To be or not to be there: Conferencing in the age of flygskam

I didn’t go to the joint meetings (JMM) this year. This is despite the following good reasons I had to go:

  1.  I’m in my fifth year, applying for jobs, and this is the time when you’re supposed to get out there and spread your name.
  2.  I’ve been a few times before and actually kinda enjoy the spectacle of the “world’s largest gathering of mathematicians.”
  3.  Flights to Denver were mega cheap, even as of like two weeks ago.

I even resisted some light pressure from peers and professors by staying put, and given the low airfare and reliable sources of on-campus support for academic travel, the trip would have cost me next-to-nothing. So why not?

A large chunk of the academic apparatus is set up to encourage you to travel. There are many grants available from many organizations to attend conferences, and travel support for attendees is one of the major budget items for many conference organizers. Many jobs include travel allowances, or require travel to present at conferences as part of the job description. Departments like mine seem to have sizable budgets for the express purpose of covering the travel expenses (and honorariums) of invited speakers who seem quite willing to travel many miles to spread their gospel. Travel is part of the job it seems – both a perk and a responsibility for the academic mathematician. Insofar as I can tell, there are a few source causes of the fact of academic travel, which I guess are obvious, but are worth recounting for what I want to say.

The first reason is personal. By disseminating your knowledge through the unique performative medium of a live-action talk, your work penetrates into mathematical culture and you become better-known to the community. You can also build your network by meeting folks with common interests in person, and perhaps sharing a drink or a bite. This can lead to collaboration, the production of new mathematics, and further opportunities to disseminate it, which I’m told also leads to jobs with greater prestige and pay. Briefly, geographic mobility begets social mobility.

The second reason is institutional. Imagine you already have a position of great prestige and pay. What cause do you have to get off your butt and go preach to the unwashed mathematical masses? Well, besides all of the personal incentives, your employer wants you to go out there because your renown is ultimately their renown. An institution accrues and maintains prestige by the the fact that its members are invited to speaking engagements, so they will want to make the mechanics of academic travel as easy as possible for you. The actual (as in non-rhetorical) you may have witnessed this system in action whenever a professor cancels class because they are out of town, or when you have been excused from your duties for same.

The last reason is similar, though more deeply cultural. Academia is replaying a decades-old fantasy which I think is common to many sectors of society: that the upper-classes are the jet-setters. Frequent travel is an emblem of status, and the other modes of academic life, namely those which demand contact with the immediate community, are subordinate to the higher purpose of missionary work. The work that requires travel, by its resource-intensive nature, must be limited to those of rarefied talent and ability. And while scarcity is the origin of this regard, in the present age of commodified luxury and full capitalization of earthly resources, it has become the norm – now you have to travel just to keep up with the Joneses. The gross domestic product thanks you.

A small perversion of this fantasy, it is no wonder that our community so celebrates the myth of Paul Erdös, the mathematician whose life was an amphetamine-fueled itinerant rampage of collaboration. From Erdös’ claim that mathematics was set back commensurately by his one-month abstinence from stimulants, one might also suppose that a refusal to travel could be injurious to mathematical progress. What self-respecting mathematician would abnegate their responsibility to speedily delivery the bounties of their enterprise by such refusal?

So here’s my real question. As highly educated people, we know that air travel is a particularly energy-intensive form of transportation. The emissions-per-passenger produced by a single transatlantic flight yields more CO2 than the average citizen of many countries produces in a year. Can we continue to justify our privilege of air travel for the sacred purpose of scientific progress when scientific progress also tells us that we, as a planet, cannot all afford to travel by air? Can we expect the peoples and nations of the world to take the scientific community seriously on climate change if we are not making strenuous efforts to reshape our own behaviors in accordance?

Don’t get me wrong: I love a good conference as much as the next person. I’ve had the good fortune of visiting places I would never have been able to afford or justify if not for academic travel. I’ve met wonderful people and been blessed to share a room or even a conversation with many mathematicians I greatly admire. I know there are experiences enabled by conference-going which have no substitute, and collaboration over video chat may never quite be the same as working at the same chalkboard. The expense of academic travel does bear value, yet I still don’t know if things have to be exactly the way they are.

It’s true, aviation only accounts for about two percent of all carbon emissions.  But this is complicated by the fact that the particular type of high-altitude emissions from airplanes can be more dangerous in the short term. Also, in the US, two-thirds of air travel is accounted for by the twelve percent of the population that takes six or more round-trip flights per year — the “frequent flyers.” I’m certain many academics are among this class. Do we need to stop flying? Probably not entirely, but I feel some hypocrisy knowing that we would be in real trouble if everyone started flying as much as we do. I felt this sort of guilt before I learned the Swedes had a name for it: flygskam, or “flight shame.” As soon as I learned this, I felt the rush of relief that comes with learning there are other people out there like you, and that there’s a name for you, probably like how X-Men (I assume the term is gender-inclusive) feel when Dr. X taps them and gives them context and purpose. Needless to say, now I’m devoted to spreading awareness of the term.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should probably confess that I attended an AMS sectional meeting in Hawaii last year, and I have to say it was great. But I feel complicated about this privilege. This meeting was very well attended, and I’m sure organizers bank on the appeal of a meeting in Hawaii, but the decision to hold it there is demonstrably not good for the planet when compared to alternatives. As Denver is relatively centrally located, maybe JMM should be there every year? Or if we really want to go for it, we could campaign for the construction of a carbon-neutral/negative conference center at the geographic/population center of the US (near the Nebraska-Kansas border, or somewhere in central Missouri, or somewhere else depending on how you measure), with connecting high-speed rail, to be used for all national scientific conferences.

There are also advocates of the video-conferencing approach. We know it has limitations, but if university courses can be conducted online and at massive scale with the assurance of comparable student outcomes, I don’t see why a video conferencing solution couldn’t be appropriate for some purposes. I think part of the solution here could be purely technical. Humans have been organizing traditional conferences for decades so the mechanics are both familiar and highly-developed, while video conferencing is still (in my experience) often clumsy and frustrating. If someone would design a slick and reliable platform for organizing video conferences, I could see this becoming a thing. Imagine one portal with all the conference abstracts, schedule, relevant chatrooms, etc., and then you could easily enter and leave sessions at your leisure… say, if I don’t get a job due to my lack of conference attendance, maybe I could start this business…

One study found that CO2 emissions due to travel for the purpose of presenting scientific papers accounted for only 0.003 % of the annual total, somewhere between the transportation emissions of Geneva and Barcelona. This sounds maybe not that bad. But I think what sets the climate crisis apart from other challenges is that
it requires action on all fronts. We won’t achieve our goals on reducing carbon emissions by singling out individual sectors that need reform. We need to create a culture which considers the impact of all of our personal and professional activities on the environment, and as scientists, high priests of this secular era, we are responsible for leading the cultural shift. If we aren’t going to stop flying to conferences (and we aren’t, I guess) we need to start thinking of ways to offset this activity. We need climate-consciousness to be baked into the process of conference organizing. I don’t know of any math conferences that are explicitly trying to address their environmental impacts, but I would like to.

To be clear, I’m not calling for any sort of a heroic abandonment of all air travel by the scientific community or advocating the use of sanctimonious hashtags (see #istayontheground). I’m sure I will fly again for a conference, and probably even use a paper cup or two for coffee when I have forgotten my reusable mug. I just want to point out that the path of minimizing the consequences of our own actions is too tempting for a community that should be taking leadership, and that this path is made even easier by the fact that individualistic resource consumption and accumulation is still de rigeur in this country in general. Non-conformity might initially require a little bit of courage, but I think it’ll be a bit easier for the rest of society, and result in less political strife, if scientists act first.

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About Aram Bingham

I used to be a Ph.D. student at a university in so-called New Orleans which is problematically named for Paul Tulane, and where I worked in something like algebraic combinatorics. I drink plenty of coffee, though I also sometimes turn kombucha into theorems.
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1 Response to To be or not to be there: Conferencing in the age of flygskam

  1. Bruno Duchesne says:

    Thank you very much for this blog post. I think your behavior goes in the right direction and it is even more difficult for non-permanent scientists. We should follow you and create more conference with less CO2 as well.

    In Europe, it is definitively easier to travel without flying thanks to the railway network. Of course it takes longer but this is about making choices.

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