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Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Sword Of A Thousand Environmental Truths


I can't count the number of times that I've been told in the past few weeks that it is ridiculous that this many people should fly around the world to take part in a climate change conference. (To give you a scale of the event: flights were already booked up a month ago, and you can forget finding a hotel room anywhere near the district of Nusa Dua, where the conference is taking place.)

Personally, I would say that several thousand government representatives and policy makers flying around the world to meet in one place is reasonable. A large part of the decisions made at conferences happen in the corridors, as parties meet informally, and in side meetings. Video conferencing is great, but in this setting face to face interaction is irreplaceable.

Charles Clover writes in The Daily Telegraph today that delegates will emit the equivalent of more than 100,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide flying to the meeting. The figure sounds large, and Clover says it is "on a par with the annual emissions of the African state of Chad".

The trouble with the comparison is, Chad's annual emissions are small. The US emits 60,000 times that (6 billion tonnes a year), and the UK 6000 times that. In fact, Chad's emissions are roughly the same as Monaco's – and, according to a report published today, 10,000 times less than the 1 billion tonnes emitted annually by the global IT industry.

This, in fact, is why delegates need to meet.

Well, recently Moe and I sat together on the other side of the fence, and some people took offense. 

Fundamentally our position was that it's silly to schedule such a conference in an out-of-the-way location to solve a problem that flying to out-of-the-way locations contributes to.  We were then challenged to calculate the exact carbon costs of each attendee and figure out through computational magic (which clearly must be impossible since nobody has invented computers that can deal with flight paths or anything more sophisticated than Billy's usual route home in Family Circus) what the precise optimal location would be for the gathering.

Failing in our duties to provide an Excel spreadsheet detailing every variable and an accompanying interactive Flash demo, our criticisms were rejected.

Now I'm one who has argued that to raise awareness about a cause, one might in fact have to travel to do so.  Even by--GASP!--airplane.  Just as it takes money to make money, sometimes it take carbon to reduce carbon.

I've also in the past criticized Chris Goodall:

Never before have so many people converged to try to save the planet from global warming, with more than 10,000 jetting into this Indonesian resort island, from government ministers to Nobel laureates to drought-stricken farmers.

But critics say they are contributing to the very problem they aim to solve.

"Nobody denies this is an important event, but huge numbers of people are going, and their emissions are probably going to be greater than a small African country," said Chris Goodall, author of the book "How to Live a Low-Carbon Life."

But hey, he's right here: the amount of shit thrown into the atmosphere so people can have "side meetings" (read: grab cocktails so they can schmooze) and enjoy other "benefits" of F2F gatherings (read: get porn in their posh hotel rooms) strikes me as a bit unwarranted in the context.  Humans are so clever I've heard tell that we've invented these amazing telecommunications technologies that span our entire globe, and I'll bet we can even figure out how to use them to run the various committees, sub-committees and sub-sub-committees ad nauseum that would be required to discuss potential solutions at a personal, political and technological level.

Use Second Life, which is doing just fine for corporate and social interests in many ways.  Part of the point about global warming is we need to adapt our behaviors, so fucking adapt.  Use the technology we have in place to solve the problems at hand instead of using the technology to defend the waste of flying people on junkets.  Shit, use World of Warcraft--it'll still be better than going to Bali or East Bumfuck to talk about how people should cut down on going to Bali and East Bumfuck.


December 5, 2007 in Biofuels, Bitches! | Permalink


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Well, the problem with using WoW is half the delegates will choose Alliance avatars, and half the delegates will choose Horde avatars, and they won't be able to talk to each other, save for the occasional "kek" when someone tells a funny story.

What they could do is use Star Wars Galaxies for meetings, you don't have faction communication issues there. Plus, the planets are unpopulated, so there won't be tremendous lag problems.

Posted by: Apprentice to Darth Holden | Dec 5, 2007 3:30:52 AM

I'm continually amazed at the off-handed travel that accompanies academia and the business and non-profit worlds. For example, my partner was recently asked to fly across the continent-- to sign a bank form. Using the mails would've taken a few extra days, which in the calculus of the age is an unacceptable delay.

People think literally nothing of jumping in a plane to fly wherever, for insanely minor purposes. While this is sold as great convenience, and "bringing the world together" so that we "can learn from each other" and such, the actual result of this off-handed travel is the exact opposite: travel is no longer valued as anything more than a convenience. When travelling thousands of miles consists merely of stepping into a tube, reading a newspaper for a couple of hours, and then stepping out of the tube, travellers lose all sense of distance-- both geographical distance and social distance.

There are all sorts of reasons why every city in North America (and certain segments of every city on Earth) are seemingly interchangeable, but surely one of them is the ease by which we can jump between them. We've come to expect that the hotel rooms, the restaurants, the stores, even the streetscapes, dress styles and social customs of the places we visit resemble those of the place we left, and why shouldn't we?-- we're only a couple of hours away.

What's happened is that a certain class of people-- the acedemics, business people government officials and non-profit managers who tend to be the ones who fly the most-- have been able to stamp their sensibilities on the rest of the world, most directly on their fellow elites in far-flung locations around the planet, but it trickles down in those societies as well. Easy travel (read: flying) tends to erode regional cultures and all the diverse viewpoints and sensibilites that come with them. Easy travel isn't so much "bringing the world together" as it is "making the world the same."

Travel-- real travel, which takes real time, real expense and real trouble-- tends to give one a sense of "journey," for lack of a better word. A transition away from the familiar and into the unknown and the strange. This kind of travel is difficult, in the physical and economic sense, certainly, but also in the psychic sense-- we have to wrap our heads around things that are unfamiliar to us. Doing so, we learn things, and begin to have respect for things outside our own scope.

My criticism of flying started as concern over climate change. But the more I think about it, the more I see that addressing climate change will have all sorts of positive outcomes, including, in this respect, newly valuing travel, distance and foreingness.

Anyway, that's my take before my first cup of coffee. Thanks for the link.

Posted by: Moe Szyslak | Dec 5, 2007 7:10:20 AM

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