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more feels on the question of conferences

I think part of this has been burbling in the back of my brain since my BF told me about how he went to some green party something or other and they actively encouraged most of the participants to take the train or similar types of more sustainable transportation.

Before I get into the meat of this post, I do want to say that I don’t really believe that individual consumer behaviour can have a large enough impact on current trends in the upcoming environmental apocalypse to actually prevent it. What is often left out in the figures about per-capita pollution/water consumption/etc in place like Canada and the US is that the vast majority of pollution and what not is produced by industry, not individuals. What is happening to the environment is a systemic and institutional problem. And requires systemic and institutional solutions to have a real impact.

This caveat is only somewhat relevant since I’m partially talking about individuals but I’m also talking about institutional practices. Conferences, esp in academic library land are considered a pretty important part of what we do. It is part of our ongoing learning and professional development. It also, depending on where you work, is important for tenure and promotion.

I know I’ve talked a lot on this blog about conference accessibility and diversity…

But I also wonder about the sustainability of our current professional practice of holding large inter/national conferences. I especially have in mind the really large ones like the ALA but also the small ones that involve people coming in from all of the place.

Most of us, when we attend a conference, will travel by air. Flying, as it happens, is an incredibly wasteful way to travel, in comparison to something like trains. Now, if we lived in a place like Europe or China where they have large networks of rails that can get you to most of the places you need to go and don’t cost a fortune (travelling by train within most of Canada is significantly more expensive than our already expensive domestic air fares), perhaps travelling by rail to conferences would be more common. There is, of course, the question of time since rail is much slower in Canada and the US and travelling from coast to coast would be a fairly long trip.

But none of this really matters when the reality of our current environmental situation is looking pretty dire. And while one person deciding to do a thing may not have a large impact, the 20k or so people who attend ALA annual does actually make a decent sized impact.

So what can we do?

I don’t know. I know that there would likely be huge amounts of push-back if I suggested that we just don’t have conferences… I do think that regional/local conferences are not only better (for networking and such) but would reduce overall environmental impacts, especially if people took the bus or train instead of flying (or car-pooled).

I suppose conferences could start looking into purchasing carbon offsets for the people who’d be travelling, but then this would increase the overall cost and this is likely to reduce diversity, since conferences as they are are already too expensive for someone like me.

As in the title… this is mostly about my feels and I have no real solutions. But I think it is far past time to really think about the sustainability of conferences within the library field.