Videoconferencing for Climate Practice (guest post by Colin Marshall and Sinan Dogramaci)
The following is a guest post* discussing the practice of making videoconferencing a regular component of academic conferences and the like, for the sake of the environment, by Colin Marshall (UW Seattle) and Sinan Dogramaci (UT Austin).
It follows up on Professor Marshall’s previous post, “Flying Less, Videoconferencing More“.
Videoconferencing for Climate Practice
by Colin Marshall and Sinan Dogramaci
Fellow colloquia/conference/workshop organizers: please join us in adopting the Videoconferencing for Climate Practice!
The idea is simple. By using more videoconferencing, we can both reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and make the discipline more inclusive in a very cost-effective way.
Colloquium and events organizers who adopt the Practice aim to
- Have a significant percentage (at least 15%) of talks and presentations be done remotely—in particular, through videoconferencing—instead of using air travel, and
- Find additional ways to improve the climate impacts of our professional activities, especially at the institutional level (universities, professional associations, and governments). These include aiming for higher percentages of remote and local talks, institutional support for buying carbon offsets, institutional divestment from problematic industries, and finding ways to directly influence local and national governments.
A wide adoption of the Practice would have two effects: (1) reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby helping physical climate and (2) expanding the number of people who can participate in professional activities, improving social climate.
A more detailed explanation and justification for the practice can be found here.
There are a variety of ways an organizer can adopt the practice. One would be to include a line like the following in all invitations:
“We would be delighted to have you join us in person. We have also adopting the Videoconferencing for Climate Practice, however, and so would also would welcome you to present and discuss your work using videoconferencing technology.”
We are by no means alone in thinking that academics should move towards more videoconferencing (without, of course, replacing all in-person talks). See, for example:
- The British Philosophical Association’s guidelines for environmentally responsible business travel,
- The Age of Metaphysical Revolution’s approach to environmental sustainability, which included a conference on David Lewis involving extensive videoconferencing by presenters and online participation, and
- Tufts University’s Parke Wilde’s document on greatly reducing flying for academics.
Crucially, adopting the Practice is far from a complete response to the moral challenges relating to climate change and inclusiveness. For important clarifications, see again the longer description of the Practice.
Some organizers, departments, and associations might not find the Practice the right fit for them. If so, we hope they will develop and publicize their own climate-focused policies and practices.
I think it’s both funny and depressing that when we’re discussing the livability of the planet, we can’t just cite that reason, we also have to talk about “inclusiveness” and “improving the social climate”. Yeah, more people could come to conferences, great. Those conferences would also be much less valuable to attend, given the greatly reduced opportunities for networking and casual discussion (i.e. the greatly reduced social climate). But, you know, instead of getting caught up in that argument… environmental disaster, food shortages, resource wars leading to mass death… right? Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but I sort of feel like those considerations should be sufficient to motivate the proposal.Report
With all due respect, I think it’s more funny and depressing that anytime someone brings up the need to improve inclusiveness and social climate in philosophy, someone has to make snarky comments to the effect of, “why are we even talking about this”Report
You know, I’m looking through these recent posts and I can’t find a single person saying that those topics aren’t worth discussing:
Could you find one for me? Or, is it just that any disagreement over some particular proposal is being interpreted as “why are we even talking about this”?Report
Let me register that I hope this thread stops here, though I hope the discussion is able to productively continue in some more appropriate place.Report
If the cause of climate justice is great enough to justify a prima facie duty to have something like 15% of talks being scheduled via video, why isn’t it enough to schedule 30%? 50%? For that matter, 100%? “We are by no means alone in thinking that academics should move towards more videoconferencing” but why not? The guest post is really slim on argument. Suppose I’m not convinced that academic air travel, or academic driving, or academic labor more generally, is anywhere near enough of a significant contributor to climate change as other sources, that I do significantly more good (for myself, for future generations, and for scholarly inquiry) by donating funds to climate change organizations (which will target the significant industrial contributors more effectively). Why shouldn’t that be our response instead? We could, of course, do all of these, but then we’re just repeating Singer’s Famine, Affluence, and Morality problems but about the climate.Report
I should add that I meant to quote the entire sentence; “(without, of course, replacing all in-person talks)” My apologies.Report
I agree and would make the further point that limiting academics’ air travel might be (more than just insignificant) a less efficient way of combating climate change. What if, instead of retarding the progress of the philosophical community by limiting conferences to video-chat, we turn part of its progress (supported by carbon emissions as it is) toward practical climate philosophizing. The philosophical critique of climate activism in this comment section alone is (I think) relevant enough to warrant a change in course (namely, not attempting to institute anti-flight norms in professional philosophy). If what we critics are arguing is correct here, we may all have just saved some utility with relation to the climate (the asocial one) and our practical attitudes toward it.
I’ve been slightly sarcastic. Really though, I think the environment is served better by the continuation of in-person philosophical conferences, simultaneously (probably) with supplementation by video-chat technology and the devotion of some conference time to practical environmental philosophizing.Report
Why do we necessarily need 15% videoconference as opposed to 15% non-airline talks? In other words wouldn’t using local/regional speakers accomplish the same thing and then what, if anything, is left over to care about videoconferencing per se?Report
Thanks for the comments so far. Here are some brief follow-ups.
Avalonian: I completely agree that trying to avert the climate catastrophe *should* be sufficient motivation not only for this, but also for a vast range of institutional changes. Human psychology isn’t what it should be, though. And I do think social inclusiveness is morally important, and something our discipline could do much better at.
Caligula’s Goat: I actually agree with much of what you say – except the word “instead.” The threat of climate change is huge, and needs to be tackled on multiple levels. Donating funds to relevant organizations (and helping elect appropriate politicians) is extremely important, and something I do as well. If you’d like to see more argument, I’d point you to the longer description of the Practice (there are links at both the top and bottom of the article).
Jon: Having more local talks is a great idea, and I hope departments do that too. Some departments are much more remote than others, though. So my hope is that videoconferencing becomes a common practice, alongside more regional organization.Report
Colin, my reply to Caligula’s Goat might be relevant to your own response to him. I wonder what you think about the cost benefit analysis I invoke.
Basically: does the potential for a reduction in global philosophical synergy (that might otherwise partially be put toward practical philosophizing about climate issues) disconfirm the idea that a reduction in philosophers’ air-travel would be beneficial to the environment?
Of course the effect would both be small (with relation to global philosophical synergy), but then so (I would guess) is the effect of philosophers’ professional air travel on the environment. The result really devolves, then, onto an empirical analysis– onto clarifying that ‘I would guess.’Report
I’m glad you raised the issue of the value of synergy for discussion of climate issues. I’m inclined to think that philosophers (like my colleague Steve Gardiner) who work on climate change have extra reason to do in-person presentations. That’s a small portion of the profession, of course, but it’s still an important point.
Otherwise: I nowhere want to suggest that all in-person conferences stop, since in-person interactions have a lot of value. But, in calculating their value, I think we also need to keep in mind that a significant number of academics have limited ability to travel (for a variety of reasons), and so are frequently left out of conferences, workshops, etc. So I really think that a shift towards 15% or 20% virtual talks would be pretty clear win across the board. It would enrich events by bringing more people in while reducing emissions. Crucially, both would help us signal to our students that we take these issues seriously (which is really where I think this has the most potential to do good).
As for having more conference time devoted to these issues: that’s a really interesting idea. Somebody should try it! I can imagine it going either way. It might do some real good, or it might turn out that philosophers who don’t work on climate issues aren’t really equipped to do much useful. I don’t think we can figure that out a priori.Report
I remember 10 years ago when a number of departments first began using Skype for first interviews, a lot of skeptics spoke of how invaluable face-to-face conversations were. And they are better–personally, *all else being equal*, I’d prefer an in-person interview. But all else isn’t equal, of course, and I haven’t recently heard anyone bemoaning the death of the APA interview.
Are there however links to resources on how to do videoconferencing effectively and creatively? Suppose that a speaker is interested but wants to show slides as they talk and doesn’t know how to do that. Or suppose we wanted to somehow mimic or find analogues to other common elements of a speaker visit (a workshop of their paper, lunch with the grads, reception, whatever)–has anyone thought through whether there might be ways to do things *like* this remotely?Report
Good questions, Ash. Speaking for myself: yes, I’ve been thinking about how to replicate other features of the visit. The technology for some of these (like slides) is certainly there, though there will of course be a learning process for everyone who starts using it.
One thing you mentioned that seems especially important (and which I talk a bit about in the document) is having some space for people to informally chat. That can be done pretty easily with existing technology, and it wouldn’t be hard to arrange for it to be over lunch (a department could even cover the receipt of the remote speaker’s lunch!).
University’s love touting how high-tech they are (hence the buzz around ‘digital humanities’). So I don’t think it would take a huge push to get serious support for these at most places, especially when they’ll be saving the institution money.Report
I think that face to face interactions, especially at conferences, but also when giving colloquium talks, are extremely important. The actual talks are only a small part of why we invite and meet other philosophers, and the other parts of the interaction would not be replicated if we move to videoconferencing. Perhaps another proposal that could work is to pack more into each trip. This would require significant coordination, but it would ensure that if someone flies, for example, from the West Coast to the East Coast, they don’t just give one talk and go home, but perhaps two or three. Of course this requires some flexibility, and we would have to be okay with people replacing their in-person teaching a couple of times per semester with an online class or a substitute. But this way we can have the in person interaction we want, while being more efficient about using plane trips.Report
Thanks for this, Julia. I agree with both points. Face to face interactions are very important, so there will often really be something lost in remote talks (though see my reply to Ash above). Given the existential threat climate change poses, I myself think this is a small sacrifice, but I don’t want to pretend it isn’t there. I’m inclined to think that remote talks should be aimed at more serious speakers, since it’s more important for junior philosophers to develop connections.
Your point about packing more into trips is a really good one, though. That should definitely be another part of reducing our emissions.Report
As one of the original proposers of the BPA environmental guidelines, as well as a member of the Lewis project which was run along corresponding lines, I’d like to emphasise a point explicit in the rationale given for those guidelines and, indeed, in Colin and Sinan’s original post. This is to do, so to speak, with the extrinsic rather than intrinsic value of us philosophers cutting back on flights. The fact of the matter is that everyone will need to make significant changes in their lives to to make the transition needed to a low carbon economy to safeguard the wellbeing of future generations. Change needs to start somewhere and it needs to start happening sooner rather than later because soon it will be too late. By telling others that we are prepared to fly less and using our ingenuity and energy to find ways of carrying on the business of philosophy without contributing to unsustainable practices, we both signal our support for a wider movement seeking to persuade government and business to bring about change and we encourage other disciplines and our institutions to join us and signal this too. Philosophers shouldn’t just fly less to pollute less but to help bring about the kind of co-ordinated action necessary to save the planet for future generations.Report