May 21, 2012
In this blog, I want to discuss the detrimental environmental impact of anthropology. Two key activities come to mind: printed publications and air travel to conferences.
Some arguments supporting digital open source publications stress the high environmental impact of paper publishing due to the harvesting of forests. For instance Discover has estimated that putting each issue of their magazine into the hands of subscribers releases 2.1 tons of carbon into the atmosphere. Yet there are also concerns about the environmental footprint of electronic devices (see Low-Tech Magazine for a critical review). Eco-libris, an NGO which encourages people to plant a tree for every book they read (I have a lot of planting to do!), has provided a page dedicated to keeping track of some of these eco-debates regarding e-books vs. printed material. Providing people around the world with information that could be useful for improving their livelihoods is at the center of the debate regarding open access publishing. Integrating the “sustainability” or “eco-friendly” discourse into this discussion should, at the very least, be well founded through empirical studies. One of the possible options for such empirical studies is life-cycle assessment (LCA), sometimes called cradle-to-grave analysis. This method makes an attempt to consider all of the inputs from the environment and outputs to the environment that result from the production, exchange, consumption and disposal of a good. The company Verso Paper has actually done such a comparison of print and digital material for massive publications such as National Geographic. While there is much that we could learn from such a study about how we could reduce our negative impact on the environment, we also need to consider the positive social benefits which come from dissemination of digital information. Perhaps more widely disseminated information on the environment will help people find creative solutions to ecological degradation that may be incredibly difficult to predict or imagine for inclusion within an LCA study. Conversely, we need to be cautious about making assumptions about who has access to digital technology. While our globalizing world is becoming ever more connected through digital media, a large portion of the world’s poor cannot afford to purchase the basic hardware technology that would give them access to more freely disseminated information. There are no clear cut answers to solving these questions, but putting them into practice and further discussion could be useful for realizing a global Anthropology that is at least approaching Carbon Neutrality. These issues are important to discuss for any anthropological organizations or publications currently considering different options for disseminating their data and articles to the general public.
Second, there has recently been discussion regarding the massive carbon footprint that is emitted due to the hosting of conferences around the world. For instance, in Full Disclosure, I’ll be attending a conference in Montpellier next week, one in Edmonton in June, and assuming all goes well, back to Norway in September and San Francisco in November. Scholars fly from all over the world to attend international conferences every year, releasing a large amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The David Suzuki Foundation has provided some suggestions about how to organize Carbon Neutral Conferences. This is a concern that many organizations, such as the American Anthropological Association’s Task Force on Climate Change, is taking quite seriously. One possible solution is even the dissolution of the international conferences altogether or truly reinterpreting the meaning of conference gatherings. For instance the Australian International Cultural and Educational Institute has recently sent out a call for papers for an Online Conference on Multidisciplinary Social Sciences. This could be a very simple way for scholars to record presentations, have them posted on Youtube and receive comments from colleagues all over the world without the unnecessary release of carbon emissions from airline travel. There are also suggestions of reorienting the field of presenting anthropology in formal settings at a regional scale, with the hope of reducing the need for members to use airline transportation to participate in the meetings. These are certainly provocative but also, from an environmental perspective, practical suggestions. Yet it is important for us to consider, once again, what would a Carbon Neutral Global Anthropology look like? Perhaps even moving beyond this question, we could even ask ourselves, what would a post-Peak Oil Anthropology look like? If regional conferences become the norm, how will that impact the current relationships between the regional anthropologies that already exist? And conferences really are only one aspect of this discussion. For those of us who grew up in the mountains of Western Montana, travel back and forth to the mountains of Western China for fieldwork, we probably need to be more conscious of our carbon footprint from air travel etc. Perhaps more importantly we also need to be aware of how such travel arrangements will continue to be impacted by Peak Oil. While my personal decision to move to Hong Kong for graduate school was based on an interest to engage more closely with Asian anthropology, I have to admit, being closer to the field seems like a more sustainable option now and for the future. These are realities that anthropological organizations and really the discipline as a whole should begin to consider.
While hopefully not showing my personal bias, I’d like to highlight the importance of the WCAA (and really the auspicious timing of its establishment) as a possible core for helping anthropology cope with these transitions. The WCAA could provide that vital connection of making sure that our findings and discussions within, say, East Asia could be heard and appreciated amongst anthropologists in the U.S. Additionally, it provides those of us in East Asia with a conduit for learning about Brazilian anthropology and how it might be helpful in our work here. A colleague of mine after reading a discussion about the abolition of large international anthropological meetings made an insightful point: this is where social media, such as Facebook or ResearchGate could become an essential tool for academic interaction. I could not agree more, although I would say that these issues require further study and pondering (perhaps even an LCA-study of airline flights vs. webcasts and teleconferences?) before we can truly envision a Carbon Neutral (or post-Peak Oil) Global Anthropology.
Edwin Schmitt, The Chinese University of Hong Kong