Thought in a Time of Climate Change

This is from my new site Letters: The Life of the Mind

In 2016 I was a keynote speaker for an institute at Cornell. One night I found myself riding in a Volvo 850 with three professors, talking about Volvos. Every person in that car had, or previously had, a Volvo (I had a V70). Volvos match the intellectual’s personality; safe, long lasting, high brow but not so high as to alienate the lumpen proletariat. But they are definitely not fuel efficient.

As it is when it comes to money, the academic culture is ambivalent about day to day environmentally sustainable lifestyles. We drive gas guzzling Volvos but once on campus, we walk. More importantly, we teach, often esoteric, subjects in safe spaces while the world burns. Bill McKibben tells us that the major impacts of climate change are not 50, but 10 to 15 years years away. The usually upbeat Professor Skip Fletcher of the University of Hawai’i, a major scientist studying climate change, states that he finds it all very depressing and that what’s needed is not hope but courage.


Environmentalist Bill McKibben

Recycling is institutionalized in most campuses, but conference travel casts a huge carbon footprint, but is necessary for tenure and promotion. Back in 2008 The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story entitled “Academic travel causes global warming,” but admitted:

OK, the headline is a stretch. However, it is true that air travel puts large amounts of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, soot, and even water vapor directly into the atmosphere, all of which makes an inordinate and unsustainable contribution to global warming. And academics do fly — a lot. As the environmental writer and activist Mark Lynas argued in the New Statesman: “Probably the single most polluting thing you or I will ever do is step on a plane.”

Around Harvard, I’d hear about (but never saw) Noam Chomsky riding around on his bicycle, but I’d stop short of saying we should all be like him. Though there is a bike path from his home in Lexington to Cambridge, it doesn’t really reach the far end of the city where MIT is, so I doubt he rode this distance daily.

Still we could all do more. I commuted by running for about six years, distances of three to six miles. Living in Hawai’i has its perks – I don’t mean the ones you might think. We have a major convention center and so major academic conferences come here. I was on a panel at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference in 2017 here and I’ll be on another panel at the American Studies Association (ASA) this November. Next year, the International Studies Association (ISA) is also here in Hawai’i. All without boarding a plane. Of course, most attendees will have flown 2500 or more miles, but focusing on regional conferences this way could help shrink the footprint academic life makes on the planet.

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