and large institutions keep their computers on] daily so I can comment on environmentalism; the fact that people can brag about their “Green” home that happens to be a second luxury home in the middle of nowhere; the fact that, somehow, my family home isn’t big enough for two kids, even though I lived in a sardine can myself and was happy.

    But, I am proud to admit that neither my wife nor I drive to work!

    So, I guess my comment comes from being aclimatized to both appreciative inquiry and public sector management to believe: “let’s put our environmentalism into the big things first.” Especially when I understand that politicians really want us to focus in on the little insignificant things so we’ll believe they are doing something important.

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