Thoughts on Traveling: Doing the Math on My Carbon Footprint and Work-Life Balance

This is not (just) a gratuitous New Jersey beach photo. According to the EPA, rising sea levels are an especially pressing issue for the Jersey shore because the land is also sinking.

The most consistent advice I have received on being successful in math:

  • Do good work.
  • Stay connected with the mathematical community.

Ok. How do we do these things?  Early career mathematicians are especially encouraged to:

  • Collaborate.
  • Go to conferences.
  • Participate in workshops
  • Give a lot of talks.

Message received. Yay, collaborations! I say yes to talks and go to as many conferences as I can. I make the most of any funding I get from my department/college, stretch my grant funding, and sometimes pay for things myself, all to do as much math connecting as possible.  I’m doing this right, right?

Well, yes and no.  I like meeting collaborators, going to conferences, and giving talks.  I like visiting different places.  I like seeing my math friends.  Aside from what I like, I also believe this activity has been beneficial and even essential to my mathematical career.  Some stages of the collaborative process are vastly easier when people are in the same room, and many of my projects and collaborations have begun at workshops and conferences.  People have asked questions and made suggestions at my talks that have led to new projects or improved existing ones. Many more people know about my work. It’s great.  Except in the ways that it’s not.

On the ethical side, all this traveling means that my carbon footprint is out of control.   Saturday’s climate march (along with the sweltering 88 degree day in April) got me wondering exactly how much CO2 I am responsible for each year.  Using the Nature Conservancy’s calculator, I entered my travel and commuting information for the last year, and calculated that my travel resulted in 10 tons of carbon being released into the atmosphere.  Oof.  This is almost all due to air travel: I don’t even have a car right now, but I am well above the national average for annual carbon from transportation (6 tons).  That average is already way too high, and here I am, way above it.  This makes me feel pretty bad—I wholly accept that climate change is happening, that it is human-caused, and that it is already leading to major problems, but still I use way more than my share of fossil fuels.  I’m not at all living up to my environmentalist ideals.

And there are other costs to my travel.  On the personal side, some seasons (like this spring) I am rarely home, which leaves me feeling unmoored.  Often I will leave on Friday and come back late on Monday, teach and take care of business at work frantically from Tuesday to Thursday, then do it all again.  I don’t get much exercise, because I’m sitting on a plane or in a train for so many hours and I don’t have a good routine.  I never make time to do my laundry until it reaches about-to-collapse-in-a-laundry-landslide level.  There is no such thing as cooking.  There is no such thing as hanging out in a coffee house where people know me, because I’m not home enough to have a routine in my neighborhood.  I mean, I haven’t even played my accordion in months (to my neighbors’ relief, I’m sure).

Both the ethical and the personal downsides of this travel really bum me out.  How can I balance this with the professional benefits of travel?  I came up with some ideas:

  • Solve my two-body problem.  This is not only a personal nightmare but an environmental nightmare as well.
  • Think about what is important, and say no sometimes. I don’t receive so many invitations that I would often have to turn down offers to speak, but I also need to say no to myself: put some limits on how many things I organize, like collaborator visits, special sessions at conferences, etc.
  • Prioritize a sane home life.  For me, it seems important that I have every other weekend or so at home, without any collaborator visiting.  Because groceries and laundry and yoga class.
  • Organize travel as efficiently as possible.  I should try harder to do without coming home between trips, because that trip home to repack would result in an extra ton of carbon. I can just pack an extra shirt.
  • Buy carbon offsets.  I honestly have never done this, because I always thought it was better to just change my lifestyle; however, even if I change my lifestyle moderately, I’m still going to be traveling pretty frequently.  So, after some research, I’m taking the plunge.
  • Figure out the lowest carbon method of transportation for a given trip.  The EPA has some really useful data (table 8 especially!) on real carbon costs.  Some things I learned*:
    • Short distance flights are bad: flights of under 300 miles release much more CO2 per passenger-mile than longer flights.
    • For short distances, it’s still better to fly than to drive alone, but 2 people in the car make it more efficient to drive.
    • At medium distances, flights are not that much worse than train travel, and if at least 3 people are in the car, it’s probably more carbon efficient to drive than to take the train.
    • Taking the bus is the best motorized option by far.
  • Organize and participate in local math activities.  I love the regional MAA and AMS meetings, as well as independently organized regional conferences within a given field.  This also has the effect of fostering collaboration within a region, which (theoretically) keeps down the carbon cost of getting together later.
  • Accept that this is part of my job, and try to keep it in perspective.  This last one seems important, because I believe that math is really a force for good in the world, and that it brings human flourishing (thank you, Francis Su).  Math really needs human connection, and traveling, visiting, talking, and listening are often important to help make those connections. Plus, I don’t want to hold myself or others to impossible standards or make people feel guilty about keeping pace with the realities of the very competitive academic job market. I have to do what I can to be better about this, but I’m doing something worthwhile and that is worth some (carefully considered) carbon.  As well as occasional laundry issues.

Your thoughts on carbon emissions and math life?  How do you deal with all these issues?  Let me know in the comments.

* Of course, these are all assuming that each person is responsible for a proportional amount of the total CO2 produced by the form of transportation.  I have decided that I can’t let myself off the hook by saying that the plane/train/whatever would still be going even if I wasn’t on it.  However, I agree that some of these forms of transit would be more carbon efficient if more people used them or better infrastructure existed.

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6 Responses to Thoughts on Traveling: Doing the Math on My Carbon Footprint and Work-Life Balance

  1. Avatar Stephan says:

    Very good points!

    What you are describing is surely not an individual problem, but a group problem. So address on that level.

    Have you tried use online video chats?

    • Avatar Beth Malmskog says:

      Yes, this is a group problem. Is it just the mathematics community, though, or is the the whole academic world–do other fields travel as much as we do? And yes, I use online video chats a lot. Visits seem important for when I am working with a collaborator on a big idea or horrible computation that we both need to see and come back to over and over again, though this is certainly possible online through the wonders of technology.

      • Avatar Stephan says:

        I wouldn’t think it’s Math only. Good point too! Are there stats available? I wouldn’t know how to take this beyond academia in a useful way.

        Nice to hear about using video chat for math research. That sounds pretty exciting! My experience with online video is just for project management kind of discussions. At times, using Skype (“typing chat”) for more technical nitty-gritty.

  2. Avatar Joe Silverman says:

    Very thought-provoking material on carbon footprint. Thanks.

    Re number theory as an experimental science, thanks for the kind words about my book. For readers who might be interested, the comments that you reference are at the end of Chapter 1, which is freely available online at

    Finally, I was struck by your list of four things that early career mathematicians are especially encouraged to do:
    Go to conferences.
    Participate in workshops
    Give a lot of talks.
    I agree that that all of these should be encouraged, and all are important. But I’d add a fifth item that sometimes seems to get lost in the current collaboration frenzy:
    Set aside significant amounts of time to work on your own research
    And as a side note, which echos your comment about not having to accept all conference invitations, one does not have to accept all invitations to do collaborative research. Note that I’m not arguing against doing joint projects. But even just as a practical matter, hiring, tenure, and promotion committees want to know about an individual’s mathematical contributions, and it can be difficult to discern those if all of the person’s papers are with 3 or 4 other people. OTOH, it’s also good to have some joint papers, since it shows the person can work well with other people.

    • Avatar Beth Malmskog says:

      Thanks for the comments! I will add the more specific link to the other post.

      I appreciate you pointing out the issue of setting aside time for your own research. I have found this difficult as a new faculty member. Collaboration is, among other things, a sort of hack to make research happen by providing accountability and some framework for research in the midst of all that pressing teaching and service. But committees do still want to see individual work. So, do you have any gritty practical tips to make individual research more manageable? For example, what do you do when you are stuck, and you may not know anyone who is interested in your problem? Is it strange to cold-call an expert, or to impose on your advisor? If you ask an expert for advice, is it your responsibility to add them to the project? What kind of a work schedule has been good for you, and how did you balance this research time with your teaching?

      • Avatar Joe Silverman says:

        Lots of questions!

        1. “Do you have any gritty practical tips to make individual research more manageable?”
        Not really, other than putting a limit on collaborations. Say aim for one individual paper for each collaboration. It was easier to do individual work back in the “bad old days” when I started out, with no internet, fewer conferences, almost no workshops designed to create collaborative projects, etc.

        2. “What do you do when you are stuck, and you may not know anyone who is interested in your problem? Is it strange to cold-call an expert, or to impose on your advisor? If you ask an expert for advice, is it your responsibility to add them to the project? ”

        There are lots of strategies when stuck. Try to work out an example or a special case. Try to find a counterexample (which often leads to a proof). Try to read something that seems relevant to your problem. Talking to your advisor is fine. Put the problem aside and work on something else for a month or two. Cold-emailing an expert probably should be saved as a last resort, but talking to experts at conferences is a good idea. (Then, when you email them, they know who you are.) If there’s a specific fact you want to know, MathOverflow is good, but before posting, write out your question locally,read and re-read, wait a day or two, re-read again, then post. Also first search MO to see if your question has already been asked and answered. It’s amazing how much stuff is there.

        Generally, if anyone offers you advice, you should acknowledge that advice in the acknowledgements of the paper. But it has to be pretty substantial before you ask someone to be a co-author. There’s no hard and fast rule.

        3. “What kind of a work schedule has been good for you, and how did you balance this research time with your teaching?”

        The eternal question, not to mention the balancing of the rest of your life with your job. For what it’s worth, I try to schedule all my teaching, office hours, grad student meetings, etc for MWF, and then work at home TuTh, with at least the mornings devoted to research. Afternoons on TuTh are for preparing classes and other tasks. And I try to also find time Saturday and/or Sunday mornings to work on my research.

        But I’d probably be more productive if I turned off my internet connection on my research mornings, since that would prevent me from slacking off my research and doing other things such as replying to blog posts. 🙂

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