The carbon footprint of philosophical research
Large collaborative research projects usually have significant carbon footprints – in particular when it comes to attending and presenting at international conferences and workshops. We minimised our carbon footprint as much as we could by:
- Making the end-of-project conference a hybrid in-person and virtual event. This meant that both speakers and participants could contribute virtually, with virtual participants able to watch the talks and ask questions in real time, just as they would if they were there in person.
- Encouraging all overseas speakers at workshops and the conference to present virtually, unless they had their own reasons to be in the UK anyway or (if coming from Europe) they could come by train. We did not pay airfares for any overseas speakers. While a small handful came by air – judging that they had sufficiently good reasons to be in the UK anyway to justify paying their own way – many came by train or presented virtually. At our main conference, we had three virtual speakers in the US and one each in Canada, Australia, Germany and Israel.
- Offering a registration fee discount to people travelling to the conference by public transport (excluding air travel).
Why hybrid events?
At the time – in 2019 – most people hadn’t even heard of Zoom (we certainly hadn’t). Rolling on to 2021, most academics have participated in one or more virtual conferences or workshops. But what happens when the pandemic comes to an end, and the choice is no longer between a virtual event and no event at all?
Well, fully online events will continue to have obvious upsides. They obviously do reduce carbon footprint. They also reduce the amount of time you have to spend travelling, and hugely reduce costs to institutions. And they make participation possible for people who would not otherwise be able to attend: those with disabilities, or caring responsibilities, or just insufficient free time to be able to spare several full days.
On the other hand, many of us feel that something is lost with a fully online event. Intellectually, we miss the informal conversations over coffee, where you get to ask a speaker that question that there wasn’t time for or was too niche for you to think it worth airing in public. Or you get into a really interesting philosophical conversation with the random person you find yourself sitting next to at dinner. Or, quite by chance, you find yourself talking to someone whose paper you just read. Socially, even the fanciest chat-room software can’t replicate the atmosphere of people moving around a real physical space. And of course travelling to new places or revisiting old ones can be hugely enjoyable in itself.
Hybrid events keep the upsides of fully online events, but – for those who want, and are able, to be present in person – none of the downsides. Unfortunately, however, they are much less straightforward to organise than non-hybrid events, whether online or in-person. Beaming a virtual speaker into a lecture hall is easy – just use Zoom or Skype and a big screen – but not if you want them to be able to see the audience and hear their questions. Virtual participants need to be able to see both in-person and virtual speakers, and to be able to both ask questions in real time, and hear the questions of others. You don’t need much by way of fancy software to do any of this, but you will need some kit (microphones, cameras, etc.) and some tech support. We’ve put together a short document describing what we did, with some suggestions for improvement etc.
Read about running hybrid events.
The BPA Sustainability Guidelines for Business Travel
A concrete upshot of the project was that project member Fraser MacBride developed some ‘guidelines for business travel’, which have been endorsed by the British Philosophical Association. 23 UK philosophy departments have so far subscribed to the guidelines. More information can be found on the BPA website.
Adam Ferner of The Philosophers’ Magazine beams into an earlier hybrid conference we ran at Manchester and talks about the virtues of hybrid conferences