Friday, December 28, 2012

environmental guilt

A while ago I had a short conversation with a student, which made me thinking about my job from a different perspective. The student studies environmental engineering and did some internships with companies to improve their environmental standards. He seemed to be pretty enthusiastic about his studies. But after a couple of beers he mentioned how tired he is to live and work in this constant atmosphere of guilt and that he is grown-up and smart enough to estimate the impact on the world climate if he once in a while drives a crazy fast car. And sometimes that's just what he wants to do without feeling guilty.
Talking, reading and thinking about environmental impact and "how to save the planet" has become an everyday topic. It comes and goes in the major news but it's always present and I'm sure a lot of people have it in their heads - even if just for complaining about a bunch of politicians flying around the world to meet in Doha for the Climate Change Conference and there doesn't seem to be much change afterwards. Still I don't have the impression that the majority of the people actually cares very much about the footprint they leave in their everyday life. So I was surprised about this outburst of "feeling guilty". I'm not sure if feeling guilty is the best starting point for planet saving activities, but it's certainly better than not caring at all.
When reading through blogs of scientists, the topic about the importance of attending conferences pops up frequently. Being present and visible, meeting people, starting new collaborations, presenting your work, pushing your career and with this your science. The science we do is meant to be for the greater good of our society. We do research to expand knowledge and develop a better world for everybody, so everything (within certain ethical frameworks) that is necessary to achieve these goals is well invested. Right?
I usually attend two international conferences each year. My boss is more in the region of 6 or more. From Australia these travels can only be done by long-distance flights, but no matter where your home university is: conferences involve flying most of the time. So even if my private me takes great care of her carbon footprint to keep it small, my professional me just smashes all efforts. And estimating from the amount of time my boss spends in planes, it will get worse.
This is a part of my job that actually makes me feel guilty and I'm thinking a lot about if it’s really necessary to attend conferences. Are the outcomes of a conference for my research high enough to justify the travel? Or was it just nice to meet the science crowd again? Are there alternatives to keep and get in contact with other researchers and be part of the community - we live in such a well connected world! Or would my chances to have a career in the research world just vanish quickly if I'd reduce my attendance rate on conferences?
Are there people seriously thinking about this problem, which not only affects researchers but a lot of employees of international operating companies? Besides fossil fuels a lot of money and time could be saved... Are there possible solutions proposed or already in use? And can we really justify to drive a crazy fast car?


  1. A few years ago, I made a real effort to measure and calculate my carbon footprint. At that time, I was living in a state in the US where it snowed a few times a year, didn't own a car, but borrowed/rented one regularly for short trips, and ate locally as much as possible in such a climate. Yet my carbon footprint was still near the American mean. Why? My family lived 1000 miles away, my in laws 2500, I had extended family 10,000 miles away (including friends who are subsistence farmers whose island is effected by rising sea levels) I visit every 2 or so years, my partner lived 300 miles away, and one of us took a bus trip to visit every week. Add to that a conference or two every year.

    My two body problem still isn't solved, so I still travel every week. I now live about half-way between my in-laws and my extended family. Even ignoring the work travel, I find my very existence has a horrible carbon imprint. I try not to think of it very often, as it causes me to shut down with guilt. Even if we both gave up our job and my family moved near one of our parents, living carbon neutrally would mean cutting off too many loved ones to bear contemplating.

  2. It's one of the dark sides of globalization. We can travel more, widen our horizon and learn a lot about each other, which certainly makes the world a better place. But then traveling comes with a cost and it would be better if we'd all stay much more where we are. I'd say its important to reflect about that once in while and adjust when possible. All the tiny things like eating locally and what's in season and reducing trips with a car help on various levels. So even if my travels raise my carbon footprint in a horrible way, I'll try to keep all the tiny things up.