What Should We Do?

After I returned from the Disabling Normativites conference in South Africa in October, I began to seriously question whether I should go to the conference and workshop to which I have been invited this Spring. With the growing urgency of the international discussion around climate change and mounting evidence for it, I feel as if I can no longer board airplanes in order to attend international philosophy and other academic conferences. (Air travel for vacations is not even a consideration.)

Earlier this month, I posted to Facebook about the matter, asking why philosophers and other academics have not made concerted efforts to foster local and technological alternatives to continental and international conferences and workshops that require them to contribute to climate change.

At the time, I noted that I had two invitations (accepted months ago) to participate in a M.A.P. workshop and a conference that would, respectively, require me to take flights from Pearson Airport in Toronto, Canada to the workshop in Minneapolis and the philoSOPHIA conference in Nashville.

The discussion on the Facebook post was unmotivated. Some of my Facebook friends mentioned the social aspects of conferences, the benefits of face-to-face interaction that conference attendance affords, benefits not gained from video conferences, zoom rooms, and other technological means in which philosophers could engage.

Explanations and justifications of this kind are usually offered when someone points out that the conference air travel in which academics engage annually has significant ramifications for the climate. But are these explanations of, and justifications for, current practices with respect to conference-related air travel merely first-world indulgences? After all, the implications for the climate of academic conferences that benefit the already privileged with respect to climate change will, in both the short term and the long run, have the most detrimental effects on the lives of people in the South, as well as disabled people, communities of Black people and people of colour, Indigenous communities, and poor people everywhere. (See, for instance, the earlier BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY posts here, here, and here.)

McGill University philosopher Gregory Mikkelson was in the news last week. As you may have read, Mikkelson resigned from his tenured position in the Department of Philosophy and School of the Environment at McGill University because, for the third time, the university voted not to divest from fossil fuels.

The news about Mikkelson strengthened my resolve to change my relationship to air travel and to other practices, practices that to others may seem negligible: I am a vegan (for a variety of reasons), have started to repair my clothes rather than replace them, haven’t used a plastic bag in years, and don’t drive a car. To be sure, I know that corporations, capitalism, and neoliberalism are the first and foremost vile culprits of both the historically recent past and current situation and, thus, that solutions to this predicament must be structural, global, institutional, and revolutionary. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to try to do more in a variety of ways to reduce my own carbon footprint and my impact on the planet more generally. I have also considered s.e smith’s provocative essay entitled “The Personal Will Not Save You,” in which the author cautions about the actual stakes in this sort of thinking, referring to such acts as “Performative Environmentalism” and drawing attention to the undeniable fact that marginalized constituencies are usually asymmetrically affected by these performances, as the calls to ban plastic straws on which many disabled people rely demonstrate.

Indeed, many philosophers might be inclined to say that Mikkelson’s decision was counterproductive, that a wiser and more effective decision on his part would have led him to stay on in his job and direct his convictions to educating students about the dire prospects for the future if institutions continue to finance and promote fossil fuels.

Will Mikkelson’s actions and his rationale for them motivate institutional change? Maybe. Maybe other philosophers will develop similar or other principled responses to the actions of their workplaces or put in place policies that provide exemplars for their institutions. In fact, I directly encountered one such response the other day. No doubt, Mikkelson had a formative effect on this response.

On Thursday, I received an email invitation from Jonas-Sébastien Beaudry, on behalf of Groupe de Recherche en Éthique Environnementale-GREEA (of which Mikkelson is a member), to participate on a panel about ableism and speciesism at “Speciesism and Other Discriminations,” a colloquium that will take place in Montréal on the same days as the philoSOPHIA conference. Since I had already promised Kelly Oliver that I would participate in the philoSOPHIA conference that she has worked hard to organize, the invitation to participate in the GREEA colloquium presented me with a conflict, a conflict that nevertheless seemed hard to refuse. I could take the bus and train to Montréal and avoid the air travel. Could I be in two places at one time? In my response to the email, I asked the conference organizers about the amount of travel and accommodation that they would be willing to cover and informed them that I had already committed to participate in Nashville. I waited for their reply.

I then got on email with Kelly and explained the situation to her, including my reluctance to board a plane. I suggested Skyping into philoSOPHIA, an idea to which Kelly was amenable, and we agreed to chat again after I had received a response from the Montréal organizers.

A response came the next day from Valéry Giroux, another organizer of the GREEA colloquium. In the response, Valéry wrote that GREEA does not reimburse for air travel due to its impact on the climate, though the group would be happy to pay for my transportation to and from the colloquium if I were to travel by train or bus, would pay for my hotel accommodation, and provides only vegan meals at its events.

To make a long story short: I was delighted with the generosity of GREEA, its commitment to veganism, and its position on funding and air travel; I subsequently informed Kelly that I would Skype into the philoSOPHIA conference; and I now plan to take the bus and train to the colloquium in Montréal in May.

What would be the extent of the beneficial result if other philosophy-related institutes, associations, and organizations took a stance like the position that GREEA has adopted? That is, what if, like GREEA, other philosophy institutes, associations, and organizations refused to fund air travel to their events? Should universities and colleges adopt policies according to which they refuse to reimburse their faculty and staff for air travel? Should individual faculty and staff members continue to seek such reimbursement?

You will find more information about GREEA, its upcoming colloquium “Speciesism and Other Discriminations,” publications, etc. here: http://greea.ca/en/

2 Responses

  1. […] Unfortunately, there’s evidence that environmentally conscious people don’t travel less than environmentally unconscious people (Wynes et al. 2019). Thus, we need to change institutional structures and academic culture to facilitate environmentally friendly practices rather than rely on people’s own consciences. Suggestions for ways in which to reduce CO2 emissions include: cut travel funding, subject applicants to a pre-trip approval process (CWT 2020), encourage greener modes of transportation, and promote virtual conferences instead of in-person conferences (Levine et al. 2019; also see Tremain 2020 here). […]


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