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Philosophy, Academic Conferences and Climate Change

Updated: Nov 17, 2019

The issue of anthropogenic climate change is never far from the headlines; its current and future impact on our social and economic environments is regularly discussed alongside heart-rending human interest stories and the damage that we (as polluting human beings) are causing to wildlife. This year’s global heat wave with its attendant wildfires and rising food prices has served to further highlight how vulnerable we are to climatic variation.

Environmental organisations are applying ever increasing amounts of pressure on governments to do more to tackle the effects of anthropogenic climate change; much of this pressure centres on arguments (some arguments made are good, some are not).

Environmental arguments in relation to anthropogenic climate change have not yet taken centre stage in academic philosophy, in spite of the fact that a small number of philosophers have displayed concern about the moral and political implications of anthropogenic climate change outside the confines of academia. Creditable and well organised attempts to bring such concerns into the radar of philosophy (such as those made by Katerina Gaita) are still very much on the periphery. And yet, environmental movements need philosophy, not least because a number of them continue to campaign using poorly disciplined arguments that allow those who oppose them to do so easily; and, in any case, the natural world is a fertile area for philosophical treatment more generally, since it is wholly bound up with questions concerning the nature of our existence.

However (and this question defines the subject of this post), is there a danger that, given current academic practices, philosophers risk becoming hypocrites if they raise the profile of environmental arguments that pertain, in one way or another, to the effects of human activity on the environment? Why ask this question?

It is a fact of life for young (and many not quite so young) academic philosophers that they have to speak at (and, as non-speakers, attend) conferences if they are to advance their academic careers. Often these conferences are enjoyable and productive; sometimes they are not. Almost always they are a forum for networking; many are in the United States and other European countries, and virtually all require a substantial amount of travel. Every year several hundred philosophy conferences take place in these locations, each requiring flights to and from the UK; those that take place in the UK are obviously attended by plenty of overseas delegates. Overall, the number of flights being taken for the purposes of attending philosophy conferences per year must be quite large.

Aviation is a substantial contributor to the causes of climate change (among them our CO2 emissions); it also pollutes the atmosphere in many other ways. Since 1990, CO2 emissions from international aviation have increased by over 80% and studies show that – per mile/per passenger – flight is much worse than using trains and cars (source: the IPCC). Overall, the average annual personal allowance of CO2 needs to be cut to just over 1.2 tonnes if it is to be climate neutral (in Britain, the average annual personal carbon footprint is currently about 7.1 tonnes); one return flight from London to New York emits around 1.2 tonnes of CO2 per person.

Add to this a number of other pollutants that are produced by aviation (and the aviation industry) and one has to ask the question: is it environmentally responsible for philosophers to travel the globe on the scale that they currently do for conferences? Is the number of these conferences really proportionate to the amount of academic progress (if that is the right word?) to which they give rise? – After all, their subject matter frequently has little, if anything, to do with the environment (and where it does, one might perceive a certain irony in the light of current practices).

I am not suggesting that the reason academic philosophy has not done more in relation to global warming is because it covets the conference culture to which so many individual careers find themselves at least partially answerable; neither am I suggesting that philosophers are aware that they might be called hypocrites if they raise concerns about it. Rather, I am (merely) pointing out that for a discipline which concerns itself with matters of value more than any other, the issue of transport to conferences and climate change – the ways in which they are connected – has, so far, proved to be something of a blind spot.

Air travel should not be abandoned (although it ought to be reduced), neither should all conferences that require air travel be ditched. However, it seems to me that, at present, academics (and the practice of academic philosophy) remain largely oblivious of the environmental impact of their globetrotting conference culture. On a personal level, many academics are genuinely very concerned about anthropogenic climate change and its political and social implications; a number have given lectures or written articles in the popular press raising such concerns and suggested various lifestyle changes, but few (if any?) have specifically raised the conference issue. It would look less disingenuous and be more consistent if the actions of individual philosophers who sincerely raise concerns about climate change also look to the practices of their own discipline and raise concerns about the relationship between aviation, climate change and conference attendance.

To be sure, environmental concerns about globetrotting for academic conferences should not be limited to philosophy; every discipline needs to survey their activities with a critical eye. However, the value we place on the environment and the natural history of the earth (and why we do so) is a philosophical concern; it is, therefore, especially in the interests of philosophy to seek clarity about the value of conferences in relation to the overall development of the discipline and, in this regard, maintain constant vigilance when it comes to academic practices and the connection between these and the environment.

(P.S. Because air travel is so much part of life, nobody thinks twice about it!)

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