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.